Locked and Barred

Robert Crawford

  • New Collected Poems by Elizabeth Jennings
    Carcanet, 386 pp, £9.95, February 2002, ISBN 1 85754 559 1

Like most poets, Elizabeth Jennings, who died two years ago, wrote too many poems. She was careless about her output, sending Michael Schmidt, her editor at Carcanet, ‘sacks’ of manuscript work to sift through and make into a collection. Even he seems occasionally to have lost track. His sympathetic and shrewd introduction records that her own favourite among her poems was ‘Fountains’, but there isn’t a poem called that. Schmidt means ‘Fountain’. This may be just a typo, but it’s a revealing one. If you read a lot of Jennings’s work, the poems blur into one another; there is too much repetition, too much rewriting of the same poem, too many neat little verse essays. There is a lack of rhythmical innovation; the grain of the language is often a smoother, less arresting version of that of Edwin Muir or George Herbert. It’s hard to believe most of these poems were written in the last quarter-century. One distinguished contemporary poet scowled when I told him I was reading Jennings’s Collected Poems: ‘Life’s too short.’

As I read, though, I was sustained not least by a memory of her. I heard Jennings read only once in the six years I lived in her home town of Oxford. She had studied English at St Anne’s College while Larkin and Amis were also undergraduates in the 1940s; unlike them, she had stayed on in the town. I don’t remember which poems she read; I recall instead the gestures she didn’t make, her self-effacement. In the early 1980s, Larkin was lauded and Amis was famous; Jennings was reading with some student poets at the Old Fire Station arts centre. She was shy, and that brought out the shyness in me, so I didn’t speak to her. But I knew who she was. I liked that she liked Eliot. I had written about her work in an essay on contemporary religious poetry when I was an undergraduate. I’d read about her as the only woman in the Movement. There she stood in a grey raincoat and a knitted hat. She made nothing of her status, read a few poems, and was succeeded by a student who read a dreadful and very long poem about orange-juice cartons. It was hard to imagine any of the other celebrated Oxford poets of the day reading with such generous humility. That impressed me, just as, when occasionally I saw her in the distance in the street she was always plainly dressed, impressively unstylish.

Many of Jennings’s best poems are about the vocation of the artist. Her early verse from the 1950s indicates a love of Edwin Muir’s work. ‘The Annunciation’ is Muirlike in more than title, and when Jennings begins a sentence with the inversion ‘Outside I stand,’ it calls to mind Muir’s opening line: ‘One foot in Eden still, I stand.’ The first poem in Jennings’s New Collected Poems begins: ‘The radiance of that star that leans on me/Was shining years ago.’ Norman MacCaig might have written that in the 1950s. It was in this decade that Jennings’s poetic ear matured, and it remained attuned to verse then fashionable (Metaphysical poetry, Hopkins, mid-Eliot, Auden, Muir). She is a poet who uses a lot of abstract vocabulary, who writes about foreign cities, whose core subject matter is religious, and (though she does not usually protest this) she is a female poet – all these factors remove her from the protested Little English high-blokiness of the Movement, a grouping which existed, I suspect, only at the level of journalism.

Jennings often stumbles: she rhymes ‘keep’ with ‘landscape’ or ‘harshly would awake’ with ‘like a white snowflake’; she writes that ‘autumn gropes for us’ (awkward enough), then follows it with the moralising ‘But every season is a kind/Of rich nostalgia.’ She sub-Shakespearianises in a line such as ‘Of that one’s boldness or of this one’s grace’. Too frequently her poems seem written for well-behaved schoolchildren to ingest, consider, write about. Yet among all this worthy behaviour, a poem occasionally breaks free of the limitations of good manners. ‘My Grandmother’, convincingly quirky in its details, and true to involved emotional contours, is a good example. The way the dash interrupts the first line (rather than concluding it) is immediately convincing:

She kept an antique shop – or it kept her.
Among Apostle spoons and Bristol glass,
The faded silks, the heavy furniture,
She watched her own reflection in the brass
Salvers and silver bowls, as if to prove
Polish was all, there was no need of love.

Jennings records with scrupulous honesty flinching from her grandmother, and her own guilty awareness that her grandmother was hurt by this; in the end, though, she also conveys that she was impressed by the tenacity with which her grandmother held to her apparently restricted manner of existence. It was a way of life bound up with polish and with one of Jennings’s abiding and most inspiring subjects, light. It also approaches the life of a lonely artist obsessed with art, and intent on doing her own thing. Elizabeth Jennings, who wore her plimsolls to go and see the Queen (to receive a CBE), was indubitably such a person. She treasured some close friendships, and wrote of love affairs, but was essentially isolated. She tried more than once to kill herself. Her poetry went into decline, but she kept faith with her gift and it recovered.

Time after time in her best poems, Jennings writes about someone given over to an all-involving vocation. Poems such as ‘Bell-Ringer’, ‘Fishermen’, ‘The Diamond Cutter’, ‘Men Fishing in the Arno’, ‘Bonnard’, ‘A Chinese Sage’, ‘Hopkins in Wales’, ‘Creators in Vienna’, ‘Cézanne’ explore what it means to concentrate on a deep and deepening calling. A similar preoccupation is present in some of the best writings by Jennings’s near contemporary Muriel Spark, but Spark is a novelist enjoying high sales, and living in sunny climes. Jennings was different. She lived in rainy Oxford where it is lonely to be an intellectual without a university attachment. Her work does not register pop music or nationalism or computers or much of the structure of modern life. She is the profound opposite of the intellectual Hello!-zone of television chat shows and Sunday papers. Her canny male poet counterparts, such as Larkin, or Amis, or Donald Davie, had gone on to enjoy lucrative careers – making money out of academic jobs or film deals as well as writing poetry. They were celebrities of a kind. Sylvia Plath became a celebrity, and has remained one. Elizabeth Jennings, like her grandmother, seemed somehow stalled, living and working where the limelight did not reach.

How did she survive? She had no family to provide for, but her life, I suspect, was fairly hand-to-mouth. She worked at Oxford City Library for eight years but seems to have had no other paid employment. It is easy to subject her to all sorts of unthinking stereotypes – ‘spinster librarian’ is one. She suffered breakdowns and periods of mental illness. When I saw her in the street, she looked a bit like a wino, but not quite. Nowadays, there might have been fellowships in creative writing for her, grants, residencies. But to obtain these, one must market oneself, do career stuff, fill out elaborate forms. This was not what Elizabeth Jennings was about. All sorts of bodies from Arts Councils to Arts and Humanities Research Boards tempt the poet to present a self reshaped to suit their bureaucratic procedures, their emphasis on ‘methodologies’ and ‘research strategies’ rather than the line-by-line making of poems. Some poets sell feminism, or working-classness, or Scottishness, or race – all of which makes them easier for journalists to manipulate, package, sponsor. Jennings, though she wrote well about her Lincolnshire childhood ‘in a flat land of sugar-beet and tulips’, did not sell a local identity or a politics or a ‘personality’: what she had to offer was an appreciation of the value of spirituality, and a quietly dauntless focus on vocation – a religiously structured commitment that made her life very hard, very unremunerated, and her best poems very releasingly true.

Here is ‘The Diamond Cutter’, written around 1960. It is perhaps Jennings’s best poem.

Not what the light will do but how he shapes it
And what particular colours it will bear,

And something of the climber’s concentration
Seeing the white peak, setting the right foot there.

Not how the sun was plausible at morning
Nor how it was distributed at noon,

And not how much the single stone could show
But rather how much brilliance it would shun;

Simply a paring down, a cleaving to
One object, as the star-gazer who sees

One single comet polished by its fall
Rather than countless, untouched galaxies.

This is a splendid poem from its opening internally rhymed spondee – ‘Not what’ – which sets up in the ear through rhyme a sound of close correspondence even as in the mind it sets up an idea of negation of difference. Such a mixture of attunement and disparity exfoliates as the poem grows. The minute work of the diamond cutter seems at the other end of the perspectival scale from the climbing of a white peak; yet the snow-glare of the peak bonds with the diamond’s shaped light. The light of the sun and of the pared-down diamond counterpoint each other similarly. Such words as ‘plausible’ (used of the sun) and ‘distributed’ (of the sunlight) have all the surprising justness poetry demands. The poem might have been in quatrains, and the rhyme scheme suggests it should be, but the splitting into couplets, unrhymed in themselves yet bonded in pairs by a rhyme, gives again an interplay between isolation, individual difference and consonance or attunement. Heavily seeded with negatives, this short poem is about the riches of the universe, but goes beyond that, to a ‘paring down, a cleaving to/One object’ which signals the concentration of the artist, or person with a true vocation. The final figure in the poem is not the diamond cutter at his finicky, microscopic work, but the astronomer surveying the macroscopic clutter of the cosmos, yet choosing to focus on ‘One single comet polished by its fall’. ‘Polished’ here establishes a bond with the diamond, but refers to a rock from outer space, and we are made aware of its specialness because the poem, even as it apparently shuts them out, alerts us to the surrounding ‘countless, untouched galaxies’.

The poem’s rhythms are almost hypnotically modulated. Most, but (rightly) not all the lines flow as iambic pentameters with no internal punctuation; almost every one, though, has a clearly implied pause at the line-end, heightening the use of the couplet form for apposition; though just occasionally, to avoid monotony, there is a run-on and a piece of internal punctuation. The poem’s balancing of minute human activity against cosmological sweep makes it comparable with such early MacDiarmid masterpieces as ‘The Eemis Stane’ or ‘The Bonnie Broukit Bairn’, or with some of the brief, brilliant lyrics of Mandelstam or Celan. Yet Mandelstam or Celan might have made it too ringingly portentous; instead, it is as light and as true and beautifully ordered as Sappho on the evening star.

Most of Jennings’s work does not operate in this intensely sustained way. She likes to write short, conventional lyrics on themes such as her own childhood, artists, friends, sickness and health, seasons. She recalls that an early school experience of poetry left her ‘Locked into language with a golden key’, but her talent is limited by this sense of orderly locking up. When she writes a ‘Tribute to Turner’, she addresses him in terms of a need for art to be ‘locked and barred’; she recognises Turner’s storminess as powerful, but her conclusion that in his work ‘what seems peril has the power to please’ is too pat. A need ‘To keep off sprawl and chaos’ produced ‘The Diamond Cutter’, but also limits the power of her writing.

A change of form can liberate her, as with the long lines of ‘Psalm of Childhood’: ‘I rejoiced in the swelling apples, the hairy gooseberry, the blackberries and their juice.’ ‘I praise’ is a phrase repeated unironically and attractively in several of her poems. In a line like the one just quoted, Jennings seems to be transmitting something from Whitman as well as from Muir and Eliot; her concluding line is confident but honest: ‘And sometimes the world answers back.’ She is capable of a final line that expands beyond its context – ‘My doors are open and my windows wide’ – but most of the time her ‘poetry/Keeps me enclosed, well ordered and close-barred.’ Also alone: ‘I live alone by choice. I need to be/Alone to write.’

Wanting to meet God in her own poems, admiring the ‘wholly fastidious’ world of Paul Klee (another diamond cutter), Jennings persists in her vocation. She wrote too many sub-Herbertian poems late in life, and readers who dislike her might blame her for continually humming to the converted or writing mere exercises. She was not shy about presenting her Catholic faith in an era when careerist secular irony was the orthodoxy in poetry in England. Her rewards in terms of fully achieved poems were relatively small in number (here again she is like Edwin Muir), but they are sufficient to convince the reader of her commitment and calibre.

Jennings was very lonely in her last months in a nursing home. A little paragraph appeared in a magazine mailed to Oxford University graduates, asking if people might visit her. Yet she continued to write. Here is ‘Girl at Prayer’, from around 2000:

The girl simply raises her hand
And salutes the sudden sun and blesses it.
She is learning the lesson of love,
And trying to understand
That she need not search for words
Or make many movements either.
All she need do is copy the sun’s behaviour
Or the moon’s silent entry at night.