Elizabeth Jennings: Literary Career
Jennings was and is a poet in search of a context that can justly evaluate her contribution to twentieth-century poetry. She courted professional connections out of a need for belonging in a literary environment where it was hard for a woman to find a niche. Furthermore, any chances of a fashionable image were stymied by the consistency of her style against the tides of change and by her strain of religious writing. In her personal life, her mental breakdown at the start of the 1960s, ensuing ill health, changes of address and decline into poverty made her especially vulnerable to personal criticism. Nevertheless, hugely aided by her editor at Carcanet, she published consistently, got huge sales and always had admirers.
After Kingsley Amis included six of Jennings’ poems in the 1949 edition of Oxford Poetry, poems appeared in later editions of Oxford Poetry, in London Magazine and Spectator courtesy of John Lehmann, and then in Outposts, Poetry Review, New English Weekly, The Listener, Times Literary Supplement, and New Statesman and Nation. Poems (1953), was awarded the Arts Council Prize for the best first book of poems, worth £225. Her next volume, A Way of Looking, won the Somerset Maughan award that enabled her exuberant trip to Italy. (The prize’s conditions were that a writer under 35 should have £400 in order to spend some time abroad and study a different culture.) The experience ignited her love affair with Italy where she found religious and artistic inspiration for mystical and painterly writing.
Famously, Jennings was the only woman associated with what was called The Movement, a term applied to nine poets who were influenced by F.R. Leavis and the school of New Criticism that opposed ‘the self-expressive, emotive, intuitive, prophetic, obscure, experimental, sentimental, undisciplined, and vaguely suggestive’ in favour of ‘reason, skepticism, empiricism, clarity, tradition, realism, and formal control.’ (David Perkins, Modern Poetry, pp. 422-3). In Poetry To-day (1961) she looked back on Robert Conquest’s New Lines, the anthology that established the Movement, as slightly forcing poets into a group when they ‘had, in fact, few affinities’ (p. 9). What they did have, was ‘a wry, careful, mildly debunking tone; they were, at any rate a few years ago, perhaps over-anxious not to appear gullible, emotional or sentimental. … They devised no world-scheme, no personal philosophies and would have nothing to do with the symbolic or the allegorical’ (p. 10). She moved from adhering to the demands of New Critical textual analysis to the desire to express while maintaining that ‘clarity, honesty and formal perfection’ were the most valuable qualities in a poet. (Poetry Today, p. 12).
Jennings courted literary acquaintances for personal pleasure and professional significance, always hopeful that they would validated and promote her work. In correspondence, she records such events as tea with Kathleen Raine, meeting Edwin Muir, and in 1954, being overjoyed to encounter Stephen Spender on a train and get invited to a small party at his house. Veronica Wedgewood introduced her to the PEN Club and Jennings edited PEN anthologies with Spender and Dannie Abse. After one of the PEN cocktail parties she met Stevie Smith and others in a pub. Another occasion that she records is meeting Edith Sitwell who was charming to her and sympathetic towards Jennings’ depressions. Lynette Roberts she records as sympathetic and mad. (See correspondence with Michael Hamburger).
In the early years, Jennings was at a peak of literary activity and reputation yet still desperate to make acquaintances. She records that meeting T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber was akin to meeting with God, such was his status and her need for recognition. In 1961, she published Let’s Have Some Poetry! (a survey directed at children), Every Changing Shape, Poetry Today, and the collection Song for a Birth or a Death. She also edited An Anthology of Modern Verse. She continued to give poetry readings and was awarded an Arts Council bursary of £250 per annum. She left Chatto and Windus in 1960 so that she could focus on her vocation. For her, the poet’s job was akin, though inferior, to a religious calling; she believed that poetry could connect with her readers through expressing common emotions and produce heightened self-awareness through reflective commentary.
From 1960, Jennings was a reviewer for the Daily Telegraph and also the Listener, that was then edited by Anthony Thwaite (1962-4), until her typewriter broke when she was in the Warneford Hospital and her handwritten reviews became unacceptable. (See Correspondence with Anthony Thwaite, Brotherton). In The Mind has Mountains she published some of the work composed during her period of ill health but omitted eight of them from her Collected Poems (1967) fearing that they might skew her reputation; perhaps defensively against adverse criticism, she also professed not thinking them much good. Her writing and proof reading seem lucid in the period of her so-called ‘madness’. She wrote prolifically, a notebook of poems almost weekly.
Her poem ‘The Night-Mare’ was part of a discussion on confessional poetry (30 July 1965, BBC3) and she is sometimes associated with the American ‘Confessional’ group associated with Robert Lowell whom she greatly admired and whose death in 1977 she mourned as if a personal loss. John Wain paid her tribute in his Letters to Five Artists (1969).
Although Jennings was and can be criticized for not moving with the times, her work continued to be published and sell. Significantly, Larkin includes her in the Oxford Book of English Verse (1973) while ‘Night Garden of the Asylum’ and ‘One Flesh’ were printed in British Poetry since 1945, ed Lucie Smith, 1970. In his astute Introduction, Smith observed the coexisting trends of modernism and conservatism in the previous twenty years, that ‘Confessional verse has scarcely managed to take root in English poetry’, that poets in the 1960s rejected academic elitism and there was an increase in dissident voices.
The poetry books sold well and Relationships (1972) was a Poetry Book Society choice, easily selling out of the initial 1000 hardback and 3000 paperback copies. Bruce Hunter (of David Higham associates) offered Michael Schmidt the contract from Macmillan (though Macmillan kept rights for a while) and there was some consensus that the first book published by his Carcanet Press, Growing Points (1975) was a turning point in her style and stature. Initially 1000 cloth and 1500 paperback were printed but there were reprints of thousands more. The wave of success was clouded by insecurity about dropping off and she developed an almost manic sensitivity to reviews (see Correspondence with Michael Schmidt 1974-80).
Jennings became frustrated with Oxford University Press for ‘bungling’ After the Ark (1978) but was vindicated when it sold out of the first run of 1500 copies. Among her promotions, she was booked to read at an Oxford University Press poetry festival but to her disappointment it was altered. One of her happiest readings was on a Sunday night in Stratford upon Avon to a packed audience. She was also part of an exhibition of poetry over the last 25 years, keeping company with Causley, Heaney, Hill, Hughes, Plath, Larkin, Porter, RS Thomas and Gunn. Her broadcasting stretched from ‘Three Women Poets’, Radio 3 (22 August 71: transmission 18.50-19.05), produced by George Macbeth, to a reading with Anne Stevenson (9 September 1977).
Jennings undertook a tour of the United States in April 1975 with a highlight of a successful poetry reading in New York. (Interview with Gremang, p. 100) Her reputation was growing and her appeal across the academic/general reader divide was being established. There were some good literary reviews and in 1979, she had an appreciative letter from a woman in Virginia and one from a black teacher in Brooklyn whose ‘ex-drug addict’ students had enjoyed some poems. Consequently I Rejoice (1977) encapsulates the paradoxes of her writing and reputation. Most poems were composed during a spell of being particularly unwell and yet, as the title suggests, they are affirmations of life. It sold well but she had a sense that it was less well received by the literary establishment. Typically, she interpreted responses in personal terms: Martin Dodsworth at the Guardian consistently ignored or attacked her work; Shirley Toulson at Sunday Telegraph and Peter Porter at the Observer were more open and sympathetic.
Desperate for her Selected Poems to be a success, Jennings was more than ever sensitive to its reception. There were heartwarming reviews in Encounter and the Listener but she yearned for recognition by the TLS that she believed favoured the neo-Romantics, ‘full of long solos for Conquest … Hughes … Fuller … Enright … Raine …’ (Letter to Michael Schmidt, 4 Jan. 80). Her poems were printed in PN Review 1984, 87, 88, 89 and Eleven Postwar British Poets (ed. Michael Schmidt, Pan), but she was sore that they were not in the Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse. At the end of 1983, Betjeman included one of her poems in a radio programme For Great Pleasure, saying that she didn’t get the notice she deserved.
Celebrations and Elegies came out in 1981, but only five poems from it are included in the 1986 Collected Poems, maybe due to her doubts about the popularity of her religious poems. Michael Schmidt constantly reassured her that the backlisted titles continued to sell and declared ‘you must be among the handful of best selling poets’ (Letter to Jennings, 14 June 83). Her poems were translated into Italian and she was invited to the presentation of them on 30 March 1985 at 9 Libreria Remo Croce, Rome but was unable to go. She wanted Extending the Territory (1985) to be sent to a list of sympathisers, namely Amis, Larkin, Causley, Tomlinson, Heaney, Roy Fuller, Peter Levi and John Gielgud, no doubt hopeful for some decent reviews.
Dogged by poverty, Jennings sought revenue from readings and radio programmes which in turn would increase her Royalties, along with more poetry collections. Although her bookings included The Poetry Society (1985) the Purcell Room on the South Bank, London (1988) and Waterstones in Stratford on Avon, at the end of the decade she began selling her papers in order to make ends meet, starting with drafts of poems to Georgetown University library in Washington.
The second Collected Poems was timed for the year of her 60th birthday. Blackwell arranged a launch that after some considerable chopping and changing took place in London, 17 July 6-8 pm. (See Acc 5 CPA Rylands for the papers). Jennings’ guest list was designed to maximize publicity, reviews and sales. Impatient as ever for affirmation, she complained to Michael Hamburger on 4 August 1986, ‘there are no reviews as yet and there are so many poetry cliques (or perhaps one very big one – Motion/ C Raine/Blake Morrison and the whole TLS, I mean). You will understand.’ Hamburger had first got her published in the New Statesman three decades earlier.
In 1987, Collected Poems was produced in paperback and the first run (2500) of Selected Poems had nearly sold out and another 1000 were shortly printed. The Collected did get a good review in Sunday Times and in 1987, she was given the WH Smith Literary Award. When Collected Poems became a school text she was guaranteed around 4000 sales per annum and was so keen to keep her books on the school curricula that she took as many readings as possible. She even cancelled a double-booked Canadian tour, not without much regret and embarrassment, for the sake of conserving her bookings in schools. In 1989 she wrote a piece on the state of poetry for Agenda 27.3 (Autumn 1989, pp. 40-1). Tributes (1989), as the title suggests, was a collection of poems dedicated to poets and painters whom she admired.
Michael Schmidt assured Jennings that the press had weekly requests for anthology rights ‘and your books continue to sell very well indeed. Statistically speaking, you are now unrivalled as our best-seller. Indeed you must be one of the best-selling poets in England and this is some consolation I hope at this time of trouble. … Few authors can claim the earned popularity that you now enjoy. I think it is wonderful and deserved.’ (Letter, 7 July 89) Furthermore, In September 1989, Carcanet decided to reprint both Selected and Collected, the latter having sold well in excess of any other book they had published.
Again, it was a period of personal suffering, with ill health, uncongenial lodgings and poverty but some exceptional success professionally. Jennings’ Collected Poems continued to be the best seller on the Carcanet list (Letter from Michael Schmidt, 21 Feb 1990). Times and Seasons came out in 1992, the year she was awarded the CBE and received many uplifting letters of congratulation. Her next volume, Familiar Spirits (1994), sold 1100 copies in the first month; there was a new paperback of The Sonnets of Michelangelo, a paperback edition of Every Changing Shape, an anthology (The Poet’s Choice), her previous books were still selling strongly and the Selected was reprinted yet again.
Sensitive to lukewarm or negative reviews, Jennings was anxious about being out of fashion, and yet bookings for readings still came, including one from the revitalized Oxford Poetry Society. She continued to get invitations to schools and had a fan in John Gielgud who sent pink champagne, truffles and a Christmas card with the words ‘It is wonderful when someone is a great artist and a great human being’ (1995).
In the Meantime (1996) contains several poems that are not in New Collected Poems but are worth finding. (The Manchester Carcanet Press Archives includes the whole process of drafts, emendations, selection, with Jennings’ comments on which she likes and doesn’t, and final proofs).
In 1999, in spite of an incapacitating bad back, she started work on New Collected Poems and did all the preparations for her final volume Timely Issues (2001) although she did not live to see either in print.