Being witty about being funny

Wendy Cope knows not one, but two cures for love. They’re simple and direct – as is her poetry. An award winning English poet, Wendy’s verse has been variously described as wry, insightful and laugh-out-loud funny. In her first collection, ‘Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis’ (1986) she parodied the likes of T.S Eliot (who knew The Wasteland could work so well as a limerick?) and Sir Philip Sydney with great success. When a critic described her humorous approach as ‘both her strength and her limitation,’ she responded:

“Write to amuse? What an appalling suggestion! I write to make people anxious and miserable and to worsen their indigestion”.

The lines were included in her second collection – ‘Serious Concerns’ (1992). A third – ‘If I Don’t Know’ – was published in 2001. Her most recent book is ‘Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006’. She has edited and contributed to several anthologies. Her favourite to date remains ‘Heaven on Earth: 101 happy poems’ - “working on that anthology made me happy,” says Wendy simply.

Wendy will be in Sri Lanka for the 2010 Galle Literary Festival. She says that among other things, she’s looking forward to sunshine in January and to meeting her readers here.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading “War and Peace” for the second time. The first time was about 30 years ago. When I judged the Booker Prize in 2007, I had to read a number of historical novels, some better than others. In some cases there was too much history and not enough novel, or the research wasn’t well integrated into the story. It made me want to remind myself how Tolstoy did it.

Are you enjoying it?

To say I am enjoying it is an understatement. It is wonderfully readable and I am awed by Tolstoy’s insight into just about every aspect of human life.

Where do you like to read?

In bed or in one of my super-comfortable armchairs (one in the living-room, another in my study). I allow myself to read books of poems in the daytime, because it counts as work, but I save novels and non-fiction for evenings, holidays and train journeys.

Who was the first poet to find a place on your bookshelf? Who is the most recent?

I suppose the first poets on my bookshelf were the ones I did at school, including Keats, Wordsworth and Milton. And Shakespeare, of course. T.S.Eliot, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were among the first poets I read when I began buying poetry books for myself. The most recent addition is “Small Hours” by my partner Lachlan Mackinnon. It will be published by Faber and Faber January 21. It’s a wonderful book and I recommend it to all your readers.

Do you have a favourite collection of poetry? How is a fine poem best savoured?

Favourite collection: The Collected Poems of A.E.Housman. I much prefer reading poems to myself to hearing them read aloud. I do sometimes read them aloud to myself. Many of my favourite poems make me cry, if I read them aloud. This can be a problem if I’m asked to read a favourite poem on the radio or some public occasion.

Verse novels – from The Golden Gate to Omeros – seem such ambitious undertakings. Have you ever wanted to attempt one?

Is there one that you would consider a particularly fine example of the form?

I love “The Golden Gate”. The idea of a long novel in verse sounded boring but it isn’t boring at all. A wonderful achievement. That’s one fine example. Another is Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”. I recommend Charles Johnston’s English translation (which inspired Vikram Seth to write “The Golden Gate”.) I’ve written a couple of longish narrative poems (“The River Girl” and “The Teacher’s Tale”) but I’m unlikely to write a whole novel in verse.

Young readers are sometimes intimidated by poetry that seems obscure and stuffy – could you recommend two poets young adults might enjoy reading?

It’s a difficult question because young adults vary so much. When my stepson was in his late teens I gave him a selection of the poems of Robert Frost. He still reads poetry, so it evidently didn’t put him off. Fleur Adcock, Julie O’Callaghan and Jackie Kay all write accessible poems that might well be enjoyed by young people.

Your poetry is often described as humorous and witty – is there another poet you admire for the same qualities?

Kit Wright, Sophie Hannah, the American poet R.S.Gwynn, and my dear friend and mentor, the late Gavin Ewart. His work was out of print but Faber have recently reissued it in their print-on-demand list, Faber Finds. And, from past generations, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, W.S.Gilbert and Byron.

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