Elizabeth Jennings and the poetic vocation

Elizabeth Jennings and the poetic vocation

At the moment, there seems to be a lot of poetry about. Online magazines and small presses proliferate; even the small print magazines seem to be keeping their heads above water.  Some of this may be due to corona virus; people have time to write and even read poetry.  However, as I pick my way through Zoom poetry events, I find myself wondering how it is possible to read with discrimination, or even enjoyment, under this onslaught of words.  I am not complaining about an excess of bad poetry; on the contrary, much of what is available is, thanks to poetry workshops and courses, pretty good.  What is difficult is to discover and recognise the very good, the authentically new, the lastingly valuable.  With an ever-growing pile of magazines, pamphlets and first collections on my desk, I have been tempted to flee, to look backwards and to reconsider some of the older names in the poetry world.

Thus it was that I started reading, or rereading Elizabeth Jennings.  Why? For a start, she once lived at the bottom of my road. Secondly, she is a woman poet who has dropped out of fashion but who had known considerable success, was moderately famous, but never, sadly, rich.  In my mind, she was the sort of poet whose work turned up in GCSE and A-level anthologies. I remembered her poems as thematically unthreatening but with plenty of technical features to be identified in the pursuit of good marks.

Engaging now with the full range of her poetry, I find her more interesting but strange, in the sense of alien. She suffers by being out of tune with her time and even more so with ours. What concerned her has been pushed to the very margin of our concerns today. On a line drawn between Christina Rossetti and Sylvia Plath, she would come much closer to Rossetti, not simply because she was a single woman and deeply religious, but also because she clings to some outmoded nineteenth century poeticisms. She is a little too fond of the exclamatory ‘O’. In ‘In This Time’[1], lamenting the loss of myth and legend which she seems to attribute to excessive introspection and self-absorption, she includes a somewhat startling and metrically unnecessary inversion: ‘Hardly we hear the children shout outside’ as well as an equally unnecessary undirected apostrophe three lines further down, ‘O let the wind outside blow in again’. She is confident with form and her earlier poems were mostly written in carefully organised and rhymed stanzas, made more subtle by half and near rhymes. Even so, sometimes the form pushes her towards conclusions which are too pat, or a rhyme can seem forced, or a line is padded. In ‘Poem in Winter’, the pronoun ‘it’ is awkward in the first stanza as it buckles under the demands of end rhyme:

Today the children begin to hope for snow

And look in the sky for auguries of it.

In the first three lines of the second stanza, there is another awkward ‘it’ forced into prominence by the iambic pattern, while ‘And’ and ‘still’ seem to be there to preserve the metre and ‘indeed’ does more for the rhyme scheme than the meaning.

            And even if the snow comes down indeed

            We still shall stand behind a pane of glass

            Untouched by it,

The last stanza, as rather often in Jennings’ poems, takes on a didactic function, which more contemporary poets would perhaps avoid. Nevertheless, her work is underpinned and strengthened by her vision and sense of vocation, by her ideas of what it was to be a poet. In her case, the poetic vocation was bound in with her Catholic faith although the relationship between her religion and her poetry was not as smooth as she would sometimes have had it appear. Like T.S. Eliot, whom she much admired, she yearned for the mystic’s union with God, and she explored the relationship between mysticism and poetry in Every Changing Shape[2] which, although written relatively early in her career, provides a key to understanding her own poetic vision. She seeks to show, through a study of writers from St Augustine to Wallace Stevens:

Not only …the usefulness of poetry as a vehicle for mystical experience but also …some kind of demonstration, however, tentative, that both mysticism (contemplation) and poetry (making) spring from the same creative source.[3]

She goes on to argue, and here she is close to David Jones, also a poet whose Catholicism is central to his art, that poetry:

…is itself a kind of contact with God. And it can be a contact with God because all art is a participation in the eternal act of creation.[4]

Jennings is careful to maintain the distinction between poetry and mysticism, but values poetry for its power to use the imagination (and imagery) to convey experiences otherwise beyond language.  However, although she holds this exalted view of what poetry can do, only a minority of her own poems are directly concerned with religion. Her themes are childhood, relationships with parents, friends, lovers, nature, loneliness and death. Her poetry is always written out of her own experience and although she abhorred ‘confessional’ poetry, it is difficult to read her work as anything other than autobiographical.  Indeed, because she disapproved so strongly of letting it all hang out and washing the family dirty laundry in public, it is often quite difficult to know what she is talking about in her poems, if, for instance, she is addressing Christ, a friend or a lover in “Transformation’:

            Always I trip myself up when I try

            To plan exactly what I’ll say to you.

            …

            Who could not guess such misery would start

            And stop so quickly, change the afternoon

            And, far more than that, transfigure me.

            Trusting myself, I enter night, stars, moon.[5]

I am inclined to think that this poem is actually addressed to a friend or one of her quasi lovers, as so much of her work seems prompted by actual incidents, even though, as here, it borrows the language of religious or transcendental experience.  The only poem I have found where Jennings does seem to be writing about a personal mystical experience is ‘A World of Light’. The title acknowledges the mystic poetry of Henry Vaughan and in it she describes the sort of encounter which she explores in the work of many of the mystics and poets she considers:

            Then senses ceased and thoughts were driven quite

            Away (no act of mine). I could relax

            And feel a fire no earnest prayer can kindle;

            Old parts of peace dissolved into a whole

            And like a bright thing proud in its new plumage

            My mind was keen as an attentive bird.[6]

However, unlike Vaughan she becomes self-conscious and the final stanza suggests that she feels that her language and her imagery are second-hand and inadequate:

            Yes, fire, light, air birds, wax, the sun’s own height

            I draw from now, but every image breaks.

            Only a child’s simplicity can handle

            Such moments when the hottest fire feels cool.

            And every breath is like a sudden homage

            To peace that penetrates and is not feared.

Incidentally, Jennings skill is demonstrated by the way she has used the same end sounds in all five stanzas of this poem. Despite this virtuosity with form, the imagery is less convincing.  The ‘hottest fire’ that ‘feels cool’ recall simultaneously the cleansing fires of purgatory and the oxymoronic language of courtly love. We might wonder why in the last line ‘peace’ should be ‘feared’ and question whether she is talking not about a peace but a penetration that need not be feared.  Jennings was known to have a fear of sex and it is doubtful if any of her various love relationships were ever physically consummated. Rather conveniently, she transfers the responsibility to one of her loves, apparently a Catholic priest:

            Only in our imaginations

            The act is done, for you have spoken

            Vows that can never now be broken. 

            I keep them too – with reservations;

            Yet acts not done can still be taken

            Away, like all completed passions.[7]

I don’t really know what the last lines of this stanza mean and the final stanza of the poem also strikes me as a fudge:

            A touching, then a glancing off.

            It is your vows that stretch between 

            Us like an instrument of love

            Where only echoes intervene.

            Yet these exchanges are enough

            Since strings touched only are most keen.

There is a feeling that she has successfully worked through the metaphoric vehicle, but that the actual experience, the underlying tenor remains stubbornly unchanged.

 Of course, she was completely aware that sexual imagery is often used as a way of conveying mystical experience, something that she acknowledges in her discussion of St John of the Cross.[8] I am wary of tipping over into prurience when discussing Jennings but the tone and content of her love poetry, which often seems to have an adolescent intensity, would be easier to understand if more was known about her life.  The only biography, The Inward War by Dana Greene, while it supplies possible names and dates, does very little, despite its title, to illuminate the poet’s inner conflicts. Perhaps biography shouldn’t matter, and the best poems can be appreciated without it. Nevertheless, so much of her work clearly springs from the day to day events in her life that a better knowledge of what was actually going on would be beneficial, partly because the less successful work does not detach itself fully from the context.  Jennings’ poetry invariably strikes us as searingly emotionally honest, but she keeps a great deal from us. Some of her most compelling poems draw on her experience of mental illness in hospital. In ‘The Visitors’, Section V of ‘Sequence in Hospital[9] she describes the difficulties of dealing with visitors, whose ‘kindness makes [her] want/ To cry’ but whose visit leaves her feeling ‘limp and faint’. However, the poem ends with an address to an unnamed you:

            Your absence has been stronger than all pain

            And I am glad to find that when most weak

            Always my mind returned to you again.

            Through all the noisy nights when, harsh awake,

                        I longed for day and light to break – 

            In that sick desert, you were life, were rain.

In this case, the imagery of light, life and rain incline me to think she means Christ, but there is an almost coy awareness of the traditional overlap of language in the treatment of sacred and profane love.

The themes which emerge most strongly from Jennings’ work are a yearning for the innocence of early childhood which is linked to a prelapsarian view of Nature and a pervasive fear which is never made specific but overshadows her entire oeuvre. These ideas come together in an early poem, ‘Reminiscence’,[10] where she speaks of childhood as ‘cloudless and gentle’, as life experienced through the senses before the life of the mind introduced ‘something’ which ‘made [her]numb with fear’. This disabling fear may be related to the growth of consciousness, it may be related to her difficult relationship with her father, it may be a fear of sex or of God derived from her early and unhappy perception of the Catholicism she was born into, or it may be simply an existential dread.

On the other hand, ‘The Fear’ hints at something more specific:

            When still within I carry an old fear

            A child could never speak about, disgrace

            That no confession could assuage or clear.[11]

It is known that as a young person she found her religion oppressive, and this was something she only overcame when she went to Rome and discovered a joyful way of living with her faith. Nevertheless, the memories of childhood unhappiness were enduring as shown in ‘First Confession’, a poem from the 1990’s.

                                    My spirit had been light

            And happy for six years.  I lost my trust

            And learnt a little of the spirit’s night.[12]

Despite her apparently unquestioning acceptance of her religion – she protests, she struggles, but never denies it – it does not seem to have brought her happiness even though she used it to underpin her poetic vision. It seems to me that her first loyalty is to poetry even though she longs for the mystical experience which would reward her faith.  Her vocation is poetic, not religious. In ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’[13]she considers the differences:

            Your vows enfold you.  I must make my own;

            Now this, now that, each one empirical.

            My poems move from feelings not yet known,

            And when the poem is written I can feel

                        A flash, a moment’s peace.

She makes comparisons elsewhere between the experience of vision of transcendence which the mystic may seek language for and the momentary achievement of vision which the poet feels, having written successful poem.  The poem’s final stanza suggests that the darkness which for the religious is the absence of God is for her the silence when the words for the poems do not come.

            Yet with the same convictions that you have

            (It is but your vocation that I lack),

            I must, like you, believe in perfect love.

            It is the dark, the dark that draws me back

                        Into a chaos where

            Vocations, visions fail, the will grows slack

            And I am stunned by silence everywhere.

Silence is identified with chaos, whereas the poem is a device for creating order. I think this is why Jennings was so prolific, writing compulsively, up to three poems a day, even when most ill or unhappy : ‘Coins, counters, Towers of Babel/ Mad words spoken in sickness too – / All are considered, refined, transformed / …And stored and given back – and true.’[14] In another poem she says ‘poetry must change and make/ The world seem new in each design’. The stress is on design, form, number and imagery, the power of the imagination to create pattern and order, however fleeting. This ‘flash’ is the poet’s participation in divine creativity. Rebecca Watts argues that Jennings did not write in order to heal her wounded psyche, but because ‘she felt that writing poetry was “ the one thing I can do”’.  I think this was a way of overcoming the fear, the darkness and the silence, or at least holding it at bay.

We can see that Jennings had an elevated view of the poet’s calling and that her ‘vision’ was coherent throughout her career.  Childhood is Edenic and associated with the joy in the natural world; it is destroyed by fear and guilt and Jennings accuses adults of creating this sense of fear in children much too early. She values friendship, love as agape, but suffers from unfulfilled desire, fear, guilt and loneliness. She yearns for the solace of her religion but only rarely can she reconcile the demands of her ‘hard creed’ and her impulse to poetry:

            Always that dark cross throws its shadow on me

            And I am often in the garden where

            Christ came so often to the brink of despair.

            It is, I think, in my own poetry

            I meet my God.  He’s a familiar there.[15]

Alice Oswald argued, in her inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, that great poets had a unified vision, whereas minor poets did not.  This is a debatable distinction and I would suggest that while Elizabeth Jennings did have a unified vision, she is only occasionally great. Often her language and her form do not hold up under the strain she puts on them; sometimes she drops back into banality.  Nevertheless, she had a lifelong commitment to poetry and there are many ‘flashes’, whether whole poems, stanzas or memorable lines or images.

This brings me back to my feelings of uneasiness when contemplating the current poetry scene. What is required to be a poet? What is poetry for? These are silly questions, because they are so wide-ranging. Poetry has been used for everything from trying to seduce a lover (though it is unlikely that many seduction poems were written primarily for this purpose) to entertainment, to recording and celebrating a shared history to praising God. The training to be a Bard in ancient Ireland was long and rigorous and involved a huge amount of memorising as well as learning complicated traditional rhyme schemes, metaphors and similes.  A sixteenth century Elizabethan gentleman would have been expected to be able to compose verses as well as wield a sword.  John Donne, whose verses were circulated among friends, could be described as an amateur poet: Shakespeare was obviously a professional. No matter what the background, any decent poet will have learned from their predecessors.  Even John Clare, isolated in rural Helpston, was desperate for books and found his early inspiration in The Seasons by James Thomson.  Whether the poet starts young or comes to poetry later in life, they will develop as they assimilate the work of the past and of their contemporaries.  Some writers will become central to them, touchstones they regularly return to, as, for example, Alice Oswald does to the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Poets also learn by sharing their work with their contemporaries and accepting constructive criticism. This is a process which has become almost industrialised through Creative Writing Degrees, poetry workshops and institutions such as the Arvon Foundation and The Poetry School. The fact that these organisations seem to flourish reflects the level of demand.  There is also a multitude of small presses, print and online little magazines and local poetry nexuses, many of them surviving on minimum funds through the energy and hard work of dedicated enthusiasts. The Alchemy Spoon[16] is a new print magazine, a courageous venture at a time when our entire lives seem to be going online.  Its inaugural edition includes some impressive poems from writers well-known and not so familiar.  The introductory editorial by Vanessa Lampert is also interesting.  She explains the magazine’s commitment to ‘welcoming older unpublished and new phase writers to our pages’. The phrase ‘new phase’ apparently refers primarily to those who have come to poetry later in life, although Lampert also suggests that the ‘new’ of ‘new phase’ refers to poets who have ‘remained alert to the athleticism of poetics and the potential of poetry to branch out and articulate the ethereal and changeable feeling states of our lives.’  This seems admirable, but I am more concerned by her earlier suggestion:

The art of poetry offers writers the opportunity to abandon the conformity embedded in the way we learn to use language, to reach out and seek invention.  Additionally, poems can free us from the tiresome constraint of always being required to tell the truth.

In the world of Trump and Johnson, where the tiresome constraint of telling the truth seems to have been rendered null and void, it would seem preferable to suggest that poetry is indeed a way of telling the truth, albeit through such lying devices as metaphor and imagery. The emphasis on playfulness also worried me, although I recognise that poetry and all art does have a ludic function. The quality of the poetry in this magazine, the level of engagement of the interviews and essays belie these suggestions of hobby writing, or poetry as something to do when you have retired.  I doubt if Elizabeth Jennings would have welcomed a description of her work as either untruthful or playful and, as someone who had devoted her entire life to her art, she might have been lukewarm about the notion of ‘new phase.


[1] New Selected Poems, ed. Rebecca Watts, Carcanet, 2019, p.17

[2] First published by Andre Deutsch, 1961; paperback edition, Carcanet, 1996

[3] p.18, paperback edition

[4] p.30 ibid.

[5] Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1986, p.107

[6] New Selected Poems, p.60

[7] ‘The Instrument’, New Selected Poems, p.74

[8] ‘The Innocent Audacity -An Approach to St John of the Cross’ in Every Changing Shape

[9] From Recoveries, New Selected Poems, p.78

[10] New Selected Poems, p.3

[11] New Selected Poems, p.42

[12] New Selected Poems, p.166

[13] Ibid. p.68

[14] “Any Poet’s Epitaph’, ibid.p.107

[15] ‘A way to a creed’, ibid.p.147

[16] The Alchemy Spoon, Issue 1, Summer 2020. Edited by Roger Bloor, Vanessa Lampert, Mary Mulholland.