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“What’s so wrong with having a sense of humour?”

ASH Smyth meets his poetic heroin(e) and suffers a Dictaphone malfunction


When you step outside, perhaps you’ll see
an envoy from the Nobel Literature Committee;
though it’s unlikely.

This was my attempt at ‘finishing’ Wendy Cope’s contribution to the GLF’s Opening Lines Project. I figured it did the job, a fragment of Cope-style (Copious?) irreverence (Co-impious?) within a loosely poetic form. It was only afterwards – after the whole festival was concluded, in fact – that I realised I had also inadvertently taken on one of the poet’s key themes: the odds against a humorous writer being garlanded with literary laurels. To wit…  

Over a cup of Sunday-morning coffee at the Galle Fort Hotel, I try very hard not to spoil Cope’s weekend by asking, in so many words, why she is not taken seriously.

I genuinely don’t get it. Flick through any of her books and amongst the Wordsworthian spoofs of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and the four-liners about drunk husbands (great stuff for poetry readings, not to mention exceptionally neat) there are existential notes on one’s reflection; considerations of the dwindling, or not, of long-term relationships; poems on politics and disenchantment. All highly readable; all perfectly serious. There is a 20-page narrative on the life of a schoolboy who turned to shoplifting. The eponymous poem of her third book, If I Don’t Know, is a sincere meditation, addressed to a female friend, on the beauty of her garden on a summer evening (contra weary poetic tradition this is not some randy bucolic euphemism: Wendy’s not that kind of lady, and I’ll call out anyone who says otherwise).

Cope even takes humour seriously – if only as a joke. Consider ‘A Poem on the Theme of Humour’, a letter (actually sent? I’d assume so) to the organisers of the Bard of the Year poetry competition, saying how right they are to outlaw ‘humour’ as a category.

And then, of course, there’s ‘Haiku: On Looking Out of the Back Bedroom Window without My Glasses’. OK, so that one’s not particularly earnest; but it’s right there opposite ‘If I Don’t Know’.

Cope is also a genius with forms (again, even if/when she is ‘only’ taking the mick – do you know a villanelle when you see one?). Extensive Amazon research reveals that she features on someone’s list of ‘The very best modern formal poets’ as well as on ‘Things that Jenny likes to be distracted by’ (the latter hosted by one ‘Madame Jenny’). Cope, I suspect, would be tickled by the incongruity.

Clive James, another formal virtuoso, once defined humour as “common sense dancing.” So whence this absurd assumption that humour automatically denotes frivolity? (I mean, ask any comedian. Or anyone Jewish.) Alas, in the prevailing literary environment, where you have to be grim to be considered important (just because it works for Coetzee…), humour is a two-edged sword.*

But if those are the terms, it almost seems that Cope doesn’t want to be taken seriously. Not too seriously, anyway. She slays her detractors with unblinking irony – “There are some drawbacks to being regarded as a humorous poet. You sell lots of books and that’s thought of as cheating.” – and all without sarcasm or scorn, which is why the crowds love her.

Given her back catalogue, Cope can afford the poker-face approach. She is holding the poetry industry’s equivalent of a full house, where most of her competitors can barely summon a single ace.

Her first book, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, made her an overnight star, selling, to date, around 200,000 copies. Serious Concerns – note the rather pointed title – has sold even better, though it’s still catching up in real terms. If I Don’t Know is hot on their heels. Then there’s her latest, Two Cures for Love: selected poems 1979-2006. (It is a testament to Cope’s integrity that, although Two Cures also includes new material, she is uncomfortable about its being considered a book in its own right – rightly – and put her foot down when the publisher wanted to subtitle it ‘new and selected…’)

Cope’s edited collections – Is That The New Moon? (an anthology of women poets), The Funny Side and Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems – sell merely in the tens of thousands; some tens of thousands more than the average poetry publication. Then there’s George Herbert: verse and prose, a selection from the work of the C.17th spiritual writer and orator. Y’know – because she’s a serious poet.

Her own poems are anthologised, in their turn, all over the English-speaking world. She’s won awards. She’s had a poem set to music by the rhythm-and-blues artist Jools Holland, from which she makes nice royalties, she says. And now, thanks to the tireless efforts of a certain young lit. journalist, ‘Wendy Cope’ is even her own category on the influential Prospect blog.

She talks of the economics of popularity, and how making it big after Making Cocoa meant accepting certain adjustments in life: “I had to learn not to give out my phone number, things like that.” She got better at saying no to things, like commissions (“‘Can you do a poem on the rugby World Cup by 4:30 this afternoon?’ ‘Well , no.’”). Or not saying no, and damning the consequences. She once wrote a poem for the WWF – Wildlife Fund, not Wrestling Federation – with the punch-line “the lamb is not endangered.” To which the response was “Obviously we can’t publish this.”

She disparages the poets’ cliché that “happiness writes white” (i.e. produces nothing of any visible merit), but says she actually quite welcomes the occasional stimulus of commissions now that she’s relatively content and has less, correspondingly, to write about. Also, she has the money these days not to need to accept them. She long-since retired (early) as a primary school teacher, and has recently started receiving her state pension. Poetry is still no goldmine, though, and she laments the fact that while this recent bonus helps with running costs – jetting to tropical islands for literary festivals, and the like – her partner, notwithstanding his own list of publications, is still not at liberty to accompany her. He works, suffice to say, as a teacher. (Now I’m wondering if he teaches her poems…).

There’s one last question, a question I’ve been burning to ask since, aged about 17, I was first introduced to Wendy Cope’s poems. Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis – the debut title, per se, that made her name – was there ever any chance of the book being called something else?

Well, yes, she says, undoubtedly – though the alternative titles do not immediately spring to re-mind. But Craig Raine (noted poet and Poetry Editor at Faber) identified ‘Making Cocoa’ instantly. “I said perhaps we ought to ask Kingsley Amis if he objected,” and the media savvy Raine pointed out that there could be tremendous publicity if they didn’t, “but I felt it was polite.” Once they’d assured Amis that he wasn’t being made fun of – courtesy of Raine’s friend and Kingsley’s son, Martin – he was perfectly happy: “in fact he said some very nice things about it.”

Which flawless segue brings us to the high point of my own personal GLF: “In that case, might I give you… this?”

Snorting Coke Off Martin Amis
(tribute to Wendy Cope)

This came to me while sitting
on the loo.

I reckoned Cope would like it.
(Amis too.)

Tense moment. Then she laughs, and asks if she should autograph it – “This made me laugh.” I try not to giggle. “Of course,” she says, “Martin Amis might not find it so funny…”

‘Amis fils Flies to Tropics to Punch Journalist in Face!’? Well, anything’s worth a shot. As Cope heads down to the pool, I pick up my Dictaphone and realise that not a single word of proceedings has been recorded. Never mind. Something tells me I’ll remember this one.

* NB it ought still, actually, to have edges.

Version, just about, of piece here.

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