Archive for December 5th, 2019

Bearing in mind the key sentence from Dana Greene, I plan now to look for how effectively ‘a spiritual dimension is conveyed’ through the vehicle of her poetry. It’s important to emphasise, given how the word ‘spiritual’ has been deracinated and emptied of specific meaning in the West, as Carrette and King describe in their book Selling Spirituality, that Jennings uses the term in a strong and definite sense which is rooted in her Roman Catholic faith.

The First Sequence of Poems

Immediately, as I warned last time, there is a problem if I just take one poem out of its context. The poem at the top of this post is powerful, with its echoes of Tennyson’s anticipation of Darwin (In Memoriam – Canto 56) where humanity:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

Not that Tennyson, whom she read at school, seemed to resonate with her. However, the poem certainly is not a confident affirmation of a ‘spiritual dimension.’ It also suggests a degree of recoil from what can be other positive human experiences. In the world of this poem, moonlight is connected with predation, blood flowing and teeth gripping. The poem describes men as ‘in bed with love and fear,’ and in a context where ‘human creatures’ being ‘lip to lip’ follows directly on from the owl being dragged ‘upon its prey,’ and even kissing seems potentially dangerous. In fact, later in the poem, we are described as feeling ‘the blood throb to death’ after kissing ‘in trust’ and before conceiving a child. At the close of the poem, pain seems inescapable and love inseparable from fear.

A dark world in which light only seems to help the killers.

The thought began to dawn on me, as I read more, that, whatever Elizabeth Jennings might have wanted to achieve, glimpses of a spiritual dimension were going to be hard won, and perhaps only tantalising glimpses out of the corner of her eye, rather than unequivocal affirmations of her consciously chosen faith.

It seems a good idea to look at the poem that followed on from Song for a Birth or a Death, rather than cherry picking another from a different period of time.

Family Affairs, the next poem, remains in a fairly dark place. It appears to affirm that ‘Indifference lays a cold hand on the heart;/We need the violence to keep us warm.’ Not much progress here towards a sense of the transcendent, then.

A Game of Chess follows. The atmosphere is calmer: ‘Now peacefully/We sit above the intellectual game.’ She even begins to wonder if ‘feelings cool/Beneath the order of an abstract school?’ But I turn the page and find the answer: ‘Never entirely, since the whole thing brings/Me back to childhood when I was distressed.’

However, although this may seem disappointing, since the spiritual dimension remains elusive, at least up till now, it becomes clearer why I value her poetry so much. It is completely honest. It respects and conveys her experience simply and directly, but with enough ambiguity at the edges to allow me to feel I am sharing in her quest for meaning, rather than colluding in some didactic attempt to convey her clear conclusions. The last line of A Game of Chess reads: ‘My king is caught now in a world of trust.’ I’m still not quite sure what that means.

From there we move to the gem of a poem I found in my notebook and which triggered me to go back to her poetry and to find out more about her life.

The poem is poignant and honest. There is grief, I feel, though she explicitly denies it, mixed with the sense of guilt, some perhaps her grandmother’s, hinted at in lines like:

The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut,
The smell of absences where shadows come
That can’t be polished.

In this poem, I feel, she is not preaching at us to be compassionate: she is demonstrating her own strong capacity for compassion. She is setting us a moving example.

Then we come to a poem where you would expect to find what she claims she was seeking to convey: In Praise of Creation.

We are closer now to William Blake in her use of animals. We have a sky ‘full of birds,’ and find ‘the tiger trapped in the cage of his skin.’ Even so we have not escaped the link between birth and death of the first poem: ‘the tigress’ shadow casts//A darkness over’ the tiger, causing his blood to beat ‘beyond reason.’ The closest we can get to the spirit is to find at the end ‘Man with his mind ajar.’

I find that brilliant though, and not frustrating, or at least not more frustrating than real life. It is not frustrating to read because it reflects back a sense of my felt experience, I hear that captured in words in a way that clarifies, pins down, what I sometimes find too hard to catch before it fades away.

The last poem I will consider in this sequence is World I Have Not Made. Here she speaks of themes that resonate through a great deal of her work: ‘trying to love without reciprocity,’ coming ‘to terms with obvious suffering,’ and ‘how even great faith leaves room for abysses.’ In a sense that poem summarises the drift of her work as a whole, missing out only an explicit attempt to define what her poetry is for, though it demonstrates it clearly enough. She fights persistently to deal with love and loss, pain and trauma, faith and doubt, searching for meaning in this kind of ambiguous darkeness.

The Second Sequence of Poems

Which makes my next shift to another sequence written twenty years later intriguing for what it reveals of progress made in probing more deeply into the same ground, as well as extending her range further. Having moved forwards from a first poem in the 1961 sequence, I’ll be moving forwards to the last poem in the 1985 collection.

The end of the poem about her grandmother spoke of ‘the new dust falling through the air.’ The first poem I will look at now, Frail Bone, after pointing out that we are an ‘easily wounded . . . small being,’ refers to us as sand falling ‘through the hour glass of the planet,/Blown through the universe,/And yet that dust delivers/Defiant speech to the last,/Anomalous oratory.’ A paradox of our existence is dramatically flagged up for our attention: we are star-dust that speaks. For someone to find that anomalous is the beginning of a sense that we are not just matter.

The next poem Dust (nothing to do with Lyra by the way) makes this even more explicit: ‘We are people of dust/But dust with a living mind.’ In fact, as the next verse states ‘Dust with a spirit.’ This is directly addressing the spiritual nature of humanity.

For some, this might seem too direct. Poetry should create an experience, some might say, but not tell us what that experience means: this is theology, not poetry. As someone who is also guilty of writing poetry that touches on this issue, though perhaps in a more questioning way (see for example the end of Enlightenment), I am leaning towards feeling that the powerful directness of this phrase belongs in poetry not prose. I am not so sure about what follows, for example ‘grace/Goes to the end of the earth.’ This illustrates what I mentioned earlier, that even in the same short lyric the quality of her poetry fluctuates.

I think she picks herself up again when she writes:

We are dust from our birth
But in that dust is wrought

A place for visions.

The enjambement and stanza break flag up that there is a leap to be made here from dust to vision.  The word ‘wrought’ also makes clear how effortful that is. ‘Visions’ is, of course, a word that cuts both ways – does it refer to imagination or mysticism or both?

The closing lines of that lyric read:

Dust discovers our own
Proud, torn destinies,
Yes, we are dust to the bone.

The insistent and repeated thudding of the letter d adds to the power of the lines, not just with its sound but also with its possibly unwelcome reminder of death.

Which is where she explicitly moves to in the next poem, Water Music.

                                                    Sea music is
What quiets my spirit. I would like my death
To come as rivers turn, as sea commands.
Let my last journey be to sounds of water.

The hissing and buzzing of the repeated s creates a different effect, though, calmer, quieter, more accepting. The word spirit appears for the first time in my selections. Its exact meaning is unclear, which wouldn’t surprise Carrette and King (page 3): ‘There is no essence or definitive meaning to terms like spirituality.’ For Elizabeth Jennings, though, it almost certainly means something close to soul, possibly experienced through the heart. That she sees death as a journey confirms that her vision is essentially transcendent.

And this brings us to the final poem in her 1985 edition of Collected Poems: Precursors.

The mood of the poem is autumnal, echoes of Keats here perhaps, or Shelley, with their odes to autumn. Keats mattered to her (Greene – page 19): ‘She found [his] writing so immediate and fresh that she could not believe he was dead.’ Memories are triggered: ‘I watched as a child the slow/Leaves turning and taking the sun, and the autumn bonfires,/The whips of wind blowing a landscape away.’ Here we encounter a combination of features that tend to characterise her best poetry: longer lines which give more space for exploration and evocation, sensory details that evoke a mood but do not tell us what we should feel, and any relatively abstract words used carry genuine weight, such as landscape here.

Also references to the elusiveness of powerful subliminal experiences creep in: ‘Always it was the half-seen, the just-heard which enthralled.’ The long line here allows space for this idea to flow to its conclusion.

Perhaps the most crucial theme in the poem relates to her mortality, the ineffability of subtle experience and her work:

                                                 This is the world
Once ahead of me, now behind me, and yet
I am waiting still to record some of the themes
Of the music I heard before I understood it . . .

The line shift of ‘Once ahead of me’ reinforces its meaning, as does our wait for the ending of the three long lines and beyond. The verse enacts its meaning, one of the key powers of poetry and poetic prose.

And then she shares another sense of what poetry might possibly do: ‘So I have come/To believe that poetry is restoration/Or else an accompaniment to what is lost/But half-remembered.’ I can relate to this through my own poems about my father’s death and its aftermath. A poem, once written, serves as a vivid reminder of an experience that fades, and also, like a piece of music associated with a half-forgotten memory, it brings the past more clearly to mind.

Elizabeth Jennings also gives us an idea of what it’s like to sense a poem about to break through the surface of consciousness, and how enormous the task of transcribing it can feel: ‘a tune begins/To sing in my mind. It has no words as yet/And a life and a half would probably be too short/To set the music down with appropriate words . . .’

And the last word of the poem is death.


I need to look albeit briefly at the extent to which each of the two sequences of poems I have examined are in any way coherent, by which I mean, ‘Do the poems in the sequence enrich one another?’

There is definitely progression in the first sequence, moving forwards from the first bleak poem, but it’s a bit disjointed. In Praise of Creation definitely refers back to the tooth and claw world of Song for a Birth or a Death while also opening the door to possible transcendence. However, while Family Affairs follows on, A Game of Chess seems to mark a complete break and when we move into the world of My Grandmother we’ve left the blood-drenched jungle far behind. I think it’s good that the animal darkness of the first poem is balanced by more humane elements, and I like the way the last poem I quote opens out to other themes, but I had no sense that this group of poems as a whole belonged together.

The second sequence is more satisfactory. The connecting link of dust and death pulls the first few poems together. Though the mood shifts with Water Music, the connection with death is not lost. At first sight we might think that Precursors has broken the mould again, but I don’t think so. Her darker poems of dust explicitly deal with our expressive gifts, and in Precursors she explores in plain sight how she, implicitly as dust, struggles to find ways of giving expression to half-understood intimations. So, the sequence has coherence as well as balance, and in my view indicates that she has moved a long way towards mastering, not only the single lyric, but the sequence as well, all of which vindicates for me the high regard some critics held her in, in spite of her prolixity.


So, do I love her poems more for what they say rather than for the poetic skill with which they say it? I think that’s best for you to decide. My own opinion is that, in spite of her weaknesses at times, she does find the words to capture the elusive nature of experiences at the edge of consciousness, as well as grappling sensitively with the tests and trials that afflict us all.

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