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Why did Wendy Cope start publishing so late?
Poetry that helps us to better enjoy life or to better endure it
I started quite late. There is a tradition. Fleur Adcock is very interested in this but there is a tradition of women starting late, publishing their first book quite late. She didn’t actually, she started quite young, but we’ve talked about it. And I think it has to do with the confidence of sort of managing to be yourself, to find your own voice, it’s more difficult for women to find themselves. But it’s all changed now.
Wendy Cope was probably depressed from the age of 3, but ‘nobody noticed.’
This carried on until she was in her late twenties, when she went into Freudian analysis. Her mother’s controlling behaviour meant that for most of her early life she concealed herself. ‘I had a performance for my mother, and my real self was hidden away.’
Eventually she went to Oxford to study History and became a primary school teacher. And all the while she was depressed. She once tried to discuss it with her mother, whose only response was to tell her it would all be alright if she would just believe in Jesus.
She explained in an interview with the British Psychoanalytic Association how she ended up in analysis.
I had a friend at university who was training to be a union analyst after university. He said to me that he thought Freudian analysis would help me. But I didn’t think I'd ever be able to afford it so I just sort of put that thought away. But then several years later when things got really bad and I really thought, ‘you know I need some help.’
When she did start seeing a psychoanalyst, in her late twenties, she started writing. Cope had written stories as a child, but as part of her prolonged depression ‘it really went away for about 20 years.’
She has talked about lacking confidence throughout her life. She writes in the preface of Two Cures for Love, her selected poems, about the assumptions critics made about the development of her work based on when poems were published. But often, she said, poems published in later volumes were lyrics she’d written earlier and lost faith in. One of her published poems sat in a folder for years and years, having nearly been thrown out, because the first person she showed it to didn’t like it.
Lack of confidence did not just affect her writing. ‘I've always had this fear that I just wouldn't be able to manage and I'd end up in the gutter.’ It was analysis that changed this and helped her come out of depression and reach a state of ‘ordinary unhappiness.’ And now, ‘for the last twenty years or so I consider myself a happy person really.’
Poetry had always been a part of her childhood.
My father belonged to that generation (you know he was born in 1885, he was much older than my mother) that learned lots of poems at school. At the drop of a hat he would start reciting the Charge of the Light Brigade. We didn’t invite him to do it. I liked that better than the weedy poems we did at my girls’ school.
He also recited Macaulay and Edward FitzGerald, popular memorable poets from his generation. This sort of experience of poetry seems foundational to Cope’s work. It’s a traditional, practical way of enjoying poetry. She has talked about modern poetry as an example of the Emperor’s new clothes. Her work is the sort of writing people read, and memorise, and take to their mother’s bedside.
Her childhood was clearly unpleasant and left her in a bad condition, but it also seems to have given her the basis for the sort of writing she would be so good at. Her mother had an anthology which, years later, when her mother had dementia, Wendy Cope would take on her visits and read aloud from. Suddenly, her mother would start joining in. ‘That made me think poetry was of some use.’
The two sides of her childhood (low confidence and poetry you can memorise and recite and remember years later) intersected in her analysis. To begin with things were so bad she saw her analyst six times a week, including Saturdays. But over time, the analysis worked. It helped her understand her ‘lifetime of repressed aggression.’
Cope talks in the BPA interview about how her analyst was so uninterested in poetry, especially contemporary poetry, he had never heard of Sylvia Plath. He once told her, ‘I don't like modern poetry but you're not as bad as TS Eliot.’ Despite this, analysis did for her what all poets have to do, it helped her find her voice.
It was about realising that I had a right to my own way of seeing things. I had a boyfriend when I went into analysis and that didn’t last very long. I realised he was imposing his way of seeing things on me. I had a mother who very much imposed her way of looking. Made it very difficult for me to be autonomous.
Like a lot of Freudians, Cope’s analyst wanted her to find a partner, ‘get married and have babies.’ At one point when she was thinking of ending the sessions he said to her, ‘I’m afraid if we end now you’ll go off and be Emily Dickinson.’ But she really believes analysis helped her.
There have been writers who looked into the possibility of being psychoanalysed who didn't want it because they were afraid it would interfere with their creativity. It seems to me it couldn't possibly be damaging for an artist. Certainly for a poet, truth to feeling is the crucial thing. What analysis is doing is helping you to get in touch with how you really feel. I don't see how that can possibly be bad for an artist.
It wasn’t just the analysis that helped turn a depressed primary school teacher into the most popular poet of her generation who has sold something like half a million books. In 1980, she started going to a poetry workshop at Goldsmith’s, run by the poet Blake Morrison. While she went to the classes, Morrison became the literary editor of the Times Literary Supplement and published one of her poems.
And from there, her career got started. She was asked to contribute to an anthology. Radio 3 commissioned her wonderful, wonderful parodies. Then Craig Raine published her first book, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, at Faber. And she took off.
The book has sold almost two hundred thousand copies. She went from being a 41 year-old-school teacher to a best-selling poet overnight. This brought her up against the snobbery of the poetry establishment. But she definitively belongs to a group of poets - Hardy, Mew, Housman, Larkin - who write direct, truthful poetry that people love. After Andrew Motion stepped down she was the country’s number one choice to be Poet Laureate. And she continues to sell and sell.
There’s so much more to be said about Wendy Cope. Most importantly about her poetry. It’s funny, witty, sorrowful, ironic, deeper than it looks, and has the art of artlessness. Writing poetry that simple and structured is no mean feat. As Ted Hughes said, ‘I like your deadpan fearless sort of way of whacking the nail on the head – when everybody else is trying to hang pictures on it.’
The real story of her life is not just late success, but success that might not ever have happened, or even been thought of. Without analysis and Goldsmith’s would she ever have gone back to writing or would her childhood have squeezed it out of her?
“My advice to graduating students is to work out what you want to do with your life and don’t give up on it, even if it doesn’t end up being your career. During my speech at my Honorand ceremony I told the story of the classicist AE Housman. Despite being considered a brilliant academic, he failed his degree, which meant he couldn’t land an academic job. Instead he worked in the patent office, building up his reputation in his spare time until he was offered a job at the University of London and then Trinity College, Cambridge. The moral of his story is that if you haven’t done as well as you hoped it’s not the end of everything. If there’s something you’re passionate about, keep doing it in your spare time and those doors may eventually open.”
That’s the moral of her story too. Her life is an example of the Fitzgerald Rule: You spot talent by what they persist at, not what persistently happens to them. What persistently happens to poets is important too though. With a life like Wendy Cope’s it’s no wonder she agrees with Dr Johnson that the purpose of literature is to help us “better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”
That’s exactly what her poetry does for its readers.
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