Wendy Cope – Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Faber, 1986)

I don’t read very much contemporary poetry. I am sure there is good stuff out there, but whenever I have go looking everything I come across is of a style – free verse with prose syntax – which I find unsatisfying, so I retreat back to the safe confines of the Metaphysical and Romantic poets.

I was rather delighted last year to discover Wendy Cope, whose poetry is marked by playfulness with closed forms (poems with specific patterns of syntax/line length/meter/rhyme/stanzas). Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, like her other work that I have read, has all sorts of fun with sonnets, villanelles, rondeau redoubles, limericks, ballades, haikus and triolets (If you don’t know what these are, then I regret to inform you that you haven’t lived and would recommend getting your hands on Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled post-haste).

Cope writes with irony, wit and a great understanding of life’s simple pleasures and pains. Particular highlights for me were her parodies of other poets, including a couple brilliant nursery rhymes written in the style of T. S. Eliot and Wordsworth. Here’s the latter (which will be probably only be funny if you know Wordsworth’s poetry):

The skylark and the jay sang loud and long,
The sun was calm and bright, the air was sweet,
When all at once I heard above the throng
Of jocund birds a single plaintive bleat.

And, turning, saw, as one sees in a dream,
It was a Sheep had broke the moorland peace
With his sad cry, a creature who did seem
The blackest thing that ever wore a fleece.

I walked towards him on the stony track
And, pausing for a while between two crags,
I asked him, ‘Have you wool upon your back?’
Thus he bespake, ‘Enough to fill three bags.’

Most courteously, in measured tones, he told
Who would receive each bag and where they dwelt;
And oft, now years have passed and I am old,
I recollect with joy that inky pelt.

The second half of the book, which is written in the persona of a poet called Jake Strugnell, wasn’t so crash hot. And the book did have one other drawback, which I have chosen to express in a pantoum:

As much as I like reading Wendy Cope,
It’s impolite to do it on the train.
I try to keep from looking like a dope,
It’s clear they all regard me as insane.

It’s impolite to do it on the train
While packed within a worn and weary crowd.
It’s clear they all regard me as insane
When, thoughtlessly, I’ve read a poem aloud.

While packed within a worn and weary crowd
I want to look both manly and aloof.
When, thoughtlessly, I’ve read a poem aloud,
My chuckles draw expressions of reproof.

I want to look both manly and aloof –
Do poets ever come across this way?
My chuckles draw expressions of reproof.
Alas, I’ll have to put the book away

Do poets ever come across this way?
I try to keep from looking like a dope.
Alas, I’ll have to put the book away,
As much as I like reading Wendy Cope.

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