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Behold, a happy poet

After a shaky start, Wendy Cope has become that rarest of things: a best-selling poet, and also a contented one. Christina Patterson meets a true oxymoron

Friday 30 May 2008 00:00 BST
(Carlos Jasso)

"Sometimes", said the poet Sheena Pugh in a poem which was, for a while, plastered all over the London Underground, "things don't go, after all,/ from bad to worse." Sometimes, she adds, "green thrives", "crops don't fail", "a man aims high" and "all goes well". And sometimes, she didn't add, a poet can be happy. Yes, even a poet who has won the hearts and, more rarely, the wallets of hundreds of thousands of readers around the world for poems that chronicle, with heart-stopping honesty and the kind of clear-eyed precision that can have you blushing with recognition, the infinite varieties of human loneliness and misery.

Twenty two years after the publication of Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, the collection that shot her into what passes in the poetry world for a stratosphere, and 16 years after Serious Concerns, a book about disappointment that struck a chord so deep that it has sold more than 180,000 copies, Wendy Cope is happy. She has a sheen she didn't have when I first met her 20 years ago. You could call it poise, you could call it elegance but actually, I think it's just happiness. Happiness and love.

Her new book, Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006 (Faber & Faber, 12.99) takes its title from a poem in Serious Concerns which addresses, with Copeian brevity, the tricky issue of how to recover from that immobilising mental and physical condition called being in love. "Don't see him. Don't phone or write a letter," is the first option. The second,"The easy way: get to know him better," is characteristic understatement infused with a wry realism wrung from hard-won experience.

After more than her fair share of disastrous love affairs, 14 years ago Cope opted for the second. She first met the poet Lachlan Mackinnon in 1986, the year Making Cocoa came out, but "didn't bump into him for a while" and finally moved in with him in 1994. It didn't cure her love or his. Fairy-tale endings are rare in literature, rarer in poetry and even rarer in life. But sometimes, as Pugh says, life bucks the trend. "I just wept for happiness to have such a nice life," says Cope. "I didn't have to be tough and alone any more. It was just safe."

Fairies, in fact, featured prominently in the kinds of poems she discovered at school, which is why, as a child, she didn't much like poetry. "In those days," she says, "it was all about nature and fairies and the boring bits of Christina Rossetti." She did, however, get a taste of poetic rhythm from her father's bedtime renderings of The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Old-fashioned stuff, you might think, except that her father was born in 1885, three years after The Charge of the Light Brigade was written. Chairman of a department store in Erith, he was a childless widower when he married his much younger secretary and nearly 60 when Wendy was born. She and her sister were packed off to boarding school at seven. "The excuse," she explains, "was that they thought we'd have much more fun with other children our own age, but what I actually think is that my mother just couldn't be bothered to have us at home."

Academically, Cope did well, well enough to get to Oxford, where she read history. She had plenty of friends but suffered from depression, which "nobody seemed to notice", from "about the age of three". When she was 27, and teaching in a primary school in the Old Kent Road, she began to feel that she couldn't (sorry, but there's no other word) cope. "I've always had this fear," she confides, "that I just wouldn't be able to manage and I'd end up in the gutter. I've always found the whole business of earning a living really stressful." A friend suggested psychoanalysis and soon, on a subsidised scheme, she was seeing someone five times a week. "In some ways," she confesses, "I got worse before I got better. At one stage, my analyst was seeing me on Sunday morning because I couldn't get through the weekend."

It's hard to imagine now. Today, the woman who used to spend many evenings downing considerable quantities of sauvignon at venues around Soho who wrote a poem called "Loss", which equates the disappearance of the corkscrew with the disappearance of her lover sips a carrot-and-orange juice. "I don't go to parties." she says in "Being Boring", a poem in If I Don't Know, a collection published in 2001, seven years after her discovery of domestic happiness, "Well, what are they for,/ If you don't need to find a new lover?/ You drink and you listen and you drink a bit more/ And you take the next day to recover."

The misery was real enough, but it did bear wonderful fruit. After some time in analysis, Cope started writing poems haiku and then, surprisingly for a poet known for her adherence to form free verse. "Rhymes and jokes and stuff didn't come till later," she explains. They came, in fact, when she started going to a poetry group run by Blake Morrison. In due course, she was invited by Faber to submit some poems for an ongoing series of poetry anthologies, Poetry Introduction ("the most exciting thing that ever happened in my literary career") and to put together a programme of literary parodies for Radio 3 based around a slightly hopeless, suggestible (and fictional) poetic character called Jason Strugnell.

Perhaps surprisingly for a poet regarded by many as a sort of patron saint of single women, it was, says Cope, the male poets of her generation who were most encouraging: not just Blake Morrison and Craig Raine, who published her at Faber, but also Andrew Motion, DM Thomas and James Fenton. "When I was the most famous poet who hadn't published a book yet," she says, "lots of people were very nice to me".

With the publication of Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis the title comes from a poem about a dream that changed. Readers adored the wry wit and acute intelligence, and an emotional range that danced from broken-heartedness to the utter, ecstatic exuberance of falling in love. Poets were rather less generous. Some critics dismissed the work, in its deceptive simplicity, as "light verse" a category of poetry that Auden thought applied to pretty much all good poetry before Milton and some choked on their bile that here was that oxymoronic phenomenon, a popular poet. As the publicity machine went mad, and journalists fought to interview her, Cope found herself struggling again. "One isn't allowed to whinge about this sort of thing," she says, "but I was just a schoolteacher and it was really terrifying."

When the book came out, she no longer even had the support of colleagues. She gave up teaching around publication and had a period of extreme loneliness. "Between about 1986 and 1994, when I moved in with Lachlan, what I said to myself was, 'I am in very difficult circumstances and I'm not doing too badly, in that I'm living alone in London' and being a freelance writer, and not having a partner was a very isolated situation. I'd go to parties and things, but I had nobody to talk to when the washing machine broke down."

The misery was more than apparent in her next collection, and her best, Serious Concerns in 1992, though it was missed by many critics. "One reviewer said it was written out of deep despair, but I think he was probably the only one who saw [that]." Some were, no doubt, antagonised by what they might have seen as an anti-male message. Poems like "Bloody Men", which explores the premise that "Bloody men are like bloody buses", either appearing all at once or not at all, did not endear her to the average male reviewer, nor did poems with titles like "Men and their Boring Arguments". What they failed to see was this was not about hatred, but loneliness.

And then it all changed. If I Don't Know chronicles that change: the joy of eating pasta and drinking white wine on a summer evening, "clusters of white blossom" in the garden, the intense, electric, soaring delight and relief of "Being Boring" the end, above all, of all the exhausting effort. It's probably true, as some critics said, that it lacks the edge of Cope's earlier work, but it still has extremely fine poems.

In the end, "I'd rather have a happy life. Sometimes, I think I've written all I'm going to write, sometimes I feel I've only scratched the surface... I hope I'll be spared for a good long time to be going on with it." So do I. After what she has contributed to the poetry of the 20th and 21st century poetry which captures a zeitgeist but which will, I believe, last Wendy Cope deserves a happy life. But I want more poems, too.

Biography: Wendy Cope

Wendy Cope was born in 1945 in Erith, Kent, where she grew up. She read history at St Hilda's College, Oxford, before becoming a primary-school teacher. She became a full-time writer in 1986 on the publication of Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. Her second collection, Serious Concerns, was published in 1982 and her third, If I Don't Know, shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award, in 2001. She has published poems for children, including The River Girl, and edited several poetry collections. Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006 is published by Faber. Sales of her books have topped half a million. Cope was a judge of last year's Man Booker prize. She lives in Winchester with the poet Lachlan Mackinnon.

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