(1926 - 2001)
British poet Elizabeth Jennings has published more than 20 books of poetry since
the 1950s. She writes short, meditative lyrics that are known for their
simplicity, control, and range of feeling. These qualities have linked Jennings
to a group of poets, usually referred to as The Movement, who were writing in
England during the 1940s and 1950s. The members of this group, poets like
Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, and John Wain, never consciously formed
a movement, but their poetry reveals a shared love for simplicity and an
acceptance of regular meter and rhyme.
Jennings was born on July 18, 1926, in Boston, Lincolnshire. She claims that she
discovered poetry at age 13 and began to write, encouraged by a teacher and her
uncle. Jennings attended St. Anne's College, Oxford, from 1945 to 1949 and was
greatly stimulated by the intellectual atmosphere there. It was at this time
that she began to associate with poets of The Movement; some of her first
published poems appeared in Oxford Poetry 1948, edited by Kingsley Amis and
James Michie. Jennings worked in the Oxford City Library from 1950 to 1958 and
as a publisher's reader from 1958 to 1960. During this time she published three
books of poetry and a book for children entitled "Let's Have Some Poetry!"
(1960). In the early 1960s, Jennings suffered a breakdown and was confined to a
hospital. The poems she wrote after her release are collected in Recoveries
(1964) and The Mind Has Mountains (1966).
Jennings is an extremely prolific poet. She writes quickly, revises little, and claims that her poems "come out very clean." She differs from the other poets of The Movement in her devotion to Roman Catholicism, a theme that pervades much of her poetry. Jennings also writes about friendship, relationships, places, and art. She does not write autobiographical poems, but her religious concerns, mental illness, and other personal experiences influence the themes and insights expressed in her poetry.
Lying apart now, each in a separate bed, Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion, Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
UMA SÓ CARNE
Deitando-se agora separados, cada um em sua cama,
Ele de livro e luz acesa até mais tarde,
Ela qual moça sonhando com a infância,
Algures os homens todos - é como se esperassem
Que algo de novo possa acontecer: por ler, o livro que ele segura,
Fixos os olhos dela nas sombras junto ao tecto.
À deriva, como restos do naufrágio de paixão antiga,
Como dormem indiferentes, quase sem nunca se tocarem;
Ou, se o fazem, é como confissão
De sentir pouco - ou então de mais.
Enfrentam a castidade, um destino
Que toda a sua vida preparou.
Estranhamente separados, mas tão estranhamente unidos,
O silêncio entre eles é como um fio que se segura
E não se enrola. E o próprio tema é uma pena
Que os toca docemente. Saberão que já são velhos,
Estes dois que são meu pai e minha mãe,
Cujo fogo de onde eu vim arrefeceu?
The unknown child
The child will never lie in me, and you
Will never be its father. Mirrors must
Replace the real image, make it true
So that the gentle love-making we do
Has powerful passions and a parents’ trust
The child will never lie in me and make
Our loving careful. We must kiss and touch
Quietly, watch our reflexions break
As in a pool that is disturbed. Oh take
My watchful love; there must not be too much
A child lies within my mind. I see
the eyes, the hand. I see you also there.
I see you waiting with an honest care,
Within my mind, within me bodily,
And bird and death close to us constantly.
O filho desconhecido
Nunca em mim essa criança existirá, e tu
Não serás nunca o seu pai. Espelhos hão-de
Fazer a vez da realidade, tornar a imagem verdadeira,
Para que tenha o brando amor que nós fazemos
A força das paixões, e, de pais, a confiança.
Nunca em mim a criança existirá para tornar
Cuidadoso o nosso amar. Em plácidos beijos
E carícias, olhamo-nos, reflexos aos pedaços
Como em lago que se agita. Oh, toma,
Vigilante, o nosso amor; não pode haver de mais.
No meu espírito existe uma criança. Vejo-lhe
Os olhos e as mãos. E também te vejo lé.
Vejo-te à espera com sincero cuidado,
Dentro do meu espírito, dentro de mim, corpo,
E o nascimento e a morte junto a nós continuamente.
Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS, poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993. ISBN 972-708-204-1
The poetry of Elizabeth Jennings
Famous poets and poems
were quite silent till the doctor came
to question, breaking through your thoughts.
were you glad that he recalled your name,
you about your pets,
would you rather doze there, much the same
some old cat or dog, some lump of fur
the fire, unmoving and unmoved,
that no-one made you speak or stir,
wanting to be loved
finding it in warm sheets and soft chair?
know who gives real kindness, none the less,
to child's shouting like some old ones do.
feel for certain hands as though to bless,
beg a blessing too;
then you weep, simply from happiness.
Memory of Anyone Unknown to Me
this particular time I have no one
person to grieve for, though there must
many, many unknown ones going to dust
not remembered for what they have done
left undone. For these, then, I will grieve
impartial, unable to deceive.
they lived, or died, is quite unknown,
by that fact gives my grief purity--
important person quite apart from me
one obscure who drifted down alone.
or all I remember, have a place.
these I never encountered face to face.
will creep in. I cast it out
to give these classical repose,
epitaph, no poppy and no rose
me, and certainly no wish to learn about
way they lived or died. In earth or fire
are gone. Simply because they were human, I admire.
Poem in Winter
children begin to hope for snow
And look in the sky for auguries of it.
It is not for such omens that we wait,
Our world may not be settled by the slow
Falling of flakes to lie across our thought.
And even if the snow comes down indeed
We shall still stand behind a pane of glass
Untouched by it, and watch the children press
Their image on the drifts the snow has laid
On a winter they think they have made.
This is a wise illusion. Better to
Believe the near world is created by
A wish, a shaping hand, a certain eye,
Than hide in the mind's corner as we do
As though there were no world, no fall of snow.
In a foreign city
cannot speak for no one knows
Your language. You must try to catch
By glances or a steadfast gaze
The attitude of those you watch.
No conversations can amaze:
Noises may find you but not speech.
you have circled silence, stare
With all the subtlety of sight.
Noise may trap ears but eye discerns
How someone on his elbows turns
And in the moon's long exile here
Touches another in the night.
A fist of red fire, a flower
Opening in the sun. A kind of peace
Taking over at last, and then the quick release.
That desire is quite over
Or seems so as I lie
Using the sky as cover
And thinking of deep
Dreams unknown to a lover.
Being alone is now
Far from loneliness.
I can stretch and allow
Legs, arms, hands
Their complete freedom:
There is no-one to please.
But soon it comes-
Not simply the ache
Of a particular need,
But also the general hunger,
As if the flesh were a house
With too many empty
Let us have winter loving that the heart
May be in peace and ready to partake
Of the slow pleasure spring would wish to hurry
Or that in summer harshly would awake,
And let us fall apart, O gladly weary,
The white skin shaken like a white snowflake.
Father to Son
I do not understand this child
Though we have lived together now
In the same house for years. I know
Nothing of him, so try to build
Up a relationship from how
He was when small. Yet have I killed
The seed I spent or sown it where
The land is his and none of mine?
We speak like strangers, there's no sign
Of understanding in the air.
This child is built to my design
Yet what he loves I cannot share.
Silence surrounds us. I would have
Him prodigal, returning to
His father's house, the home he knew,
Rather than see him make and move
His world. I would forgive him too,
Shaping from sorrow a new love.
Father and son, we both must live
On the same globe and the same land.
He speaks: I cannot understand
Myself, why anger grows from grief.
We each put out an empty hand,
Longing for something to forgive.
I keep my answers small and keep them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.
The huge abstractions I keep from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.
But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.
Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, I still hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow
And all the great conclusions coming near.
One of Britain's most popular poets, her work was famed for its imagery, logic and emotional sensitivity
Wednesday October 31, 2001
"Only one thing must be cast out," wrote the poet Elizabeth Jennings, who has died aged 75, "and that is the vague. Only true clarity reaches to the heights and the depths of human, and more than human, understanding." The words are from her study of 20th-century authors, Seven Men Of Vision (1976), which included reflections on Yeats, DH Lawrence, Pasternak and St-Exupéry; but they sum up perfectly the aspirations and achievements of her own poetry.
Elizabeth's father, Henry Cecil Jennings, was chief medical officer for her birthplace of Boston, Lincolnshire, whose environs - "a flat land of sugarbeet and tulips" - were to be vividly recreated in some of her later poems. When she was six, the family moved to Oxford, where she attended Oxford high school and discovered poetry. Delighted, at first, by the rhythms of Chesterton's Battle Of Lepanto, she soon moved on to Keats and Coleridge, and began to write her own poems.
When she was 13, the second world war broke out; at about the same time, she began to find religion - she was born a Catholic - "a real and important part of my life, and because it was important, it tended to give me a lot of worries". Spiritual concerns and a sense of vulnerability, often issuing in a profound sensitivity to the suffering of others, would become important elements in her output.
After reading English at St Anne's College, Oxford, Jennings became a librarian at Oxford city library. Poetry was, by now, her overriding interest, and her first collection, Poems (1953), published by the Fantasy Press, drew the attention of Robert Conquest, who included her work with that of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, John Wain and others in his 1956 New Lines anthology, launching what became known as "The Movement".
Jennings was the sole female contributor, and the short, first poem in her section of the book, Delay (which remained the opener of all her subsequent collected and selected volumes) had the unmistakable note of a classic.
From its opening scientific proposition, "The radiance of that star that leans on me/ Was shining years ago", to its sad and muted conclusion that "love arrived may find us somewhere else", the eight-line poem epitomised the path her work would take: the path of flawless traditional verse-technique, sharp imagery, logical thought and emotional sensitivity.
"The Movement", if it was one, faded from prominence as poets went their separate ways, but Jennings continued, with remarkable tenacity, to work in her own deceptively simple style, developing a uniquely personal voice.
She left librarianship to become a publisher's reader for Chatto and Windus from 1958 to 1960, and thereafter wrote regular poetry reviews for the Daily Telegraph. Meanwhile, poems were written steadily and prolifically - "I write fast and revise very little," she confessed - with a new volume appearing every two or three years, an oeuvre which amounted at last to nearly 30 books.
Jennings' work, though consistent in tone, was not repetitious. There was a steady growth in emotional intensity, and in her willingness to tackle uncomfortable subjects, and each volume contained at least a few poems of startling power, as in One Flesh (published in The Mind Has Mountains, 1966), where the sadly and lovingly described elderly couple "Lying apart now, each in a separate bed" are identified at last as the poet's parents, "Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold."
A breakdown in the early 1960s resulted in some ill-judged experimental poems, later suppressed, in jagged typographical forms, but also in the superb Sequence In Hospital, published in Recoveries (1964), which explores the experience of hospitalisation with unsparing clarity: "What to say first? I learnt I was afraid/ Fear became absolute and I became/ Subject to it; it beckoned, I obeyed." Travel in Italy led to a lasting engagement with Italian culture and a translation of The Sonnets Of Michelangelo (1961), which is still the standard version and remains unsurpassed.
Becoming, almost without noticing it, one of Britain's most popular poets, Jennings was also, from the 1960s, an important mentor to generations of student poets, who would be invited for tea and sympathetic criticism at her modest north Oxford lodgings, whose every horizontal surface was crowded with a fantastic array of china knick-knacks, glass animals, doll's house furniture and musical boxes - the "collections" she gave as her hobby in Who's Who.
She never married, though there was an early engagement, and Oxford remained the centre of her world. But, within modest geographical limits, she lived a life rich in culture and friendship. She found poetry readings an ordeal, and avoided most literary gatherings. None the less, she was a much-loved part of the Oxford scene until the mid-90s. A familiar figure on the bus to Stratford-upon-Avon, she rarely missed a new production of Shakespeare; a connoisseur of ice-cream, she was a regular at the Häagen-Daz's ice-cream parlour. So avid was her filmgoing that her local cinema, in Walton Street, was rumoured to have given her a free pass for life.
Her later work showed increased breadth and vigour. From the aptly named Extending The Territory (1985) onwards, she often wrote poems in flowing, free-verse lines, recollecting childhood and celebrating nature with a thoughtful nostalgia reminiscent of Rilke: "I watched as a child the slow/ Leaves turning and taking the sun, and the autumn bonfires,/ The whips of wind blowing a landscape away./ Always it was the half-seen, the just-heard which enthralled."
She received the WH Smith literary award in 1987 for her second Collected Poems (the first had appeared in 1967, and so ruthless was her self-criticism that the later volume was actually shorter), and, in 1992, the CBE. Despite a gradual decline in health, she continued to write with undiminished vigour and sharpness.
Her last volume, Timely Issues, published earlier this year, characteristically contains not only tributes to Hopkins, Traherne and Robert Graves but a poem of shrewd advice "To Any Newish Poet".
Joan Jennings, poet, born July 18 1926; died October 26 2001
Tuesday 3 April 2012
The Collected Poems by Elizabeth Jennings – review
A poet's fat vol is supremely dippable-into
The Collected Poems, by Elizabeth Jennings, edited by Emma Mason
Collections of poetry, when people wish gently to disparage them, are called "slim vols". This is not a slim vol. It is a fat vol. More than 1,000 pages, and well over 1,000 poems. Or, to put it another way: there are 40 pages of contents alone.
So: Elizabeth Jennings wrote a lot; and here what she has written is supplemented by 130 pages of previously unpublished poetry: undated, or juvenilia, or whatnot. Well, in for a penny, eh?
The point, though, is not to mistake being prolific with being prolix. It's fairly safe to say that what was hitherto unpublished neither represents the dregs of her work, nor sticks out as something unrepresentative altogether. "A Briefness", itself a briefness of a poem, ends with the lines: " I remember reflecting / 'Women who don't believe in God / Don't bother to look elegant,'" which is of course a highly debatable proposition on the face of it, but rather funny, and we should remember the quote from TS Eliot she makes use of a few pages before: "if we learn to read poetry properly, the poet never persuades us to believe anything ... What we learn from Dante, and the Bhagavad Gita, or any other religious poetry is what itfeels like to believe that religion."
Jennings was, famously, Catholic; despite a bruising encounter with a horrible priest at confession which "festered" within her for years, and did very little to help, and probably much to make worse, her problems with sex (Emma Mason contributes a long and very illuminating afterword to this edition, which examines this question without going into prurient detail). Later on she got luckier with a much more sympathetic priest; but anyway her religion never got in the way of her affection and respect for atheist Larkin. (From "For Philip Larkin": "The last thing you would have wanted – / A poem in praise of you.")
Jennings was also famously batty-looking, with a personal style that, as she got older, got closer to that of the bag lady; she wore plimsolls when collecting her CBE. (Good for her, you might say.) She was also modest and slightly out of the loop (although she was an undergraduate at Oxford and lived there all her life, she was not an academic), and was always tacked on towards the end of the factitious list of "Movement" poets of the 1950s – Larkin, Donald Davie and so on.
She was popular, too, her selected and collected poems of 1979 and 1986 selling between them 86,000 copies; and you can see why. The work is accessible without being shallow. Here's the second half of "London", describing her disappointment when taken to the capital as a child: "Oh, Piccadilly Circus / Was just a roundabout, / No monkeys there, no horses, / No tigers leaping out. / You see, I thought a circus / Was always just the same. / I never guessed that it could be / A lying, cheating NAME." You might think that there is something too rumpty-tumpty about this, but the savage snap of the final line suggests far better the painful puncturing of illusions than if it had been preceded by something more complex – while also suggesting that there is something childish about the observation itself.
This is the kind of verse that makes us think of Wendy Cope (of whom, by the way, I think very highly), but Jennings had many registers, as well as modes: yet she most often returns to rhymed form, whether abab quatrains or sonnets, of which there are legion. Musing on what JMW Turner's "bonds and limits" were, she says there must have been some "since art can only flourish locked and barred / By form". (I'd like to have quoted the whole sonnet, because it is imperishably useful not just about art in general, but about Turner in particular, and should be displayed at the beginning, or the end, of every proper exhibition of his work.) But there is no sterility here: I defy you to read "A Living Death" and not be on the verge of tears by the end of it ("I am caught up / Within a death that does not die …") This is a supremely dippable-into book. Its bulk is liberating, not intimidating.