Archive for December 2nd, 2019

The Purpose of Poetry

At the end of the last post I asked, ‘What, for Jennings, was the purpose of poetry and to what extent did she achieve it?’

Dana Green’s biography contains a wealth of pointers in this direction. For a start, she argues that (page 250):

Writing verse helped her find unity in herself as she confronted the tumultuous world within and around her.

This is even more compelling an issue now than it was then. Divisions within us resonate with conflicts outside us in escalating spirals of destructiveness. My recent sequence of posts on the Bahá’í concept of unity deals with some of the possible remedies for this in more detail. It’s intriguing that I should perhaps be adding poetry to that list, something perhaps will need to explore in more details at some point.

What exactly this meant to her in practice was less easy to define. She expressed a concern (page 38):

that English poets had ‘lost their grip’ and ‘got too far away from life.’ What she felt was needed were thoughtful poems with big subjects . . .

What were the ‘big subjects’ she was referring to here?

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I resonated in particular to her desire (page 41) ‘to examine the relationship between appearance and the real meaning of things … Her hope was to discover the truths that underlie ordinary experience.’ She hoped to fill a gap in the oeuvre (page 42): ‘ She lamented that there were so many states of mind not yet dignified by poetry.’

Excavated by Greene from her notebooks, her vision is expressed in the following slightly different terms (page 141):

Like all art, poetry is not a means of escape from one’s own life or from a violent world; rather it is an escape into a greater reality. It civilizes and enobles and gives a sense of justice. Poetry is an onward drive forward towards truth and the mystery.

Also important for me is her idea of poetry helping to restore a much needed balance. She wrote in ‘Poetry To-Day’ in 1961 (page 45):

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.

Her emphasis on effectively creating ‘unity in herself’ is mirrored in the Bahá’í Revelation. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78):

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

Bahá’u’lláh before him has made it abundantly clear how high the level of unity is that we must achieve both within us and between us. It’s a key spiritual task.

It is not surprising then that Jennings sees poetry as essentially religious. In her introduction Greene quotes Jennings (page xvi): ‘Poetry is an art/That’s close to all/Religion.’ Also as Greene comments (page 52): ‘For her, poetry and religion were inseparable.’

Greene explains Jennings’ most precise description of what this means in practice (page 68):

She defines poetry as the language of embodiment and enactment by which through rhythm, word order, and diction a spiritual dimension is conveyed.

She was under no illusion that it would be an easy task to create and subsequently sell such poems. She believed that (page 94) ‘in the materialistic and technological twentieth century, Christian poets confronted great difficulties, and the greater poet, the greater the conflict.’

In Considerations (Collected Poems  – page 101) she asserts:

But poetry must change and make
The world seem new in each design.
It asks much labour, much heartbreak,
Yet it can conquer in a line.

The Issue of Quality versus Quantity

Before we look at some examples of her poetry trying to determine how successful she was in this respect I need to mention in more detail the caveats expressed by many critics about what they felt was the dubious quality of her poetry at the same time as her popularity remained unquestioned.

As Greene puts it (page 50): ‘Her poetic output was prolific and her subject matter frequently repetitive, both of which were to become major criticisms of her work,’ and again (page 100) ‘a common criticism of Jennings . . . . was that she wrote too much and thereby muffled her good poems.’

This does not suggest, of course, that all her poems were bad. Some critics, though, had more wide-ranging doubts. For example (page 52) Larkin, also a popular poet, acknowledged that Jennings ‘is still an explainer rather than a describer.’

Her publisher, Michael Schmidt at Carcanet, was probably the best placed to testify to her popularity. Growing Points, which marked the beginning of their long publishing relationship (page 119) sold well, had sixteen editions, and was translated into three languages.’

He later explained her continuing popularity (page 186) asserting:

that Jennings was ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement, [and] attributing her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, which was generally written in strict form.’

What is completely uncontested is the depth of her commitment to poetry. Greene shares a typical exchange towards the end of her life (page 177):

She was insulted when people would ask ‘Are you writing still?’ and responded to this ‘hated question’ with the retort, ‘Are you breathing still?’

Now for the difficult bit – how to assess whether the quality of her poetry survived its quantity.

This is inevitably going to be a rather subjective exercise, and I’m aware that many professionals in the field of poetry will probably disagree with my assessment, plausibly explaining my enthusiasm away by flagging up how her themes and personality map onto some of my favourite preoccupations. I will try to root my comments into the firmest possible ground, but in the end de gustibus nil disputandum – there’s no arguing about taste.

I had decided to choose an early poem, one that in my view powerfully conveys the fear which underlay many of her frustrating patterns of behaviour, and a later one, focused more on memories and the challenges of creativity, to examine this in more detail. Bearing in mind the key sentence from Greene, I planned to look for how effectively ‘a spiritual dimension is conveyed’ through the vehicle of her poetry.

I had chosen those poems because the first one deals head on with darkness, through which it would be a challenge for anyone to catch a glimpse of a spiritual dimension’s light. The second one, though melancholy, has more light.

I did not chose any of her poems later than 1985, because the New Collected Poems of 2002 had not arrived in the local Waterstones in time for the end of this sequence.

I have now had time, however, to read the introduction, and it contains a sentence by Michael Schmidt that indicates why I was finding it so difficult to make a start using Song for a Birth or a Death (Collected Poems – page 48), first published 1961 as first poem in a collection of that name, or Precursors, the last poem in her collection of 1985.

He wrote (page xxiii):

Though she wrote discrete lyrics, she is a poet who, like another Catholic writer, David Jones, makes most sense in extenso: the predictable and pedestrian exist beside the epiphanic.

I feel there is unevenness within a single lyric at times, maybe quite often. So, I decided I needed to try and convey her impact by taking a sequence of poems, after only a few brief words about the poems I was intending to expand upon.

Contrary to my original plan, this will have to spill over into another post.


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