Poet and critic Dana Gioia devotes a whole chapter of his recent book to Elizabeth Jennings, whose name I did not recognize. She is “not the average professor’s idea of a modern poet.” Jennings was one of the Movement poets (and no, I don’t know enough about poetry to have known about them) but the only woman of her group.
She was Catholic, which also set her up for mocking. Gioia writes:
“Catholic iconography portrays martyrs in their heavenly glory displaying the instruments by which they were tortured and killed…. By the same method, is it possible to understand Jennings’s achievement by considering her supposed liabilities as defining virtues? …
“Jennings was a lyric poet. She mastered short forms. She wrote from an educated woman’s perspective. Her work is personal but not blatantly confessional. In a literary era obsessed with style, she focused on content. Her poems cluster around a set of recurring themes — love, religion, art, and relationships. Her poetry reflects her Christian worldview. Her stylistic approach was not to innovate but to perfect. When free verse represented the vanguard, she crafted her signature poems in rhyme and meter. She wrote prolifically.”
I haven’t read all of the title essay in the book yet, but that chapter is available here on First Things if you would like to read it online. It’s worth reading if only for his understanding of what characterizes a Catholic world view.
After reading about Jennings I wondered how I had completely missed her — but I hadn’t, only forgotten her name. Somewhere I’d run across “Friendship” and posted it on my blog. My library doesn’t have a single hard copy of any of her books, which is not surprising. This one below I found online.
I keep my answers small and keep them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.
The huge abstractions I keep from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.
But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.
Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, I still hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow
And all the great conclusions coming near.