Sophie Hannah is a poet and novelist. She has won awards for her short stories and poetry, including first prize in the 2004 Daphne Du Maurier Festival Short Story Competition. In June 2004 she was chosen for the Next Generation poetry promotion as one of the best poets to emerge in the last decade. Penguin have recently published Sophie's Selected Poems and Hodder & Stoughton her first psychological crime novel, Little Face. A selection of her short stories, We All Say What We Want, will be published by Sort Of Books in 2007. Here Sophie makes a second contribution to this series, discussing the poetry of Wendy Cope.
Sophie Hannah on Wendy Cope
[This essay first appeared in the New Welsh Review, Issue 72, Summer 2006. I post it here with the editor's kind permission as well as that of the author.]
Wendy Cope's poem 'Being Boring' has a Chinese curse as its epitaph: 'May you live in interesting times'. The first two verses describe the poet's happiness with a new romantic partner. This is the last verse:
I don't go to parties. Well, what are they forIt's risky for a poet to give a piece of work the title 'Being Boring', but Cope gets away with it because her poems are never boring. This is true of very few contemporary poets, and it's why Wendy Cope is my favourite living poet. I'm not saying she's the best poet alive today - I can think of several undeniable geniuses who might deserve that title. The trouble is, when I try to read their work, my eyes slide off the page and fix on the television screen instead - I suddenly become fascinated by the spectacle of an overweight person in unflattering underwear being ordered to eat only mung beans by a skinny Scot. I'm no philistine, but I am someone who, when reading, likes to be interested, engaged and entertained all the time. I can't stand the dreary, worthy, 'I'm-an-important-poem-check-out-my-imagery' tone of a lot of set-text or prize-winning poetry. The poems I love are those that hook you from the start:
If you don't need to find a new lover?
You drink and you listen and drink a bit more
And you take the 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 being boring.
There are so many kinds of awful men.All these are the beginnings of poems by Wendy Cope, and signal to the reader that down-to-earth, gossipy fun will be had by all; it's the poetic equivalent of watching the start of an episode of 'Seinfeld' or 'Sex and the City'. And, like both, Cope's poetry is not merely entertaining – it is as clever, well-observed, sensitive, memorable and profound as... poetry that is much less entertaining. (It's outrageous that I feel I need to say this - as if entertainment precludes other more lofty goods.)
One can't avoid them all. She often said
She'd never make the same mistake again.
She always made a new mistake instead...
He tells her that the earth is flat.
He knows the facts, and that is that...
Cuddling the new telephone directory
After I found your name in it
Was going too far...
A lot of Cope's work deals with personal unhappiness, but her skill is in crafting pain into a rewarding, life-enhancing experience for the reader. We recognize our own unhappiness in hers, just as we recognize our happiness in her happier poems. Nobody universalizes the personal like Cope. My all-time favourite of her poems, ironically entitled 'Some More Light Verse', is the funniest, most accurate description I've ever read of the way in which we all try to project-manage the frustration and disappointment of everyday life:
You have to try. You see a shrink.From this perfect poem we learn more about life than we do from the entire oeuvres of certain heavy-verse poets, who - let's face it - would be incapable of writing a line as brilliant as 'You go to yoga, cry and swim' if their lives depended on it.
You learn a lot. You read. You think.
You struggle to improve your looks.
You meet some men. You write some books.
You eat good food. You give up junk.
You do not smoke. You don't get drunk.
You go to yoga, walk and swim,
And nothing works. The outlook's grim.
You don't know what to do. You cry.
You're running out of things to try.
You blow your nose. You see the shrink.
You walk. You give up food and drink.
You fall in love. You make a plan.
You struggle to improve your man,
And nothing works. The outlook's grim.
You go to yoga, cry and swim.
You eat and drink. You give up looks.
You struggle to improve your books.
You cannot see the point. You sigh.
You do not smoke. You have to try.
When you read her poems, you meet Wendy Cope. 'Being Boring' contains the phrase 'all my desire'; in her poetry, Cope shares all her desire with the reader, as well as all her insights, all her experience. Her poems give the reader so much of herself. This is why they need to and do communicate so directly and accessibly. If she were talking to you face to face, she wouldn't dream of subjecting you to a pointless descriptive monologue, so she doesn't do it in her writing either.
Another reason I love Cope's work is that her poems are set in a world I recognize and inhabit - one that's full of absurdity as well as pain and pleasure. She writes about the difficulty of finding a parking space, vegetarianism, psychotherapy, how annoying it is to buy a T-shirt and then realize it's dowdy. I'm not saying that most poets set their work in different worlds - times gone by or futuristic dystopias. Rather, it seems to me that many contemporary poets' work is set either inside their imaginations, or in a universe devoid of humour, self-mockery, eccentricity, gossip, insight and local detail. When I read some poets' work, I feel as if their words are hidden behind a gauze veil. Instead of writing about new lovers who leap into one's car too quickly and squash one's saved-from-lunch banana (see 'Song' by Wendy Cope, in her collection If I Don't Know), they write about watery pebbles, or pebbly water, with a somnolent poignancy that I find puzzling. 'Is there more to these wet stones than meets the eye?' I ask myself time and time again, before quickly concluding 'Who cares?'
I recently had a dinner with a poet who disagrees with me about most things, and complained to him about the preponderance of watery pebbles in contemporary verse. 'There's only so much you can say about damp rocks!' I yelled, startling the waiters in the small Nepalese restaurant. 'No,' he corrected me. 'There's only so much you can say about human relationships.' What I should have said (but didn't because I was flattered that a serious poet was still out after midnight with the lowbrow likes of me) is, 'That may be true, but which is more important and interesting?' If only I’d said that!
Did Shakespeare believe that there was only so much one could say about human behaviour? Did Jane Austen? And what about hypothetical human behaviour? Often what doesn't happen is as significant as what does, as in Cope's 'Flowers', which is surely one of the all-time great love poems:
Some men never think of it.Wendy Cope's books - Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, The River Girl, Serious Concerns and If I Don't Know - are all published by Faber.
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'd 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.