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April 23, 2018

The real Elizabeth Jennings

Dana Gioia, writing in First Things, introduces us to Elizabeth Jennings. No, not the Soviet deep-cover agent brilliantly portrayed by Keri Russell in the FX show The Americans: the real Elizabeth Jennings was an English Catholic poet of considerable talent, tragedy and accomplishment.

[She] had the peculiar fate of being in the right place at the right time in the wrong way. Her career began splendidly. Her verse appeared in prominent journals, championed by Oxford’s new generation of tastemakers. Her first publication, Poems (1953), launched the acclaimed Fantasy Poets pamphlet series, which would soon present the early work of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Geoffrey Hill. Her first full-length collection, A Way of Looking (1955), won the Somerset Maugham Award and became the Poetry Book Society recommendation. She was the youngest poet featured in the first Penguin Modern Poets volume (1962). Meanwhile Jennings achieved enduring notoriety as the only female member of “The Movement,” the irreverent and contrarian group that dominated mid-century British poetry. By age thirty, Jennings was a celebrated writer.

“To be lucky in the beginning is everything,” claimed Cervantes, but Jennings’s luck did not hold. In the great expansion of universities and literary publishing following World War II, her Movement peers gained academic appointments, lucrative book deals, and critical esteem. Jennings’s career stalled. Her fame as a Movement poet proved a dead end. She never belonged in that Oxbridge boys’ club. She shared The Movement’s commitment to clarity and traditional form, but her politics were to the left of their mostly conservative stance. Deeper than politics, however, were two fundamental differences between Jennings and her peers. “I was a woman and also a Roman Catholic,” she later observed, “which meant that I wanted to write about subjects which were simply uninteresting to most Movement poets.” Her emotionally direct verse, which pondered love, art, and religion, had little in common with their detached and ironic attitude toward experience.

There were also personal impediments to her continued success. Physically and emotionally frail, Jennings was not able to sustain a practical career. She lacked the temperament for any employment but poetry. She drifted between failed jobs and impossible lovers. She was hospitalized for mental illness. By forty, she had sunk into poverty, rescued only by the occasional publisher’s advance or literary prize. Alone and destitute in old age, Jennings moved from one short-term lodging to another, a shabby eccentric haunting Oxford cafés.

What in a rock star or Communist celebrity would meet with indulgence — dissipation, poor comportment in public, eccentricity — was with the lady Jennings treated roughly: “When she was appointed to a British order of chivalry by the queen in 1992, the impoverished poet wore a knitted hat, duffle coat, and canvas shoes. The tabloids dubbed Jennings ‘the bag-lady of the sonnets.’ The epithet stuck.” “In her later years, reviewers often treated her with condescension and hostility. One young critic mocked her as a ‘Christian lady’ and ‘emotional anchorite’ inhabiting a world of ‘shapeless woolens, small kindnesses and quiet deaths’ — an odious remark even by the snotty standards of British reviewing.”

But Gioia ably demonstrates that Jenning was a poet of no mean quality, woman, Catholic, English, penurious, dissolute or otherwise. I have already ordered two of her volumes on his rec alone.

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