The Collected Poems
Edited by Emma Mason
Carcanet, Paperback, 1019 pages
ISBN 978 1 84777 068 4, £25.00
This review, which has taken far longer to write than it should, begins with something of a caveat. I haven’t read this collection properly. Or I don’t feel that I have, at least, and don’t intend to do so in a hurry, despite diligently making my way through each of its 1019 pages (indices aside), and taking copious notes.
It is difficult to know how to approach a monumental collection like this as a reviewer, not a reader, as the necessary comments to be made about the quality of the volume and the work feel like preamble to the experience of the poetry. In keeping with Carcanet’s previous volumes of Jennings’ work, the text is impeccably presented and finely edited by Emma Mason, whose biographical afterword explores the poet’s complex literary and personal relationships with a moving lightness of touch. It represents an almost complete overview of the works of one of the twentieth century’s most vital and enduring poets; this was a volume that needed to be produced, and to the standard that has been achieved.
This aside, Jennings is a poet whose work demands personal response, and personal submission, much like her own reflections on Greek sculpture:
‘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’.
‘Greek Statues’ (p. 108).
This reviewer came to her work via an uncharacteristically well-chosen A-Level syllabus over a decade ago, in the more slender Selected Poems (1979), that was no less heavy and affecting in its open and frank treatment of religion, mental illness, and grief. Returning to this larger, heavier book, weighed upon by the demand to explain what it is about Jennings that is beautiful and true, brought new meaning to the opening lines of ‘Absence’:
I visited the place where we last met.
Nothing was changed, the gardens were well-tended,
The foundations sprayed their usual steady jet;
There was no sign that anything had ended
And nothing to instruct me to forget.
‘Absence’ (p. 67).
Jennings often deploys the tension between the tamed and untamed wilderness (or by extension the natural world and cosmos), as a means of expressing human attempts, and failures, to achieve some semblance of order where none is to be found:
In our wild world of misrule we insist
On shapeliness and balance. Most of us
Do this to gardens. Tough weeds will persist
Until we’ve plucked them. We make curious
Designs for garden-beds. O we exist
To make new order since ourEdenloss.
‘Order’ (p. 735).
A world takes form in these gardens that is organised, structured, and obeisant, if Arcadian in all senses, a green world standing ‘in its accomplished guise/ Under elusive suns. Our gardens reach/ Up to the cruising clouds’ (‘Green World’, p. 501).
Likewise, the wild flowers of the English landscape, Jennings writes, ‘Springing to pleasant life in my own nation’, follow tidy patterns, their names ‘gracious and specific’, in defined hedgerows, upon lawns, ‘infesting hay-fields’ (‘English Wild Flowers’, p. 466). The sense is inescapable throughout her work that this appreciation remained a conscious and constant process of ordering, mindful of the imminence of rampant overgrowth, whilst in the meantime
Nature was my shelter. All the berries
Plumped and showed their shining. I was there
In what could be a Summer’s dream. Time’s worries
Found no foot-hold near.
And nor did mine. Perspectives happened later.
All my world was flat and full of green.
Mountains face me. Rivers mirror me,
I am all aware and frightened too
But I can’t turn back pages now to see
What once was green and true.
‘In Green Times’ (p. 639-40).
This writing of history, the treatment of oneself and one’s history as an object of, and for, reflection, serves as a constant simmering presence beneath the surface of these works that is simultaneously a source of tension, and the driving force behind self-representation.
To write your history is a daring thing
and also it requires much ruthlessness.
(‘Concerning History’, I, p. 787).
Jennings certainly was capable of ruthlessness, as the weight of this volume alone attests. It would be a ruthless reader indeed who decided to plough through it sequentially. Rather, as Jennings may have preferred, it is a place to be revisited, over time, on many occasions. The verse will not change, but we will.