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High Profile

True to Life

Interview by Steve Turner

Witty, wry - and undeniably popular - Wendy Cope is one of the
most quoted poets of our day. Third Way got the measure of her
at her publisher's office in Bloomsbury.

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Your new collection of poetry is entitled Family Values,1 and it's evident that you don't like them. What do you understand by that term?
That everybody's supposed to put their family first.
I was alone for a long time, without a partner, and I didn't have any relatives that I got on with, and I found it quite painful when politicians talked about family val­ues, because I thought: What about people like me? Some people don't have families and some have horrible families, and that's never acknowledged, really.

Your long poem 'The Teacher's Tale', published in 2001,2 tells the story of a boy whose life is damaged by his parents' strictness. Is it really about you?
I would say it draws on my experience of life. The central character is not me but he is a bit like me, yes.

Were your parents unusually strict even for their day?
Yes. I mean, my mother had a lot of problems. I think she was pretty depressed most of her life. Her father had died when she was nine and she had a difficult life; but she dealt with her problems by manipulating people to behave in ways that made her feel OK.
She was quite nasty about my first book…3

When she died in 2004, was that a liberating -
Yeah.

Did you go to her funeral?
Oh, yes. Oh, I was good to her. I went to see her a lot, you know, in the closing years of her life; I did most of what I ought to have done. But it was tough, really.

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Did she realise that you thought she had damaged you?
No, I don't think so. And she had dementia anyway.
When I was younger, I used to have rows with her sometimes, because she was so much her own worst en­emy in the way she treated other people. You know, I did love her and that made it very difficult. In the end I gave up, because there was really no point - she wasn't going to change.

She was a Christian, wasn't she?
She was a fervent evangelical Christian. She was born as a Baptist but became an Anglican in her teens - but she was never a very Anglican Anglican. You know, she never really had much time for bishops or any of that.
My father was a very sort of old-fashioned, middle-of-the-road Anglican: he was a believer but he didn't think it was that important to go to church. In that re­spect he wasn't at all like my mother.

Did you go to Sunday school?
Well, I was made to. When I was a little girl of three or four, my mother said to me, 'Would you like to go to school? Would you like to go to school today?' and I said, 'Yes, please!' - so she trotted me off to Sunday school. I knew it wasn't proper school. I knew that was a cheat.
Then I went to a boarding school where we went to chapel twice a day. I enjoyed that, actually, because of the music. There was a wonderful choir and it was the best day of my school life when I got into it. The head
of music was very charismatic.

Did you enjoy any religious poetry as a youngster?
Not really. I liked hymns, though. Hymns have had a big influence.

You have said that teaching in primary school was the first stage on your journey to becoming a poet yourself. And you also taught creative writing, is that right?
Yes, that certainly was one of the things that got me go­­­ing - you could see what needed to be done to improve [a pupil's] poem and you'd think: Maybe I could do this myself. But my big thing as a teacher was music, be­cause I could sing and play the piano, the guitar and the recorder and people like that were gold dust in primary schools in those days. I loved doing it, so I went on lots of courses where they got teachers to create their own music in groups, and that, really more than anything, was what woke up the creative side of me. Be­fore that, I thought of myself as a brainy person but not creative.


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The next stage of that journey was psychoanalysis. Did you just decide that you needed help?
I was very depressed - I think I'd been depressed all my life, actually - and then my father died and it got worse. Life was a real struggle and I just thought: I've got to get some help. I was really afraid I was going to end up be­ing a bag lady.

It obviously worked for you…
It certainly helped, yes.
You lie on a couch and you free-associate. It's really very interesting, because I realised that when someone asked me, 'How do you feel?', I would look for a plausible answer. But that's what you think you feel, or what you think you ought to feel, and I realised that actually I didn't know where to look for what I really felt. And in psychoanalysis where you look is, you know, dreams, slips, accidents, all those clues. So, I got in touch with some powerful feelings I hadn't been aware of…
A very common dialogue in the early stages of an­a­lysis is the analyst saying, 'You're angry with me' and the patient saying, 'No, I'm not. Why would I be angry with you?' And what you realise is that there's no reason why you should be - but you are anyway. You may have feelings that are completely irrational and unfair, but they are still there. And you don't have to act on them but you have to acknowledge them.
It was one of the reasons I started writing, because I needed something to do with these feelings.

And the third factor, you've said, was living on your own.
Yes. My nice flatmates had got married and I was fed up with the ones I was living with, so I went and lived on my own. And that was really hard. There was no one at home to talk to and that was certainly a factor in getting me writing. Even now, I am more likely to write a poem if my partner's away.

What is the function of poetry, do you think?
I don't really think of it as having to have a function. It just is. Some people enjoy writing poems and some peo­ple enjoy reading them. I would quote Dr Johnson: 'The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to en­joy life or better to endure it.' But that's not the reason I write - I write because I feel like writing.

As a poet, your impulse seems to be to communicate clearly. No one has to read your poems 10 times to make sense of them. Where does that impulse come from?
It's just the way I write. I think that the biggest mistake people make about poetry is this idea that poets have in­tentions. You know? Poets just get an idea, some words in their head, and they sit down and write the poem. My poems come out the way they do for all kinds of rea­sons to do with the person I am. I think I'd find it very difficult to write something that was incomprehensible.

What is your greatest strength as a poet?
That's a very dangerous question, really. You'd have to ask my readers. I don't know. I'm not going to answer a question that encourages me to boast or make claims.
What has sometimes been said about my poems is that what is good about them is that they're true. And that's the best thing anyone could say. I'm sometimes asked, 'What's the best bit of advice you've ever been given?' and I quote George Herbert in 'The Church Porch': 'Dare to be true.' I try to tell the truth.

There's a slight air of disappointment in your poems, as though life is not quite what you'd expected it to be.
Is there? I think my unhappiest book was Serious Con­cerns4 - I mean, one reviewer said it was written out of deep despair and I thought, 'That's right.' But I would say I'm pretty contented with life at the moment.


Cope4.jpgIs contentment sometimes the enemy of art? Do you find that you need some kind of stress to write a poem?
I hope not. I mean, people used to say to me sometimes when my love life went wrong yet again, 'Oh, you'll get some good poems out of it,' and I felt like kicking them, because I'd much rather be happy. And I think this may be my great limitation, that I do think life matters more than art. You know, a lot of male great artists have been appallingly selfish people - you hear of families where everything revolves around the great artist's art.

Didn't Yeats say we are 'forced to choose perfection -'
'Of the life, or of the work'. He did, he did. I certainly don't have a perfect life but I don't think that my happi­ness or the happiness of people close to me matters less than my work.
And anyway I live with another poet, so there is no way that our life is going to revolve around my work.

In one interview you referred to 'my difficult relationship with the poetry world'. What did you mean by that?
My first book got a lot of publicity and sold very well and that caused a great deal of hostility among other poets. Not everybody - I mean, there are some who've been very supportive all along. But there was this thing which still occasionally happens, where I'm introduced to some poet I've never met before and they sort of have this look on their face as if they're being asked to shake hands with Hitler.

What would you put that down to? That they would have loved to be selling much more of their own work?
I think some of them may genuinely have thought my poems weren't any good and resented the fact that I was getting so much publicity. One or two people have ad­mitted to me that they had formed a very strong prejudice against me without having read the book, but then, having got to know me and having read it, said: 'Gosh! You're a good poet.'
It hasn't often happened that a poet's first book has had the sales and the attention that mine had, although there have always been poets who were popular in their lifetime, as well as lots who were more or less ignored. None of us knows who's going to be read in a hundred years' time. If you go to Poets' Corner [in Westminster Abbey] you see memorials to all sorts of poets that no­body ever reads nowadays.

People complain that poetry isn't as popular as it should be, and then complain when poets become too popular.
Exactly.

But Tennyson was enormously popular in his day, wasn't he? As was Kipling.
Yes, yes. I don't know if other poets minded that.
I mean, all I ask people to acknowledge is that being popular does not mean you're any good but it doesn't necessarily mean you're not.

You moved in with Lachlan Mackinnon in 1994. Is it hard for two poets to live together?
Well, I sometimes think it's difficult for him, because I've achieved more recognition than he has - but I was already an established poet when we met.

It's easy to imagine you sitting at home, both lost in silent introspection.
No, no, it's not like that. What's good about it is that we have a lot in common that we can talk about. We manage on the whole not to be too competitive about writing poetry - we seem to reserve our competitiveness for things like who is the best singer.

And who is?
Me.

Why don't you marry him? Are you against -
What we would like is to have a civil partnership, and we're really annoyed that heterosexual couples are not allowed to in this country. In France, people have the choice and everyone's going for civil partnership. Of course, the [Church of England] doesn't want that.

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What's the difference?
At a civil-partnership ceremony, you do not have to promise to stay together and love each other until one of you dies. You know, since Lachlan and I have been together, so many people we know have got married with great hooha and expense, and we all have to give up a day of our lives for it, you know - and then they have got di­vorced! I think it's a very bad thing for society that people make these solemn promises so lightly - they think they don't really matter.

Would you rather have no promises made at all?
I was asked to write a poem about vows for the Guar­dian (because of the royal wedding) and I thought: 'Say I was marrying Lachlan, what could I honestly promise?' Most of the poem is about what I can't promise, but the last lines are:

I love you and I want to make you happy.
I promise I will do my very best.5

Which just seems to be all anyone can promise.
But we probably will end up getting married - and if it's up to him, it'll be in a church. And I think it is very likely that we'll stay together until one of us dies.

I get the sense that the religion you were brought up in has never really left you.
I think that if you had a religious upbringing, it leaves a religion-shaped hole. I think I've had other religions since then. I think psychoanalysis was my religion for a while, and then poetry. I'm not sure what my religion is now. That's an interesting question I'm asking myself.

Given her strong beliefs, was there a sense in which your mother and God became confused in your mind?
Oh, yes. I think, very much so.
When I went to university, she got in touch with the Chris­tian Union and said, 'I think my daughter might be interested in joining.' I don't know if you know ab­out university Christian unions, but they're ghastly. I mean, they're the unacceptable face of student relig­ion. And so they came to my door and collected me and my first Saturday evening in Oxford was spent at a Bible study, which was not really what I wanted to be doing.

Would you have said you were a Christian in those days?
Oh yes. Yes.
And then on Sunday afternoons they went visiting hospitals. Well, I didn't have any problem with singing a few hymns in the ward, but they tried to convert people in their hospital beds. I remember one time we had special prayers for a don's wife. She had told them she was an atheist, so they had a special go at her. I thought it was terrible.
Another thing was, there were some undergraduates at my college who were Roman Catholic nuns and one day we were asked to pray for them to see the error of their ways. And I thought, really, I couldn't be doing with this. With all the evil there is in the world, to be praying for nuns to see the error of their ways!
So, I stopped going - and after that I wouldn't have anything to do with any kind of religion for a long, long time. I mean, we'd have these late-night arguments about the existence of God, as students do, and it became clear to me that you really couldn't prove it one way or the other and I decided that for an experimental period I would assume that God didn't exist. And that went on for about 30 years.

And what happened then?
I moved to Winchester after I met my partner and I be­gan going to the cathedral to listen to the music and sort of fell in love with the Church of England. It was wonderful that there it was, all waiting for me, and I already belonged to it. It wasn't just the music but also the words of the Prayer Book - I just thought the whole thing was wonderful. I started going to church a lot - and almost convinced myself that I believed it all.
I am sympathetic to Larkin's lines [in 'Aubade']:

That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die

That's pretty much what I think, too. But it's a very beautiful brocade, and very inspiring. I'm very pro the Church of England. I've got quite a few friends who are priests - and I think the Arch­bishop of Canterbury is wonderful!

And he likes your poetry, doesn't he?
He does. I was thrilled when he was asked to pick out [six or seven] things he liked for the Poetry Archive and he picked out me.6

Are you still trying to believe?
Not really, no. I described myself on the radio the other day as 'an Anglican atheist', though maybe I should have said 'agnostic'. I mean, I love Jesus, I think that being a Christian is a good way to live, I think that Christians do an awful lot of good in the world; I just don't believe in the supernatural bits and in life after death - which seems to me to be fairly crucial.

Would you like it all to be true?
I'm not sure. I'm really not sure. I mean, my partner is a believer - he doesn't go to church very much, but he absolutely believes in it all - and I'm glad for his sake that he does, because I think it makes it much easier to die. And if you be­lieve in life after death, you're never going to find out that you're wrong, are you? You're never going to find out you're wrong.


Wendy Cope was talking to Steve Turner

 

1  Published by Faber and Faber in April 2011
2  In
If I Don't Know (Faber and Faber)
Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Faber and Faber, 1986)
4  Faber and Faber, 1992
5  From 'A Vow'
Rowan Williams chose 'Strugnell's Haiku' from her first collection and observed: 'Wendy Cope is without doubt the wittiest of contemporary English poets, and says a lot of extremely serious things.'

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