This article first appeared as a feature in The Oxford Student in 2007
“I think people who spend their whole time speaking about Oxford are a bit sad, really,” she swiped before I’d even got my first question out. It was immediately clear that Wendy Cope did not enjoy much of her time at Oxford, and that returning to St. Hilda’s as she did mid-May is a pretty rare occurrence. Since taking her degree from Oxford, Cope has gone on to become one of the most popular contemporary poets. Her sharp honesty, and often wicked wit, helped her become the listener’s choice for Poet Laureate in 1998. She is also a judge for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
She was not particularly happy here. Her time in Oxford took place deep in the throes of the swinging sixties. “A frivolous time,” she tells me, and fashionable, beautiful girls were being photographed by the newspapers. “I wasn’t one of them.” Instead, she aimed for fashion and missed when she went out before coming up to Oxford and bought a big, blue duffel coat.
Her issues ran deeper than an unglamorous coat to a feeling that many Oxford students share. She found her tutors and fellow students “intimidating”. When I suggested that Oxford is a cauldron of competitive and overthinking people, she wholeheartedly agreed. “The worry for some people is,” she argued, “that if you’re not a star at Oxford, then won’t do OK. But the people who are stars in Oxford don’t always do well in life. It’s important to remember that.”
After she finished her degree, she spent several years in therapy. I suggest to her that this is a university where psychological problems abound, and are often heightened. She agreed; “I think it’s particularly hard on girls, actually.” Her time at single-sex college, during the Sixties, helped to foster this concern for other women and their problems. And she looks back fondly on all-female environments, asserting that parties in the seventies, where only women were allowed, were actually “a lot of fun … There can be something empowering about all-female gatherings.”
When she returned to her former college in May, it was to celebrate such all-female gatherings at St. Hilda’s. Three other talented and published female poets were alongside her reading their own work to celebrate contemporary women’s poetry and to mark the end of St. Hilda’s single sex status. One of the poets was the sharp-witted Joanne Limburg, whom Cope specifically requested. Her first collection, ‘Feminismo’, often takes a wry look at what it is to be a woman in the Twentieth Century. Another poet involved was Frances Leviston, also a St. Hilda’s alumna. One of her poems,’I Resolve to Live Chastely’, perfectly captures the sticky-floored embarrassments of Park End, or the dark, drunken fumblings in Filth:
dancing all night in the name of nothing
noble – not the corps de ballet bleeding splendour
as they assume the positions of true love
for a paying audience, though I did ask
his name, but I’ve lost it again.
The aim of the event was to bring modern poetry to people’s attention; to uncover the humour, insight and energy of a reviving poetry scene. Indeed, when I asked Cope what advice she would give to a budding poet, she replied without hesitation, “You need to read the poetry of the past, and the poetry of now.” Reading the past masters is important, but shouldn’t be done at the neglect of enjoying, and learning from, the talented poets writing now. I suggested that perhaps a celebrity poet, a modern-day Byron would help raise the profile of poetry. A poet papped in Heat, a Russell Brand-esque Lothario, could lift poetry into popular culture, or at least into the public consciousness more.
Cope completely disagreed. “The focus should be on the poem, not the poet.” For her, it is the text, the sentiment and beauty of the words, which will capture the reader’s imagination, not the reputation of the man or woman writing them. “However nice Simon Armitage might look in a photo in Vogue, it’s not actually going to make anyone read poems.” Instead what is needed, according to Cope, is to get poems out of books, out from pages on bookshelves, and where the public can’t help but read them. Poems on the Underground, then, is “the best idea anyone’s ever had for promoting poetry,” and Frieda Hughes’ poetry section in the T2 section of The Times is similarly excellent.
Surprised by this answer, I asked about her disappointments about modern poets in ‘Triolet’: “I used to think all poets were Byronic -/ Mad, bad and dangerous to know …/ They’re mostly wicked as a ginless tonic/ And wild as pension plans.” She replied that it wasn’t quite that, but more of a regret that poets were like that. “I was much younger when I wrote that poem, and I suppose there was a little bit of disappointment that poets turned out to be so ordinary. Back then I had a romantic idea of what poets are like … But now a poet who was Byronic would just get on my nerves, I think.” Although she enthused about his incredible talent as a poet, and his evident intelligence, she also concluded, “He was pretty much of a shit to women.”
This got me thinking about modern-day Byronic heroes, and I was led inevitably to ask her opinion of the soon-to-resign Tony Blair (we’ve all seen him in Torso of the Week in Heat, after all). She might not like Byron, but Tony Blair she does like. “I met him once, before he was leader of the Labour party, and he struck me as an authentic human being, whereas some politicians seem pompous and unapproachable. He may have made some mistakes, but I think they were honest mistakes, and mistakes I might have made myself.” We did discuss the different policies of New Labour and a reinvented Conservative party, but she seemed to come back to this focus on the men, the actual people behind the political strategies. Hence, her opinion on the next General Election was, “I’m very much afraid that the voting public will fall for Etonian charm yet again.” And, even more specifically, “I’m not going to vote for David Cameron, although he probably is a nice man.”
And it is this consideration of the actual person, this perceptive compassion, which abounds in Cope and her poetry. She may at times seem sharp, but there is most often a warmth and an affection behind her comments, especially behind her humour. So, when she complains about contemporary poets, or about psychiatrists, or about men, she is not sourly sniping but perceptively poking fun.
One man on his own can be quite good fun
But don’t go drinking with two –
They’ll probably have an argument
And take no notice of you.
Like most good comedy, and actually most good writing, there is a brutal truth behind her character observation. It is such a plain-speaking insight, which makes Wendy Cope a colourful and valuable writer. She is an open and opinionated person, a great poet, and an important figure for contemporary poetry.
Poems printed with the permission of the authors and Faber&Faber.