Kevin Saving on
Wendy Cope, Two Cures for Love - Selected Poems 1979-2006
Faber and Faber, 2008
The first reaction upon picking up Wendy Cope's "Selected" is to register just how slim a volume it really is. 96 pages in total (ten of these devoted to notes on the genesis of some of the poems) seems a paltry summation of 27 years of work. But then, miss Cope has never been exactly prolific when compared to other titans of contemporary verse.
A very likeable voice, Cope's: warm, 'witty', playful (especially in the early years) but capable of expressing tender truths concerning the human condition. She walks the
narrow path dividing 'light verse' and 'serious poetry' with such assurance as to make us realise that these are not really substantive categorisations after all - merely the dubious nomenclature of those labouring through life without a sense of humour.
Cope is easily my favourite poet writing 'in the mainstream' right now. Sure, she writes
'formalist' verse (with real rhymes in her villanelles, sonnets and triolets) though she will explain, almost apologetically, that she she didn't, originally, start out writing that way. In her methods, range and formal inventiveness she most resembles the American, Dorothy Parker, though I have never seen the latter cited as 'an influence'. If, perhaps, she has never excelled her breakthrough first volume, the best-selling Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986), two further collections have followed, Serious Concerns (1992) and If I Don't Know (2001), each of which undoubtedly had its moments. She long ago received that formal imprimatur (both official sanction and pathway to financial security), acceptance onto the GCSE course-work syllabus; and maybe it's that economic viability (together with
a more lately found emotional security) which has removed just a little of the edge from the more recent poems. Also, alas, formal/lyric poets tend to have written most of their best work before the age of forty -though Yeats, Hardy and (possibly) Houseman might be the exceptions proving this rule-of-thumb.
It's good to revisit old friends like 'Bloody Men', 'Valentine' and 'Loss' and to be able to acknowledge that, at her best, Cope is, well, rather wonderful. It's good to re-enter the slightly cheesy world of that portentious poetaster, Jason Strugnell (I've always suspected an anagram here, but have never been able to nail it). It's fun walking with 'TUMPs (Totally Useless Male Poets)' and to enjoy once more possibly the best parody ever, 'A Nursery Rhyme (as it might have been written by William Wordsworth)' in which the Old Maid of Mount Rydal finally gets his come-uppance.
Though there's little here amongst the new or 'previously uncollected' material of comparable stature, Miss Cope entirely deserves the validation of a Selected and I hope that it sells well for her - at least well enough to justify Fabers bringing out a paperback edition. £12.99 for the present hardback is just a little too steep.
If I might be allowed to quote a sizeable extract from just one single poem, it would
have to be 'Being Boring' - and for purely personal reasons. Touchingly, Cope used to refrain from performing this piece in school readings for fear that it would "shock" the impressionable students.
May you live in interesting times (Chinese curse)
If you ask me "What's new?", I have nothing to say
Except that the garden is growing.
I had a slight cold but it's better today.
I'm content with the way things are going.
Yes, he is the same as he usually is,
Still eating and sleeping and snoring.
I get on with my work. He gets on with his.
I know this is all very boring.
There was drama enough in my turbulent past:
Tears and passion -I've used up a tankful.
No news is good news, and long may it last.
If nothing much happens, I'm thankful.
A happier cabbage you never did see,
My vegetable spirits are soaring.
If you're after excitement, steer well clear of me.
I want to go on being boring.
I don't go to parties. Well, what are they for,
If you don't need to find a new lover?
You drink and you listen and drink a bit more
And you take all next day to recover.
Someone to stay home with was all my desire
And, now that I've found a safe mooring,
I've just one ambition in life: I aspire
To go on and on...
...Wendy, as if.
Kevin Saving © 2008