Ten of the best from the masterly comic poet selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Wendy Cope is one of the most acclaimed living comic poets writing in English. Since her first collection appeared in 1986, she has published a handful of popular volumes of comic verse, though she can also write ‘straight’ poetry very successfully too (as the last poem in this list testifies). Below are ten of Wendy Cope’s finest poems.
1. ‘Engineers’ Corner’.
Inspired by an advertisement that was placed in The Times by the Engineering Council, ‘Engineers’ Corner’ is the first poem in Cope’s first collection of poems, the 1986 volume Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. The advert snottily asked why Britain has ‘always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint’, and sniffily suggested there should be an ‘Engineers’ Corner’ to complement Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Cope’s brilliantly witty retort is a tour de force.
2. ‘Waste Land Limericks’.
One of the funniest recurring aspects of Wendy Cope’s early poetry is her parodies (or burlesques, to use a perhaps more apt term) of various canonical works of poetry.
Her ‘Waste Land Limericks’ summarise the five sections of T. S. Eliot’s landmark modernist poem The Waste Land in five humorous five-line poems, making the most of the delicious juxtaposition of the funny and irreverent limerick form and the serious post-war cri de coeur that is Eliot’s poem.
The result is a learned and witty, but also very funny, condensing of some of the key elements of each part of The Waste Land, with the final line of the last limerick – giving a nod to the notes which Eliot wrote to accompany his poem – making a wry comment about the way much modernist literature requires footnotes in order to be comprehensible.
3. ‘Emily Dickinson’.
This short poem may have had its genesis in the dactylic metre of Emily Dickinson’s name (where the first syllable of her first name and her surname is stressed, but the other two syllables are unstressed). Cope complements this with the phrase ‘Higgledy-piggledy’ to describe Dickinson, musing on the reclusive American poet’s fondness for using dashes in her work.
But given the use of the quatrain form, the poem also summons the look of an Emily Dickinson poem, and is thus an entirely fitting homage to (and gentle dig at) the idiosyncratic style of Dickinson’s verse. However, although this is a light piece, it also raises the possibility the those critics and editors mentioned in the penultimate line are more conservative and risk-averse than they were in the late nineteenth century (curiously enough, though, when Dickinson’s poems were first printed the characteristic dashes were removed to make her poetry more conventional in its use of punctuation).
4. ‘Mr Strugnell’.
As we have already mentioned, one of the most fun things about Wendy Cope’s poetry is her fondness for parody, and she is particularly adept at sending up the ‘bad poet’. She even created a fictional bad poet, Jason Strugnell, who borrows from every major poet he can but has delusions of grandeur, poor fellow.
‘Mr Strugnell’ is a particularly fine example of Cope’s ability to capture the style of another poet: here, she takes on Philip Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ while filtering that poem through the personality of the hapless Strugnell. Strugnell, it probably doesn’t need saying, is no Larkin – but he may well be a latter-day Bleaney …
5. ‘The Orange’.
Wendy Cope is not just a comic poet, and she can often move us with her touching account of falling in love (or, for that matter, out of love, or, for another matter, being single and not having anyone to love). This poem is a prime example.
It is about how the simple day-to-day things – such as buying an orange and sharing it with work colleagues, or walking in the park – can make us happy when we’re in love, and are ‘glad we exist’.
The beauty of the poem is in its touching simplicity, and the faint hint of the absurd suggested by that huge orange. This delightful poem is from Cope’s 1992 collection Serious Concerns.
When Cope’s poems aren’t reflecting the pitfalls of single life, they’re often sending up the love poem – and perhaps nowhere better than here, where Cope congratulates her lover for … nearly buying her some flowers. The thought was there.
And yet the clever thing about this poem is that it remains ambiguous: are we being invited to take the female speaker’s words at face value? In other words, is the fact that the thought was there enough, or is she mocking her other half for his failed attempts at romance and his pathetic excuses for why he never treats her to anything? The final image in the poem, of those flowers he nearby bought (but didn’t) lasting all this while, can arguably be read as both touchingly forgiving and bitingly judgmental.
In some of her best poems, Wendy Cope likes to take a word or phrase and then try to think up multiple funny rhymes for it – and here, ‘My heart has made its mind up’ leads to lines ending with ‘lined up’ and ‘signed up’, in a humorous Valentine’s Day poem about unrequited – and probably unsolicited – love.
Cope has written in a variety of established traditional verse forms, and here she uses the triolet, an eight-line poem with a rhyme scheme of abaaabab. The first line is repeated in the fourth and seventh lines and the second line is also the last line. The form conveys the unavoidable fate of the (apparently unfortunate) addressee: they are destined to be the valentine of the poem’s speaker …
8. ‘A Christmas Poem’.
Once again we have one key rhyme running throughout a short poem and serving as its backbone, if you will. If you’re single at Christmas, you may have felt this way: ‘A Christmas Poem’ addresses what Christmas can be like for people not fortunate enough to be basking in the warm glow of a romantic relationship – but Cope puts it better than that, with a series of rhymes on ‘jingle’.
9. ‘After the Lunch’.
Although many of Wendy Cope’s early poems focus on being unlucky in love and being single (as in ‘A Christmas Poem’ above), ‘After the Lunch’ beautifully captures the moment when you realise you may be falling in love with someone.
Parting from her lunch-date on Waterloo Bridge in London, she speaker tries to avoid the fact that she has fallen for the person she is seeing. Is it just the charm of her date, or the drink she has consumed? But the ‘juke-box inside me’ (a memorable image) is playing her a song that tells her, no, this is the real thing. She knows she should trust her instinct on this – and that the heart knows better than the brain, as she is forced to admit very quickly.
As remarked above, Wendy Cope can move us as well as amuse us. And although she is known for writing about the everyday, she has also occasionally engaged with more momentous events.
This poem, written in the wake of the September 11th attacks of 2001, borrows from a short poem by Emily Dickinson (‘That love is all there is’), and shows that Cope can affect us deeply while writing about tragic events.
If this selection has whetted your appetite for more of Wendy Cope’s work, we recommend Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Wendy Cope, ‘Flowers’, Beth’s Poetry Trail installation (image: summonedbyfells on Flickr).