1st Date – She, 1st Date – He

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Analysis

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The thing I love about poetry is the way it can mess around with words. I heard a James Blunt song this morning on the news, a new one, with this line in it: “I could say you’re beautiful” and then he added the words, “but I’ve used that line before….” This is what I adore about poetry. He is famous for a song called “You’re Beautiful” and yet, he can play with language and add it into something else with irony. With this poem by Wendy Cope, I just love the way that she looks at a first date relationship and twists it.

But be careful, for I am analysing it as it appears in the Edexcel anthology, recently handed out to school children for their study, where 1st Date is on the left hand side of the page and 2nd Date is on the right. But I have had a discussion recently with a teacher who states that the poet, Wendy Cope, did not originally write it like that and there was a different format to the poem. But would this change the meaning of the poem in any way? I tend to think not,  for they are both giving their analysis of the date and how it went on the night.

How you take to this poem then, may depend on the version you have in front of you. Don’t shoot this messenger just because he sees it in the anthology at GCSE in a High School.

Now, think on, have you ever been on a first date? Chances are, you have. Chances are that you know all about the truth that you tell on those occasions. Not! You are so busy trying to please the other person that you show off, or make a fool of yourself and this is what is happening in this poem too, for the both of them are only telling each other half truths before and during their date. It is a thought process, almost like a stream of consciousness writing, but different to that and for you older students, the more mature among us, like me, if you are of a certain age, then you will know of a song sang by Maurice Chevalier, in the film Gigi, where he meets with a former lady he wooed and they discuss, in song, their first date. One says he wore one colour and the other picks him up as if to say “no you didn’t.”

This one reminds me of that encounter from the off because it can be read in more than one way. When you read it for the first time, I am betting that you read verse 1 of her and then verse 2 of hers and then verse 3 and 4 of hers and then you have a crack at his, but try this. Read it verse 1 hers and then verse 1 his. Then verse 2 hers and verse 2 his and so on, down the page. It suddenly sounds like a dialogue between them but of thought. So what is each one thinking? Two voices thinking things of themselves and of their new partner, but neither of them are telling the truth.

From her perspective, she says in verse one that she likes classical music, but that “wasn’t exactly a lie,” but if it was not really a lie then what was it? “Not exactly” does suggest only half right, or a half truth and she says it because she hopes “he would get the impression” that she is rather ‘high brow,’ or posh, to use the vernacular. His response, if we read it like I said, is that he “implied” he was “keen on it too” so as to make her interested in him, but once again, the word “implied” denotes that it is hinted at, but not necessarily is the truth as we know it. He says he does not “often go to a concert” so he is no keen classical music fan and then states that his hint is not “exactly true.”

Some first date this is turning out to be!

So then we have her saying she likes “Vivaldi and Bach,” two world famous composers, but we get the impression they could not tell Bach from a Bath between them both. She says that they are there now, at the concert, “sitting there in the half dark,” which is metaphorical in a way in that whilst someone can be sat in the shade, so in the half dark, it can also represent their relationship in that there is only half the amount of light, or truth, that there should be in their relationship. This date is not progressing well.

His response is to say that he “looked for a suitable concert” or somewhere he could take someone with such an air about her. She is posh, or so he thinks and the clues are in her dress sense. He then tells us that this is their “first date” and that he arrived “ten minutes late.” Now, what does that tell you? He arrived ten minutes after her, so they did not make their way there together. Is he bothered about this date, or has he got other thoughts on his mind? A huge hint is coming later regarding his intentions.

She says she is “thrilled to be asked to the concert.” Whilst this may be true, there is still a sense of an undercurrent of lies as she “couldn’t care less what they play.” It makes the reader think she is not there for the music. What she is there for is the chance to be with him and then be able to talk about it all afterwards. So she thinks that she “better start paying attention.” She needs to do this so as to be able to discuss the concert later, thinking, wrongly, that he will want to discuss it later too. One thinks the other is the fan, and vice versa. Could this be a first date and a blind date?

He, for example, tells us that when he glances at her face, “it’s a picture of rapt concentration.” Yes it is, because she is having to concentrate and find something she can talk about later. He believes that the young woman is “quite undistracted by him.” It is as if the concert has her whole attention but he cannot see the truth; she is out of her depth in all of this and needs to go to the pictures instead.

“So,” says the man, “we haven’t had much time for talking.” Not surprising really when you think about it for they simply do not communicate with each other from the start of their relationship. There is a real sense of separation in their relationship, a sense where they do not feel like they can commit to one another fully, possibly because each has been hurt in love before this moment. 

The most telling part of his part of the poem comes when he says that there seems to be no time for chit chat. Well he is ten minutes late. There seems to have been no chance for him to take her for a drink beforehand and chat her up. He was late and now he feels the guilt of that and thinks things about her that are not necessarily true. He says that “she is totally lost in the music,” which she has hinted at before now, so both are misreading each other. He believes, as she does, that the other person is “quite undistracted by me,” which shows his lack of understanding of the situation.

Then, he tells us that he likes how she looks because “in that dress she is very attractive,” which understates his thoughts about how his date will go in the end, hinting at the hope of a sexual encounter, and follows this up with “the neckline can’t fail to intrigue.” He is looking at this vision of beauty and wanting her to be his, but he is only prepared to go half way into the relationship. Is he dating her just for a sexual encounter, a possible one night stand? Who knows. Possibly.

But he feels that he should not show his true emotions, because that will let the cat out of the bag, but mainly because he thinks that she is in another class of woman entirely. His comment about how “she is out of my league” shows a degree of lack of confidence and also his infatuation with her. She thinks the same thing about him which is interesting, so perhaps the both of them need to be more open and honest with each other for their relationship to flourish.

At this point in their first date, when all should be going well, we then see the extra verse of thought from him, assuming we have read as I suggested, that could be read as an afterthought almost, one of those throw away after comments we make in life. He asks “where are we?” Normally this would hint at the idea that someone is lost, in themselves, or in something else, or that they have not got a clue what is happening around them. This is an example of the latter.

The fact of the matter is that he has put his glasses away. Now when I was teaching this poem recently, I stopped and asked the question I am now going to ask of you: for what reason do you take your glasses off? When I have my photo taken, off come the glasses. Women in films dressed as secretaries with high held hair, drop their hair and remove their glasses. But above all, we drop the specs because we are self conscious and think we look better without them. He then thinks he had “better start paying attention” to her and to the music, “or else {he will} have nothing to say.”

What Wendy Cope has done here is provide a poem that shows a relationship that starts with half truths, a lie if you like, a relationship that exists “in the half dark” of a concert and a relationship that is doomed to failure. Now with that in mind, as you prepare for the exams, which poem can this be linked to in your anthology, so you could compare the two? As you figure that out, then have a go at writing a 600 word comparison of the two. In the exam, you will no doubt see a question that says compare 1st Date … with another poem of your choice, …. and then it will ask you to look at a central theme, such as love, relationship breakdown or silence.

Enjoy!

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