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 Thwaite