I’d been asked to sort the English Department stockroom at a college where I worked. ‘Bin any we aren’t teaching now’ I’d been told. By my reckoning this command would leave only a few Shakespeares and twenty or so Catcher in the Ryes. I found a pile of Elizabeth Jennings Collected Poems at the back- dog-eared, full of pencilled notes clearly dictated by a teacher, spattered over the inside covers, swirling round many of the poems. I read some of those scrawled notes, my favourite: ‘What she didn’t have which was fashionable was an attacking rhythm.’ I imagined the desperate teacher writing on the blackboard sentences from some review, the equally desperate student copying each word. Her name’s neatly written on the title page- ‘Kelly Hussey, Lower 6th.’ I took her copy and put the rest back. It seemed like a sin to hide that scruffy pile, a confirmation of Jennings decline into obscurity. And Kelly Hussey hadn’t taken her copy home. I stole a copy of all my A-Level set texts.
Later that day I looked Jennings up in the library, realised I’d been confusing her with Elizabeth Bishop. This Elizabeth was English, not American, and close to The Movement poets, I discovered. I stared out the window, wondered what she might have in common with that band of male poets: Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, John Wain, Thom Gun. I read the first poem in the book, ‘Delay,’ and realised that she had nothing at all in common with The Movement boys. She was closer to Donne, Keats, Marianne Moore, Cowper, Christina Rossetti.
Her life, inevitably, tempts comparisons with Sylvia Plath: dominant father, three suicide attempts, intense relationships, neurotic, insecure. But there the comparison ends. Plath and Jennings knew each other because Ted Hughes was on the fringes of The Movement (not really his crowd). I imagine them circling each other, Plath aware of Jennings ‘English rose’ kind of beauty, seeing her as a threat, Hughes eyeing her up at a party after a Ban the Bomb march. She was a librarian in Oxford for a while. Men came in to talk to her about books, to show her their forlorn poems, probably. There was one, the one she tried three times to die for. But he was either the property of god or of a wife.
Writing about poetry requires a snippeting approach, cutting out the little bits you want to quote, whereas reading a poem demands that we swallow it whole. Jennings’ poems, like John Donne’s, and, indeed Plath’s, have an idea at their centre that strives to find the language that will best express it. Jennings often starts with a little box that has no visual impact, unlike Donne’s long lines, short lines, indented lines, truncated lines. Her boxes are ‘one size fits all’- most of them in four or five line stanzas in alternate rhyme. The idea inside ‘Delay’ is a very ancient one- the unintended consequences of time. The first brief stanza explores the scientific fact that a star, the light of which we see, may have gone dark billions of years ago. She calls this a ‘time lag that teases me.’ In the second stanza the ‘tease’ is personalised as the:
Love that loves now may not reach me until
its first desire is spent.
This expresses the ancient idea that fate is impersonal, unintended. But in the last two and a half lines the personification is reversed so that
The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful.
This is an extraordinary moment. The star is equally reliant on an impersonal fate to determine whether or not its beauty will be appreciated. In the final line: ‘And love arrived may find us somewhere else.’ we find that the observer, the person waiting for love, has moved on when that love arrives. The use of a star to explore Jennings’ idea also echoes the ancient link between the stars and human destiny.
In ‘Identity,’ a related, longer poem, the voice we hear in the first line is imperious: ‘When I decide I shall assemble you.’ The second line refines this idea of assembling the other so that the decision being made is a process of the speaker selecting which of her thoughts about the other person:
Fit most easily together
Then I can learn what I have loved.
The conventional ideas about love are reversed so that the lover acknowledges how much the loved one’s identity has been created by her. The second stanza places this process of constructing identities in a social context: ‘Only as lovers or friends gather.’ This notion of ‘assembling’ identities is extended so that the ‘real’ person becomes almost unnecessary:
You can project the full
Picture of lover or friend that is not either.
Just as we have absorbed this idea, in a typical Jennings trope, the process is reversed:
so then assemble me
your exact picture firm and credible.
The last four lines make the final, breathtaking leap that is the consequence of the logic of the previous stanzas:
That you love what is truthful to your will
Is all that ever can be answered for
And, what is more,
Is all we make of each other when we love.
Whilst the presentation of love in ‘Delay’ is, arguably, an idealised one, the love in ‘Identity’ is a complex, adult exchange, a sort of game that is played with the participants’ knowledge that this is a game. This does not propose a stable, internalised notion of self or of love but a mutually negotiated one. I know of no contemporaries of Jennings who gets this far.
Jennings is also capable of a Larkinesque unflinching portrait of family relationships. ‘One Flesh’ is a disturbing poem. The first stanza depicts a couple sleeping in twin beds. Each is apparently doing something- the man reading a book, the woman ‘dreaming of childhood.’ In the last two lines we discover that he is only pretending to read and her eyes are ‘fixed on the shadows overhead.’ In the second stanza we learn how separated they are despite their proximity:
How cool they lie.
They hardly ever touch.
Or if they do it is like a confession
Of having little feeling- or too much.
Jennings uses ‘ordinary’ language that is apposite to the situation and resists the more complex language of the earlier poems. The final stanza is exquisitely painful and deserves quoting in full:
Strangely apart, yet strangely together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now gone cold.
I didn’t guess the revelation until it hit me in those last two lines. That’s how the best poems end. This poem is testimony to Jennings’ courage, to her capacity to look her subject matter squarely in the eye. Most of us wouldn’t dare to write so intimately about our parents.
It is true that there was a falling off of Jennings’ ability, probably triggered by bouts of mental illness, prescription drug dependency and frequent hospitalisation in her later years. She wrote many religious poems, poems about paintings and landscapes, poems about hospital and illness. These poems tend not to give the reader that sudden moment of recognition, that metaphysical surprise that is so prevalent in the earlier collections. However, during this period she also wrote exquisite translations of Michelangelo’s Sonnets and of some of Rimbaud’s poems. Whilst the poems written during the bouts of mental illness are, perhaps, too biographical there are some that succeed in revealing her still considerable powers, the best a brief ‘gothic’ poem, ‘Night Garden of the Asylum.’ The garden seems to represent a sanity that is contrasted by the madness in the ward. The final stanza is horribly disturbing:
Then all is broken from its fullness.
A human cry cuts across a dream.
A wild hand squeezes an open rose.
We are in witchcraft, bedevilled.
It is tempting to see Elizabeth Jennings as an Emily Dickenson figure, hiding from life, seeking solace in poetry. Dickenson was nothing like the persona that was imposed upon her and Jennings even less so. She had a wide circle of friends, mixed with other poets and artists, including poet priests such as Peter Levi and poet painters such as David Jones. She published sixteen collections of poetry. She loved Italy.
Her brief Preface to Collected Poems ends: ‘Art is not self-expression while, for me, ‘confessional poetry’ is almost a contradiction in terms.’ Whilst her comment is possibly a jibe aimed at Sylvia Plath and other ‘confessional poets’ her poems clearly utilise some level of personal experience, either imagined or actual. In the end it doesn’t matter. I reserve the right to believe that poems such as ‘One Flesh’ arise from something that is unequivocally real.
Stephen DevereuxI grew up in rural Suffolk but has lived and worked in Liverpool for most of his adult life. he is a poet, short story writer, essayist and script writer. He has won several prizes and been placed in numerous competitions. His work has been published in the UK, USA, Europe and Australia. He has worked on several projects including a student poetry programme with Liz Lochhead when she was Scotland’s National Poet. He supported Felix Dennis (sadly departed) on his ‘Did I Mention the Free Wine?’ poetry tour. he also collaborated with the artist Peter Wylie to create copper etching prints of WW2 defences on the Suffolk coast, for which he wrote a series of poems.