This review is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.DEGREES OF SERIOUSNESS
Consequently I Rejoice is the second collection of Elizabeth Jennings's distilled, translucent poems to appear in two years: and, like its immediate predecessor, Growing-Points (1975), it is a generously-filled book. The trouble with distillation, of course, is that impurities can be colourful and interesting: there are moments here when both language and experience have been so purified that very little remains, especially in the poems about nature with which the book opens. A beautifully-made poem like 'Towards Migration', for instance, seems to have had its subject filtered out of it:
Listen, there is a leaving sound,
A slightly urgent note,
Partly from air, partly aground.
It issues from the throat
Of hiders in the trees along-
Side never-going birds.
It fits into a farewell song
And almost hints at words.
If Elizabeth Jennings had made more use of the 'farmers' feeling' which she claims she possesses in 'Instinct for Seasons', she might have been dissatisfied with the vagueness of 'trees' and 'birds' and suspicious of the near-sentimentality of the conclusion: 'a farewell song', certainly, but 'hints at words'? Yet her own deeper instinct about words comes close to disarming criticism altogether: in 'Questions to Other Artists' she writes of being 'grateful' for the times 'when words are offered/ Like a host upon the tongue'.
As with Emily Dickinson-a poet whom she increasingly resembles both in her concerns and in the deceptive simplicity of her versification-we have to accept that writing poems is for Elizabeth Jennings an unusually intense spiritual experience; and, inevitably, there are times when the reader on the outside of the experience perceives an act of faith and little else. But when this brittle art succeeds-and it often does-it has marvellous resonance and clarity. Here is the second stanza of the short poem 'For Virginia Woolf':
How daringly the waves came as you passed
Page over peerless page. You looked too long.
You should have paused one page before the last.
Yet who dares say which instinct proved more strong?
That seems exactly right, especially the unexpected 'peerless'. And so does this, from 'November Sun':
Today is made of light and winter goes
Away with one cloud darker than the rest.
The others are suggesting later snows.
Put out your hand and feel how it is blessed.
There are numerous stanzas like these in the book, providing a pure (but not necessarily simple) pleasure. Elizabeth Jennings writes of 'Nature moving calmly with grace and integrity', and that is how her best poems move too.
Naturally, one has caveats. The collection is arranged thematically, like Growing-Points: nature, religion, art. In a book consisting of a large number of short poems, this tends to emphasize both the repetitions and the less successful poems within each category. The thematic range and the formal range are narrower than those of Growing-Points, and the tendency towards uniformity of tone makes the rejoicing seem a bit chilly. But it would be difficult for the reader not to rejoice in the work of a poet of such skill and seriousness.
Seriousness, at least on the surface, is something which Anthony Thwaite carefully avoids in parts of A Portion for Foxes. Here are literary joke-poems, quagmires for reviewers, done as well as anyone and far better than Kingsley Amis. Emily Dickinson pops up here too, in 'Tell It Slant'. But the book offers more than the spectacle of a thoroughly able literary professional going through his paces: indeed, it's the convincing coexistence of personal, serious matters and an urbanity which never descends to mere slickness that's so impressive. Confidence is half the battle, and Thwaite's writing is enormously confident: consequently, he gets away with tricks which in a sense oughtn't to work. For instance, the brief 'At Ely', about the effigy of John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester (d. 1470):
Among the floating passengers below
This starry lantern, hale in effigy
Tiptoft lies by his brides, immaculate:
Serene and resurrected trinity.
Restored by art, cosmetic in his grace,
Watch him embrace the pure November chill,
Who at another time, alone, knelt down
And felt the axe descend on Tower Hill.
The Tower Hill punchline ought to seem glib : but it doesn't, because the more telling juxtaposition is the more gentle one, of 'floating passengers' in the first line and 'alone' in the penultimate line.
This sort of effect is characteristic of a book in which almost every poem is properly rounded-off. That is a Larkinesque quality, and in `By the City Wall' Thwaite takes on Larkin on his home ground:
Beyond it spreads the town it never knew,
Fanning far out beyond it, out of sight-
Uncircumscribed, unguarded-where the new
Ring road throws up its cloud-distempering light.
I'm unhappy about the repetition of 'beyond it', but 'cloud-distempering', with its suggestion of a pun, is effective. There are many fine things here: the peculiarly haunting urgency of `The Procession'; the quiet wisdom of 'The Simple Life' or 'Boundaries'; the restrained wit of 'Life and Other Contingencies' or 'Simple Poem'; the elegiac modesty of 'For Louis MacNeice', a poem which invites comparison with Yeatsian and Audenesque models, and survives. But best of all, and incidentally demonstrating how far Thwaite really is from Larkin, is the concluding poem 'Called For': not about the generation gap (a far easier subject, on which Thwaite has written in his 1973 collection, Inscriptions) but about bridging it. The poem oscillates between past (`That unborn child I locked up in neat stanzas') and present:
Now I arrive near midnight, but too early
To claim you seventeen years afterwards:
A darkened auditorium lit fitfully
By dizzy crimsons, pulsing and fading blues . . .
The atmosphere of the poem, as of the occasion, is dreamlike and unfocused but ultimately held in check by its two fixed points:
Not just this place, the tribal lights, the passive
Communion of noise and being young,
Not just the strident music which I give
No more than half an ear to; but the sense
Of drifting out into another plane
Beyond the one I move on, and moved once
To bring you into being-that is why
I falter as I call you by your name,
Claim you, as drifting up towards me now
You smile at me, ready for us to go.
Restrained, civilized, serious, A Portion for Foxes is an unusually satisfying book.
In this company, Dannie Abse appears, and might wish to appear, light-weight. The overall impression of his Collected Poems is one of amiable slackness, always mildly interesting but hardly ever memorable or incisive. Except in his most ballad-like pieces, Abse seems (to my ear) to have almost no sense of rhythm. There is a great deal of Welshness, Jewishness, and Welsh Jewishness, and much jolly anecdotage. The Times Literary Supplement review quoted in the blurb talks about 'unvarnished truths' but I wonder if 'unpolished' wouldn't be nearer the mark.
This review is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.