Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"The Misrule of Our Dust": Psychoanalysis, Sacrament, and the Subject in Elizabeth Jennings's Poetry of Incarnation

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"The Misrule of Our Dust": Psychoanalysis, Sacrament, and the Subject in Elizabeth Jennings's Poetry of Incarnation

Article excerpt

And she, kneeling, cooling her spirit at the water, comes nearer, nearer.

Then the entire cleansing, utterly from nowhere. No wind ruffled it, no shadows slid across it. Her mind met it, her will approved. And all beyonds, backwaters, dry words of old prayers were lost in it. The water was only itself.

--Elizabeth Jennings, "Teresa of Avila" (1)

Long neglected as an object of scholarly critique, the poetry of Elizabeth Jennings has been the victim of a perennial tension between "mainstream" and "experimental" trends within the critical traditions of late twentieth-century British poetics. On the one hand, her overtly religious lyricism and steadfast interest in traditional form have been defended by conservative critics who admire her poetry's engagement with the Christian mysteries and devotional life, critics who are attracted to such poetry in part because it seems to deny any serious preoccupation with "the shifting ironies of post-modernity," as Barry Sloan has phrased it (393). This approach often relegates her work to an affiliation (though to be fair, a qualified one) with the Movement poets, those poets in England who, after the Second World War, were loosely associated with a nonconformist, "middle brow" reaction against the staunch traditionalist, metropolitan, and "Bohemian" poetics of the prewar generation. Yet among studies of Movement poetry, Jennings's work is similarly marginalized, its deeply religious preoccupations differing substantially from the "English provincialism" and antiromanticism of poets such as Philip Larkin and Donald Davie. (2) On the other hand, scholars exploring the experimental and feminist valences of twentieth century British poetics also implicitly deny that Jennings's poetry either engages postmodernism's concerns about the nature of poetic language or sustains a radical critique of women's voices within a patriarchal literary tradition. Surveys of the lesser-studied feminist poetic tradition in British literary history generally overlook Jennings as an important female poet, perhaps ultimately because her work is not overtly concerned with a feminist "consciousness-raising" that Claire Buck has identified with more progressive and postmodern poets such as Michele Roberts, Denise Riley, or Carol Ann Duffy (Buck 91 et passim). Even when critics such as Vicki Bertram claim that women's poetry can be associated with countercultural lyrical modes such as "'incantatory poetry,' mysticism," or the "surreal and the minimalist style" (273), Jennings is not typically considered, even though mysticism and incantation are consistently central motifs of her work.

Hence, while most critics agree that Jennings's poetry is both "mystical" and "traditional" in form and content, such an evaluation is paradoxical: her work shares features with Movement poetry yet is markedly dissimilar in its mystical and religious preoccupations; and while its overarching mysticism loosely affiliates it with feminist concerns about women's subjectivity and women's relationship to the lyric tradition, its apparently orthodox Catholic theology compromises its intervention in postmodernism's and feminism's anxieties. I would like to challenge this bilateral undervaluation of Jennings's work, and, following Linda K. Kinnahan's call to disrupt "the categories of [the] experimental and conventional" (xvii), demonstrate that Jennings's poetry, when illuminated from a psychoanalytical point of view, engages in a synthesis of traditional form and feminist, postmodern anxieties regarding the lyric subject and poetic language. Because mysticism is generally held up as the source of Jennings's virtuosity (or failure) by traditionalist and experimentalist readers, it serves as a crucial point of departure in this analysis, a way of understanding Jennings's own formulation of poetic subjectivity, a formulation that is both orthodox and radical, both keenly aware of the Christian drive for communion with God and deeply conscious of the impossibility of achieving a unified subjectivity in the world of fallen symbols. …

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