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Understanding the Bag Lady Poet

elizabeth_jennings_reproduced_by_permission_of_emma_mason.jpgElizabeth Jennings was many things: a working poet and avid promoter of poetry to children; a familiar and eccentric face about Oxford; a devout Roman Catholic; and a sufferer of mental health issues. Although she lived within recent history (she died in 2001) her status as a poet, like the details of her life, remains elusive.

Professor Emma Mason, from the University of Warwick, will lead a one day symposium on the popular but under-appreciated poet in Oxford this month. The event, which is open to all, will gather together academics, students and the public to talk about Jennings’ poetry, biography, faith and influence to try and learn more about her life and work.

“There is no doubt Jennings is one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century,” says Professor Mason. “Although she may not be a household name, her work remains popular with the public, with many of her verses being used at ceremonies like weddings, funerals and religious events. She has a clarity and accessibility on common themes like love, death and religion that people can identify with. But within academic circles her work can still be considered simplistic or obvious and detailed study of her poetry is not really that common. But this is set against the fact that we know relatively little about her as a person.”

A leading light

Elizabeth Jennings was always regarded as a talented writer. From the late 1940s onwards her poetry began to win awards. In the 1950s her career took off alongside other renowned poets of the day.

Professor Mason continues: “She was a contemporary of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin and was published together with them and others in the 1956 New Lines anthology, launching what became known as The Movement. It was framed as the next big thing in post-war poetry. As a group they were notable for their style – clipped and polished stanzas, strict in form. But other than this she had little in common with these men. They shunned, dismantled or belittled religion, where as she, the sole female contributor, made no secret of her faith and its influence on her life – in fact she was famously Catholic.

“Perhaps it was her strong faith which made Jennings unfashionable with some academic readers, but this is one of the themes that makes her so interesting to me and many poetry readers.”

Mental health

“Jennings always stated that she was not an autobiographical or confessional poet,” continues Mason, “but some of her stand-out work is to do with themes which affected her personally. The most vivid of these themes was her faith, but we also hear about her problems with mental health. She had a series of breakdowns from her early 30s onwards, some of which resulted in her trying to take her own life. She spent time in a psychiatric unit and we understand her experience – to an extent – through the poems she published, most notably those in her volume The Mind Has Mountains (1966).”

Plimsolls and the Queen

Elizabeth Jennings was prolific in her writing. She produced vast quantities of work, some of which did not stand up to scrutiny. Professor Mason explains:

“She wrote hundreds of notebooks worth of poetry and it wasn’t always good. Although her style was always recognisable, some of the clarity of her earlier work began to dwindle in her later years. People forget though, she was a professional poet, she was trying to make a living. She lived in a humble home and was still fragile mentally. By all accounts she dressed with clothes from jumble sales – she famously collected her CBE from the Queen in trainers and a woolly hat. By the time of her death she was living in sheltered accommodation, trying to write poetry to keep going financially.”

Finding out more

Professor Mason is hoping the work of Elizabeth Jennings will begin to attract attention once more if we begin to learn more about her. “However much we know are Jennings, there is far more that we don’t,” adds Mason. “That is why we are holding this free public event at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where Jennings studied. While those that shared her life are still alive, it is important we gather as much information as we can, so we are particularly keen to welcome those who knew Jennings and could come and share recollections of her life and work.”

Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001): A one day symposium and poetry reading, will take place on Saturday October 29, 2016 at St Anne’s College, 56 Woodstock Rd, Oxford OX2 6HS. It is funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant. For more information visit go.warwick.ac.uk/jenningspoet; or email: emma.mason@warwick.ac.uk and jdowson@dmu.ac.uk

Image reproduced courtesy of Aileen Albrow via Emma Mason


 

Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001): A one day symposium and poetry reading, funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, will take place on Saturday October 29, 2016 at St Anne’s College, 56 Woodstock Rd, Oxford OX2 6HS.

For more information visit:

go.warwick.ac.uk/jenningspoet; or email: emma dot mason at warwick dot ac dot uk