Academia in my country has a lot to answer for. For one, hardly anyone can speak the national language despite being taught it for the entirety of the primary and secondary curriculum. For another, the majority of people seem to leave school terrified of poetry. This fear cuts people off from what could be the most rewarding interaction with the printed word they will ever have. In the aptly titled essay “How to Enjoy Poetry” award-winning poet and novelist James Dickey expressed it best:
The first thing to understand about poetry is that it comes to you from outside you, in books or in words, but that for it to live, something from within you must come to it and meet it and complete it. Your response with your own mind and body and memory and emotions gives a poem its ability to work its magic; if you give to it, it will give to you, and give plenty.
Yeah, you might encounter poetry that is turgid/pointless/stilted/boring/you utterly despise. You might have even been forced to analyse poems that were all of these in school. But cutting poetry out of your life because of that is like never listening to music again because your niece had a Barney CD she played on loop from ages two to five and you were trapped in the house with her. Trust me on this – when you find poems that speak to you, they speak to the core of you. They then wait loyally for you to pick them up again and tap into who you were when you read them last, and feel how much you have changed since then. If you have favourite songs – trust me, you have favourite poems. You just haven’t found them yet.
While I tend more to enjoy individual poems rather than ‘follow’ poets, I have a few poets I am always happy to revisit and I’m an unabashed fan of Wendy Cope. She’s not the most prolific, but her keen eye when observing the everyday and mundane means I often return to her relatively slight output. The verse may be light but the subjects addressed can be weighty, and despite the surface simplicity Cope is extremely technically skilled, employing the full range of traditional rhymed forms. So if someone snobbishly tells you it’s not ‘real’ poetry – they know less than you or her.. feel free to point that out to them. She reminds me of Philip Larkin, and if you know me you’ll know that’s high praise indeed.
I just revisited her 1992 collection Serious Concerns, and was delightfully reminded how, pre Bridget Jones, Cope was capturing singleton cringe and angst when no one else bothered to… See ‘Bloody Men’ or the exquisitely succinct:
Two Cures for Love
- Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
- The easy way: get to know him better.
It’s not all sardonic with Cope, and my favourite of her poems in that collection is as refreshing and evocative of warmth as the titular fruit:
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all my jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
I also read her collection Family Values for the first time (despite it being five years old by now). She is as grumpy and deadpan as ever, but with a focus on death and decay that suggest perhaps the serious concerns are ever closer to the forefront of her mind. The fifty six poems in this collection span a human life, from childhood Christmases to detailed (hilarious) instructions for how to behave at her funeral. Despite the increasing awareness of mortality permeating the collection, Cope still has Larkin’s gift for “…skilled/ Vigilant, flexible/Unemphasised, enthralled/Catching of happiness…” and it’s in these moments she speaks most to me:
The birds are singing loudly overhead,
As if to celebrate the April weather.
I want to stay in this lovely world forever
And be with you, my love, and share your bed.
I don’t believe I will see you when we’re dead.
I don’t believe we’ll meet and be together.
The birds are singing loudly overhead.
I want to stay in this lovely world forever.
Just lovely. Thanks Wendy for making my commute immeasurably better the past two days.