Monday, 13 January 2014

Some Poems by Elizabeth Jennings

“I’m not quiet and restrained. Perhaps after all one’s poems do represent what one would like to be or become – hence my search for peace and reconciliation.”

 – Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings is an often overlooked poet, at least around these parts. Perhaps the fact that English poets of Britain, aside from the most famous, are sometimes lost due to the flood of study on Canadian counterparts plays a part in our under-appreciation of them.  Jennings (1926-2001) was a prolific crafter of language who balanced her technical skill with accessible lines and subjects. Among her many, extraordinary offerings, I’ve chosen these three to spotlight in order to hopefully contribute to keeping her at the forefront of any discussions on who are among the greatest English-language poets in history.



Let it disturb no more at first
Than the hint of a pool predicted far in a forest,
Or a sea so far away that you have to open
Your window to hear it.
Think of it then as elemental, as being
Not for a cup to be taken to it and not
For lips to linger or eye to receive itself
Back in reflection, simply
As water the patient moon persuades and stirs.

And then step closer,
Imagine rivers you might indeed embark on,
Waterfalls where you could
Silence an afternoon by staring but never
See the same tumult twice.
Yes come out of the narrow street and enter
The full piazza. Come where the noise compels.
Statues are bowing down to the breaking air.

Observe it there – the fountain, too fast for shadows,
Too wild for the lights which illuminate it to hold,
Even a moment, an ounce of water back;
Stare at such prodigality and consider
It is the elegance here, it is the taming,
The keeping fast in a thousand flowering sprays,
That builds this energy up but lets the watchers
See in that stress an image of utter calm,
A stillness, there. It is how we must have felt
Once at the edge of some perpetual stream,
Fearful of touching, bringing no thirst at all,
Panicked by no perception of ourselves
But drawing the water down to the deepest wonder.

Jennings sees things in objects that we miss, creates a sense of the divine in what we perceive to be merely natural or human.

Greek Statues

These I have never touched but only looked at.
If you could say that stillness meant surrender
These are surrendered.
Yet their large audacious gestures signify surely
Remonstrance, reprisal? What have they left to lose
But the crumbling away by rain or time? Defiance
For them is a dignity, a declaration.

Odd how one wants to touch not simply stare,
To run one’s fingers over the flanks and arms,
Not to possess, rather to be possessed.
Bronze is bright to the eye but under the hands
Is cool and calming. Gods into silent metal:

To stone also, not to the palpable flesh.
Incarnations are elsewhere and more human,
Something concerning us; but these are other.
It is as if something infinite, remote
Permitted intrusion. It is as if these blind eyes
Exposed a landscape precious with grapes and olives:
And our probing hands moved not to grasp
But to praise.

Many of her poems deal with people as her primary subject, and she gives a perspective we would never have gained without her artist’s insight. And sometimes person and object meld into a unified image.


The Diamond Cutter

Not what the light will do but how he shapes it
And what particular colours it will bear.

And something of the climber’s concentration
Seeing the white peak, setting the right foot there.

Not how the sun was plausible at morning
Nor how it was distributed at noon,

And not how much the single stone could show
But rather how much brilliance it would shun;

Simply a paring down, a cleaving to
One object, as the star-gazer who sees

One single comet polished by its fall
Rather than countless, untouched galaxies.


All poems © Elizabeth Jennings

Selections taken from Penguin Modern Poets I (featuring Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings, R.S. Thomas, published by Penguin Books, 1962). Jennings’ poems from this anthology originally appeared in her books A Way of Looking (1956, André Deutsch), A Sense of the World (1958, André Deutsch), and Song For a Birth or a Death (1961, André Deutsch).

For more information on Elizabeth Jenning’s life and her works, please visit


– Andreas Gripp

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