Lifesaving Poems: Elizabeth Jennings’s ‘A Letter to Peter Levi’

As I have said before in the Lifesaving Poems series of blogposts, some poets come into your life through the recommendations of friends, while others you find for yourself, in secret, without anyone else knowing.

Elizabeth Jennings falls into the second category for me. I have been trying to remember where and when I first read her, and I can’t. My guess is I found her in an anthology –The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, chosen by Philip Larkin. In that book you will find five perfect poems of hers: ‘Delay’, ‘Song at the Beginning of Autumn’, ‘Answers’, ‘The Young Ones’, and ‘One Flesh’, perhaps her most well-known poem.

In any event reading her by accident like this and hungry for more I devoured her short Selected Poems, published by Carcanet in 1979 as part of their Poetry Signature series. I was reminded of this last weekend on reading Nicholas Lezard’s review of her newly-published The Collected Poems.

My choice of Lifesaving Poem by Elizabeth Jennings is not one of those famous ones, above, or to be found in anthologies. It comes quite near the end of the original Selected, and is unusual in that collection for being comparatively informal in both tone and form.

I liked its conversational register straight away. Reading it is like coming across the proverbial letter of the title. We become complicit as readers in the poem’s intimacy. I also liked it because it described a world which I knew nothing about and definitely wanted to know more of: knowing and being friends with other writers.

At the time I first read it I was unemployed and still living at my parents’. I found it remarkable that a simple thing like a walk taken by two writers where one shows the other a tablet in memory of another could be news, and moving.

Reading it again now (and typing it out for this post) I am struck by how often the poet uses the  word ‘yet’ (four in total). I now see it as a masterful exercise in delayed gratification, the lift-off and magic of the last line coming after a long series of hesitations and qualifications and that amazingly offhand rejection of the poet’s own simile of blown glass as strength and fragility. I had not seen this before, in any writing. I still think of it as an act of bravery, chutzpah and confidence.

Finally I think the poem is a great example of demythologising that most complicated of territories, the literary friendship. When Richard Ford wrote Good Raymond, his memoir of Raymond Carver, he said it was like writing about marriage: no one, least of all the protagonists, really knows the truth of what passes between two writers who are friends, rivals and equals. I like to think of this poem as coming closer than most attempts, built as it is on ‘certain, solid thing[s]’ (‘Song at the Beginning of Autumn’), but not completely trusting of them either.

A Letter to Peter Levi

 

Reading your poems I am aware

of tranlucencies, of birds hovering

over estuaries, of glass being spun for huge domes.

I remember a walk when you showed me

a tablet to Burton who took his own life.

You seem close to fragility yet have

a steel-like strength. You help junkies,

you understand their language,

you show them the stars and soothe them.

You take near-suicides and talk to them,

you are on the strong side of life, yet also the brittle,

I think of blown glass sometimes but reject the simile.

Yet about your demeanour there is something frail,

the strength is within, won from simple things

like swimming and walking.

Your pale face is like an ikon, yet

any moment, any hour, you break to exuberance,

and then it is our world which is fragile:

you toss it like a juggler.

 

Elizabeth Jennings, from Selected Poems

Lifesaving Poems

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