A new book argues that Elizabeth Jennings was one of last century's most important writers
In her new biography of the poet Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), Dana Greene asks: “How did this woman, against extraordinary odds of psychological instability, poverty, ill health and neediness achieve what she did?” It is a good question to which her book Elizabeth Jennings: The Inward War (OUP) goes some way to answering.
For Jennings, there was very little separation between her writing and her life. Whatever she suffered at various stages of her life, including a period at the Warneford Hospital in Oxford after a breakdown, was turned into poetry. As she wrote in Writing Poems: Primary Source: “[Poetry is]…this demanding, impatient, moody/Aching, recalcitrant/ Kind, perceptive/ Honest, yes/Beautiful/Art. It is my life my/Raison d’etre.”
It is this that makes Greene’s attractively concise survey of Jennings’ achievement so engrossing. The reader is drawn into a life of intense sensibility, eccentricity and endurance, whatever the odds. And these odds included a fragile, highly sensitive personality, which found coping with the ordinary stresses of life harder than most people.
Unlike, for instance, Philip Larkin, Jennings made the decision in 1958, after a stint in an Oxford library followed by a London publishing house, to devote herself solely to poetry. It was a brave decision but it also meant that her life was thereafter beset by money worries: the need for poetry to pay by giving readings and writing reviews, the relentless need to publish and reliance on the generosity of loyal friends.
Escaping the Jansenist Catholic faith of her childhood and youth (where guilt and fear predominated) on a trip to Rome in 1957, she found friendship with a Dominican priest who became her spiritual director. Jennings realised faith could be joyful and that “art was sacramental.” In this life-changing visit she began to understand that “it was not strange to be either a poet or a Catholic”.
Ill health, sporadic reliance on alcohol for self-medication, the death of friends and thus the ending of passionate friendships, did not stop Jennings’ literary output. By 1975, she had published twelve books of poetry to solid critical acclaim; in her massive literary archive there are 30,000 unpublished poems. Though encouraged by Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Peter Levi, and a popular presence in anthologies and on A-level syllabuses, there were some dissenting voices who thought Jennings wrote too much and of very varied quality. Such criticism always wounded her.
In old age, Jennings was a familiar figure in north Oxford, sitting in cafes during the day for the sake of company and writing her poems when she got home. Asked by well-meaning people, “Are you writing still?” she would retort, “Are you breathing still?”
Greene has concentrated on the life rather than the poetry, though each chapter is introduced by a poetic quotation reflecting the particular phase of Jennings’ life. At her best, her voice was unmistakeable: strong, clear and finely attuned to the weight of words. In chapter 16, Reprieve, Greene opens with some lines from Rescued: “…I gave up but felt a great power pull/Me back and now I see why and am glad/…Call that power God/As I do, call it fortune. I have found/ Some use in all those shadows. They have told/Me of the terror that makes dying bold/ But now I hear its soft retreating sound.”
Greene’s study makes an admirable introduction to the life and work of a significant figure in 20th century poetry. I think Jennings would have been gratified by it.