No 5 - 1975
The Poetry of Elizabeth Jennings
‘GAINED’, the short, serene, affirmative final poem in Elizabeth Jennings’s most recent collection (Growing-Points ) is very similar in character to the poems that come respectively at the ends of her 1967 Collected Poems and of the small collection Lucidities published in 1970 — the former entitled ‘Gale’, the latter ‘Journey through Warwickshire to Oxford’. If we run them chronologically, the poems are respectively seascape, landscape and skyscape. What seems to me significant is that in each case a simple affirmative statement is set against a background of the natural world in a state of balanced serenity, of still resolution. In all three contexts, that is, at all three of these stages of Elizabeth Jennings’s career, these poems do not seem out of place as concluding pieces: a synthesis of the poems in any of her collections would be an affirmative rather than a negative spirit. And yet ‘Gale’, which follows hard on The Mind has Mountains, her collection of work based on asylum experiences, and the ‘Journey through Warwickshire’, which concludes a comparatively weak collection in which self-professed doubt and anxiety are the key-notes, might seem, if not entirely acts of faith’, at any rate professions of faith in the teeth of . . . This applies whether or not the arrangement of poems is the act of publisher or author. But in the case of Growing-Points the affirmation of the last poem seems more than this. For the new strength of this collection, a strength displayed in what the poet is saying, in the sureness, ambitiousness and variety of forms in which she speaks, and in the idea of the poetic act which the title and sub-title (new poems) of the collection, taken together, imply, an idea made explicit by the poems themselves — this strength makes the affirmation and the quiet balance in nature in ‘Gained’ both a commentary on and an echo of the achievement of the book. Furthermore, it reads as a comment on a process and progression which date back to the start of Miss Jennings’s career. I should emphasise, however, that this process is no simple deliberate thing; nor does it have the convenience of Larkin’s triptych of major collections. It is, rather, the consequence of a poet with a profound and individual way of apprehending the world taking her sensibility ‘through the rough gates of life’, through the history of personal experience, indeed from comparative innocence to experience itself. Many poems have come out of this; at the same time, she has grown through and out of experience, and learnt about the process of growth and aspects of the energies on which all growth depends. Since I don’t see this development in simple linear terms, I will begin in medias res, citing a poem from her 1958 collection, A Sense of the World. It is in any case on Elizabeth Jennings’s particular sense of the world that any understanding of her poetic biography must be based.
‘Fountain’, the poem in question, is the only poem of hers she refers to explicitly in a later poem. She is primarily a maker of independent poems, each a new event; so her one instance of succumbing to the Yeatsian practice of declaring ‘And I myself created Hanrahan’ must give us pause. ‘In Retrospect and Hope’, a poem in the 1970 collection, singles out ‘Fountain’ as the poet’s favourite: ‘A true adjustment of art to life’. She continues:
For years I had been exercised
About the meaning of power, its secret depths;
Then, one day, Maundy Thursday,
The fountains leapt in my mind,
The waters came to life.
The last section of ‘Fountain’ itself reads:
Observe it there — the fountain, too fast for shadows,
Too wild for the lights which illuminate it to hold,
Even a moment, an ounce of water back;
Stare at such prodigality and consider
It is the elegance here, it is the taming,
The keeping fast in a thousand flowering sprays,
That builds this energy up but lets the watchers
See in that stress an image of utter calm,
A stillness there. It is how we must have felt
Once at the edge of some perpetual stream,
Fearful of touching, bringing no thirst at all,
Panicked by no perception of ourselves
But drawing the water down to the deepest wonder.
Here the poet is concerned with a number of aspects of the fountain she is observing: its energy; its perfect form reliant on a tension between energy and control entirely natural to the phenomenon, and which depends in fact on the energetic force of the water which precludes all anarchy; its consequent appearance of calm; the association of that calm with pre-lapsarian innocence in which ‘fearful of touching’ we were capable of ‘the deepest wonder’. In her later reference to ‘Fountain’, quoted above, she makes explicit the relationship between this oneness of calm and power, a oneness dependent on energy, and the tension in a work of art, relating this in turn to life, that is, the experiential human spirit. Moreover, the analogy with Eden is later developed by the remark that the poetic experience of ‘Fountain’ came to her mind, one day, ‘Maundy Thursday’.
Elizabeth Jennings does not work within the structure of an analogical Christian framework in the way that, say. David Jones does. Both poets work empirically, but there is no permanent analogical architecture supervising the former’s work. If on one particular occasion she senses an analogy with the Redemption, then the analogy arises out of that poetic situation. But one can say that the explicitly Christian notion of innocence and order is an informing part of her consciousness, and that her own sense of the precarious state of existence and energies between order and chaos finds a natural, intuitive analogue and explanation there. It is this coincidence that gives Every Changing Shape, her critical work about the relationship between mystical experience and the poetic act, not only such authoritative conviction, but the inevitability of a personal yet objective artistic statement.
Every Changing Shape was explicitly concerned with the making of poems as it relates to mystical experience, understood as a sense of union with God. Yet the pluperfect:
For years I had been exercised
About the meaning of power, its secret depths . . .
refers back to a period prior to 1958, the year of the publication of ‘Fountain’; and the critical book was published in 1961. To know the way in which she was ‘exercised about the meaning of power’, we must, in other words, go back to the very earliest collections.
The two most notable features of the first two volumes (Poems  and A Way of Looking ) are the quiet authority of tone, perfectly at one with the iambic pentameter in which most of the poems are cast, and the dominant theme thus treated: namely, the poet as subject; her poetic consciousness in relation to the world of which she is conscious. One thing is clear at the beginning: there must be such a relationship, an encounter with the world. In ‘Poem in Winter’, in the 1955 collection, the appropriation by the subjective consciousness of the objective world is seen as preferable to the refusal of any relationship or encounter. Children are seen by adults pressing
Their image on the drifts the snow has laid
Upon a winter they think they have made
— the poet continues:
This is a wise illusion. Better to
Believe the near world is created by
A wish, a shaping hand, a certain eye,
Than hide in the mind’s corner as we do
As though there were no world, no fall of snow.
The appropriation of world by the imagination at least presupposes the existence of world, and demands a genuine encounter with it. The much anthologised ‘Song at the Beginning of Autumn’, another seasonal poem in the same collection, is a larger treatment of this theme: an evocation of the natural world in that season gives rise to the point that season and world as they affect us are conditioned in our consciousness by our apprehension of them: in adulthood this more often than not takes the form of a merely linguistic conceptualising of significant world by the bestowal of names (‘Autumn and summer, winter, spring’); in childhood of a genuine, instinctive and spontaneous response to the world, uninhibited by doubt and consequent deliberation. This latter response goes beyond the merely verbal, but the intensity of response may create the assumption that world is made by the subject himself, conjured to life by an emotion which may express itself quite instinctively in language (‘When I said autumn, autumn broke’).
However Elizabeth Jennings does recognise that this appropriation is dependent on a strong receptivity to a world out there. The children’s assumption in ‘Poem in Winter’ that they had made that season was described as ‘a wise illusion’, but an illusion nonetheless. And in ’In This Time’, a poem with a similar setting, in which adult introspection is again contrasted with the responsiveness of children ‘outside’, that word is important in the poem:
We only know a way to lose ourselves,
Have lost the power that made us lose ourselves.
O let the wind outside blow in again
And the dust come and all the children’s voices.
Let anything that is not us return.
In the repetition and in its cadence, this extract is reminiscent of Wallace Stevens. But there’s an emphasis here peculiar to Elizabeth Jennings alone, in some measure at odds with Stevens. In the second line there is a deliberate double meaning in the word ‘power’: it means the subject’s power of self-oblivion, so of response; also, the power of the world outside so to affect the subject. The emphasis is therefore on a world not owned by the subject, rather than on a significant personal world, the subject’s own, fashioned by the shaping hand of the imagination, itself dependent on wonder — which is the emphasis of Stevens’s work. Imagination is, rather, a means of entering the world and gaining strength from it. At any rate, the precarious relationship between poet and world, in which an appropriation at least of world by poet is neither permissible nor indeed possible, but a relationship nevertheless, is the predominant theme of the first two books. In ‘In the Night’ it is seen in terms of a lovers’ poignant relationship, between two individuals, the one shunning possessiveness, eluding possession:
All that I love is, like the night, outside.
Good to be gazed at, looking as if it could
With a simple gesture be brought inside my head
Or in my heart . . .
. . . Now deep in my bed
I turn and the world turns on the other side.
The necessary dissatisfaction and the intent quest for union in the making of poems consequent on this is described in ‘On Making’, the first of her poems concerned with the nature of poetic activity. One of the distinctions she draws between the artist’s and the mystic’s lives in Every Changing Shape is that, unlike the purely contemplative, the poet can only win union with the world and with God by the continual making of poems. In ‘On Making’ she writes:
. . .
There is no place for minds to stand at ease
Nor any mood where passion may partake
Of stillness and be still. Move on, move out
Riding your mind with reckless animation.
. . .
Only when inspiration is lived along
Dare you exclaim ‘I’m near the perfect thing
That is not mine nor what I made at all.’
Yet there is a gay triumph, almost bravado, in these lines; and this is because the poet feels glory in the power of a creation which, though not under her dominion, may be apprehended, and from which strength may be won. In ‘Taken by Surprise’, published in the 1958 collection, power is celebrated in the very reversal of role between water-diviner and water as master and mastered:
. . .
Power from all quarters flung at him, silence broke
And deft but uneasy far in the back of his mind
A word like water shuddered, streams gushed and fountains
Rose as the hazel leapt from his mastered hand.
This poem appears in the same collection as ‘Fountain’. But for Elizabeth Jennings the hazards of being subject to the world and to contingent experience preclude any pat acquisition of the ideal balance achieved by the fountain, a balance associated with primal innocence. The world is wondrous certainly, but also dangerous. In the title poem of The Animals’ Arrival (1969) she presents a remarkable image of feral energy in a pre-lapsarian world, indeed before the appearance of man:
And prey on prey
Released each other
(Nobody hunted at all):
They slept for the waiting day.
In the title poem of Song for a Birth or a Death (1961) a savage feral world is presented as an image of the actual world we inhabit, the world of experience in which: ‘. . . cries of love are cries of fear’. The world of ‘The Animals’ Arrival’ is an innocent world, an ideal world; yet Elizabeth Jennings is more realist than idealist; and ‘the waiting day’ for which her beasts sleep is probably the more hazardous day of experience.
Although in some of the poems that came out of her experience as a patient in a mental hospital the Fall is stated in entirely orthodox terms as the cause of human suffering, Miss Jennings had herself not only acknowledged but dared a necessary path of experience. For while the sense of menace and of human and extra-human complexity is contingent upon experience to which she was naturally responsive and thus naturally exposed — this including the complexities of romantic love — there is at the same time, if not quite a deliberation, a courageous active acceptance of the road of experience she felt herself bound to take. Though never entirely passive, the human subject must face the power beckoning her, be subject in fact to the force both of natural world and of human emotions. Keeping the Biblical analogy, one might say that for Elizabeth Jennings, after the Fall, in the world as we know it, experience must be encountered. Witness ‘Two Deaths’, in the 1961 collection. The poem is about the double experience of the wartime shooting of a Polish boy, seen in a film, and the poet’s subsequent discovery of a dead cat stretched on a path. It concludes:
I am ashamed I have never seen anyone die.
What followed this collection were Recoveries (1964) and The Mind has Mountains (1966), in which the acute suffering both of self and of others is stared squarely in the face, the two collections punctuated as always by encouraging poems embodying an exploratory response to something beyond the poet’s immediate physical context. These collections are in turn followed by the three small volumes of poems that came after the 1967 Collected Poems, written in the aftermath of this experience, Relationships (1972) dealing also with the meditations and resolves after the death of a close friend. But, besides the incumbency which made necessary her journey through the Inferno and Purgatorio of personal suffering, is the condition on which this suffering, and no less the possible sense of glory and strength, depend — the acknowledgement of an incarnate world ‘which I have not made’ and of consequent vulnerability:
I live in a world I have not created
inward or outward. There is a sweetness
in willing surrender: I trail my ideas
behind great truths. My ideas are like shadows
and sometimes I consider how it would have been
to create a credo, objects, ideas
and then to live with them. I can understand
when tides most tug and the moon is remote
and the trapped wild beast is one with its shadow,
how even great faith leaves room for abysses
and the taut mind turns to its own requirings.
the precarious knife-edge between order and chaos and the tense pivot on which the awareness and poetic re-creation of order rests.
The two collections immediately preceding Growing-Points lack the strength both of the new book and of the work that came before them. It may be felt that the new poems have altogether more in common with the earlier work than with that running broadly from Recoveries to Relationships. In fact, in the new collection the manifestations of strength and the treatment of energies, of the relationship between subject and world and of suffering are conditioned by the experience both of nervous breakdown and of bereavement; and the whole theme of renewal, the conditions for the renewal and the preservation of strength is consequent on the poet’s experience of the last ten or so years. As for weakness of form and voice, it was the consequence of her acceptance of necessary risk, and demonstrates the tension discussed above quite as much as the new book’s strength. At the same time, Growing-Points is informed by the increased compassion resulting from acquaintance with extreme suffering. Finally, the precarious vulnerability of the artist and the renewal of order and strength both in art and life were explicit themes in the two weaker volumes.
In Growing-Points the treatment of the relationship between artist and world, with its emphasis on the right balance of power, looks back to the early collections. In ‘Observing’ her concern with natural energies is stated with the objectivity of a scientist:
That tree across the way
Has been a magnet to me all this year.
What happens to it is what interests me.
Yet, though an observer, the poet is attracted by the tree’s magnetic influence. As at the beginning of her career, she is necessarily involved. The poem is, moreover, concerned with the endurance of ‘that frail-seeming wood’ against the experience of the weather. Whether conscious or subconscious, there’s an analogy here with the endurance of the human subject against the weather of experience: at both levels there is a preoccupation with the relationship between subject and object, and between active and passive strengths. The poet is not considered purely passive, in terms either of receptivity to inspiration or of exposure to suffering. But she does still believe that one can neither presume final control over the world outside nor appropriate matter subjectively conditioned by the imagination to make a new autonomous world. Conscience and realism forbid this. In ‘Bird Study’ she declares:
I am obsessed with energy
I never touch. I am alive
To what I only hear and see,
The sweep, the sharp, the drive.
— indeed here there is the implication that the powerful recognition of energies, and the energies themselves, depend on their not being controlled by human possessiveness. If there is not the sudden reversal of subject and object as in the earlier water-diviner poem, the emphasis on the inextricability of wonder and connection with world from subjection to mastery, there is at any rate in ‘Bird Study’ a necessary humility on the observer’s part before the world she is observing.
We have seen how early poems contrast the child’s spontaneous response to the world and his capacity for wonder with the unnecessary inhibitions and inevitable complications of adulthood, and how Elizabeth Jennings finds sympathetic the ‘wise illusion’ of believing the world felt intensely as the creation of ‘A wish, a shaping hand, a certain eye’, considering it still an illusion. In Growing-Points she pays homage to Stevens, the unbeliever who claimed that significant world can only be created by the imagination, in a small tribute entitled ‘Wonder’. But in the new collection the child’s peculiar strength is seen as dependent on an acknowledgement of a divinity above him: he possesses experience by dispossessiveness, owns the world, in the sense not least of ‘owning up to it, by acknowledging an owner. Witness ‘Thunder and a Boy’:
. . . Those birds escaping through showers show us
They are more imperial than we are. We shift, talk, doze,
look at papers,
Though one child is remembering how last night he stood with
And joy at his window and shouted Do it again, God, do it
Can we say he was less wise than us? We cannot. He acknowledged
Thor, God the Father, and was prepared to cheer or dispute
with any of them.
What the poet can learn from this child is more important than the nostalgia for childhood she may feel. In one of the opening sonnets she states: ‘Sickness for Eden was so strong’ — but Eden means considerably more than childhood. What can be gained from children is a new spontaneity, also a re-acquaintance with simplicity. In ‘Losing and Finding’, a poem of considerable candour and tenderness, she says to the small boy with whom she spent an afternoon of absolute trust:
But the sense of loss ran through me all the time
You were chatting away. I wanted to keep you safe,
Not know fear, be curious, love people . . .
— loss being here as much a desire for innocence as, perhaps, for motherhood. Yet the child is a rescuer also; for through him she is able to find new strength, and hopefully a new innocence. She says in the poem: ‘There was something elegiac . . .’: elegy depends as much on renewal as on initial lament.
Renewal is seen in Growing-Points not as a return to childhood; on the contrary, it is seen as a forward motion starting out of the crucial stage of life that the poet has reached. In ‘Accepted’ she states:
This is a time to begin
Your life. It could be new.
In ‘After a Time’ recovery from bereavement and renewed strength are seen as the result not only of facing suffering squarely, but of accepting new affections, and the new quickening they bring:
Yet I am growing with
Spontaneous strengths, blessings I did not claim —
Laughter, a child, knowledge of justice and
Faith like a cross which oddly bears my name,
Falls round my neck.
Personal and poetic renewal are seen as inter-dependent. The latter requires a renewal of language, an attainment of clarity, a disciplined shunning of rhetoric. This had been a concern in Relationships, but now the theme of simplicity according with spiritual freshness is distilled in more powerful, more achieved and richer anecdotal or metaphorical forms, and in powerful similes. Freshness, in a poem of that title, is compared thus:
It is like going into those libraries where chained
Books are . . .
You see an illustration, a story from the Bible or an old fable
One letter. It is like that — this awareness of warmth and also
The Alphabet is being learnt again, . . .
In ‘A Chinese Sage’ the emphasis is reversed: simplicity of life is presented as the model for a right simplicity of language.
Yet for all her discipline of spirit and of language, Elizabeth Jennings regards renewal as something gained almost by chance, a miraculous last-minute escape, and bestowed by something other. Gratitude, a predominant note in the book, stems not from a self-denying humility, but from a humility arising from that apprehension of the world discussed above. Personal and poetic strength assert themselves at crucial and precarious moments. In ‘Not Abstract’ this is seen in terms of an image from the natural world:
Where the river bends, where the bridges break,
Where the willow does not quite
Fall to the current — here is the place to stake
Your life in, your delight
Once easily lost. Here again you could make
A day out of half a night . . .
The title of the poem is important. Elizabeth Jennings shuns the purely abstract as she enters the world. Not only is the tense balance between order and chaos, birth and death consequent on the precariousness of the incarnate world we inhabit; but what is to be won from that balance, what gained through the crucial breach is a new state of innocent wonder and unity with creation itself — a condition to which the action of the fountain had been compared. I am reminded of Pound’s words:
A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour.
— And of a poem in the 1961 collection, entitled ‘Men Fishing in the Arno’:
From this one might, I think,
Build a whole way of living — men in their mazes
Of secret desires yet keeping a sense
Of order outwardly, hoping
Not too flamboyantly, satisfied with little
Yet not surprised should the river suddenly
Yield a hundredfold, every hunger appeased.
This poem’s title sounds like the title of a painting, and the poem itself does give an intense impression of stasis. A reason for Elizabeth Jennings’s strong affection for the visual arts is, I think, the fact that they can so directly convey power witheld at a crucial moment; at the same time, not working in time, they can convey great calm. And the perfect fusion of calm and energy, the one dependent on the other, is, as we have seen, the essence of the poem ‘Fountain’. The fountain is a perfect achievement: an inscape holding its instress in perfect control. Its state is compared to the strength gained from human wonder in a state of innocence. Alternatively, from the inscape of a scene or situation experienced by the poet, the instress may come.
So with Growing-Points. I have emphasised the strength and energy of the poems in the collection. What is more important is that in some of the poems a complete union between subject and world seems to have been achieved; and this union is shown not primarily, I think, in the strength of statement, form or even rhythmical energy, but in the way in which Elizabeth Jennings uses, or is used by, language. Her feel for things had always been intensely physical, sensuous, empathetic. Now some of the poems in their entirety, and parts of many others, display a physical and spiritual unity between subject and world in which the tension between the two has dissolved completely. This union is well expressed in the last line of ‘Transformation’, one of the sonnets:
Trusting myself, I enter night, stars, moon.
The language of ‘Celebration of Winter’, of the second stanza of ‘Not Abstract’, of the two short lyrics ‘Prospero’ and ‘Persephone’, testifies to this union: it is no exaggeration to say that in these instances Word seems to have become Flesh, and the poem seems to possess the powerful impersonality of a new incarnation, rhythmically and verbally embodied. In fact, Flesh has become Word. This is, perhaps, the ‘hundredfold’ that Elizabeth Jennings had hoped for in ‘Men Fishing in the Arno’: the reconciliation and union that come in a state of innocence.
The power resulting from a right relationship with the world manifests itself in other ways: in the sheer quantity of poems; in the range of subject-matter, and the treatment of both public and private worlds; in the authority with which she uses old forms and new forms — the long-lined poems have a greater energy than her earlier prose-poems and more control and authority than the modernistic experiments with free associative form in The Mind has Mountains. The same concerns, developed by experience, are distilled in images in a way that they were not in the two books immediately preceding Growing-Points: ‘Rather like a Peacock’, which examines the vulnerability of innocence and beauty in the image of a peacock threatened by small jealous birds, is a triumphant case in point. The darting, yet controlled rhythm of some of the poems, and the music of others again testify to a new strength; and the rhythmical and formal variety show not only a right balance between self and world, but a finger confidently on the pulse of creation.
Elizabeth Jennings sees Christ’s suffering and redemption as a profound analogue, possibly an explanation, of our peculiar condition. Now that she has won this new strength, she is the first to acknowledge that she has caught ‘grace almost by chance’. The business is always precarious. The capacity to achieve grace, to feel energies and to make poems out of wonder, itself remains a source of wonder to her; though she has explored the relationship between creation, the human consciousness and poetic making better perhaps than any of her contemporaries. The possibilities of renewal and the variety of experience that she offers, after and out of a period of weakness, confirm her as something more useful than a stoic and belie the monochromatic pessimism that some poets have to offer us. Growing-Points is an exceptional kind of poetry book: a collection of a large number of poems, each a new manifestation of energy, each a new point of departure. The way in which she works belies any gloss notion of linear development. And yet her new strength, the power of the new poems and her more deeply compassionate understanding of suffering, are not only the fruits of a sensibility she was born with, nor just of a considered meditation on the relationship between subject and world, but have been won by a courageous daring of her own personal history.
Elizabeth Jennings’s Growing-Points (1975) is published by Carcanet Press.
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