'Anecdotal evidence / About the human heart': A Review of Wendy Cope at York Literature Festival, 12 March 2016

A fantastic afternoon with the poet Wendy Cope held at the Grand Opera House. 


Wendy Cope is known for being wry, perceptive and very, very witty. You would know this about her just from hearing the vocal reactions of the audience at this event in York as they laughed, murmured and sighed along with the cadences of the poems she read and anecdotes she told. Cope took centre stage after a short introduction, and spoke in a charming and engaging performance of some of her best-loved poems and new verses, too. 


She opened with ‘Flowers’, a poem she later admitted in the Q&A was one of her favourite compositions: 




Some men never think of it. 

You did. You’d come along 

And say you’d nearly brought me flowers 

But something had gone wrong.


The shop was closed. Or you had doubts — 

The sort that minds like ours 

Dream up incessantly. You thought 

I might not want your flowers.


It made me smile and hug you then.

Now I can only smile.

But, look, the flowers you nearly brought 

Have lasted all this while. 


The idiosyncrasy of Cope’s love poems is what initially appealed to me about her work, when as an undergraduate I read ‘Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis’ (her first collection, published in 1986). She blends commonplace sentiments in a way that is both poignant and unpretentious. The allusions can be very personal – in the case of ‘Flowers’, the narrative seems in many ways like a specific account of a relationship experienced by the speaker. However, the tone is also universal in the uncanny recognitions produced for the reader. The poem is honest, funny and touching: perhaps the three qualities that can produce successfully cheerful and optimistic romantic poetry. Other non-traditional love poems like ‘Giving Up Smoking’ demonstrate her ability to place herself alongside the artistic work of the greats without sounding grandiose:


Giving Up Smoking


There's not a Shakespeare sonnet

Or a Beethoven quartet

That's easier to like than you

Or harder to forget.


You think that sounds extravagant?

I haven't finished yet—

I like you more than I would like

To have a cigarette.


At the event in York, Cope spoke of her love for Shakespeare’s sonnets, and read two new poems commissioned by the Shakespeare Trust for the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. She responded with sonnets of her own, in a meditative poetic dialogue in which the speaker imagines Shakespeare in his own time; Shakespeare at school, ‘thinking up an idiotic pun’ at the back of the class, or smiling as he wrote that immortal couplet in Sonnet 18. 


Cope also read some ekphrastic poems commissioned by the Tate. She chose paintings to write on that were not her favourite compositions, but allowed her to explore in verse the contradictions of another art form. Her poem on Vanessa Bell’s nude study lends its voice to the sitter rather than the artist in outrageous discontent (‘Admired, well-bred, artistic Mrs Bell, / I hope you’re looking hideous in hell’). It seems that in commissioned works, Cope often subverts expectations, always on the lookout to put her cynical yet light-hearted humour to best use. The poem ‘A Vow’ was published in the Guardian as part of a series of verses curated by Carol Ann Duffy. Cope says she did not realise the poem was anything to do with the Royal Wedding, and she sounded (understandably) sceptical of it being read as composed by her with that event in mind; she had been asked to simply write a poem about any wedding. Her contribution exhibits that universal honesty again, creating a paradox that humbly admits the flaws of humanity, but immortalises them in verse, as if to show fondness for them, too. The poem ends with a simple confession: ‘I promise I will do my very best.’


Cope is also known for her humorous jibes at the opposite sex (see ‘Bloody Men’, ‘Rondeau Redoublé’ ‘Men Talking’ and ‘He Tells Her’ – this final example being a brilliant account of what is now ubiquitously discussed in feminist forums as ‘mansplaining’). However, she explained that far from being someone who ‘hates’ men, poems like ‘Bloody Men’ are applicable to both sexes and more about attraction and relationships in general rather than placing the blame on a particular gender. One of my favourite poems by Cope, ‘My Lover’, combines the mocking of a stereotypical masculinity with a tender expression of adoration for those qualities, and delightfully takes the form of Christopher Smart’s ‘My Cat Jeoffry’: ‘For I will consider my lover, who shall remain nameless / [...] For he inspires poem after poem. / [...] For when I ask if this necklace is all right he replies, “Yes, if no means looking at three others.”’ Gender roles are at once celebrated and ridiculed, the success of this poem being the ability to mock the speaker’s repeated adoration for the peculiar and eccentric qualities of her partner, as well as the man himself. 


Cope is also known for her superb parodies, and she read nursery rhymes as might have been composed by Wordsworth and Eliot, and her ‘Waste Land Limericks’ (cue laughter at the final line: ‘I hope you’ll make sense of the notes’). Far from being critical of these poetical giants, Cope said that in order to parody poetry, the original must be excellent poetry in the first place, and that’s why taking on someone like Wordsworth in jest works so well. 


Cope also read from her prose volume, Love, Life and the Archers. She read a piece that played on the repetition of ‘I remember’, producing poignant and comical reflections about her formative years, her past interactions with creative forces (playing music, reading) and the imagination (dreams). 


What I enjoy about an extended poetry reading like this one is how the speaker has the opportunity to muse on what poetry is, and what it means to her. In another new poem on birdsong (which, far from the traditional images that this subject conjures up, was a brilliantly innovative poem showcasing Cope’s biting wit), Cope describes poetry as ‘anecdotal evidence / About the human heart’. She explained in the Q&A session that her job as a primary school teacher in London brought out her creative side (after university she worked as a teacher for 15 years). Working with children to create literature and music was inspiring. One anecdote was particularly amusing, in which Cope discussed that moment which many successful published poets experience: when their work begins to appear in school textbooks, with questions for students to consider. ‘Bloody Men’ seemed sadly misunderstood! 


Who are her favourite poets? She adores A. E. Houman’s poems on unrequited love. Her favourite living female poet is Fleur Adcock, and from the past, it would probably be Emily Dickinson. Poetry is also, Cope explained, a way of making herself understood. This hope to convey her version of truth might be her only agenda, as she also mused that one of the main misconceptions about poetry writing is that the author always has a clear plan. She does not write every day, but drafting and reciting is a crucial part of her creative process. She is always revising and rethinking. Overall, this was an insightful and enjoyable event, and Wendy Cope is disarming when exploring the range of her poetry, comfortable in her expression of her inspirations. Her best-loved poems often have poetry as the subject at their heart:




When they ask me, “Who’s your favourite poet?”,

I’d better not mention you.

Though you certainly are my favourite poet

And I like your poems too.



Anna Mercer                  


Anna Mercer is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, University of York. She has also studied at the University of Liverpool and Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Her research explores the literary collaboration of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, focusing on the textual connections between their works. Anna is also interested in literary relationships of the Romantic period more generally, and has published on the poetical dialogue of S. T. Coleridge and Sara Coleridge. She is a blogger for BARS and The Wordsworth Trust.



If you missed Wendy Cope in conversation this weekend, you can hear her speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Women’s Hour’ on 23 Feb 2016 here.