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.
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 Who is the mysterious ‘B’ referred to in her unpublished autobiography as the man she could not marry?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.
In 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. 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.
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 email@example.com and Emma Mason firstname.lastname@example.org
Images © Richard Lofthouse, Oxford University Images