Kevin Saving on

Wendy Cope

Family Values 
Faber and Faber (2011)

Must Try Harder

Wendy Cope's many admirers will welcome this, her latest collection - which takes its title from a piece towards the end of the book, in which '...The Archers family values reign./ The straying spouses all come back again.' Of course, these 'family values' are intended ironically, and the author has much she both wishes to disclose (about her childhood), and work-over (previously suppressed filial resentment against her apparently 'controlling' mother, now deceased). 'You're Not Allowed' and 'Your Mother Knows' are both variants of a French/Malayan form, the 'pantoum', (which consists of multiple linear repetitions in a closely prescribed order).
 
  You're not allowed to wonder if it's true:
  She loves you very much. She tells you so.
  She is the one who knows what's best for you.
  She tells you what to do and where to go.
 
  [...]
 
  You watch her cry. She cries and sulks all day.
  You'd make you mother happy if you could.
  It's no use saying sorry. You must pay.
  Things will get better if you're very good.
 
  You'd make your mother happy if you could.
  She is the one who knows what's best for you.
  Things will get better if you're very good.
  You're not allowed to wonder if it's true.
 
Here, I think, the staccato, slightly sinister/obsessive framework suit miss Cope's purposes very well.
 
Family Values often echoes to that peculiar strain of self-conscious quasi-'confessiveness' not previously noted in this writer. One critic (Robert Nye) has observed that Cope's most humorous work came out of a time when she was deeply unhappy. Paradoxically, it can now be remarked that as Cope has become more celebrated, become more of a 'national treasure (possibly even 'The Thinking Man's Pam Ayres'), much of her work has not only 'darkened' (which is permissible) but become progressively less funny. One free-verse offering, entitled 'Omo' is about a school friend's acquisition of that nickname. 'Omo' concludes
 
  I still love Omo.
  These days I use her real name
  But I don't dare to mention it.
  She hides from the cameras. And now
  I've gone and put her in a poem.
 
Errr...no, Wendy, actually you haven't. Much of Cope's verse libre (approximately one quarter of this book's content of 56 poems) works somewhat better than the example given here, but - even then - it occasions little more in its reader than a brief, metaphorical, shrug of their shoulders. 'Boarders', 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', 'The Women's Merchant Navy', 'The Africans' (among others) seem to be little more than 'Stocking Fillers' and could all have been omitted with no diminution to the volume's integrity. Though, elsewhere, this poet's acclaimed formal ingenuity is still evident, one finds oneself wondering occasionally if the villanelles haven't grown just a little bit same-y, the triolets just a little more 'pat'. Is it solely a question of critical desensitisation, or are the postures on display here just a little more predictable, the emotion somehow 'squashed' into a slightly glib kind of Patience Strong-hold? 'Keep Saying This' (a rather worthy villanelle) enjoins us, though we might be 'very old', to remember that - its repeated refrain - 'The party isn't over yet'. Firstly, in many cases, growing older is certainly no 'party'; secondly, am I alone in recalling that Cope is on record as not 'doing' parties?
 
I must exempt 'Spared' (which seems to have been inspired by a close(ish) proximity to the '9/11' disaster) from this, reluctant, critique.
 
  It wasn't you, it wasn't me,
  Up there, two thousand feet above
  A New York street. We're safe and free,
  A little while, to live and love,
 
  Imaging what might have been-
  The phone-call from the blazing tower,
  A last farewell on the machine,
  While someone sleeps another hour...
 
[...]
 
  [or, to be forced to] jump together, hand in hand,
  To certain death. Spared all of this
  For now, how well I understand
  That love is all, is all there is.
 
Two sets of commissioned poems (both 'formal', both inhabiting more familiar Cope territory) close this collection. One - written for the Endellion String Quartet - treats of the pleasures and perils of classical music (I particularly enjoyed 'First Date', written from both male and female perspectives). The other -for the BBC's Radio 4 - is, predictably enough, about that station's selection of programmes.
 
The wider, literary, reaction to this publication will, necessarily, be mixed. Some will doubtless hail a 'free-ing up' of Cope's muse. Others will be intrigued by a new 'depth' to her concerns. I have (already) heard Family Values praised as containing many of its author's finest poems to date. For myself, I'll own to a slight sense of disappointment. As a former teacher (of fifteen year's standing) Cope will undoubtedly have come across the tired old formula 'Good, but not Outstanding'. While some - though not enough - of the poems in Family Values are excellent, most squat down primly in that boarder-region, the merely fair - and I'd wager that Cope is more than aware of this, too.

Kevin Saving © 2011