Ruby Dunn highlights an underappreciated legend of contemporary poetry
Image(s): Graham Turner/Guardian
My muse is… Wendy Cope, a poet, erstwhile teacher and inhabitant of the only bit of Cambridgeshire worth living in (I’m not in any way biased) - Ely!
She is…one of England’s longest-standing contemporary poets - and yet relatively unknown within my generation! She debuted onto the literary scene in 1986, with her first poetry collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis - the titular poem of which is one of her shortest (‘It was a dream I had last week//And some kind of record seemed vital.//I knew it wouldn't be much of a poem//But I love the title.’) - and has since published four further books of poetry for adults (Serious Concerns, 1992; If I Don’t Know, 2001; Family Values, 2011; Anecdotal Evidence, 2018). Cope’s other work includes two collections of children’s verse, commentary anthologies of her own poems, and edited volumes of wider literature. Cope’s work has always been a blend of the serious and the droll. She often writes in the persona of Jason Strugnell, a struggling (fictional) male poet from Tulse Hill, whose poems are published within her own anthologies - an outworking of her lighter side, never afraid to take a shot at TUMPS (Typically Useless Male Poets). However, her most recent collection, Anecdotal Evidence (2018), published in her 70th year, is her most contemplative anthology to date, containing poems reflecting on the happiness she has found with her husband, her relationship with her father, the process of ageing, and a touching series wondering at Shakespeare’s early life.
I first learned about her when… I was a child. I don’t know if it’s a credit to my parents that when they suggested I learn “Roger Bear’s Football Poems” for a talent show I instantly read the rest of the collection of which they’re a part or a concern that I read beyond those ‘child-friendly pieces. “Three cheers for Spurs!//They beat Stoke,” might have been exceedingly appropriate for 7-year-old football-mad me, but “Ten green bottles//what a lot we drank//ten green bottles//and yesterday’s a blank” might not have been the most PG introduction to her work! My interest in her for most of my younger years was similar to my appreciation of Betjeman (to whom she has been compared) - I knew of her, I might hunt down a particular poem occasionally, but she was someone my mum had introduced me to, and little else. However, when I worked in Ely for half a year, my gran gave me a copy of Anecdotal Evidence, and reading Wendy Cope’s experiences of the city I was beginning to call my own was the dawn of my current, now long-standing, obsession with her.
I am obsessed because...as a contemporary poet, Cope has side-stepped much of the guise of ‘serious’ poetry (despite the title Serious Concerns). Frequently writing in response to critiques of the artistic world, Cope holds no aspect of poetry too sacred to be parodied, and no facet of life too light to be poeticised. She has parodied Wordsworth and T. S. Eliott in limerick-form, and written touchingly about the publishing world, failed relationships and her childhood teddy bear. Her poem ‘The Orange’ is perhaps her most well known - it circulates occasionally on social media to huge accolades, so oozing with that elusive feeling of contentment that we all seem to be hunting for - and is perhaps the clearest demonstration of her signature style: a complex, emotive concept, boiled down to its bare essentials and then made beautiful again, with a joke or two thrown in. Cope was voted in 1998 the people’s choice for Poet Laureate, and has been a popular candidate whenever the position has been made available since then - yet she believes the post ought to be disbanded; such an accolade perhaps too lofty for her liking. I attended one of Cope’s recitations a few years ago, and she reminisced about attending a conference where teachers discussed her poems in order to teach them in an A-Level syllabus - sardonically remarking that none of her poems meant half the things the teachers made them out to mean and suggesting robustly that we should stop reading so much into them. This no-nonsense, unpretentious attitude bleeds through into all her work with hilarious results - from “Pastoral”, in which she ponders how much easier it would be to be a poet in the countryside with “dead sheep and squashed rabbits’ to eulogize, to the elation of new love in “Waterloo” and the football failures of Roger Bear’s favourite teams. Cope’s subject matter is not always so trivial - her signature bluntness is also present, albeit muted, in the theme of mortality that runs through all her work, figured in poems about her school-friends, her grandmother, her father, her mentors and herself all encountering, dreading or embracing death. In all of it, Cope’s magic lies in her complete denial of magic - she always brings the reader back down with a bump to reality, in the most painful, sensitive, funny ways.
My favorite work by her is… “If I Don’t Know”, which describes the feeling of overwhelming gratitude when confronted with a moment of utter beauty. The poem holds in tension that which we know gratitude ought to be: eloquent, unreserved, creative (“our mock orange//...come into its own//like a new star just out of ballet school”), with all that it evokes in us - self-awareness of our inability to appreciate beauty, leading to a desire to destroy it: “Outrageous.//I could crush it to bits.” The final line “It’s nine o’clock and I can still see everything” leaves the reader in the garden with Cope, as she sits "on the swing" crying at the growth around her, without telling us how to respond; will we cry with her? Are we frightened by an impulse to destroy what we hold dear? Or are we revelling in her description of it?
The work by her you have to check out is… ”Spared”. In this sixteen line, four stanza poem, prefaced by a quote by Emily Dickinson that “Love is all there is,// is all we know of love”, Cope addresses the 9/11 tragedy. She questions what it means to love in desperation, what it means to be grateful to go on loving and what it means to be newly aware of momentary, unfair luck in the face of inevitable pain. It’s a touchingly outside perspective that remains intensely bound up in its subject and yet self-awarely speaks to a universal condition of guilt, relief and fear. If you read it in tandem with To My Husband it’s really something very special - once again Cope mingles simplicity with depth, to speak something gut-wrenchingly true in terms that can only lead to hopefulness: magically unmagical.