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.
‘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.
‘Waste Land Limericks’. One of the funniest recurring aspects of Wendy Cope’s early poetry is her parodies 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.
‘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.
‘Mr Strugnell’. 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 Philip Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ while filtering that poem through the personality of the hapless Strugnell.
‘The Orange’. This poem 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.
‘Flowers’. When Cope’s poems aren’t reflecting the pitfalls of the 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 …
‘Valentine’. 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.
‘A Christmas Poem’. 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’.
‘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.
‘Spared’. 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 move us as well as amuse us.
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).