Book of the week: Wendy Cope's third book of poetry

8th June 2001 at 01:00

If I Don't Know
By Wendy Cope
Faber pound;8.99 (pbk), TES pound;7.99 (020 8324 5119)

Although she has always tackled a range of subjects, Wendy Cope made her name with poems about that eternal topic - a single woman in vain pursuit of a decent bloke. But Cope is no Bridget Jones, although she taps into the same territory. At the heart of her poetry there is a seriousness and a sadness that touches the reader, even while she is entertaining us with sparkling asides.

In this collection, she certainly has a softer voice. Her personal happiness is reflected in poetry that celebrates Christmas trees which bring "life into this house" (compare this to poems about the grimness of the festive season in earlier volumes), a moment on a train, holding hands "still warm" with her partner, as well as a growing love for the natural world.

"The Teacher's Tale", a long narrative poem, was commissioned for the Canterbury Festival to mark the 600th anniversary of Chaucer's death, although apart from the form, rhyme-scheme and title, it is not very Chaucerian in tone. It is about the kind of social disadvantage you don't hear so much about -nbsp; the child from the over-controlling, uptight, emotionally impoverished, joyless home.

Cope was a primary teacher for many years and clearly respects the profession. The quiet heroes in this poem are the tender-hearted Mrs Moore in Reception who was pleased her pupil was "learning to have fun", and Mr Browning who taught him to believe in himself. This cautionary tale shows teachers in a good light, as people who can make a difference through such human qualities as kindness, empathy and encouragement. The final twist is that Paul becomes a teacher and reaches out to troubled children.

Although this is not Cope at her best (it lacks her usual lightness of touch, irony, wit, cheek - qualities she shares with Chaucer), it may be the first time a major British poet has chosen to write a substantial poem about pupils, teachers and schooling.

Morag Styles is reader at Homerton College, Cambridge

A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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