The comic brilliance and formal skills for which Wendy Cope's poetry is known (eg MAKING COCOA FOR KINGSLEY AMIS and SERIOUS CONCERNS is much in evidence here. But there is also a softer, more lyrical voice in some of the poems, as Cope writes about contentment and the poignancy of having something to lose. The collection ends with a longer poem, a moving narrative called The Teacher's Tale.
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Wendy Cope is one of the few modern British poets to regularly enter the bestsellers list and, with her book of verses If I Don't Know, it is easy to see why. Cope started out as a teacher and worked for a number of years in several of London's junior schools before becoming a freelance writer and columnist. In 1986, she produced her first book of poems Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, which contained various literary in-jokes, her work parodying the style of a number of key 20th-century poets; it was funny, accomplished and unique "light verse"--a term Cope dislikes because she feels that, "it is used as a way of dismissing poets who allow humour into their work".
If I Don't Know is less dominated by both parody and humour, less subservient to the canon and is a stronger collection for it. The trademark skills are still here but a darker and warmer, more personal, more direct style is in evidence as is an abiding concern with love and loss. In "Dead Sheep Poem" a dead sheep ("the skull / and jawbone, clean as carved ivory") is contemplated, violated even, by the just-arrived "person with the notebook". In "Tulips" the pleasure of watching her flowers is overshadowed by the knowledge that they will soon die, "Every day I wonder how long they will be here ... I almost wish them / gone". And a more critical, political note is struck in "Sonnet of '68" and the tender, sad "After Prague": "Hope is a long leash, / drawn in slowly". The last, long narrative poem "The Teacher's Tale" is a moving account of Paul ("He teaches nowadays. / He isn't bad at it.") and his troubled early years, "He got off with a caution ... Vowed silently he'd never steal again". Wendy Cope is an eminently readable, intelligent and always sympathetic poet and this is another fine collection of her work. --Mark ThwaiteReview:
"Cope has an extraordinarily canny sense - quite rare among poets - of what will engage a reader's attention" - Dana Gioia, Poetry Review. "A jet-age Tennyson" - Nicholas Tredell, London Review of Books."
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