Tuesday Poem: Engineers’ Corner, by Wendy Cope

29 Nov

Engineers’ Corner

Why isn’t there an Engineers’ Corner in Westminster Abbey? In
Britain we’ve always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint
. . . How many schoolchildren dream of becoming great engineers?
Advertisement placed in The Times by the Engineering Council

We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –
That’s why so many poets end up rich,
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?

Whereas the person who can write a sonnet
Has got it made. It’s always been the way,
For everybody knows that we need poems
And everybody reads them every day.

Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering –
You’re sure to need another job as well;
You’ll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. It must be hell.

While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,
You’ll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.

No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.
There’s far too much encouragement for poets –
That’s why this country’s going down the drain.

— Wendy Cope

This really delightful poem opens Making Cocoa with Kingsley Amis, Wendy Cope’s first collection (Faber & Faber, 1986 but I believe still in print. I borrowed it from my friend Sophie, who may never get it back [just kidding Sophie]). There is a lot to love in Making Cocoa with Kingsley Amis, including “A Nursery Rhyme (as it might have been written by William Wordsworth)“, a range of ruthlessly funny villanelles and rondeaus (something of a feat, as simply writing a villanelle in English is an unpleasant task; to make one funny…) and also some very sad verses. Her simple, direct style reminds me a lot of the best of Sassoon, the ones that suck you in with simplicity and then smack you in the face with something terrible – although on the whole a sad break-up is a little more tolerable than the waste of thousands of young lives. I highly recommend this & will be asking for it for Christmas myself!

So, none of you rotters asked me questions last week, you buggers, so I have to assume that either no-one’s interested in me or you already know the tiniest details of my life. The latter is more flattering so I choose to believe it. But you guys should stop stalking me really. Anyway, part of the reason I picked this poem as a jumping-off-point was that it talks, in its sly way, about the problem that has consumed my entire adult life: what are you going to do with yourself, Tui?

My dad’s dad, my poppa, Alec Stirrat, was an engineer and stalwart Presbytarian. He designed part of the Wellington Urban Motorway. My mum’s dad, my granddad, Clive Head, was … well, it’s never been that clear to me what he was, other than a fabulously generous but only erratically present grandfather (and father) and a bit of a womaniser, and also a keen boxer (and former Commonwealth boxing judge, the first NZer to be internationally accredited). My dad’s mum, my nana, Pat Stirrat, raised seven children, all boys. My mum’s mum, my grandma and the grandparent I’m closest to, was one of the oldest of eleven children; after her mother died, she practically raised the next nine after her father remarried. My grandma is Auntie Marie to a very, very large number of my second cousins and first-cousins-once-removed, had three children of her own, and is still at 80+ totally active and onto it.

A view of the Wellington Urban Motorway

Part of the Wellington Urban Motorway

My mother was involved in the theatre, was a teacher, homeschooled my whole family, has worked as a journalist and a policy analyst and gardens and knits … but what she really loves is science, astronomy, and pushed us to be involved in science. My father was a teacher and then a gardener and then a builder and then a building contractor. My brother studies biomedical sciences and is a medic in the Territorials, my other brother is a jobbing gardener, my sister is about to study to be a nurse.

At university I studied philosophy and English. My Honours thesis was in the role of the girl in twentieth-century series fiction. The longest jobs I’ve ever had were shopkeeping and reference checking.

An image of Nancy Blackett climbing a trellis, watched by three other children. Caption reads "This illustration from The Picts and the Martyrs depicts Nancy demonstrating the usefulness of boys' garb. According to Hugh Brogan, Ransome illustrated the novels himself after some dissatisfaction with commercial illustration."

Image from my Honours paper.

The vacillation between the intensely practical, hard work with real, tangible results of my grandparents and father and my mother’s passions and my siblings and what, if I’m honest, I really incline towards, artsypants faffing around with words, has been a miserable struggle for me for the last seven years. I defiantly decided not to take chemistry through to seventh form (which I have regretted ever since, although I do not regret the subject, history, which replaced it and Latin in my schedule). My first science major, maths, and arts major, linguistics, were tossed aside for the more abstract logic and philosophy and the lusher slopes of English a year after I started studying. I don’t necessarily regret that: I loved logic and I’m talented at it, and the same is true of English. And then I wound up on the other side of five years’ education and I realised that none of the jobs for which I was qualified would satisfy me. True, there’s nothing specially poetic about policy analysis or any of the other government jobs I poked at; admin work is a hard and necessary grind; and some of my best friends are (or plan on being) academics. But there is a distressing lack of tangibility about all of these things that I could not overcome or ignore.

So I toddled off to polytech and got a Diploma in Publishing. It remains to be seen, I suppose, if a life of twitching at other people’s grammar and sentence construction and managing them into producing books will suit me. Management has not heretofore been my strength, but I have training in that stuff now, you know. And I have hopes – she said, picking up the book she worked on last year – that I will get some tangible things out every now and then, something I can point to and say because of me, that’s like that. “For everybody knows that we need poems, And everybody reads them every day”; and maybe I’ll help.

Cover of a book called "Teachers for South Africa"

The book I worked on last year

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

Nowadays, faced with such
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.

— Wendy Cope


2 Responses to “Tuesday Poem: Engineers’ Corner, by Wendy Cope”


  1. Online Piracy --- discussion - Page 7 - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums - 23/02/2012

    […] what it says about a society when it will not pay artists. Wendy Cope, as ever, says things best: Engineers' Corner. But I also meant to say — speaking as a sort-of-scientist — I wouldn't do it for love of […]

  2. The Lady of Shalott is alive and kicking in Whitley Bay - Happy Planet - 30/03/2017

    […] Sassoonhttp://war-poetry.livejournal.com/21032.html Engineers’ Corner – Wendy Copehttps://tuitalk.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/tuesday-poem-engineers-corner-by-wendy-cope/ Sepulchral – Rudyard Kiplinghttp://poetrynook.com/poem/sepulchral-0 Martha’s Illness […]

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