An Interview with Elizabeth Jennings by Sinead Garrigan
Anyone who reads Elizabeth Jennings's poetry cannot fail to be impressed by the gentle humanity of the poet which pervades it. A simple and generous attitude to topics of human interest has characterised all her collections.
It was this same impression which stayed with me after interviewing Jennings earlier this year, on a wet morning in her favourite Oxford coffee shop. In fact 'interview' is far too clinical a tenn; for our talk stretched from party politics to Jennings's new lodgings, from religion and illness to her cinema heroes, and was punctuated more frequently by the deafening industry of the coffee machine than by any clear thematic delineations.
Yet the setting was apt. Jennings's whole life has been centred around Oxford; around the cinemas, theatres, and coffee shops, most importantly, around the people. She mentioned Roy Fuller, C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender in the course of conversation with fondness and respect, but was also eager to chat about her day-to-day acquaintance doctors, priests and old people who have made a lasting impression upon her. In many respects it is surprising that this home environment is not more conspicuous in her poems. She explains the absence by saying, "I suppose, because I'm in it all the time. I was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, and we came here when I was six. It's really been my place for a very long time."
University education was at St. Anne's College, and Jennings remained in Oxford afterwards, working at the public library until she took up a post with Chatto. The anecdotes she gives concerning this time are characteristically populous: "On my first day at the library somebody asked me for a light novel, so I gave them early Evelyn Waugh - I don't know if they came back again. Another day, a little boy came in and asked for ' A lover for me Mum and a cowboy for me Dad, and a thriller. "
It seems ironic that what should be reinforced by speaking with Jennings is the human face so clearly discernable behind her poems, when she herself denies her work to be in any way self-expressive, and has declared confessional poetry to be a contradiction in tenns. Her favourite concept, of the distance caused by poetical skin-shedding, was brought to expression in 'Growing':
The poem leaves you and it sings And you have changed.
But Jennings reiterates her sense of detachment constantly. In talking of illness, for example, (a frequent subject for her imagination, most prominently in the collection Recoveries) Jennings tries to remove the personal experiential element completely: "Only a few of those poems are about me, they're not any sort of Sylvia Plath poems." And explains, "I was reading a piece the other day, it was like reading about somebody else. I'm sure the poem wasn't bad because it was early, but it is always the early things in life that go dead by the time that one's finished. "
There is real pathos in this sense of achievement coupled with loss, since it so insistently separates the poet from an oeuvre which is steeped in her spirit. At one point Jennings even admitted quietly, "Sometimes I hate my work, all of it."
Jennings's latest 'growing point', titled Times and Seasons, will be published in November, and it promises to be in keeping with that same blend of the immensely personal and the defiantly abstract: "I always feel neIVOUS about putting a new collection together, you know. I nearly always let Michael Schmidt arrange my books, but I'm not sure this time; there is a very long sequence about my mother and I think I may put that first. I've said to Michael he can meet me in London and give me lunch - somewhere good, because we haven't had one for about three years, since the last book!"
Apart from the tribute to her recently deceased mother, Jennings, in the new collection, promises to reinvigorate those thematic concerns which have infonned all her previous books. There are poems on love and friendship, a return to the sonnet fonn, and, I am told with a smiling half-apology, rather a lot on religious themes.
The apology stems from my having asked Jennings whether she did not feel that there may be an element of the readership unable to relate to her poems of Catholic Orthodoxy. I received a simply rather abashed reply: "Just because of the subject matter? I hope not. When you look at my poems as a whole the religious ones constitute a very small amount. In fact, I would put more in the Collected Poems if! were doing it again. I don't think I'm aware of my religion any more than I'm aware of what clothes I'm wearing or whom I like - only when I choose a subject like the annunciation ... "
Jennings's sympathy for the Virgin was compounded when she edited an anthology of verse in her praise. Many of her own poems attempt to do that which she saw Michelangelo doing in his first Pieta; Jennings too would 'carve a compassion' in celebration of that feminine link between man and God. This she manages in 'The Annunciation'. Although the poem is moulded with the structural imagery of a more immediately visual art fonn, Jennings insists that the view is not a borrowed one: "In 'The Annunciation' people thought I was influenced by Italian pictures, I wasn't at all you know. I think I must have a pictorial imagination. Someone once counted up the number of times I said 'shadow' - to my detriment."
Yet Jennings's love of the Italian goes back a long way, and ifinspiration here was not related to the Renaissance masters elsewhere it most definitely was. Caravaggio's 'Narcissus' gave a poignant symmetry to the poem which celebrates its magic, as the reality of human pain and self realisation, of both artist and subject, is juxtaposed with the inanimate medium, capable of 'drawing' thousands of visitors with it's beauty:
From gleaming paint that tempting thing
Man staring at his suffering.
The revolution that being able to travel to Rome was for Jennings, is not simply evinced in the poems which appeared subsequent to her first visit, notably in the collection A Sense of the World; it is evident in the vigour and fondness with which she still speaks of the opportunity which removed her from the public library to Rome for three months. She delights in telling me that, having started out with £400, she returned home with £80 unspent. "It was the most maIVellous thing that ever happened to me when I won the Somerset Maugham award. He was still alive then, so the first thing I did was to write and thank him. I loved the Italian people, I had a few letters of introduction and I didn't use any of them for at least a week or ten days."
Most of the poems which emerged from the visit were written retrospectively, which is Jennings's usual approach to her work; 'Fountain' was a memorable exception: "I had the idea of power in my head for a long time, and I'd written a few odd poems about it that were no good; but seeing all those fountains on Maundy Thursday I sat at a table in my room and wrote it straight out. The poems I like best always come straight out with hardly an alteration. I closed the book, and felt pleased because I thought I'd got it, and went down to the Maundy Thursday seIVice."
Think of it then as elemental, as being Necessity,
Not for a cup to be taken to it and not
For lips to linger or eye to receive itself
Back in reflection, simply
As water the patient moon persuades and stirs.
Jennings's satisfaction with "Fountain' is largely due to the fact that it fulfils her criteria of form; the balance she perceives to be essential between fluid expression and structural formality: '''Fountain' is in free verse, but it does not dribble down the page. You know, so much of socalled free verse is not. The best example, I think, is Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi' - cadence, and the inevitable ending. I was once questioned by a boy in school about form. He said that poetry had to come out flowing and flowing, and then he mentioned french poets like Andre Breton. I said that I was sorry, I hadn't read him, but I did just add one thing - form is not a jelly mould you know. I almost never choose a form and then write, it comes together. Eliot said what he looked for in young poets was craftsmanship, because they haven't got anything really to say, and I see what he meant."
Jennings has never shied away from the task of perfecting her formal artistry. The sonnets of Growing Points in particular, and her translations of Michelangelo established the form as distinctively her own. Yet it was the same necessary interaction of fluidity and stricture which posed the most formidable challenge to Jennings when she was working on the latter. She remembers the time with pleasure: ''That was a lovely commission; I went away to the country and did two a day. I kept to the fourteen lines, but I couldn't keep to the right spirit. Really there's an awful lot ofluck in poetry, whether with the words or the rhyme. I think we are very lucky to have the English language - to have an uninflected language, although I was delighted when a selection of my poems was translated into Italian."
The return to the sonnet form in her new collection will be welcomed more by Jennings's admirers than by the poet herself. For Jennings prefers those poems which exhibit a fresh attempt to escape
the limitation of the 'jelly mould': "Maybe sometimes I've made poetry do things that are not strictly poetic, there is one book - my last, Tributes .. which has a lot of poems about poetry; yet I think it's quite genuine. On the whole I write formal verse, that's the trouble, since I do like experimentation. I was pleased with the long, loping lines of the more loosened-up poems like' An Abandoned Palace' , but I haven't really done that in years."
Until now, that is. The forthcoming collection promises to break new ground, as well as re-covering those personal characteristics - of both form and content - which have become distinctive of Jennings over the years. All the poet must do is await the dreaded reviews: "I always read them, maybe I am too curious." she says, then, with typical aplomb, recounts the effect of a 'contemptible' review of Growing Points: "It ruined the whole matinee."