About Elizabeth Jennings
Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) was born in Boston, Lincolnshire but moved to Oxford at the age of six where she lived for the rest of her life. She studied at St. Anne's College, Oxford and worked in advertising, at the City Library and briefly in publishing before becoming a full-time writer. Her consistent devotion to poetry yielded over twenty books during her life, a New Collected Poems appearing in 2002. Although initially linked to the group of poets including Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn known as 'The Movement', Jennings' work doesn't share their irony or academic wit. However, the unassuming technical craft of her poetry and its emotional restraint are qualities that were praised by the poets and critics of the period and continued to be abiding characteristics of her work. An important theme is her Catholicism and many of her poems have a devotional aspect. Her intense musing on spirituality encouraged a sensitivity towards others, evident in the pained tenderness of some of her poems. Jennings' sincere and scrupulous work gradually built both critical acclaim that weathered changes in poetic fashion, and a genuine popularity. Amongst the many honours awarded her work are the W.H. Smith Literary Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and a CBE. Although consistent in its tone and concerns, her poetry continued to develop and mature - later work demonstrating a more flexible approach to form whilst retaining her clarity.
The two poems in the Archive represent some of Jennings' enduring qualities. In 'Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits' from her 1975 collection Growing Points she admires the unsparing gaze the great painter turns on his own deteriorating body. His artistic integrity and the courage of his confrontation with death are also true of Jennings' lifelong dedication to poetry, "a humility at one with craft", as exemplified by the masterful unobtrusive rhyme in this poem. 'Bird in the House' from Extending the Territory, 1985, is an example of her later, looser style. Here a childhood memory of a pet canary's death throws adult losses into sharp relief, and leads her to examine the role of ritual in helping us contain grief.
This recording, made in 1999 as part of the Bloodaxe/British Council Poetry Quartet series, captures Jennings in her last years. The fact that her own voice is cracked with age makes these meditations on mortality all the more poignant.
On my initial visit to the Poetry Archive, the historical recordings caught my attention first. I did not know that...