ONLY after reading this collection of memoirs, reviews and prose by the poet Wendy Cope (b. 1945), did I realise that she has become a ‘national treasure’ in the UK.
Life, Love and The Archers
Two Roads, €21.50; ebook €9.99
If only she could bring herself to appear on television more often, she would be as famous as John Betjeman, who, in his later years, was better known as a presenter of documentaries than as a poet. Cope is so popular she came second to England’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, in a people’s choice poll for the position.
Both Cope and Betjeman are known for ‘light verse’ — poems that raise a smile — but Cope has a darker side.
Her first collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, published in 1986, has sold more than 180,000 copies. Her reputation for dry wit was enhanced by her years as the television critic of the Spectator: she amazed the weekly’s traditionally conservative readership by introducing them to the lower slopes of popular culture, reviewing Dallas and darts matches.
Of the latter, she wrote, in her quietly subversive way: “It is very gratifying to see an overweight individual fighting his way towards a sporting title, especially if he has a cigarette in his hand.”
Cope, who studied history at Oxford University, before training as a primary school teacher, started writing poetry when struggling with depression.
Far from being an overnight success, she was sending poems to small magazines for six years before she had one accepted. She praises the Cork-based poet and critic, Robert Nye, for noticing that her second collection, Serious Concerns, was written “out of deep despair”.
Some of the most interesting pieces here are about the importance to Cope of the ten years that she spent in classical Freudian analysis, while she was metamorphosing from schoolteacher to poet.
Unlike many writers, for whom analysis is a threat to their creativity, Cope sees both the poet and the psychoanalyst as seekers after truth.
She believes that analysis, by increasing self-awareness, helps writers to avoid what TS Eliot called “moments of falsity”.
On a lighter note, the selection of her television reviews contains some classic comic writing.
A misreading of the TV schedules has her weeping with laughter at a serious documentary, A Cornishman’s View of the North East, in the mistaken belief that she is watching a Monty Python sketch.
She tries to stop talking to the television, and in the Independent newspaper she quotes the advice of a psychiatrist: ‘Remember, your television cannot listen to you, nor reply,’ for the benefit of “any readers who are still trying to establish a rapport with their sets.”
The piece about her reluctance to appear on chatshows, where the producer would like her to be ‘lively’, or even ‘bouncy’, has a self-explanatory title, ‘We Pay You Fifty Pounds’, a derisory sum for such an ordeal.
Making a living as a poet is still a challenge, even with Cope’s huge sales.
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