Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wendy Cope

I recently read Wendy Cope's Family Values, and think it's worth saying something about it. Her poetry usually rhymes and is often funny. It rarely includes any words that you have to look up (there are poets who seem to make a point of including exactly one such word per poem, I don't know why). In short, I imagine she gets little respect. That suspicion is backed up by this interview and this review. But I find it hard not to take her most recent collection seriously.

For one thing, much of it is about death. For another, she also writes painfully about her childhood, including her relationship with her mother (not good) and being bullied at school for her vocabulary. The third and final part of the poem "Boarders" (about being at boarding school) is this:
I wasn't teased much. The worst time
Was in my first year
Because some older girls decided
That I used too many long words.
I soon learned not to.
Look at how I write.
This could just be a way to make critics of her simplicity feel guilty, but I think it's just honesty. Her simplicity comes from pain, and expresses a humble, even slightly frightened, personality. Which means that, as well as a gratifying absence of ego, there is a kind of drama in the very lack of drama in her poems. It's a little like the (reported) tedium of much of the work of spies: you only get to find it boring if you are a real, honest-to-goodness spy, which is itself very exciting (to those of us who aren't spies and who find that kind of thing exciting). I hope this makes sense. I'm not trying to be clever or paradoxical.

Anyway, there's a tradition of this kind of poetry in Britain (Betjeman and Larkin are the obvious examples), but it isn't much appreciated in the United States. I can understand why, but I think it's a shame.    

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