“Let’s go back to this thing about there being a story,” Wendy Cope says as we sit on a bench by the canal in Ely. “There’s a story of how a depressed primary school teacher became quite a well-known poet.”
She is being characteristically understated. Cope is one of the best-known and among the bestselling British poets of recent decades. Her first collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, was full of “the kind of poems journalists enjoy”. As a result, it became, by her own admission, almost too successful. “I’ve never been more famous than I was, suddenly, in 1986,” she says. “I did find it very difficult to cope with all the demands that were being made on me.”
She quickly decided that she didn’t want to become “some sort of media personality, always on radio quiz shows”, and retreated to her study. She observes, with a touch of pride, that she is one of the few poets who don’t need to supplement their income by teaching creative writing courses.
Her major works have been irregular, though consistently well reviewed: Serious Concerns in 1992, If I Don’t Know in 2001 and Family Values this year. This summer she sold her “archive” – 40,000 emails and 15 boxes of notebooks, diaries, letters and memorabilia – to the British Library. “When it went, I was thoroughly glad to see the back of it,” she says. “I’ve been saying for years: ‘I can’t die until I’ve sorted out the filing cabinets.’ I wanted it to be in a safe place, and available if anyone’s ever interested in doing serious studies of my work.”
The week after our meeting, I visit the archive at its new home in King’s Cross. Going “backstage” at the British Library is an oddly thrilling experience – all swipe cards and temperature-controlled rooms. Down a narrow row, there it sits, sandwiched between the effects of the surrealist poet David Gascoyne – whose boxes contain a toothbrush, a tie and a notebook – and the organist Reginald Moore. The cartons are neatly labelled: “Poems about me”, “Nuisances”, “Unpublished writing” and my favourite, “Things I said no to”.
The collection won’t be catalogued and ready for scholars for another year, but Rachel Foss, curator of modern manuscripts, has prepared a selection of items to show me. As Cope promised, they tell the story of how a depressed schoolteacher found her poetic voice.
But first, a brief detour. The path that led me to that riverbank in Ely opened one Christmas morning in the 1990s. My mother had bought me, a bookish teen, a set of poetry volumes. Among the masculine heavyweights of the 20th century – Hughes, Heaney, Eliot, Larkin and Auden – was a slim volume. On its cover was a fridge, empty apart from a pint of milk. It was Cope’s Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. Here, for the first time, were poems in a voice I could identify with; a writer who felt that white wine and buses were fit subjects for poetry. As time went on, I began to notice that the feather-light observations came wrapped in skilfully crafted verse. (“It’s not that I’m against free verse, but even free verse has a certain shape, a certain rhythm, and there is technical stuff that you need to learn,” she says now.) Here are the first lines of “Rondeau Redoublé”:
There are so many kinds of awful men –
One can’t avoid them all. She often said
She’d never make the same mistake again:
She always made a new mistake instead.
Each line of this is reused as the last line of the following stanzas, and the poem finishes with the first half of the first line (“There are so many kinds”) as a truncated last line. A roundel like this is a finicky structure and rhyme scheme for any poet to choose. Those meticulously catalogued boxes should have given me the clue: the reader is in the presence of a perfectionist.
Apart from a series of poems in the persona of a male writer, Jake Strugnell, the other main attraction of Making Cocoa is a set of reworkings: Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. The Waste Land ends up as five rather jaunty limericks, which conclude:
No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.
“Oh yes,” she says. “Even the snobby poets conceded the parodies were quite good.”
Flashes of candour
Wendy Cope’s story begins in 1945, when she was born in Erith, Kent. She was an unremarkable schoolgirl, but at the age of four and five-twelfths – her report from West Lodge prep school is specific on this point – she was already “very keen” on poetry. Her next school, Farringtons, awarded her only a B++ in English at 16, but it did agree that “Wendy’s ability to penetrate to the heart of a question is of great value”.
Two years later, her grades were good enough for her to go up to St Hilda’s, Oxford, to study history, but she was unhappy there, suffering from the depression that later blighted her twenties. “I didn’t do very well because I had all these problems,” she says. “And then I became a primary school teacher, which was good in some ways, but I felt that I wasn’t really using my brains in the way I wanted to . . . I was living on my own for the first time, without flatmates. The nice ones had got married and I’d got fed up with the rest. There was no one to talk to and that got me writing.”
Then, three things happened. In 1971, her father died; soon after that, she went into psychoanalysis to deal with her depression; and she started writing poems. “I got in touch with all sorts of powerful feelings that I didn’t know I had. I needed to do something with them, and writing poems turned out to be helpful. I think I had been very oppressed by my mother and it was something to do with just creating a space where I was free, inside my own head – and then extending this space on to a piece of paper.”
Cope’s mother is a strong presence in her latest collection, Family Values. It is, she says, a far better book than If I Don’t Know, which came at “a dry period in my writing life”. These flashes of candour keep appearing; earlier, she had said that she and her partner, Lachlan Mackinnon, had ended up in Ely because they couldn’t afford to live in Cambridge: they’d ploughed their savings into a buy-to-let flat in 2009 and had to sell it at a loss. Until earlier this year, they lived in a “lovely big house” provided by Winchester College, where Mackinnon taught English for 30 years, but they lost that when ill-health forced him to take early retirement. “Selling the archive had everything to do with leaving that house. There were two things: one was the money, the other was the space. We had to move somewhere smaller.”
But indiscretion is not Cope’s default mode: this is a woman who wrote, in a poem called “How to Deal with the Press”: “When tempted to confide, resist/Never trust a journalist.” As she argues: “I’ve said what I’m prepared to say in my poems, and then journalists think that you’re going to tell them a whole lot more.” Interviewing her is less a seductive pas de deux and more like a bullfight: every time I charge at the red cloth, she steps aside. Is there anything she’d like to forget? She bridles. “If there was, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.” A few minutes later, she brings it up again: “I wonder if anyone gets trapped into answering that question?”
Cope is a writer caught between the urge to hold back and the desire to unburden. She wants her archive studied, but only after she dies. She admits that the surface humour of the early collections covered up the depression she endured for years. The big change came with her mother’s death in 2004, which freed her to write about their dysfunctional relationship and her consequently unhappy childhood. In Family Values, she recalls her mother reading to her and teaching her to swim: “For all that, I am grateful./As for the rest, I can begin/To imagine forgiving her”. Her mother was one of the few not won over by Making Cocoa; she disliked its references to sex.
The archives bear out this tale of inhibition. Cope says that she publishes only 60 per cent of what she writes and in her notebooks covered in wrapping paper are poems far more bare and intimate than she has included in any collection – one of which she emails and gives me permission to quote here for the first time. It is dated 10 November 1978, five years before the publication of Making Cocoa, when she was still struggling to find her voice:
And is it better
Thus to burn
Sheets of paper
Than to trace
with my fingers
on your skin?
The idea of strangers rummaging through the records of her most private thoughts troubles her. She knows that allowing scholars to study her development as a writer will help her future reputation, yet she qualifies this, talking of “a desire to be known and be understood, but not necessarily while I’m alive”. In the stacked boxes are three volumes of autobiography, abandoned in 2003, which Foss tells me cover many of the same incidents found in Family Values. There are also diaries – Cope describes them with relish as “a good read” and “Bridget Jones on speed” – which will stay sealed until after her death.
Andrew Motion, a former poet laureate who has known her since the 1980s, agrees that she is caught between confession and repression. “In the early poems, there is a kind of masking going on,” he tells me. “She literally adopts the persona of Strugnell. You’re not so sure in the more recent stuff what is her speaking in her own self and what isn’t. I think there’s been a gradual move towards the candidly autobiographical.” He believes that greater happiness has allowed her to let more melancholy into her work. “I don’t want to say these are suddenly overwhelmingly sad poems but the sadness is much more conspicuous than it used to be.”
He hopes that Family Values finally establishes her as the rightful heir to Philip Larkin. “Comic poets do get short shrift, because they’re made to seem light,” he says. “And there is a skip in her step, but these are perfectly serious poems. She does take from [Larkin] and makes her own something about melancholia that’s very true to our human experience.”
Cope has her own take on this idea. “A friend of mine wrote a really good poem about being in a pub playing darts, and I said: ‘What your poetry needs is a bit more beer and darts, and not quite so much nature.'”
As you would expect, the c-word – comedy – is one that exercises her greatly. From the start of her career, she came up against the casual snobbery of the poetry world, which assumed that any work that made you laugh was unlikely to make you think. Recently, she says, a panellist on BBC2’s Review Show dismissed her work as “comfortable Home Counties stuff”. “I don’t set out to be humorous,” is her slightly frustrated response to the inevitable question. “The interesting thing is that you don’t often meet a poet who doesn’t have a sense of humour, and some of them do keep it out of their poems because they’re afraid of being seen as light versifiers. I know one poet – a good friend of mine, I won’t mention his name – and reading his poems you would never know he’s interested in sex or having a pint of beer. It’s all so high-minded.”
I ask if she was treated badly by the establishment when her first collection became such a success, and her journalists-are-out-to-trap-me antennae bristle. “I have to be careful what I say . . . The poetry world hasn’t been very nice to me, so I’m not going to say warm, glowing things about the community of poets.”
Isn’t that a side effect of being popular? She agrees. “I bet historians hate Simon Schama. I bet they spit at the mention of his name. But certainly it is a problem with poetry that, as soon as anyone comes up with anything that people enjoy, poets all gang up and say: ‘But this is not good.'”
That said, she is friendly with several poets – her partner is one, after all – and the archives contain notes from Craig Raine, Gavin Ewart, Dennis O’Driscoll and Blake Morrison. There is even a congratulatory letter from Kingsley Amis, whose ego must have been soundly stroked by the success of the collection bearing his name. A 1992 postcard from Ted Hughes praises her “deadpan fearless sort of way of whacking the nail on the head when everybody else is trying to hang pictures on it”.
Yet the feeling of being an outsider still lingers, even if some of her old spikiness has softened. Motion attributes this to her happy relationship with Mackinnon, with whom she has lived since 1994. There is also her age – 66. “I think people don’t get envious of older poets – you’ve got time to catch up with them,” she says. “I hope I’ve won the respect of some people by going on, having artistic integrity.”
And go on she does: unencumbered by her boxes of memories, she squeezes in writing between answering “millions” of emails and giving readings. Handing over the archive seems like a step towards canonisation, though Cope sees it differently – “like getting ready to die”. So, how would she like to be remembered? “The nicest thing anyone can say about my poetry is that it is true . . . One of my favourite quotes is by Schubert. He said: ‘I give to the world what I have in my heart, and that is the end of it.'”