Last week it was twenty years since the poet Elizabeth Jennings died. She was hugely popular — but is somewhat forgotten now. To mark her anniversary, I wrote an article about poetry and the common reader for UnHerd, Instagram is the future of poetry. Here’s the opening:
“You must be one of the best-selling poets in England,” wrote the editor Michael Schmidt in 1989. “Few writers can command the earned popularity you now enjoy.” He was writing to a poet whose name is no longer a household one; Elizabeth Jennings, who died 20 years ago this week, has faded almost into obscurity. Perhaps because “the British reading public,” as Ruth Padel wrote a year later, “has lost confidence dramatically in its own poetry.”
Jennings was, if not the poet of her age, certainly one of them. Her 1979 Selected Poems sold out in two weeks and went on to sell 50,000 copies. Her Collected Poems sold 35,000 copies. The 40 books she wrote and edited (including anthologies) sold about a quarter of a million copies. Schmidt wrote to Jennings, also in 1989, that she was “unrivalled”. This wasn’t strictly true — Wendy Cope was also selling in great numbers in the late Eighties, and Larkin’s Collected Poems was published — but Schmidt was broadly right: few poets sell so well. Perhaps her work holds answers, then, to the question of why Brits have lost confidence in our poetry.
I would encourage you all to read Jennings’ poetry and to listen to her reciting her poetry. She is an excellent, nuanced writer. Popularity is often a little bit suspect among highbrows, however, and the article looks at the hostility the poetry establishment often feels towards Insta poets and other internet writers. It’s a “Don’t Bet Against the Internet” piece, a short profile of Jennings, and an argument against the “closed shop” of poetry, among other things.
Here’s a little overview of her writing, just for you good people. Samples make it obvious why people loved (and love) her work:
I feel I could be turned to ice
If this goes on, if this goes on.
I feel I could be buried twice
And still the death not yet be done.
As well as timeless lyricism, Jennings is capable of startling relevance:
You send an image hurrying out of doors
When you depose a king and seize his throne:
You exile symbols when you take by force.
She was capable, at her best, of oblique, Heaney-like observations, precise and original, such as The Diamond Cutter, which begins:
Not what the light will do but how he shapes it
And what particular colours it will bear…
She had a gift for epigrammatic couplets — “There is a shyness that we have/ Only with those whom we most love.” — and also for thoughts, eked out through a few lines and images, into little revelations:
Let us have winter loving that the heart
May be in peace and ready to partake
Of the slow pleasure spring would wish to hurry
Or that in summer harshly would awake,
And let us fall apart, O gladly weary,
The white skin shaken like a white snowflake.
Jennings at the Poetry Archive