Jennings, Elizabeth (Vol. 135)
Elizabeth Jennings 1926-
(Full name Elizabeth Joan Jennings) British poet and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Jennings's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5 and 14.
Jennings is a highly regarded British poet whose lengthy career has been typified by the steady publication of critically acclaimed poetry on such subjects as religion, mental illness, and childhood. She is best known for her membership in “The Movement,” a group of poets and writers who achieved fame in the postwar period for their rejection of pretentiousness and decoration and their call for simplicity in literature. Jennings is known for her subtle, yet skillful, use of language and a strong interest in form that has sparked comparisons with Christina Rossetti, Edwin Muir and Robert Frost.
The daughter of a physician, Jennings was born in 1926 in Lincolnshire, England. She attended private Catholic school before transferring to and graduating from Oxford High School. As a teenager, she discovered a passion for classic poetry when she was introduced to G. K. Chesterton's poem “Lepanto.” She began to compose her own verse, exhibiting traits that would remain with her throughout her career: simple language, an interest in form, and the use of rhyme and meter. She graduated from St. Anne's College, Oxford, in 1949 earning an M.A. with honors in English. While at university, Jennings achieved success as a writer, publishing in Oxford Poetry in 1948 and 1949, as well as meeting and befriending writers such as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Thom Gunn. Nine of these writers formed “The Movement.” Scholars have noted that Jennings differed from the rest of the writers as the only woman and devout Catholic. Nonetheless, Jennings writes that she felt a close compatability and common purpose among the members. After graduating, she worked for a short time in the advertising business, which she credits for tightening her writing. She served as a librarian at the Oxford City Library from 1950 to 1958 where she maintained close contact with Oxford students such as Donald Hall. In 1953, Fantasy Press published a small volume of her poems; it was the press's first poetry collection. She earned an Arts Council award for it, increasing her critical attention and approval. Jennings’s subsequent travels in Italy and her battle with mental illness, for which she was institutionalized several times in the 1960s, are prominent subjects in her poetry. During the last four decades she has published numerous collections of poetry, earned praise for her children's poetry and essays on poetics, and edited volumes of verse.
Critics note that there is a strong strain of continuity in Jennings's poetry, both in regard to form and subject matter. Jennings established her voice in her youth and has not deviated from it greatly throughout her career. In common with the other members of “The Movement,” Jennings writes simply and directly without academic pretense or heavy adornment. In her early writing she employed set forms, regular meter, rhyme, and preferred iambic pattern. However, as her career progresses, she primarily uses free verse and unrhymed poetry. Most of her poems are written in a few short stanzas; rarely does her poetry exceed one page. She favors startling line breaks, gaining impact by beginning a line with a strong verb. Throughout her career, Jennings has written about personal subjects, although she is not an autobiographical poet. Much of her work is about religion, particularly Catholicism, and her struggles with faith. In Recoveries: Poems (1964) and The Mind Has Mountains (1966), she considers her own mental illness and institutionalization. In addition, she composed several books of children's poetry, such as her well received collection Let's Have Some Poetry! (1960.)
From the beginning of her career at Oxford in the 1940s, Jennings has enjoyed critical approval. Looking for new and mature verse, Kingsley Amis included six of Jennings's poems in the 1949 edition of Oxford Poetry. In critiques of her early books, reviewers praise her lucid, simple language, citing her as a strong voice and a poet to watch. She received almost universal praise for her two collections of poetry Collected Poems (1967) and Selected Poems (1979), which provide an overview of her career. However, critics have found fault with Jennings too. Commenting on her collection In the Meantime (1996), Clive Wilmer remarks that “(s)he has been prolific without interruption, but the quality of her writing from book to book is strikingly uneven.” Other reviewers state that at times her poetry is too coy, her language wooden and uninspiring, that she fails to make connections, and that her work lacks energy. The most common criticism is that Jennings fails to vary her work enough, that her poetry is too similar. However, scholars agree that much of Jennings's poetry is first rate. Samuel French Morse praises her lack of pretension, the freshness of her language, and the high quality of her devotional poetry in Song for a Birth or a Death and Other Poems (1961). Robert Sheppard argues that she is the least well-known, but the best in quality, of “The Movement” writers.
Poems (poetry) 1953
A Way of Looking: Poems (poetry) 1955
A Sense of the World: Poems (poetry) 1958
Let's Have Some Poetry! (poetry) 1960
Every Changing Shape: Mystical Experience and the Making of Poems (essays) 1961
Song for a Birth or a Death and Other Poems (poetry) 1961
Recoveries: Poems (poetry) 1964
The Mind Has Mountains (poetry) 1966
Collected Poems, 1967 (poetry) 1967
The Animals’ Arrival (poetry) 1969
Lucidities (poetry) 1970
(The entire section is 135 words.)
SOURCE: “The Poetry of Suburbia,” in Partisan Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1956, pp. 545-53.
[In the following excerpt, Gregory praises Jennings for her unique and strong voice.]
The recent Zeitgeist in American culture is of suburban colors, manners, dress. Those who are currently publishing verse are affected by its daily habits and ambitions, and more than a few have mistaken its presence for a visitation of the Muse. The importance of the suburban Zeitgeist may not be enduring, but since the end of the Korean War, its influence has spread cross-country from the suburbs of Boston to the state of Washington, far beyond the toll-gates of large...
(The entire section is 1318 words.)
SOURCE: Review of A Sense of the World, in Encounter, Vol. XII, No. 2, February, 1959, p. 74.
[In the review below, Heath-Stubbs argues that Jennings is not disciplined enough in her writing and produces work with a flat, muted tone.]
Miss Jennings’s work has received so much praise from those whose judgment one must respect, that one hesitates to dissent. One recognises the sensibility and the intelligence, but there is a curiously muted quality about her poetry. It is as if one was listening to someone murmuring to themselves in their sleep. Granted that this is, in Mr. Eliot’s phrase, essentially poetry overheard rather than heard, yet one longs for her...
(The entire section is 371 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Let's Have Some Poetry, in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1961, pp. 89-90.
[In the following review, Skelton argues that Jennings's penchant for simplifying and her coy tone weaken an otherwise admirable work.]
The annual P.E.N. Anthology of New Poems usually contrives to achieve a high level of competence without being in the least exciting, and the latest in the series is no exception to the rule. There are 64 poems by 51 contributors, and, if one ignores the presence of Edith Sitwell’s ridiculous and pretentious La Bella Bona Roba, one could fairly say that every poem deserves its place. Nevertheless, doubts cross...
(The entire section is 799 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Song for a Birth or a Death, in Poetry, Vol. CII, No. 5, August, 1963, pp. 330-34.
[In the following excerpt, Morse praises the quality and content of Jennings's poetry, arguing that she is gaining authority in her work.]
For the poets of the fifties and after, the veterans of the thirties as Donald Davie calls them, were concerned with “agonies” that have become “highbrow thrillers, though historical”, and their feats are “quite strictly fabulous.” “And yet,” he adds, “it may be better, if we must,/ To find the stance impressive and absurd/Than not to see the hero for the dust.” Davie’s own poems do not disguise their...
(The entire section is 339 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Mind Has Mountains, in Encounter, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, November, 1967, p. 76.
[In the review below, Clayre argues that these experimental poems do not reflect Jennings's skill or her voice.]
Miss Elizabeth Jennings, in The Mind has Mountains, takes the reader through an English mental hospital, after her attempted suicide. These poems keep close to a single consciousness, which we see re-establishing, in alien territory, the unassuming, observant kindness of its everyday life. The poems are compassionate. In certain lines we can hear Miss Jennings’ voice:
There should be peace for gentle ones, not pain
(The entire section is 486 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Animals’ Arrival, in Poetry, Vol. CXVIII, No. 2, May, 1971, pp. 110-11.
[In the following review, Mott contends that Jennings exhibits power and bravery in her work.]
Elizabeth Jennings has been accused at times of quietness, if not tameness, but it would be grossly unfair to accuse the poet of The Animals’ Arrival of any such thing. Like Abse’s recent poems, if these are not shrill, they are bravely concerned with harrowing experience and a still more harrowing vision of it:
My inward needs and fears still stir and grow Into a hideous and nightmare form.
(The entire section is 234 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Extending the Territory, in New Statesman, Vol. 110, No. 2851, November 15, 1985, p. 28.
[In the review below, Lucas finds fault with Extending the Territory, arguing that the poetry is vapid, the language unvaried, and the subject matter uninteresting.]
With Elizabeth Jennings’s Extending the Territory we are, I fear, back with the kinds of experiences which ask to be taken on trust. ‘But six years of my childhood are precise’, she says in ‘An Absolute’, and goes on: ‘I see the berries // On bushes as imperial as music, / Poised as poetry’. She may be able to, but I’m darnned if I can. Nor can I summon up much...
(The entire section is 252 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Collected Poems, 1953-1985, in Choice, December, 1986, p. 625.
[In the following review, Brophy outlines Jennings's importance as a poet.]
Jennings is an original member of the British literary movement disarmingly called “The Movement,” which appeared in the early 1950s in part as reaction to what its founders thought were the excesses of Dylan Thomas and his romantic ilk. Philip Larkin was the best known group member; to readers in the US, Jennings was and remains the least familiar member. This collection is not a “Complete Poems,” but a selection by the poet of all the work she wishes to preserve from her 17 books that have appeared...
(The entire section is 193 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Collected Poems, in Poetry, Vol. CL, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 106-09.
[In the review below, Gilbert argues that while Jennings's culture is foreign to Americans, her work is of great merit and importance.]
Though she not only thinks about the significance of history but, as one of Britain’s more important recent poets, she has a significant personal and literary history, Elizabeth Jennings hardly seems to inhabit the same language, much less the same world, as the one in which Caroline Finkelstein and Lynda Hull dwell. Indeed, the Atlantic that divides the lives and works of these writers seems not only miles but centuries wide, a gulf in...
(The entire section is 934 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Collected Poems, in New Statesman, Vol. 114, No. 2943, August 21, 1987, p. 22.
[In the following review, Sheppard compares Jennings's career with fellow Movement members, contending that her work exudes greater seriousness and mysticism.]
The poetry of the Movement orthodoxy won’t go away: Larkin’s death clearly wasn’t the end of it. Indeed, in some of these recent books, Larkin is an excuse for pious, elegaic production by some of his followers. They mourn him, rightly, as a more consummate poet. ‘I do not want him to be dead!’ pleads Vernon Scannell, as if the whole thing might not function without Larkin. But, obviously, it...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
SOURCE: “Faith in Form,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4492, May 5-11, 1989, p. 495.
[In the following review of Tributes, Maxwell praises Jennings's subtle use of simile and her successful use of form.]
This is a craftswoman working, so watch the vowels;
It is not only great stars or the sun I owe so many debts to. I now state A poet here, a painter there, a place That’s altered all I do. So I relate My debt and give back what I’ve taken, grace.
Lyric poets, if honest and well practised, know enough to let the sounds run towards them and gather. Elizabeth Jennings is here writing a poetry of A's, with all...
(The entire section is 695 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Tributes, in Stand Magazine, Vol. 31, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 48-50.
[In the following review, Sail cautions that Jennings risks bordering on mannerism in some of her work but proclaims that she is one of the greatest poets at capturing childhood.]
Like Roy Fuller, Elizabeth Jennings knows the strength of ‘energy leashed in’, as she writes in one of the poems in Tributes. This new collection continues the reflective notes of her Collected Poems, sustaining a meditation on the nature of poetry and the other arts, especially music, and on love, faith, joy, sorrow, friendship, childhood and the passage of time. The preoccupation...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
SOURCE: “Elizabeth Jennings,” in The Movement: British Poets of the 1950s, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 87-100.
[In the excerpt below, Bradley provides an overview of Jennings's career, placing her work in the context of other Movement writers.]
Elizabeth Jennings is unique in two particular ways: she is the Movement’s only woman and its only Catholic. Born Elizabeth Joan Jennings in Boston, Lincolnshire, on 18 July 1926, she was the daughter of Henry Cecil Jennings, a physician. As a teenager she studied poetry in school and was swept up by G. K. Chesterton’s battle poem “Lepanto.” She wrote an essay on the work and soon was eagerly studying the great...
(The entire section is 5541 words.)
SOURCE: “Ceremonial Forms,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4685, January 15, 1993, p. 23.
[In the following review of Times and Seasons, Eaves discusses Jennings's use of time, form, and language.]
Time is a continual, if not quite perpetual, worry for Elizabeth Jennings. At its crudest, it represents distance from God—a mechanical, clockwork intrusion into the Garden. At its best, as she refers to it in a poem from her collection, Extending the Territory (1985), it is an elemental art that “moves within / The discourse of the learned heart”. But while the second condition is clearly the one to which her poetry aspires, the combination of...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Praises, in The Times Liteary Supplement, No. 4995, December 25, 1998, pp. 28-9.
[In the following review, O'Neill argues that although there is a repetitive quality to Jennings'’s work, her writing deserves praise.]
At one stage in Praises, Elizabeth Jennings asserts, “Stars are a bright simplicity”, reaffirming her affinity with Henry Vaughan for whom “Stars are of mighty use”. The points of likeness and difference between the twentieth-century Catholic poet and the Metaphysical mystic are fascinating. Like Vaughan, Jennings values intimations of “An unfallen world”. Unlike him, she is “not after visions or prayers”....
(The entire section is 416 words.)
Jennings, Elizabeth (Vol. 14)
Jennings, Elizabeth 1926–
Jennings is an English Catholic poet and critic who established her literary reputation as a member of "the Movement," a group of writers that included Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Philip Larkin. The dignity and composure that characterized the early work of the "Movement" writers are evident in all of Jennings's poetry. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)
The good things about Elizabeth Jennings are as good as ever in [Recoveries], and the limitations just the same. When a poem of hers comes off, she manages to cancel the impression made by those fluent, limp, iambic lines by some line (often a last one) which, equally fluent and rhythmically unexciting, concentrates the whole meaning of the poem, hits the bull's-eye in fact. The measured stillness sometimes comes out just as dullness, but much more often it is rescued in this way. Her best and natural state is contemplation, and the poems tend to be about the debits and credits of the contemplative attitude…. By a fine and conscious stroke of art Elizabeth Jennings places in the middle of her own grey and cloistral verses a translation from Camus, ecstatically hymning an Algerian morning, which has, in that context, the effect of blazing sun through cloister arcades.
P. N. Furbank, "Books: 'Recoveries'," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1964; reprinted by permission of P. N. Furbank), Vol. LXXII, No. 1843, July 23, 1964, p. 137.
The characteristics of [Elizabeth Jennings's] poetry, from her first remarkable Fantasy Press volume 14 years ago, have been ingenuity, wit, and a persistent interest in the relationship between visible and imagined worlds. The tone is often lyrical, but the poems [in her Collected Poems] are metaphysical conceits. Some are about love, all are basically involved with the nature of reality. Can we really trust what we see?…
These are Miss Jennings's poetic concerns [in Collected Poems], and she carried them through from the first with intelligence and a powerful sense of form. It is a pleasure to see poems that are organised, like those of Graves or Housman, that start from an evident point, move to a designed coherent end, and are written in a language that is always clean and clear. As a stylist she sprang ready-armed with her first book and has developed little, but her subjects have changed. In a British Council pamphlet she defined the function of poetry as the discovery of
order amid chaos, meaning in the middle of
confusion, and affirmation at the heart of despair.
Many of her own later poems make this kind of affirmation. They are about admission to a mental home, diagnosis and treatment, psychiatrists, attempted suicide, a nurse going sick, a friend's relapse and return to a mental clinic, and almost all are composed with the cool firmness of the early poems. Nobody can have written less hysterically about hysteria, yet the sense of personal involvement is always there.
The most exact tribute one can pay to Elizabeth Jennings's poems is that among chaos and personal unhappiness order is always there, not merely pushing through but triumphantly asserted. The dreams are dark enough, but they are both wild and serene.
Julian Symons, "Clean and Clear," in New Statesman (© 1967 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 74, No. 1909, October 13, 1967, p. 476.
Elizabeth Jennings has been accused at times of quietness, if not tameness, but it would be grossly unfair to accuse the poet of The Animals' Arrival of any such thing. Like Abse's recent poems, if these are not shrill, they are bravely concerned with harrowing experience and a still more harrowing vision of it…. (p. 110)
Seeing disorder within and without, Elizabeth Jennings seeks courageously for order. In such poems as A Pattern, she achieves it at least in the high standard of her own art. But where order is not to be had outside her poetry she admits it. (p. 111)
Michael Mott, "Recent Developments in British Poetry," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXVIII, No. 2, May, 1971, pp. 102-14.∗
Elizabeth Jennings has been a poet of solid if modest achievement, but her decline [in Relationships] is catastrophic. This new collection includes a poem addressed to Emily Dickinson, and one guesses that the American served as the model for much of it. For Emily Dickinson's apparent simplicity, however, Miss Jennings too often supplies bathos, and for phrases like 'zero at the bone' substitutes a language colourless to the point of invisibility. The trouble seems to be a lack of any real pressure in the creation of these poems. (p. 389)
Alasdair Maclean, "Marble Fun," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1973; reprinted by permission of Alasdair Maclean), Vol. 89, No. 2295, March 22, 1973, pp. 389-90.∗
It's good to see a poet breaking back out of a lean period. Elizabeth Jennings, one remembers, was brought in as the 'sensitive' dimension to the no-nonsense Movement of the Fifties. Her early poems were precise, beautifully rounded and very personal broodings on topics which her immediate contemporaries refused to have truck with: love, childhood, religion, travels in southern places. Her work was never less than accomplished, and could be memorable in its quiet, unstrained way. But subsequent books tended to be only as interesting as the new things she had to say, and these were few. And new ways of saying them were fewer still. Now, just when she seemed set to take a minor, if very respectable, place as a gentle mid-century romantic and modest allegorist, Growing Points shows us a poet who has suddenly and impressively increased the scope and richness, and the technical variety and command, of her writing.
The change is not always a matter of the form of the poems—though it is heartening to see how the longer poems here, especially some with a new long line allowing a freer, less circumscribed diction, achieve a much more successful release than some of her previous experiments (those occasional, uncomfortable prose poems in books like Recoveries and Lucidities). The real improvement is in the ordering of ideas within the familiar Jennings framework, and a new freshness and surprise in the ideas themselves: all at once the neat stanzas have a new bite…. As before, her poems of formal tribute or address ('Hopkins in Wales', 'Mozart's Horn Concertos') are a bit stiff and reverential, and she can still turn out too easily the kind of small-scale, sensitively introspective poem which loses its point in vagueness. But there are more poems here which turn the recognisable Jennings themes and properties to good, and moving, effect than in any volume we have had from her for a decade. Growing Points is a book which amply merits its title. (p. 732)
Alan Brownjohn, "Hymenoptera," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 89, No. 2306, May 30, 1975, pp. 732-33.∗
Women's poetry has become an industry since Elizabeth Jennings began to publish in the 1950s. It is to Miss Jennings's credit that she has not allowed herself to be swept along with the tide. In her new collection, Growing Points, the poise and tenderness of her early work is reaffirmed. She is still too nice to stand up and spit at life—a gesture not incompatible with the reverence she obviously feels for it—but in some of these poems she shows us that she probably could if she would.
I feel I could be turned to ice
If this goes on, if this goes on.
I feel I could be buried...
(The entire section is 218 words.)
Elizabeth Jennings's [Growing-Points] reveals most of her strengths and fewer than usual of her weaknesses. All the Jennings hallmarks are here: scrupulous deployment of the iambic, purity of diction, psychological shrewdness, that parabolic movement from particular to general which crystallises in eye-catching, aphoristic last lines. Some of the limitations are also sporadically in evidence: a slightly too kidgloved, reverential, excessively wistful treatment of emotional states, a faint tremulousness which seems inseparable from the attractive delicacies of feeling, a lack of irony, suggestive ambiguity and dramatic dynamism. Nevertheless, the collection shows more variety, vigour and open-endedness than has...
(The entire section is 182 words.)
Throughout [Growing-Points], poems in Ms. Jennings's familiar meters and stanzas alternate with largely unsuccessful attempts to find a substitute for the largely unsuccessful experiments with prose poetry and free verse of earlier volumes in experiments with long lines, irritatingly printed in ugly run-ons.
My guess is that Ms. Jennings writes too much and probably publishes all of it. There are some very good poems and passages here, all right, but you need to do a lot of weeding. What is particularly upsetting is to find, say, a truly exceptional quatrain—and there are several of these—in a poem that is otherwise uninteresting, or a distinguished and original line sandwiched between...
(The entire section is 518 words.)
[Elizabeth Jennings's] title, Consequently I Rejoice, is a brave and appropriate one for her new collection, in which she shows herself better able to face up to the realities of anguish than many more self-indulgent poets. Her themes are the naturally dramatic themes of the religious poet: pain, longing, hope, faith, love and, finally, if not victory, at least triumph. (p. 487)
Anne Stevenson, "Snaffling and Curbing," in The Listener (copyright © British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Anne Stevenson), Vol. 98, No. 2530, October 13, 1977, pp. 486-87.∗
(The entire section is 84 words.)
In Consequently I Rejoice, a substantial collection of eighty-eight poems, experiences are ordered with that meticulous precision we have grown to expect, and the whole book is marshalled impeccably so as to lead us from the preliminary night-thoughts, stirrings of creative activity, through a cycle of the year, dominated by bird-flight and bird-song, to a world of men and women: the old, who have attained wisdom or declined from it. Conscious of the timeless equation of bird and soul, we pass to a sequence of meditations on the Christian faith, some cast in the form of dramatic monologues by Christ and Mary, and so to a group of poems whose theme is the relationship between the artist and his achievement....
(The entire section is 253 words.)
Jennings, Elizabeth (Vol. 5)
Jennings, Elizabeth 1926–
Elizabeth Jennings is an English Catholic poet and scholar who established her literary reputation as a member of "the Movement," a group of writers which included Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Philip Larkin. The dignity and composure that characterized the early work of the "Movement" writers is evident in all of Miss Jennings' poetry.
In declining to use rhetorical gestures, startling images and metaphors, or to render the physical world with any vividness, Miss Jennings severely limits her range. She asks to be read as a poet of the mind, to be read for her insights and the play of ideas. And she selects topics about which one might write a prose essay. She likes such subjects as the nature of symbols, myth, kingship—all of which call for intellectual reach and subtlety. (p. 125)
William Van O'Connor, in his The New University Wits and the End of Modernism (copyright © 1963, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.
[Elizabeth] Jennings's poetry inhabits a moral world, and that is a rare thing these days when the pat phrases of ideological indignation are as far as many of our poets get in exploring the universe ethically considered. Didactic poetry, like didactic judgment, can appear harsh and off-putting; but her poems are saved from this by her vulnerability to the fact of pain and her fund of sympathy. She is also a wise, as well as compassionate poet and knows that self-pity is 'death to the human heart'; which is one reason why she tells us 'Never blame/Anyone but yourself.'
Her most frequent themes are hurt, sorrow and aloneness (whether of herself or others), but she does not seek to hug these states, rather to understand and transcend them. So she sees the roots of so many of our moral and spiritual dilemmas in an egoism turning inward…. (pp. 100-01)
Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Derek Stanford 1972), December, 1972.
In 1967, Elizabeth Jennings' Collected Poems appeared. Edmund Blunden described her poetry as uniting "the deepest sensibility with a poetry of restraint and yet of great candour". [Here is] … a formal restraint rather than a tentativeness of statement. Her prose poems are her most successful deviations from strict form, while the free-verse or aformal poems at the end of the Collected are the least successful. Miss Jennings requires traditional form, and she uses it with authority. Her temperament is not innovative in this sense. With her, form helps to discover order or disorder, rather than … order or disorder discovering form. Form is a primary poetic necessity rather than a device in Miss Jennings' poetry. Early on, she saw it, rather as Donne did, controlling the otherwise inarticulable. (p. 82)
Her central preoccupation is not, then, with technique—something she takes for granted and uses skilfully. Nor does she worry much about "what poetry is"—she recognises that it is essential to her, and it would be solipsistic in her to tease out the reasons for this urgent necessity. If anything, poetry is a mode—perhaps the only mode—she has of reaching beyond her individual isolation and discovering relationship. When her poems are aesthetic in preoccupation, she is usually exploring the applicability of art to experience, or its vital relationship with experience. Most often her preoccupation is with suffering of various sorts, with loss, and occasionally fine celebrations of love. She is … a poet who is still developing, within her chosen formal confines, towards a new clarity. She began as a love poet and has developed into the poet of complex relationships. Her best poems are not descriptive but exploratory of relationships. She seems at present to be putting aside rather than losing her earlier, more complex language, her aesthetic frame of reference, and her for a time obsessive mental hospital themes for direct confrontation with relationships. Some of the recent poems strike one as sentimental: simplifications rather than lucidities. But the best of them are her finest work to date, rediscovering meaning in apparently overused words, finding a linguistic spareness and clarity which render the poems direct and to the heart. The stylistic transition is almost complete.
Love, shadows, the mind, silence—all these are basic themes in her work. Time, too, obsesses her, and time rather than space is the poet's plane, through which she moves. Her images from nature are usually explicated, allegorised. The poems with plots (especially the early poems) become archetypal in her treatment, and effectively so. (pp. 82-3)
From this tendency to archetypes, Miss Jennings has proceeded on her course. The imagined and generalised has become realised. Intellectual preoccupation, where the mind implied thought, has become preoccupation where the mind implies perception in the widest sense—moral and human perception. There is no more hypothesis. The experiences of loss, the uncertainty of continuous identity, unfulfilled or frustrated longing, the ephemerality of landmarks and timemarks, a failure to find roots and security, to establish permanent relationships with nature or with human beings, have become the burning concerns of Miss Jennings' poetry. "It is acceptance she arranges", one of the recent poems says—perhaps this is the almost sacramental function of her art, expressed earlier in "Visit to an Artist". There the host and wine, the offering—which the experience underlies, validates, sanctifies—are most real and impart an ultimate validity to the poetic act.
"It was by negatives I learned my place…." Without ever having been a genuinely confessional poet, Elizabeth Jennings has explored more territory in more depth than most poets writing today. Her recent work continues with the preoccupations of the earlier, but moves always closer and closer to bedrock. It is strange for a poet, at the outset of a career, to foresee intellectually most of the problems which will become realities for her later on. To have kept course and cut always deeper as she went and goes is a remarkable achievement. (pp. 83-4)
Margaret Byers, "Cautious Vision: Recent British Poetry by Women" (copyright © by Margaret Byers), in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1972, pp. 82-4.