Interviewing Wendy Cope
Ely, 27th of March 2018
Wendy Cope received us at her house on a slightly cold English morning. We chatted not only about her last book, Anecdotal Evidence, but also about Shakespeare, Eeyore’s failure to write a poem, poor rhymes, whether certain forms match a poem, her dislike for the term “light verse”, funny poems, happy poems, and comprehensible poems. Wendy Cope’s husband and poet Lachlan Mackinnon joined us for a little while and we happily discussed epigrams, Pope and Dryden, before returning to the interview.
JF: Do you like poetry?
I do like poetry. I like reading poetry and I like writing it. And I think to be a poet you have to like poetry because to be any good at writing you have to read a lot. That’s how you learn. I say to students, if you don’t like reading poetry, forget it.
JF: Your last book replies to the second question we usually ask, which is on the use of poetry. So I will not ask you that one [Laughter].
Well, there are other answers to that. Actually, I wrote a piece once, there was this television critic programme about the uses of poetry and really the question makes me smile: because what are we going to do about poetry if we can’t think of any uses for it?
JF: In interviews, people do not often ask you about the formal qualities of your poems. You have written villanelles and sonnets, for example.
I like traditional forms. I like them as a reader, so I also enjoy them as a writer. Not all my poems are in traditional forms. I want to be able to do both. But I do enjoy them, so that’s why I use them.
JF: Does a particular form suit a particular poem?
Sometimes I know that something is going to be a sonnet. For example, in my book, there are all these poems about Shakespeare. I was commissioned to write those and I thought if I am going to write poems about Shakespeare, I think they should be Shakespearean sonnets. But sometimes I will start a poem and I may start writing it in free verse and then I will realise it should be in a traditional form. So sometimes there is a bit of trial and error. Sometimes I start using a short form and then I discover I should be writing more. Or sometimes I start writing a villanelle, but there isn’t enough to say and it becomes a triolet instead.
JF: What other influences have been important to you?
People ask me that sometimes. There is an American novelist who claims: “I don’t know what influences me, I only know what writers inspire me”. To discover influences is the job of a critic. I may have some ideas about it. One of my favourite poets is Housman, it’s great that you know him, and you even know his funny poems. In England, Housman isn’t read in schools anymore.
I suppose, obviously, Shakespeare. George Herbert in his use of form. But other poets who have inspired me are Emily Dickinson and John Clare. He just describes what’s there and does not try to do anything else with it. When I was sixteen, I liked Keats. And I still like him. But I prefer John Clare now, he is plainer. My earlier poems, I now see, were poor imitations of T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. But I don’t know if those influences have survived into my more mature work. Another important influence was Marina Tsevtaieva, there are some translations of her by an English poet called Elaine Feinstein and they are wonderful. I don’t know any Russian, so I can’t say how much is Tsevtaieva and how much is Elaine, but these poems, and the way she writes about love gone wrong, have definitely influenced me. As you know love gone wrong is quite important in my earlier poems. [Laughter]. Another poet is Heine. I love him. My German is not very good, but I have an edition with a prose translation at the bottom and that’s good, because I have never found a good translation into English. I tried to translate him myself. I have translated quite a few of his poems but there are not very good and I am not satisfied with what I have done.
JF: Have you published the translations?
No, because I know there are not very good, but I have tried and I realise how difficult it is. In part, the difficulty lies in its simplicity and the rhymes, which are very difficult to do. I particularly like his poems about love. And then I realized Housman liked Heine as well, which I thought was quite exciting.
JF: Do you read literary criticism?
Not much. I am definitely not a literary critic. My husband is the critic and he would certainly agree that I am not a critic. I don’t have a degree in English Literature. I went to University, but I did History, so there are actually big gaps in my knowledge of literature. Even though I think, really, if I had done English there would be big gaps as well. I suppose I might have picked up some critical skills, though. I do read something about poetry sometimes, but not very much.
JF: Do you read what people write about you?
Oh yes, absolutely. I read what people write about me and then I get upset if it’s not good and I get pleased if it’s good.
JF: Do they get it right?
Sometimes they get it right. And sometimes even – I mean, you want intelligent reviews. I’ve had really nice reviews, it’s better reading them than the nasty ones, but some have completely missed the point, really, so I had rather have an intelligent review with a few reservations. This book hasn’t had many reviews, but there is one in the Sunday Times that I was very pleased with (you may read it here). And he pointed out one poem that he thought was a bit weak and I thought that actually I agree with him, that’s fine. I should have worked harder on that one or left it out. But basically it was nice. So yes, I do. I get quite nervous when the book comes out and I fear that everyone will say horrible things about it. There are also two kinds of bad reviews. There are those when the person genuinely just does not like your poems and that is fair enough, but there are the spiteful ones. I had a few of those as well.
JF: Is there anything you dislike about poetry? A cliché? A figure of style?
I was asked to write for The Poetry Review (I can send you a copy of it). I was asked to write a manifesto and when I read other people’s manifestos I realized I had never read such load of pretentious stuff. So I wrote one and I said some things about writing poetry.
There is this thing I wish people would not do in rhyming poems: when they rhyme a plural word like friends with a singular word like send, it drives me mad. And there is a bit in the House of Pooh Cornerwhen Eeyore is trying to write a poem and he has a problem, because he realises that “friends” and “send” don’t rhyme. He alters “friends” to the singular. But then he has to put an “s” on “send”. He sees that you can’t rhyme “friends” with “send” or “friend” with “sends”. So he gets confused about it all, he can’t write his rhyming poem because of this problem. Nowadays, poets just ignore the problem and that really annoys me. I am also annoyed by this certain kind of poncy poetry words. I like plain language, as you have seen, but I think the most important is tone of voice, it’s what I call authenticity in tone, you can tell if a poet is being honest. Sometimes I get into the wrong register, it is inflated, and then I have to read a few good poets to bring me down to earth, so that I am actually being myself and not putting on a special voice for poetry. But my main problem with modern poetry is there is just so much of it I just can’t understand. And I am not stupid. I have read a lot of poetry. I was talking about this to a friend of mine, he has a PhD in twentieth-century poetry and he is a poet and we were talking about this book that neither of us could understand and I said "if I can’t understand it and you can’t understand it, then who is it for?"
JF: Do people assume it is good because it has the appearance of being complicated?
Oh yes, do you know the story of the Emperor’s new clothes?
JF: Laughter. Yes.
There is a lot of that in poetry. And sometimes difficult poetry can be very beautifully written, but you still can’t understand what the poet is actually saying.
JF: Is there anything you particularly like?
I do enjoy traditional forms. I do feel an affinity with other poems who use traditional forms. There’s a poet called Kit Wright, you may not have heard of him, as he should be better known. James Fenton and Tony Harrison also use traditional forms very well.
JF: Do you think interviewers ask you different questions from those they ask to “difficult poets”? When I read your interviews I had a feeling…
[Laughter] That they would not ask Seamus Heaney that.
JF: Yes! You are asked about former boyfriends, for example.
Yes, I do think so. I don’t know how much of that has to do with being a woman or with being a different kind of poet. Often, the people that newspapers send don’t know very much, so they ask a lot of personal questions, as they don’t know anything about poetry. And they think it is what their readers will want to read about, which is probably true.
JF: [Laughter]. I hope not.
My husband once interviewed Eavan Boland for a national newspaper and it was wonderful as it was absolutely serious. And it wasn’t boring but he didn’t ask all of those stupid questions and that is actually so unusual.
JF: Rosalie Collie describes how the couplets in Shakespeare’s sonnets could be considered epigrams. I was reading her book about the same time I was reading yours. Do you think about the couplet in your sonnets?
When I write Shakespearean sonnets I don’t have the ending, but it is my favourite bit. I have done twelve lines and then I just have the couplet to do and that treat is one of my favourite things. I don’t mind how long it takes, I just want to get it right. So I don’t start from the ending, but the ending is the pudding after the meal. The Shakespearean sonnet is a wonderful form, I never write other kind [of sonnets], I like it so much. And you are right, they are often epigrams and they are memorable. But maybe they wouldn’t be as good standing on their own.
JF: I am not sure, some are quite good.
I’ll have a look. I mean, I think that “Though this be error and upon me proved” wouldn’t make sense without what comes before, so in some way you need what comes before. But I’ll have a look, maybe some of them do hold. It’s an interesting idea.
Wendy Cope: Is that you? Come and say hello. Maria’s two special areas of interest are Shakespeare and contemporary poetry.
Lachlan Mackinnon: Right.
Wendy Cope: So I said, these are exactly the same areas you are interested in. She was talking about the couplet at the end of the Shakesperean sonnets and this critic who thinks that they are epigrams.
Lachlan Mackinnon: I think that in a way they are, but they are often sort of proverbial, they slide back into a common wisdom, whatever’s been individual in the rest of the sonnet has somehow generalized into a folk wisdom at the end, which seems to be very characteristic of Shakespeare, actually.
Maria: Could the couplets be a good way to describe a certain type of contemporary poetry, which is not light, but has the formal qualities of the couplets’ tone?
Lachlan Mackinnon: Who else would fit into it?
Maria: Fleur Adcock’s poems?
Wendy Cope: She is one of my favourite poets, by the way.
Maria: I’m not sure who else, but I think one could group these poems into a family. We tend to group poets into families, but we tend to do it…
Lachlan Mackinnon: Synchronically, yes. And you were thinking of it diachronically.
Maria: Yes, as Winters does in Forms of Discovery. Not all the poems he chooses are good, but some… Thomas Wyatt’s poems, for example.
Lachlan Mackinnon: Wyatt is interesting, because sometimes he is dreadful.
Maria: Laughter. Yes, he is.
Lachlan Mackinnon: But when he hits it, he is very good. You mean a certain type of lapidary or epigrammatic poetry…
Lachlan Mackinnon: Would Wordsworth fit into that?
Maria: I think so, “a slumber did my spirit steal”?
Lachlan Mackinnon: Yes, in fact all the Lucy poems would work. And somebody like Pope, in a way. Or Dryden.
Maria: Yes, Pope’s “I am his Highness dog at Kew”!
Lachlan Mackinnon: “Pray, tell me sir, whose dog are you”. Yes. That one.
Wendy Cope: What’s the other one? What comes before the proper study of mankind is man? There are lots of epigrammatic poems.
Lachlan Mackinnon: Yes, and Dryden.
Wendy Cope: Dryden I don’t really know.
Lachlan Mackinnon: Dryden is a hard poet to get. He is clearly a great poet, but one can’t say why.
Maria: I confess I’m not sure I got him. [Laughter]
Lachlan Mackinnon: I like his “Religio Laici”. It got me in, as I don’t really like the Satires. But also Ben Jonson and Donne, in a way. But not really Milton, which is interesting. His sentences are too long.
Wendy Cope: “They also serve who only stand and wait”?
Lachlan Mackinnon: Yes, that’s arguable. That is from a sonnet. [Laughter.] I could talk all morning, but I’m afraid I have to do a little work.
JF: You seem to use a variety of forms. Do you try to master them all?
Wendy Cope: Well, I have mastered a few forms. I sometimes think I should experiment with more forms. My last book has so many sonnets because I just like writing sonnets. I think that’s all right. But then I think of someone like Kipling who has sort of invented his own forms and I think I should be more inventive sometimes. You don’t have to stick to the ones that exist, you can make up forms of your own.
JF: You have edited two anthologies, on funny poems and on happy poems. You seem to be rejecting an idea of light verse and you seem to be putting together a new family of authors, which you are grouping in a new way.
Well, I was asked to do the funny poems by my publisher. The Happy Poems was my own idea. And you know this expression ‘happiness writes white’? If I had a pound for any time I have seen that… and it is obviously nonsense. Wordsworth’s daffodils [‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’], which is about the most best-known poem in the English language is happy. It is not difficult to think of a lot more, so it’s not difficult to prove this idea that happy poems aren’t any good. But there aren’t many of the funny poems in the happy lot. I just choose happy poems I like, but being happy and being funny aren’t the same thing. And a lot of the funny poems are very sad.
JF: There seems to be this distinction between light verse and serious verse.
I don’t like the expression light verse, because it is not clear what it means. People have different definitions of light verse, but normally these days it is used as an insult to imply that you are a second or third grade writer if there is any humour in your poem. This I find extremely annoying. I think there is something you could describe as light verse, which is poetry that is merely playful and entertaining, and I have written a few like that. But I also think that a poem with humour can be something that is deeply felt and important, and it should not be dismissed as light verse just because there is something funny in it. So I get very cross about this.
JF: Does calling it funny…
Well, I wasn’t going to call it light verse.
JF: Not at all, especially because many do not belong to what people consider to be light verse.
Well, I don’t know what light verse is, so. You know, once I was asked to edit the Faber book of light verse and I said no. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. In those days, there was a very bossy editor at Faber and I knew he would tell me what to put in it, so I just said I would not do it. But he had left by the time I did the Funny poems and I said that as long as they are funny or humorous. What precisely did I call it? Let me look. The Funny Side!
JF: Is there a third anthology coming up?
Probably, not. I might just have an idea. I sometimes think I would like to do an anthology of comprehensible poems.
JF: Well, you have taught children. Is there a way of making poems comprehensible? To teach poetry?
Yes, I think you just need to read poetry to them. Like you read stories. And read all different kinds of poems. And sometimes I say to them: There is a question that I am going to ask you at the end. So they listen. So they know there is going to be a question. But you should read them poems that rhyme and poems that don’t rhyme, new poems and old poems and to have poetry books in the classroom, so they can pick them up for themselves. I found that if you read them poems, sometimes they’ll ask - “Can I write a poem?” - which is the best way to do it. When I was a very young teacher, an inspector came and I said how do I explain to 9 year olds the difference between prose and poetry? “That’s a very good question”, he said, “and I don’t think I know the answer.” It’s a difficult question for anybody. Eventually I realised that you just read them some poems and they get the idea. You don’t have to theorize about it.
JF: Did you read children’s poetry to them?
Mostly, yes. There is very good contemporary poetry for children. Children’s poetry in the past was awful. I have also done a book of funny poems for children. I was very conscientious, so I went to the British Library to look for children’s poetry of the past only to discover it is mostly awful, very moralizing. Except for people like Lewis Carroll and he was quite well known already. But from the 1960’s onwards there is a poet called Michael Rosen – poets are a bit snooty about him, but he writes lovely poems for children. They are everyday experiences and he goes to schools and he is so wonderful with children. And Kit Wright, he has written some lovely poems for children and adults. He is very good at both, actually, he is often very funny and he is often very sad. And Roger McGough. But also I read them Walter de la Mare. I am not as keen on Robert Louis Stevenson, I have a friend who is a Cambridge Professor of children’s poetry and she loves Robert Louis Stevenson but I am not as crazy about him as she is.
I don’t know… A Child’s Garden of Verses. I have never been enthusiastic about it.
JF: Did they memorize the poems?
I would never force children to memorize the poems. I think it puts them off. I think it’s a good idea to encourage them if they want to, because it is a very good thing to memorize poetry, but if you force them to do it, it just puts them off. And it is much easier for some people than it is for others and the ones who find it difficult will just hate poetry.
JF: Do you know poems by heart?
I say them to myself when I go to the dentist and I need to think about something. A couple of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a few by Housman, one or two by Emily Dickinson. It’s very good to have some poems that you know, very useful.
JF: You recently gave your notebooks to the British Library.
Sold. I sold them.
JF: Ah, like Ogden Nash, then.
I bet he got more money than I did. I think I should have got more money.
JF: He complained about his deal. I don’t think it was very good…
He complained as well? Well, so do I. We had to buy a house and that is why I sold my archive to the British Library. But I should have got more money and I had to include some things I didn’t want to sell. So I am not very happy about it.
JF: You weren’t thinking about posterity.
Well, no. I mean as well as the money there was all this stuff and we were moving in to a new house. So I needed to get rid of it and I didn’t want to throw it away. I think part of the reason they wanted it was because there were all these letters from famous people. I’m not sure how interested they were in me.
JF: I am not quite sure that would be the case.
The interesting part is that it has all my notebooks. So you can see how the poems started, that might be interesting to someone in the future. If they can read my writing.
JF: Is it that difficult?
Well, sometimes. I’ve lost whole stanzas because I could not read them myself. Because I write in pencil. And I think I feel more comfortable if it isn’t too legible. I write in pencil and sometimes I can’t even read it myself, which is very annoying.
JF: Is there an age to start writing poetry? You started…
I started quite late. There is a tradition. Fleur [Adcock] is very interested on this but there is a tradition of women starting late, publishing their first book quite late. She didn’t actually, she started quite young, but we’ve talked about it. And I think it has to do with the confidence of sort of managing to be yourself, to find your own voice, it’s more difficult for women to find themselves. But it’s all changed now. Male poets tended to start very young and carried right on and women started late, they suddenly decided they wanted to write and realized that for various reasons they had not done it.
JF: Could shame have something to do with it?
Yes, another mystery… When I started publishing, a very small minority of published poets were women. But it is not true of novels. When I started publishing I would say roughly fifty per cent of published novelists were women and there were far more women that (back through the past) made a reputation as novelists. I asked a woman – an academic friend of mine – and she thought it was to do with shame. That poetry is more personal, so it may have something to do with it. Of course, it was difficult, for novelists too. The Bronte sisters had to pretend to be someone else.
JF: Were you happy with this last book?
Yes, I am. I suppose writers always like to think their last book is their best, but it’s not as popular and funny as my second book Serious Concerns, that’s where all of those poems about men are. I’m not so funny now, probably because I am happier. Of course there is a lot about old age and death, so maybe young people don’t relate to it as much, but I am pleased with it.
JF: A final question: do you have a favourite poem? One we can quote and show to our readers?
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.