A Faithful Poet
From the darkness of her existence, Elizabeth Jennings comes to light.
Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By EDWARD SHORT
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 In one of her unpublished poems, she writes of a stint in the hat factory: ‘Rest, rest,’ they cry / You might as well say ‘rest’ to a grasshopper.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:
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:
The family is another major theme of hers. Here, she asks questions that some of us spend our lives failing to answer:
Elsewhere she writes:
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.