You are confronted with yourself. Each year
The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.
You give it all unflinchingly. You stare
Into yourself, beyond. Your brush’s care
Runs with self-knowledge. Here
Is a humility at one with craft.
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.
Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, the times. You also plucked the past
And tempered it. Self-portraits understand,
And old age can divest,
With truthful changes, us of fear of death.
Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,
The sadness and the joy. To paint’s to breathe,
And all the darknesses are dared. You chose
What each must reckon with.
From ‘Collected Poems’ Carcanet, 1987, © Elizabeth Jennings 1987, and used by kind permission of David Higham Associates.
TP Editor: Belinda Hollyer
Elizabeth Jennings (1926 – 2001) was a poet of great emotional intensity and acuity. Sometimes the effects of these qualities are almost unbearably honest – the Rembrandt poem, above, comes close to that for me – and are always supported by a faultless technique, as well as by what seems a wonderful inevitability of logic and imagery.
Her obituary in The Guardian quotes something she said about clarity: “Only one thing must be cast out, and that is the vague. Only true clarity reaches to the heights and the depths of human, and more than human, understanding.” Her own poetic achievements both echo and celebrate that.
Jennings was – and still is – a much-anthologised poet, and works such as ‘Delay’ and ‘One Flesh’ are the ones most people will know. I chose the Rembrandt poem because it seems to me to go straight to the heart of our fear of the real, dark, hugeness of death and decay, as well as of the challenges of art.
I can't find a really good picture of Elizabeth Jennings. There's one I've heard of (but not seen: it may be apocryphal) taken when she had just received her CBE in 1992, in which she stands glowing with pleasure and wearing a low-slung beret, short tweed skirt and striped socks above tennis shoes. I love the idea of that photo: utterly at ease with herself, and utterly happy.
Belinda Hollyer is this week's Tuesday Poem editor. She is a New Zealand writer living in London - a children’s author and anthologist - and she blogs at www.belindahollyer.com/blog.