English poet, Elizabeth Jennings (1926–2001) lived most of her life in Oxford. She belongs in the first tier of postwar British poets — associated with the group known as “The Movement”, which also includes Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. Her poems are structured with simple metre and rhyme, giving them a gentle lilt. Besides writing her own poetry, she translated Michelangelo’s sonnets.
Elizabeth Jennings often wrote about paintings and about her faith. The two come together well in her poem “The Nature of Prayer” where she reflects on Van Gogh’s “crooked church” from the painting “The Church at Auvers”.
-------------Maybe a mad fit made you set it there
-------------Askew, bent to the wind, the blue-print gone
-------------Awry, or did it? Isn’t every prayer
-------------We say oblique, unsure, seldom a simple one,
-------------Shaken as your stone tightening in the air?...
Although she avoided autobiographical poetry, she freely wrote about mental illness, which troubled her life, as it had for Vincent Van Gogh.
In 1985 the poet Peter Levi said of Jennings in The Spectator, “She is one of the few living poets one could not do without”. She received many honours and awards throughout her career, including a C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1992.
-----It was the amazing white, it was the way he simply
Refused to answer our questions, it was the cold pale glance
Of death upon him, the smell of death that truly
Declared his rising to us. It was no chance
Happening, as a man may fill a silence
Between two heart-beats, seem to be dead and then
Astonish us with the closeness of his presence;
This man was dead, I say it again and again.
All of our sweating bodies moved towards him
And our minds moved too, hungry for finished faith.
He would not enter our world at once with words
That we might be tempted to twist or argue with:
Cold like a white root pressed in the bowels of earth
He looked, but also vulnerable — like birth.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca