His poetry is what all poetry should be, the surprising and beautiful organisation of things that life has disorganised. John Fuller
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About Alan Jenkins
Alan Jenkins was born in Surrey in 1955 and has lived for most of his life in London. He studied at the University of Sussex and has worked for the Times Literary Supplement since 1981, first as poetry and fiction editor, then as deputy editor. He was also a poetry critic for The Observer and the Independent on Sunday from 1985-1990, and has taught creative writing in the USA, London and Paris. His collections of poetry are In The Hot-House (1988), Greenheart (1990), the Forward Prize-winning Harm (1994), The Drift (2000), A Shorter Life (2005) and Revenants (2013); Drunken Boats, containing his acclaimed translation of Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’, was published in 2007, and Blue Days (The Sailor’s Return) in 2010. A Short History of Snakes, a selected poems, was published in 2001 by Grove Press, New York. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 1981, a Cholmondeley Award in 2006, and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Jenkins has said that one of his poetic ‘elders and betters’ once told him: ‘Your subject is loss. Stay with that’ – and the treatment of loss appears as the continuous measure of his poetic output. His early poetry investigates an erotic and wounded reminiscence, represented in this selection for the Poetry Archive by ‘The Love of Unknown Women’: a lustful and defeated account of how sexual desire tends to gravitate towards the unattainable. These themes dominate in Harm (1994), whose central sequence evokes the aftermath of a love affair, agonisingly recalled from a recognisably rueful state of male solitude. This poetry’s relationship to loss is less elegaic than it is brooding and possessive, coloured by a pained awareness of the past’s imprisoning hold – a sentiment perhaps echoed from the work of Ian Hamilton, whose Collected Poems Jenkins edited and who, despite obvious dissimilarities, has been an important influence. Long, narrative poems or sequences are at the heart of Jenkins’s earlier books, while the stylised confessionalism that characterises his work has matured in his less fierce but no less emotionally direct recent collections, such as the understated poems of A Shorter Life, which address the death of his mother with a subtlety and formal aptitude at times recalling Philip Larkin. As in Larkin, the high notes of Jenkins’s poems frequently come from unexpected moments of illumination, and his work has an uncommon lyrical intensity perhaps inherited from his early immersion in the French Symbolist poets. Often this manifests itself when the sensory chime of a memory is discovered in his poems, suddenly and seemingly without effort – such as the recurring ‘waist-high grasses’, through which a younger self walks in the nostalgic ‘Southern Rail (The Four Students)’ – which in their cohesion and clarity remind us that such moments must always painfully exclude the present.
Alan Jenkins’s favourite poetry sayings
These days Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) is probably better known as the father of Virginia Woolf than for his own prodigiously productive career. In the course of it, though, he said something about poetry that seems to me permanently true (and Thomas Hardy certainly thought so): “The ultimate aim of the poet should be to touch our hearts by showing his own, and not to exhibit his learning, or his fine taste, or his skill in mimicking the notes of his predecessors.” (For “his” read “his or her”, it goes without saying.)
As an editor I have often felt the force of Marianne Moore’s “I, too, dislike it. There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”. But as someone trying to write poems I know that isn’t so. Paul Verlaine demanded “De la musique avant toute chose” (Before anything, music), but his fellow-Symbolist Paul Valery made a subtler corrective to that: “Le poeme, cette hesitation prolongee entre le son et le sens” (The poem, this prolonged hesitation between sound and meaning). And yet another Frenchman, Jean-Paul Sartre, speaks for all of us, or should do: “A poet is a man [or a woman] who refuses to use language”.
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 6 November 2013 at ID Audio and was produced by John Green.