“For me, poetry is always a search for order.” Elizabeth Jennings
The more I delve into writing poems, the more shocked I am at how little poetry I know of some of our best published poets. Browsing in a second-hand book store, I picked out “Consequently I Rejoice” (1977). Nice title, appealing book, but Elizabeth Jennings? Who?
She had only published 26 books (!) and been associated with the post-war anti-heroic “Movement” but long before I delved into Jennings’ biography (1926-2001) it was her style of writing that left its impressions on me. This “For Edward Thomas” was one of the first to catch my attention:
“I have looked about for you many times,
Mostly in woods or down quiet roads,
Often in birds whose question-times
Sound like the echo of your moods
When sombre. I’ve not found you yet
In day sounds or dream-threaded night
You watched through, tired-eyed. I set
Such places by, finding no sight
of you in this strange hunt. I turn…
I liked the clarity and directness of her voice, the relative lack of ambiguity – a criticism levelled at her as leaving little or no room for the reader to interpret. This is her “Answers”:
“I keep my answers small and keep them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.
The huge abstractions I keep from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.”
Only after reading her poems, again and again, did I begin to appreciate Jennings’ use of formal rhyme patterns which she employs with such a light touch, that at first, I barely recognised they were there. And in so many of her poems, the orderly framework is evident.
“As a writer, she exalted formalism, striving to maintain a sense of tradition through regular meter and order…” *
“What the poem discovers – and this is its chief function – is order amid chaos, meaning in the middle of confusion, and affirmation at the heart of despair.” (Jennings) **
That word ‘Order’ appears many times in reference to Jennings’ work, influenced by events in her personal life as well as an attachment to that even older order: Catholicism. It is a word she uses quite often too. Here is her poem “Ariels’ Song”:
“Air is my element. Now he has thrown
His wand away, I can fly anywhere.
Liberty oddly makes me feel along,
I cannot take the air.
As birds do with a gusto of sheer height.
I want an order. Who will give it to me?
I need his gaze as I sport with the light.
I’m lost now I am free”.
True, she had a tumultuous interior life, with several suicide attempts and stays in mental hospitals, and perhaps this a clue to her attachment to formalism. After all, where there is chaos, order brings structure. But I do not want to stray too far into analysis, suffice it to say that Jennings’ parental relationships were evidently attributable – she lived with them right up until her father’s retirement and move away from Oxford. Listen to her ambivalence though about the order in ‘The Garden” – she even breaks from quatrains into tercets halfway through: –
“When the gardener has gone this garden
Looks wistful and seems waiting an event.
It is so spruce, a metaphor of Eden
And even more so since the gardener went,
Quietly godlike, but of course, he had
Not made me promise anything and I
Had no one tempting me to make the bad
Choice. Yet I still felt lost and wonder why.
Even the beech tree from next door which shares
Its shadow with me, seemed a kind of threat.
Everything was too neat, and someone cares
In the wrong way. I need not have stood long
Mocked by the smell of a mown lawn, and yet
I did. Sickness for Eden was so strong”.
By now you will have guessed that today’s prompt is ORDER – the NOUN not the verb:
“the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method.”
– Write a poem that expresses, directly or indirectly, 1st or 3rd person, your relationship with order – do you like it, want it, need it or resist it?
– Think of the way order turns up in our lives: e.g.the order of the seasons, of ceremony.
– Use the word in your title or in the body of your poem if you like
– For an extra challenge, put your poem into the order of formal poetic patterning.
Once you have published your poem, add it to the Linky widget and leave a comment below. Then go visiting, reading and sharing your thoughts with other contributors which is half the fun of our dVerse gatherings.
** The Elizabeth Jennings Project
* The Life and Mystery of Poet Elizabeth Jennings
Roman Holiday – the life & structures of the Catholic poet Elizabeth Jennings
[Jennings has only been featured once at dVerse by Kim in October 2017 with “The smell of Chrysanthemums“]