The Magazine

A Faithful Poet

From the darkness of her existence, Elizabeth Jennings comes to light.

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By EDWARD SHORT
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In 1993, she was awarded a CBE—although the tabloids mocked her for turning up for the honor in characteristically shabby dress. Rules, the London restaurant, and the Randolph Hotel in Oxford considered her an “undesirable customer” and later closed their doors to her. Like many poets of her generation, she could be a reckless drinker.

In the mid-1960s, Jennings began to suffer bouts of mental illness. In one of her unpublished poems, she writes of a stint in the hat factory: ‘Rest, rest,’ they cry / You might as well say ‘rest’ to a grasshopper. Her poems dealing with sickness and hospitals are some of her best. Unlike Sylvia Plath, she never mined illness for sensational effect; instead, illness called forth a kind of tender detachment from her, an attentive objectivity. In hospital, for example, she first encounters the grim specter of euthanasia, about which she writes with gallows aplomb:

Will the executioner

Be watching how I go?

Others about me clearly feel the same

The deafest one pretends that she can hear

The blindest hides her white stick while the lame

Attempts to stride. Life has become so dear.

 In our current critical ethos, which prefers fashionable opacity to anything concrete, Jennings’s lucidity is tonic. Few poets of any era have taken up the theme of Good Friday with her unsettling immediacy:

We nailed the hands long ago,

Wove the thorns, took up the scourge  and shouted

For excitement’s sake, we stood at the  dusty edge

Of the pebbled path and watched the extreme of pain.

But one or two prayed, one or two

Were silent, shocked, stood back

And remembered remnants of words,

     a new vision.

The cross is up with its crying victim,  the clouds

Cover the sun, we learn a new way to lose

What we did not know we had

Until this bleak and sacrificial day,

Until we turned from our bad

Past and knelt and cried out our dismay,

The dice still clicking, the voices

     dying away.

 The family is another major theme of hers. Here, she asks questions that some of us spend our lives failing to answer: 

Have we then learnt at last how to untie

The blood of birth, umbilical long cord,

So that we live quite unconnected by

The blood we share? What monstrous kind of sword

Can sever veins and still we do not die? 

Elsewhere she writes:

 

Later, we hide the weapons and pretend

There was no war, and yet we cannot meet 

In any honest way. Our voices send

Beginnings vanish; we can see no end.

 Jennings’s ability to speak of the sorrows of family with both authority and accessibility is doubtless one reason why she managed to sell well. Her last collection sold astoundingly well—85,000 copies—and Emma Mason, in her afterword to this newest edition, persuasively cites other reasons for Jennings’s popularity: “Now firm, now hesitant, Jennings’s poetry addresses those matters—love, friendship, compassion, nature, time, memory, faith—deliberately neglected by her peers, and with a tenderness that avoids sentimentality by finding its bearings in discernment and kindness.”

In compiling his anthology of 20th-century verse for Oxford University Press, Larkin included five poems from Jennings—more than he allotted many other poets of whose work he approved. Clearly, his reservations about her work were not as decided as he had perhaps imagined. When Oxford publishes its next volume of contemporary poetry, the work of Elizabeth Jennings should figure even more prominently. 

Edward Short is the author of the forthcoming Newman and His Family.