Nationality: British. Born: Deal, Kent, 28 April 1924. Education: Dover County School for Girls, 1935–39. Family: Married Denis Perkins in 1943; one son. Career: Clerk, Bells Ltd., 1940–41, Caffyns Ltd., 1941–42, and Barclays Bank, 1942–43, all Lewes, Sussex. Lecturer, Workers Education Association, Burgess Hill, Sussex, 1960–63; receptionist and secretary, West Sussex Health Authority, and home help, West Sussex Country Council, both Burgess Hill, 1966–86. Awards: Cheltenham Poetry Competition prize, 1982; Arts Council bursary, 1985; Cholmondeley award, 1996. Address: 17 St. John's Avenue, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH 15 8HJ, England.
A Lifetime of Dying. Calstock, Peterloo, 1979.
Strange Territory. Calstock, Peterloo, 1983.
The Czar Is Dead. London, Rivelin Grapheme, 1986.
Instead of a Mass. Liverpool, Headland, 1991.
Look, No Face. Bradford, Redbeck Press, 1991.
Two Women Dancing. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1995.
Recording: William Scammell and Elizabeth Bartlett, Peterloo, 1984.*
Critical Studies: Interview with Carol Rumens, in Poetry Review, 85(1), spring 1995; "Elizabeth Bartlett, Two Women Dancing" by A. Topping, in Critical Survey (Oxford), 8(2), 1996.
Elizabeth Bartlett comments:
The poems are linked by one obsession, which is a curiosity about people and their emotions, stimulated originally by a five-year stint of psychoanalysis, with its freedoms and disciplines and its exploration of self. I am drawn to people with maimed personalities because I know I am one myself. I write about what I know, but I also write about imaginary events and people, using whatever the poem needs for its own purpose. I trade in fear and delight, strength and weakness, hate and love, and I'm inclined to agree with Geoffrey Grigson that "the right place for writers of poems, in relation to themselves as poem-writers, is in their poems."
I cannot explain a lifelong passion for this private art, and I have no academic background or qualifications of any kind. The poetry world has been reasonably kind to a rank outsider. I cannot think of anything that has pleased me more than being included in The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Women's Poetry.* * *
The strength of Elizabeth Bartlett's poetry lies in its concerns and compassion. It is not poetry of verbal or stylistic innovation. It has a controlled speaking voice whose narratives tend to seize the reader by the lapel after the manner of the Ancient Mariner. This often happens at the outset, as in "Salad Dreams," which begins,
I am like the lady who dreamed
she prepared a salad for her guests
and grated her own skin over it,
or in "Voyeur," which begins,
Watching from the bed, with a bleeding cunt
and gin-painted nipples, she saw at last
what he meant about having had a certain
nobility in his youth.
The world of Bartlett's poetry is not always a comfortable one, stemming from a world some of us would rather pretend were not there but which in her work in a doctor's office and in social services she has encountered and refused to look away from. It is an intensely and uncompromisingly physical world of blood, bowels, sickness, vomit, menses, and semen, in which people are often deranged. In this world the day of the death of the czar of all Russia is remembered as that when
Menarche and murder link with fear
in my mind.
It is a world sometimes on the edge of the precipice of insanity, where the "indefinable odour he carried round with him" was "the smell of loneliness."
What makes the poems acceptable is the compassionate and humane concern that underlies them. The poem "A Plea for Mercy" does not ask God to remake the world or anything so fundamentally unreasonable. All it asks is that some respect be shown and some peace allowed:
to geriatric homes and all the institutions in between,
a fair fantasy, a brief respite, and a dreamless sleep,
before the matrons, doctors, screws and curates muscle in.
It is a plea for a world in which we are allowed the fantasies and illusions that make it bearable and a cri de coeur against the dreaded tendency to institutionalize. As with Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, attention should be paid.
It is not, it must be said, a poetry that celebrates the bloody awful but one demanding that compassionate attention be paid. It reveals a world of natural and common human concerns and sensibilities beneath that from which we tend to avert our eyes. Bartlett's poetry is not designed to shock or dismay. Rather, it arouses understanding and recognition and from these compassion. To misquote what is now almost a poetic commonplace, "The poetry is in the compassion."