In 1986, a quirkily titled collection of poems, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, hit the bestseller lists, and suddenly primary-school teacher Wendy Cope was a household name. Thirty-five years later, she remains one of the
nation’s favourite poets. We love her gift for parody, her eye for the absurdities, the joys, indignities and sorrows of life.
She is, according to fan Rowan Williams – former Archbishop of Canterbury and a poet himself – ‘the wittiest of contemporary poets, and says a lot of extremely serious things’. The late Ted Hughes admired her ‘deadpan, serious way of whacking the nail on the head’.
She is extraordinarily versatile, writing free verse, sonnets, haikus, villanelles… What better role model could there be for the aspiring poets among you? So we are thrilled that she has agreed to judge our poetry competition.
Wendy Cope was born in 1945, in Erith, Kent, the elder of two daughters of Fred and Elsie Cope. Fred Cope was managing director and chairman of Mitchells department store. ‘He was nearly 60 when I was born. He’d been an
elderly widower, then he got married to his secretary,’ she says, ‘and I think one or two women on the staff were jealous, but most were thrilled. Then, at this late stage of life, two babies came along, and they were lovely to us.’
Mitchells must have felt like a magical place, the way department stores used to: ‘My Nanna used to work at the cash desk on Saturdays. They had those little pots that went whizzing along on wires with money in them.’
Wendy’s Nanna, her maternal grandmother, lived with the Copes and taught Wendy to read, while Fred introduced her to poetry learned by heart in his Victorian childhood. The kind of verse deemed suitable for schoolgirls in the 1950s was anodyne stuff, but in the Cope household there was cannon to the right of them, cannon to left of them, as Fred regaled them with Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.
Wendy’s relationship with her mother was not a happy one, as she recounts in her engaging prose collection, Life, Love and The Archers. Elsie Cope was evangelical and controlling. It was she who informed Wendy, at age seven, that she would be going to boarding school.
‘On the platform where the school train left, Seven years old, she didn’t cry.’ (Going Away) So it was that her parents saw her board a train at Charing Cross and waved her off to her fate. Is she angry about that? ‘Well, I get angry when I think of some things connected with my childhood, and I was too young, but I don’t know.
If you’ve got the kind of parents that want to send you to boarding school, you’re probably better off at boarding school.’
At the time, sustained by Enid Blyton, she was stoical. ‘I was very into Malory Towers, and when girls went off to Malory Towers, they didn’t cry and feel homesick, so I tried not to show my feelings.’
In any case, ‘It wasn’t all misery. We did have some fun.’ In Boarders she relates: ‘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.’
Yes, look at how she writes – with luminous clarity and searing honesty. How could she ever not have been a poet? And yet it was not part of the plan. She read history at Oxford, and she had embarked on her
teaching career when, in her late twenties, she started writing poems. ‘I was doing a lot of creative work with children: music and poetry. That was one of the things that got me going.’
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She had also, by then, begun daily Freudian analysis, having been diagnosed with ‘fairly severe chronic depression’. Making Cocoa is dedicated to her analyst, the improbably named Arthur S Couch.
She would spend ten years with him, getting in touch with her feelings.
‘The poet and the psychoanalyst,’ she has said, ‘are both seekers after truth.’
As well as writing poetry, she began reading it voraciously, attending residential courses held by the charitable Arvon Foundation, where she was tutored by such renowned poets as Alan Brownjohn and Douglas Dunn. ‘I met other people who were interested in poetry, and that helped a lot. Then I started going to classes Blake Morrison ran at Goldsmiths. He became poetry editor of The TLS, and published a poem of mine, which was a big
She was invited by publishers Faber & Faber to submit poems for consideration. It was her editor, the poet Craig Raine, who suggested that Making Cocoa, just four teasing lines about a dream, should be the title poem of her debut. The collection brought Wendy the kind of ‘overnight success’ that is achieved through years of dedicated hard work, creative endeavour and rejection slips.
She has never sought the limelight but loves to give readings. ‘It’s a tremendous ego trip. You’re up there on a platform, people have paid to come and see you, so they want to enjoy themselves and are very warm and generous.’
In lockdown she gave readings on Zoom but missed the audience interaction. I reflect that her father was born just a few years after Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone.
With success, too, came the sniping. ‘I’ve heard people saying, “How do you get published as a poet? You get to know Blake Morrison.” But this was an evening class open to absolutely everyone, and Blake was not a poetry editor when I started going.’
Actually, one way to get published as a poet is to be bloody good at it. And maybe – very probably – a measure of unhappiness helps. Her second collection, Serious Concerns (1992), was written
when she was living alone in London, and resonates with loneliness. In an essay, On Being Single, she would recall: ‘I’d got to a point where I couldn’t see how I was going to go on, if I couldn’t find someone to share my life with.’
She had ‘completely given up hope’ when she met that someone, the poet Lachlan Mackinnon, looked at him and ‘wanted to make him happy’. They were married in 2013, after 19 years together, and live in Ely, Cambridgeshire.
We agree that getting older is not so bad – that in many ways, life gets better. ‘Mine certainly did. I’m not sure it’s getting better now, because I’ve got a few ailments, but, yes, I’m happier, and I have been happier ever since I was in my late forties, partly because of meeting Lachlan.’
Cope’s most recent collection, Anecdotal Evidence, was published in 2018. Can we look forward to another one soon?
‘Not for a long time, if ever. I thought I’d finished writing poems and I was quite happy about it, but actually I’ve written three in the past three weeks. My plan is to publish a collected poems, with the
new ones that haven’t been in a book yet.’
Is she looking forward to seeing what Saga Magazine readers can come up with? ‘It will be interesting. I won’t know, because the entries will be anonymous, but my suspicion is that they will be predominantly by women. I do hope
there’ll be some men as well.’
Perhaps poetry comes to mean more for some of us in later years? ‘Whatever you read, you’re going to get more out of it as you get older, because you know more about life. I re-read Jane Austen every decade or so, and the more I know about life, the more I appreciate it. It may also be true of poetry.’
Does she have any advice for aspiring poets? ‘The best way to learn about writing poetry is to read it. To be really good at writing poetry you have to be obsessed with it.’
Odes to experience
Saga Magazine readers have always been passionate about poetry and we’re thrilled to launch our poetry competition with Wendy Cope as judge. The theme of the competition is Experience. Prizes are £500 for the winning entry and £100 each for the two runners-up. All three poems will appear in the December issue of Saga Magazine. We look forward to reading your poems.
- The competition is open to UK residents aged 18 and over, except employees of the Promoter, their families, agents or any third party directly associated with administration of the competition.
- The competition will run from midnight on 16 August 2021 to midnight on 17 September 2021 inclusive. Entries received after this time will not be valid.
- The competition is free to enter and no purchase is necessary.
- Poems can be of any length up to 40 lines.
- Your poem should be your own original
work and previously unpublished, including
in magazines, pamphlets or online.
- Entrants can submit up to three poems
- When choosing the winners, the judges
will consider the most original and creative
entries which reflect the theme of Experience.
- The decision of the judges is final and no
correspondence shall be entered into.
- For a full list of terms & conditions, see here or write to us
enclosing a stamped addressed envelope
(SAE) marked Saga Magazine Poetry
Competition Ts&Cs at the address below.
The Promoter is Saga Publishing Limited,
Enbrook Park, Sandgate, Folkestone, Kent,
How to enter
Poems should be submitted, typed if possible,
along with your address, phone number and
email address if you have one. Post your poems
to: Saga Magazine Poetry Competition, Enbrook
Park, Folkestone, Kent CT20 3SE. Email your
poems to: email@example.com
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