Dr Jane Dowson issues an appeal to anyone who may have known the Oxford poet, who matriculated at St Anne’s College in 1947, ahead of a symposium on her life and work.

Elizabeth Jennings’s (St Anne’s, 1947)Jennings is often associated with ‘The Movement’, a collective that included poets such as Oxonians Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin

By Dr Jane Dowson

How good were Elizabeth Jennings’s (St Anne’s, 1947) twenty-seven volumes of poetry? How do we reconcile the tidy formalism of her lyrics with the psychological turmoil revealed in her personal papers? What is an apt critical language for poetry about mental breakdown, friendship, faith, or loneliness? Is Jennings’s uncertain literary status to do with being a woman, a spinster, a Catholic, or because numerous readers buy and love her poems? Who is the mysterious ‘B’ referred to in her unpublished autobiography as the man she could not marry? As living memory fades, what can those who met her contribute to our understanding of Jennings’s work? These are questions that scholars and the public will address during a symposium at St Anne’s on Saturday 29 October. 

How good were Elizabeth Jennings’s (St Anne’s, 1947) twenty-seven volumes of poetry? How do we reconcile the tidy formalism of her lyrics with the psychological turmoil revealed in her personal papers? What is an apt critical language for poetry about menIn the last two decades of her life (1926-2001), Jennings became destitute and was a familiar sight in cafes around Oxford, although she preferred to sit and write at The Randolph where coffee cost £2.25, yielded 4 cups and included a biscuit. Such anecdotes and her downtrodden appearance have detracted from Jennings’s importance to twentieth-century British poetry. (One thinks of the famous wisecrack by F.R. Leavis that ‘The Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than of poetry’ (New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932, p. 73). Her literary career spanned nearly 50 years and her awards included the Somerset Maughan Prize and a CBE. Jennings was a contemporary of Sylvia Plath and sometimes, like Plath, labeled a confessional poet yet, as Martin Booth points out, Jennings is ‘great as a poet, but she doesn’t look it’ (British Poetry 1964-84: driving through the barricades (1985), p. 178).  Nevertheless, Jennings’s poetry has always had admirers who include Kingsley Amis, Kathleen Raine, John Gielgud, John Wain, Anthony Thwaite, and Germaine Greer. Jennings aimed to be clear and to connect with the reader, believing that ‘poetry is an art which, of its very nature, strips away inessentials to reveal only what is important, only what will suffice. What the poem discovers – and this is its chief function – is order amid chaos, meaning in the middle of confusion, and affirmation at the heart of despair.’ (Jennings, ‘Conclusion’, Poetry To-day, 1961, p. 56).  She could pinpoint the ways in which mental processes and emotional drives can chase each other in human relationships or spiritual quest. 

In 2003, a road, Elizabeth Jennings Way, was named after her in Oxford where she lived most of her life. After graduating from St Anne’s, she started a DLitt on Matthew Arnold but interrupted it for an engagement that was later broken off. After a spell at a London’s publishing house, she returned to Oxford where she worked in the City Library for eight years and became an admired poet, editor, and reviewer. In her personal writings, she records feeling part of the ‘literary talent’, networking with such luminaries as Janet Adam Smith, Stephen Spender, John Lehmann, Donald Hall, Michael Hamburger, and Dom Moraes. She is famous as the only woman to be counted among the postwar Movement poets associated with Philip Larkin who praised her ‘ear’ for poetic expression (Letter 4 Feb. 1956, British Library).  During the 1960s, she transformed the pain of her mental breakdown and its treatment in the Warneford Hospital into two evocative poetry volumes.  Jennings continued to produce powerful lyric poetry until her death in 2001. Michael Schmidt, who started Carcanet Press in Oxford (1969) before taking it to Manchester, championed her work and during the 1980s claimed that Jennings was the best-selling poet on his list and one of the best-selling poets in England. How good were Elizabeth Jennings’s (St Anne’s, 1947) twenty-seven volumes of poetry? Philip Larkin (St John's, English, 1940) encouraged his friend and fellow poet Jennings 

Schmidt will be speaking at a symposium that aims to bring together experts on Jennings’s poetry along with anyone who knew her, knows her work or wants to know more. Dana Greene will talk about her forthcoming biography that is well overdue since Jennings left a vast body of correspondence and personal notebooks that are housed in several libraries in the UK and USA. The symposium can reconsider whether Jennings’s madness might be partly the result of struggling to fulfil her vocation as a poet with her alienation from social prescriptions for women. With reference to Jennings’s poetry and criticism, a panel will talk more broadly about how poetry and religion can (or cannot) work together. The symposium will also have a forum for participants to share their recollections of Jennings.  Among the readers of her work will be her friends Priscilla Tolkien and Anne Harvey.

How good were Elizabeth Jennings’s (St Anne’s, 1947) twenty-seven volumes of poetry? How do we reconcile the tidy formalism of her lyrics with the psychological turmoil revealed in her personal papers? What is an apt critical language for poetry about men 

Dr Jane Dowson is Reader in twentieth century literature at De Montfort University, Leicester

Jennings Symposium, Saturday October 29, St Anne’s College

The one-day symposium Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) is free and open to the public. It welcomes anyone who may have known or met Elizabeth Jennings. It will be held on Saturday 29 October, 2016, at St Anne’s College, 56 Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HS. It starts at 9.30 am and finishes with a poetry reading 6-7 pm. One purpose of the Symposium is to bring together anecdotes and memories that may otherwise perish. For more information, go to http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/research/currentprojects/poetryatwarwick/conferences/elizabethjennings/ or contact the organisers Jane Dowson jdowson@dmu.ac.uk and Emma Mason emma.mason@warwick.ac.uk

Images © Richard Lofthouse, Oxford University Images

Comments

By Edward Mycue
on

Her writing inspired me in the 60's and I have never loosened the pull.

By shabana khilji
on

Heart touching poems.
She takes a seemingly ordinary hapenning and transforms it into 'a moment of vision.'

By shabana khilji
on

Heart touching poems.
She takes a seemingly ordinary hapenning and transforms it into 'a moment of vision.'

By Mark Floyer
on

I heard her read with Andrew Harvey at Christ Church in (I think) spring 1975. Andrew was very much the poet maudit in flowing cape etc whilst I remember Elizabeth Jennings wearing a shapeless overcoat and green wellington boots. Her reading was clear and understated as her she channelled her poems to the audience with beautiful diction and rhythm. Memorable.

By Willim Hughes (...
on

I met Miss Jennings at the Poetry Society readings and other events in Oxford in the early 1970s.
She was often deep in thought, sometimes distracted, and then in turn agitated and excited as she began to talk with us. She could be both sympathetic and intensely critical of the poems read by her peers. Her own poetry often took finely observed moments in the everyday life of women and built on them to reveal the tensions and disappointments facing women who had a creative gift and wanted to follow an artistic career. We sensed, I think, that she had experienced mental turmoil, and it seemed to be bi-polar. Sometimes she was silent, and a few weeks later voluble and assertive. One colleague said that he enjoyed reading the lines of her poetry because she underplayed being poetic, but the craft was there in the lines. However, he thought she had written "one big poem". Her work, perhaps, was not confessional like Larkin, but certainly rooted in her inner struggle to produce work of value when she was trapped by the position she had been placed in by male discourses and social conventions about women and poetry.

By Julia Aston Smi...
on

My son, Christopher Johnson, who knew Elizabeth when he was young and when Elizabeth lived in Polstead Road in the 1960s, has written a lovely tribute to her. If you would like me to send it, would you kindly give me an email address?
Julia (32 Chalfont Road, OX2 6TH)

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