Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits by Elizabeth Jennings

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.


Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks for this - Elizabeth Jennings is really undervalued. One of my favourites is the poem she wrote for her still-born child called 'A Child Born Dead'. It's not emotional, but its effect is devastating and you wonder at the skill that can distill so much grief into such a perfect vehicle to carry the grief of others. Her 'one flesh' poem is another of my favourites.
I think she would have been much more valued if she hadn't been writing at a time when anyone who wrote about 'women's issues' was automatically categorised as a minor poet. She was the token female member of a group of poets known as The Movement, which included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, John Wain, Tom Gun and D.J. Enright. Say no more.

Zireaux said...

One of the best poems about poetry ever written.

Note the brushwork of the poem. The application of thought upon the page. Short, careful strokes of about 5-8 words each, one after another, until some truth is revealed. "But there's still love left." Or "Self-portraits understand...fear of death."

Note the sound and rhythm in the poem -- employed exactly like the shades of light in Rembrant's work. The structure, like the painter's face, is distinquished, its schema (ababa) and metrical structure (5/5/5/5/4) are clearly visible, but the poet makes sound and rhythm "drift the way she wants" (like Rembrant's light) with humble half-rhymes and unflinching enjambment.

Note the "you" in the poem -- less a reference to Rembrant than to the poet, the viewer of the artwork, the person we are when we engage with a brilliant poem such as this one.

Finally, note how once we've dared and stared beyond the darkness, the self-scrutiny, and seen the truthful change, we learn what it means to be a poet: To write poetry is to mix the shades of dark and light, sadness and joy, fear, anguish, love; To write poetry is to mingle with "death" (last stanza), and ultimately, with death's half-rhyming homograph: To write poetry is "to breathe."


lillyanne said...

What wonderful comments these are! Thank you both very much for enjoying this poem.


Robby said...

I wish I had more time to read this and pick it apart. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...


testament said...

There are some photos of her here.