Literature, Poetry

Wendy Cope: Critics, Being Rude and ‘Cherishing every day’

In a new release from the acclaimed Writers and Their Work series, Rory Waterman presents the first in-depth study of award-winning poet Wendy Cope. Drawing on Cope’s published work, archival material and correspondence, Waterman considers her main collections, her works for children and her uncollected poems, with many close readings and detailed considerations of her poetic development. In an exclusive interview with Waterman, Cope discusses the current literary-political climate, being rude in writing, and her current sources of poetic inspiration.


RW: Did you have any reservations when you found out I was intending to write a book about your poetry?

WC: None at all. I was delighted that someone wanted to pay my work some serious attention.

RW: Do you generally pay a lot of attention to the criticism your work receives in the press? Have you ever learned much from it?

WC: Yes, I read all my reviews. I’m glad of the intelligent ones, even if they are mixed. What I learn from them is that somebody out there gets me. I’ve also had some enthusiastic reviews from people who didn’t quite get the point but at least they were nice. There haven’t been many bad ones. If someone genuinely doesn’t like my poems, that’s fair enough. I can tell the difference between those reviews and the ones that are written out of spite. Over the years I have had three really spiteful reviews. I will never forget the names of those reviewers.

RW: You once said that one shouldn’t agree to review a book if one isn’t prepared to be rude about it. You don’t write reviews yourself. Is this because you don’t want to be rude? Plenty of your poems are rude about people, or at least types of people.

WC: That’s obvious, isn’t it? You shouldn’t review books if you’re not prepared to be honest. There might be the occasional exception if someone is on their deathbed. For more than a decade I reviewed children’s picture books for the Telegraph. That was a lovely job. They sent a big boxful and I wrote about the best ones. I also reviewed some grown-up books for them but hardly ever poetry. Fleur Adcock wrote a piece some time ago saying that women are afraid of getting it wrong, whereas men have confidence in their opinions. I’m afraid of getting it wrong and of making enemies, which is cowardly of me. My husband, Lachlan Mackinnon, is a brave and honest reviewer. I respect him for it but I wonder if it does him much good.

Are any of my poems rude about named people? I wouldn’t count the parodies because the subjects were all rather pleased with them. There is the one about the Archbishop of Canterbury. Someone insisted on showing that to Justin Welby and then introducing us. He was charming and friendly and didn’t seem to mind. And my mother was dead before I published anything negative about her.

RW: You aren’t rude about named people! But I think a lot of unnamed people might identify themselves in your fictional poète maudit, Jason Strugnell – and, for example, ‘Goldfish Nation’, Strugnell’s parody of Heathcoat William’s Whale Nation, probably didn’t have many people rushing out to buy that book. What motivated you to invent Strugnell, and to maintain his presence in your first two books?

WC: Unnamed people who resemble Strugnell might have the self-awareness to recognise themselves but many of them wouldn’t. And they might be wrong. A poet friend of mind was convinced that the rather unpleasant poet in The River Girl was based on him. I hadn’t thought of that person at all when I created the character. ‘Goldfish Nation’ is different from my other parodies because it is intended as an attack. I thought Whale Nation was dreadful and was appalled by the praise it attracted from some distinguished people, including Ted Hughes. Whale Nation has rightly been forgotten but unfortunately that means that my parody doesn’t really work any more. When I recorded the book I hadn’t looked at that poem for ages. We kept having to stop because I was laughing at my own jokes.

Strugnell began one evening when Don Thomas and I were having a go at a New Statesman competition and invented names for ourselves. I think his was Fred Pushkin. I got Strugnell out of a phone book. I regret that because there are real people with the same name. One of them once sent some poems to Craig at Faber. Don suggested ‘Strugnell’s Sonnets’. That’s why they are dedicated to him.

RW: What is Strugnell doing now? Is he fitting in any better with our current political and literary climate, do you think? Why did you stop updating readers about his woes and schemes?

WC: I went on writing Strugnell poems for as long as I enjoyed it. Then I got fed up with him. He would be in his 80s now, perhaps trying to get fellow inmates of his care home to read his poems. Or perhaps he has died. His wish to have a headstone reading

JASON STRUGNELL

POET

probably hasn’t been fulfilled.

RW: Do you think British poetry publishing is in a healthier state now than it was when you were (often gently) parodying much of what received acclaim in the 1980s? You were one of very few women published by Faber then, for example.

WC: Obviously it’s more open to women and to people from ethnic minorities. Several other women poets published a first book at around the same time I did: Vicki Feaver, Carol Rumens, Selima Hill. We all lived in South London and knew each other and we were all aged around 40. Before us there had been other women poets, e.g. U. A. Fanthorpe, who began being published in middle age. It wasn’t just a question of domestic duties; it seemed that women took time to acquire the necessary self-belief. That seems to have changed. It’s my impression that as many young women as young men are publishing first collections.

RW: Which poets do you return to most frequently? Have your tastes changed much over time?

WC: Larkin, Housman, Shakespeare (the sonnets), the masters of Japanese haiku. The living poets I read most often are Fleur Adcock and Hugo Williams. When I first became seriously interested in poetry, I took a few years to find my way to the things I like best. I don’t think my tastes have changed much in the last thirty years, although I do, of course, come across new stuff that I enjoy. I like nature poems more than I used to, especially John Clare’s.

RW: Earlier, you mentioned your mother’s death and your subsequent poems about her, most of which are in your fourth collection, Family Values. This is your most personal and revealing collection, at least ostensibly. Was that wholly precipitated by the death of your mother, or were there other motivations?

WC: My books are all miscellanies. None of them was precipitated by a particular event. At least one of the poems about my mother was written before she died but not published until afterwards. I did feel freer to write about my childhood once she wasn’t around to read it.

RW: There are some unpublished early poems about your mother and childhood in your archive – some of which I discuss in my book. Might these ever see the light of day?

WC: I think I’ll include ‘Going Away’ – about leaving for boarding school. That one did appear in a small poetry magazine. I’ll probably omit the others.

RW: What do you think now of your earlier unpublished work? There is quite a lot of it, mostly very unlike the often witty, usually metrically formal poems in your earliest collections.

WC: I plan to include quite a bit of early uncollected work but I don’t know if there will be anything that has never been published anywhere. I’ll certainly put in some of the poems from Poetry Introduction 5 that didn’t make it into my first collection. And I’ll look through my old stuff to see if there’s anything else worth preserving. I’ve sometimes had the feeling that there was a different poet in me, who was overwhelmed by the witty, metrical stuff. John Cotton, who published my first pamphlet, thought that and told me so. I like to think that other poet has to some extent been integrated in recent years and can be detected here and there.

RW: Your most recent publication, the pamphlet St Hilda of Whitby, is markedly different from anything you’ve written previously: a retelling of Bede’s account, complete with a rendition of ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’. What brought this on? Your version of the Hymn is excellent, but reduces the original by a line and moves some things around. What motivated that?

WC: It was commissioned by St Hilda’s College, Oxford. First they asked Nicola Lefanu to compose a cantata for their 125th anniversary, then they asked if I would write the words. We’re both graduates of the college. I wasn’t sure if I could do it but eventually decided I was the right person. The first performance was in Oxford in February 2018. I hadn’t heard the music before and I loved it. Some of my old friends from college turned up. It was a wonderful evening.

The main source for the story of St Hilda is Bede. My Latin isn’t good enough to translate it myself, so I relied on translations, with a bit of help from my Latin dictionary. I had to make sure I didn’t rely too heavily on any one translation because of copyright, so I got hold of three. At least one of them was out of copyright. When it came to ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’, of course, the Old English is also available.

I looked at the version in The Faber Book of Anglo-Saxon Verse and I got hold of a literal translation of the original from the Gutenberg Project. Using all these sources I tried to create a good poem that didn’t rely too much on any of them but was reasonably faithful to the original. I may not have succeeded.

RW: Your most recent full collection, Anecdotal Evidence, ends with an implicit reminder to cherish ‘every day that’s left’. It is also a book full of inquisitive wonder. What is fascinating you now, and what makes you most happy?

WC: Right now I’m fascinated by my newest step-granddaughter, born a fortnight ago. We have a little courtyard garden and I’m always fascinated by planting things and watching them grow. There’s a marked difference between Lachlan and me, in that I’m more interested in the natural world and he’s more interested in things created by humans, i.e. the arts. Planning holidays is difficult because I want peace and quiet and beautiful scenery and he wants museums and galleries and the buzz of city life.

I know there isn’t much nature in my poems. This is partly because my interests have changed as I’ve got older. I’m very fond of my little Japanesy nature poems but nobody else has taken much notice of them. Thank you for writing sympathetically about them in your book. Writing makes me happy, if it’s going well, but what makes me most happy – this may sound cheesy – is having a kind and loving partner to keep me company.

You can purchase Wendy Cope by Rory Waterman via the Liverpool University Press website.

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