Wendy Cope - Relationships through the Lens of Poetry (EIBF Review)

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Wendy Cope, Lilias Fraser (chair)
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Sometimes one comes across something that seems a little slight at first, that then proves to be more durable. This statement could go in various directions, but for this reviewer, it says something (if only one thing) about the work of Wendy Cope.

One of small items hiding in the reviewer’s bookshelves is ‘Does She Like Word Games?’ a pamphlet of Cope’s poetry published back in 1988. In it she skilfully pastiches three then fashionable poetry styles – let’s call them, in Osbert Lancaster fashion, ‘Hampstead Suburban’, ‘Feminist Radical’ and ‘Irish Rural Rebellious’. Her targets may seem obvious now, but the satire hits each selected with precision. On the opposite page is a single, simple poem about a friend’s failed suicide attempt.

Humour and a shrewd unsentimental eye for human folly and vanity have always marked Cope’s work, but her sense of the absurd, as well as the sadness, in all of us has meant she gets taken less seriously as a poet than she perhaps deserves to be.

Anyone who titles a collection ‘Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis’ and then skewers the notion that poetry collections must have pretentious titles in four deft lines may endear herself to an audience but risks less consideration from those who believe pretension is an essential in ‘serious’ poetry.  

So something of a one-off (aren’t we all?) who has nonetheless built up an audience of genuine admirers (in both senses) and, as she demonstrated to those gathered in the Scottish Power Studio Theatre to listen to her read from her most recent collection ‘Family Values’, one who has lost none of her wit or misplaced her barbs.

Interestingly Cope has recently been working with the Aeolian String Quarter to mark their thirtieth year of music making. Composer Roxanna Panufnik has arranged settings of poems by Cope played by the Quartet and the poet read a number of these, including ones reflecting on the inner lives of audience members. A further example of a ‘working’ poet creating within the constraints of a commission, an experience Cope finds liberating as well as challenging.

There was only time for a few brief questions before time forced chair Lilias Fraser to draw the event to a close. Now in her sixties, Wendy Cope still seems the glamorous aunt of childhood, whose brief appearances and wonderful treats aren’t fully appreciated till there are no more of them.

Event: 22 August, 2011