Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Completism

TLS October 12 2012

from Graeme Richardson's review of Elizabeth Jennings: The Collected Poems, edited by Emma Mason:

A weighty Collected Poems can be many things: a monument to greatness, like a Pyramid; or a record of significance, like a Presidential Library. It may be the retiring poet's carriage clock; it may be their concrete overcoat. A poet's complete works, handily gathered, should ensure they continue to be read. But the typical Collected might not help with that: unless every piece was a masterpiece, the good can be buried in the indifferent, repetition can dilute what in small doses is powerful and original, and what was a well-practiced craft starts to look automatic. 
Completism might be justified if a poet lived so tumultous a life that changes of place or mind might need to be tracked. That is not the case with Elizabeth Jennings. She was born in 1926 in Lincolnshire, her family moved to Oxford in 1932, and in that city she spent most of the rest of her life. She never married or had children; she was troubled and repelled by sex. Her Catholic upbringing could be blamed for that; but she remained a faithful Catholic throughout her life. Her faith was inseparable from her writing, and is often its subject. In early adulthood she worked in oxford City Library, and then in publishing. For 1960 onwards, her mental and physical health began to break down. For a time, she was institutionalized in a mental hospital: but the poems she wrote never sensationalized her illness. With a typical generosity, she often wrote of other patients, or her nurses. She became an alcoholic. In later life, she had a small income from reviewing, from her poetry (which sold well) and from the sale of her manuscripts to American universities. But her appearance was borderline-destitute; she lived in cluttered chaos, among thousands of toys and trinkets.... She died in 2001, and was buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, only a couple of miles from where she grew up. It is not a wide-ranging or especially eventful biography. 
It may be, then, that the tribute of completism could be paid to a writing career grand in scope and ambition. But Elizabeth Jennings had modest aims and a shrewd understanding of her limitations. She returned again and again to the same subjects--frustrated love, family conflict, craft and art, living by faith--with the same sort of negative theology.... Despite some experimentation in the middle of her career, she wrote mostly in traditional forms, with conventional rhyme schemes and metres.... She rarely wrote a poem longer than fifty lines, but her reticence serves to beckon the reader closer.

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