“She’ll urge you to confide. Resist. / Be careful, courteous, and cool. / Never trust a journalist”, begins ‘How to Deal with the Press’, a villanelle published in 2001’s If I Don’t Know, Wendy Cope’s third collection of poetry.
I’m wary of these words as I speak to the poet down a crackly phone line, she at her home in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and me in my college bedroom, tracing my fingertips along the spines of my collection of coloured Faber poetry editions. Cope’s Two Cures for Love, Selected Poems 1979-2006 sits among them.
As we talk, Cope is very much the poet, cautious with her words, taking her time to answer with an unusually thoughtful sternness. The voice heard in her poems—direct, no-nonsense and always with the upper hand—rings out over the phone too. It seems this previous unsettling meeting with a journalist is at the back of her mind as well as mine.
Wendy Cope was born in 1945 in Erith in Kent, and studied history at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Matter-of-factly she tells me that her time at Oxford was “not the best time of my life. Academically, I didn’t have a good time.” She was unhappy, suffering with the depression which would affect her later into her twenties.
Since returning to a dinner at St Hilda’s for the fiftieth anniversary of her year group’s matriculation, she has had fonder memories. “Some of us who had been friends were all there and it was wonderful—absolutely terrific. I realised that there were some good things about Oxford. I wrote a poem about it.”
Such is an example of the day-to-day events which work themselves into Cope’s poems. Her published collections have been irregular, though always critically well-received: Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis was published in 1986, followed by 1992’s Serious Concerns, 2001’s If I Don’t Know and 2011’s Family Values.
Rarely for a now-professional poet who studied at Oxford, walking the same streets as T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Lewis Carroll (among countless others) once did, Cope’s poetic career did not begin during her time here.
“I liked poetry. I did English A Level. I did occasionally read poems when I was at Oxford, but I didn’t join the poetry society or mix with the poetry crowd at all. I didn’t think of it as a big thing in my life.”
It was during her fifteen years as a primary school teacher, starting out in the London Borough of Newham, before moving to Southwark, that Cope began to write.
“Some of the good things about teaching were that it woke up the creative side of me. I had this idea that I was a brainy person who wasn’t creative. I got very interested in primary school music. And I also did quite a lot of poetry with the children, getting them to write poems. And that was when I began writing poetry—that started me off.
It is fitting, then, that many people now will first read Cope’s poems in a school environment. Her poetry has gone full circle: after coming into conception while its creator was teaching poetry to her primary-aged students, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis features on current A-level syllabuses. (The titular poem of this collection, almost like Cope’s poetic career, seems accidental: “It was a dream I had last week / And some sort of record seemed vital. / I knew it wouldn’t be much of a poem / But I love the title.”)
I ask Cope what it’s like to know that so many school students are reading and pouring over her work, and I am reminded of a remark from Simon Armitage’s most recent lecture as Professor of Poetry. When considering the thousands of school students who write exam responses to his poems, he says, with a smile: “It’s always fascinating to find out from others just what you’ve been up to.”
Cope is not just bemused by the idea of a mass interpretation of her innermost thoughts. Rather, she is taken aback by how inaccurately school teachers were explaining her poems. “I was quite startled when I went to a school where evidently they didn’t understand what I say in that piece [‘Budgie Finds His Voice’]. It was a Ted Hughes parody. And no one had pointed out to them that this was a parody of Ted Hughes because obviously the teacher didn’t realise.”
“We better give people a bit of help!”, thought Cope, and published a collection of Selected Poems with notes pointing out the references embroiled within the poems.
Modestly, Cope admits that her poems are “not that difficult to understand, by and large”. Separate from her parodies, “for which some knowledge of contemporary poetry is required”, her depictions of the day-to-day are straightforwardly amusing. It is precisely this straightforwardness—her direct voice, understandable vocabulary, and tight rhyme patterns—which make her verse so pleasing.
Cope’s poems are no-nonsense (“There are so many kinds of awful men – / One can’t avoid them all” begins ‘Rondeau Redoublé). But this hardly means she avoids topics of love and affection. ‘After the Lunch’ is the ultimate ode to falling in love. She tries “not to notice” she has does so, but “the juke-box inside me is playing a song / That says something different. And when was it wrong?”
I ask Cope why she thinks so many people still pick up her poems, and over the phone line I sense her uneasiness. She is wary of sounding “boastful”, she says, but, after some thought, replies: “I think a lot of women readers find things in my poems that remind them of their own lives, or I say things that they’ve thought but haven’t put into words.”
She does not want to be labelled a ‘feminist writer’, but says: “I think there is a need for women writing in an honest way and telling it how it is for them. Yes. I think that’s right. That’s valuable. I think that’s true of anybody, any human being, writing about how it is for them. If they are any good at writing, that will be of value to some readers.”
This is exactly it. For the ridiculousness of a poem all about a “huge orange” (The size of it made us all laugh. / I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave – / They got quarters and I had a half”), the reminder of the joy and warmth in these small, small moments is something that everyone has felt.
But not everybody would think to write down these nuances of happiness. Only Cope has ended her poem on the wondrous lines “I love you. I’m glad I exist”, but I’d bet many more have felt this very same sense of contentment.
This directness, this lack of fuss or ornamentation, is just as evident in Cope’s verse as it is in her conversation. It embodies itself too in her explanation for why she came to put pen to paper at all.
“I wrote them because I felt like writing them. When I write a poem, it’s because I feel like writing it.” Cope goes on: “One of my favourite quotes is Schubert, the composer. He said ‘I give to the world what I have in my heart, and that is the end of it.’”