Wendy Cope: Notes to make us laugh

I once attended a poetry slam in my university town, at which one young poet stood up and explained, first, her reasons for writing poems without words; poems, that is, with only punctuation. Words, she said, were created by the patriarchy, and are therefore compromised: by removing them from her work she escaped their overarching power and influence. So also, then, with rhyme, metre, imagery, thought and meaning – all that was left to read was the punctuation, interspersed with those revolutionary silences…

More than any other poet in our time, Wendy Cope represents the other extremity to this kind of thing: Wendy Cope is popular, mainstream, and accessible; her poetry deals with themes of love and death, marriage and men. With all due respect, one would not describe her as an avant-garde radical. For one, she uses words. Her diction and her (broad) use of poetic forms are rooted in the English tradition. Cope’s early volumes also contain brilliant parodies of some of her favourite male poets, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot and Philip Larkin.

These are not names which would stir the breast of the undergraduate poet. Nor is Cope especially political. The speakers of her poems are melancholy, wry, and affectionate, although they are without the clammy sense of shame and whimsical self-pity of Larkin’s poetry. On reading her newest collection, Anecdotal Evidence (her first in six years), I find the same humour and elegance; the same ingenuity for light ridicule and autumnal sweetness.

There is less parody, now, and more autobiography. The title of the volume is taken from the first poem in the collection, ‘Evidence,’ in which Cope defines poetry as ‘anecdotal evidence / About the human heart’. This, surely, is supposed to echo Wordsworth’s claim that with the Sonnets, Shakespeare ‘unlocked his heart’. I will come back to Shakespeare in a moment, who is the subject of about a third of the poems here. What follows from ‘Evidence’ is a series of nostalgic poems about Cope’s childhood, her family and friends hid in death’s dateless night.

Lets’ look at Cope’s school friends. There was Roz, her ‘rival in English’, whose passion for Tolkein so impressed her teachers that Cope ‘didn’t read The Lord of the Rings / until I was fifty-five’. There was Julia, who had motor neurone disease and couldn’t speak. ‘She wrote notes’ writes Cope, ‘that made us laugh’: a line which might furnish the title for much of Cope’s delightful verse. The theme of former friends is brought to sum by the Shakespearean sonnet ‘Reunion’:

          It’s very good, my lovely, clever friends,

          To travel to the past and find you here.

Back in the present, Cope writes to her husband, whom she married late in life. Perhaps it is this fact, along with a sense of lost time, what drives her fear of death in ‘To My Husband,’ another fine sonnet, only slightly disrupted by the phrase ‘eternal yonder’. Cope sometimes has a weakness for folksy diction, unsuited to theme. But having read this poem several times with great pleasure, I’d imagine her husband doesn’t make much of a fuss about it.

Although Cope’s Shakespeare poems were commissioned, she tells us, by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the great man is inextricably bound up with her memories of girlhood and loss of innocence and the poems follow naturally from the autobiographical ones. Cope’s father bestowed upon his young daughter a copy of Shakespeare’s works. ‘I had been chosen as the keeper of / My father’s Shakespeare’. In the next poem, ‘At New Place’, Cope visits Shakespeare’s garden and unwittingly steps on mulberry juice from a tree (supposedly planted by the playwright), which stains her pale grey lace-ups: ‘Dark red fallen fruit / And it’s all Shakespeare’s fault’.

Fallen fruit. It is impossible to ignore the association of Shakespeare with her father, but also of Shakespeare’s works with the Tree of Knowledge and the Fall; and the Fall, as we know, brought with it human mortality. If Shakespeare had planted in Cope’s speaker a loss of girlhood, then the dark red mulberry stains appear to make a symbolic gesture towards menstruation.

I feel him smiling at me as he says,

          ‘Oh yes, the Muse works in mysterious ways’.

As I’ve suggested earlier, however, there is no shame in Cope’s poetry of the Larkinesque kind; only the curious comedy of life. Even Shakespeare, here, while enigmatic and smiling, is also essentially comic. In one clever sonnet, Cope depicts him as a schoolboy making ‘idiotic’ Latin puns, until one day the master called him up the front to share the joke. In another, Cope remembers an argument with her husband (‘The one / About s steak? That wasn’t quite as bad’), who disputes her half-sentimental belief that Shakespeare wrote from the heart.

I am bound upon a wheel of fire, and mine own tears do scold like molten lead… Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood… The bright day is done, and we are for the dark – we can hardly imagine Cope’s Shakespeare writing such lines. In yet another sonnet, Cope remembers first watching Shakespeare on stage as a ‘teenage crush’.

Nor we would wish Cope were otherwise, for this poet has always been a brilliant comic poet, for whom life is curiously funny. ‘On a Photograph of the Archbishop of Canterbury’ begins:

          You see an archbishop out jogging in shorts.

          You knows it’s unfair to have negative thoughts.

Cope may use traditional forms – the sonnet, the ballad, and, here, anapaestic tetrameter (a classically comic form) – but that is only because she is such a deft hand with them, as all comic poets should be. The final large set piece in this collection, ‘At 70’, in which Cope reflects on her pet peeves and other subjects, would surely make Lord Byron proud:

Or when a word is mispronounced. If someone says


          I want to shake them and explain it doesn’t rhyme

                 with devious.

And yet, at the end of the day (at the midnight hour), Cope, like all comics, remains alone with her melancholy. In ‘New Year’ she admits to bafflement with those who ‘congregate in crowds and cheer and sing’ as the New Year bell tolls. Like all great comics, Cope understands that life, funnily enough, is not a comedy. If you haven’t discovered what it really is, you’ve missed the joke.

I used to make an effort to be glad.

Not now. I stay at home feeling old and sad.

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