Nationality: Canadian. Born: South Africa, 26 July 1942; became Canadian citizen, 1975. Education: University of Natal, B.A. 1962, B.A. (honors) 1963. Career: Drama teacher, Rhodesia, 1964; producer, African Music and Drama Association, Johannesburg, 1965; teacher, Special School, London, 1966; poetry organizer and gallery attendant, Camden Arts Centre, London, 1967. Since 1968 freelance poet, lecturer, broadcaster, and psychotherapist. Writer-in-residence, University of Victoria, British Columbia, 1976. Awards: Arts Council grant, 1971, 1974; Canada Council grant, 1977, 1984. Address: c/o Bloodaxe Books, P.O. Box 1SN, Newcastle upon Tyne NE 99 1SN, England.
Flying. London, Workshop Press, 1970.
Monkeys' Wedding. London, Cape, 1972; revised edition, Vancouver, Douglas and McIntyre, and London, Heinemann, 1978.
Christmas in Africa. London, Heinemann, 1975.
House of Changes. London, Heinemann, 1978.
The Happiness Bird. Victoria, British Columbia, Sono Nis Press, 1978.
A Time to Be Born. London, Heinemann, 1981.
Life by Drowning: Selected Poems. Toronto, Anansi, 1983; revised edition, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1985.
In the Skin House. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1993.
Ton-Cat-Lion (for children). London, Gollancz, 1987.
Bad Day (for children). London, Gollancz, 1988.
Editor, Twelve to Twelve: Poems Commissioned for Poetry D-Day, Camden Arts Festival 1970. London, Poets' Trust, 1970.
Editor, The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets. New-castle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1985.
Editor, Singing Down the Bones: A Poetry Collection. London, Women's Press, 1989.*
Critical Studies: Interview with Leon de Kock, in Donga, 7, 1977; "Poet in Africa: Jeni Couzin" by E. Pereira, in Unisa English Studies (Pretoria, South Africa), 16(1), 1978; by Kevan Johnson, in Poetry Review, 83(4), winter 1994; "A Woman's Poet Journey into Life: On Jeni Couzyn's Poems" by Eunwon Han, in Journal of English Language and Literature (Seoul, Korea), 41(4), winter 1995.
Jeni Couzyn comments:
I am interested in using symbol rather than image and tend to write with as much clarity as I can. I am at times monosyllabic and look for the shortest and simplest words I can find. I believe poetry should be "true" at the deepest possible level and dislike the kind of poetry that appears to be complex on the surface, crammed with learned references and tricky images but that finally has little to say.
I write in free verse, using rhythm and stress to underline meaning and to counterpoint the sense whenever I can. Similarly, I use rhyme for surprise and emphasis rather than in any metrical pattern. I am particularly fond of imperfect rhymes, especially where the rhyming syllable falls on the unstressed part of the word.
I believe that poetry should be spoken and read on the page only as a kind of specialized reference, as music is written to be played and listened to. Reviewers at this time in the history of poetry use the words "poetry circuit" as a dirty word, as though it were some kind of big roundabout that only the common and the simple people climbed aboard. The simply expressed but profound truth of a poem like Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" is what I most admire in poetry and most seek for. The criteria I use to judge my own work are, Is it interesting? Is it relevant to other people's lives? Is it music? Is it true in the deepest sense, in a lasting way? To the extent that these criteria are approached, I am pleased or displeased with a poem.
In sound I have been most influenced by Dylan Thomas, not so much in his technique as in his courage in defying the dry tradition of poetry he was born into.
That I am a poet in an age where the "unintellectual" (i.e., almost everybody) think of poetry as something they did not like when they were at school, and the intellectual think it something the masses should be excluded from, is sad for me. This age has too much reverence for poetry and too little respect, for by the same token it is very difficult indeed to earn a living from poetry. Nor are poets considered valid members of the community. You will never see a panel set up to discuss drug usage, for example, or terrorism in Ireland, with a poet among the psychiatrists, students, businessmen, clergy, and housewives being asked to give their view.
For me being a poet is a job rather than an activity. I feel I have a function in society neither more nor less meaningful than any other simple job. I feel it is part of my work to make poetry more accessible to people who have had their rights withdrawn from them. Standing in the way of this are the poetry watchdogs who bark in the Sunday reviews, trying to preserve their sterile territory. Also it is necessary to overcome the apathy and ignorance of a whole society with a totally untrained ear and a profoundly sluggish imagination.* * *
The first book published by Jeni Couzyn was called Flying. Few of the poems contained in it had at the time reached the usual magazines and anthologies. Couzyn, however, was already known for her appearances on the recital circuits, where she had been a handsome presence. Flying consisted of reflections on the author's South African background, descriptions of the gray suburbia she found in London, dramatizations of love relationships, and revelations of mental stress.
The poems on this last subject were at their best when the author expressed her internal conflicts through a flow of exotic imagery. For example, "The Farm" deals with what seems to be depressive illness, but it does so in terms almost of a child's holiday:
On the farm there are two
And a lot of
trees. They change their leaves
whenever they like. When they change their leaves you
That it is autumn. The two cows have a calf and then you
that it is spring.
You can take your cat with you to the farm or whatever
you like. You can take your
or all your books
you can take whatever you like with you to the farm …
The patient monosyllables ratify a childlike acceptance of what becomes more abnormal the further the poem proceeds. It is not a child speaking, however, and the resulting conflict between the innocent and the sinister sets up an uneasy tension in the reader. This transmutes the mind's cliffs of fall into a parable.
Couzyn's second book, Monkeys' Wedding, suffers a little from overexplicitness. Despite this, the collection includes some powerful work, most notably "The Babies," a painful poem about contraception and abortion: "On the table the baby lay/pulped like a watermelon, a few/soft bits of skull protruding from the mush &" Perhaps the skin of fiction is stretched too thinly over the agony, for we are more conscious of outcry than of experience. If it is not to seem shrill, emotion of this sort demands something more substantial by way of narrative.
Some such narrative is sought in Couzyn's next book, Christmas in Africa. Here she makes considerable use of science fiction, notably the work of Brian Aldiss. In "Marapper the Priest" she writes, "I am your priest and your prophet./May the long journey end/may the ship come home &" Surely, however, this would be obscure to a reader who did not know Aldiss's Non-Stop. Further, the reader who does know this superb novel may wonder why he or she has need of Couzyn's poem. More striking are what seem to be reminiscences of Couzyn's childhood in South Africa. "In the House of the Father" tells us, "The snakes were the price. In their hundreds they inhabited/our world at Christmas. They were the hazard/in the garden. And they were everywhere &" Sharp as such details seem, they may not be felt to have the pressure of implication found in the imagery of Flying. Nor do they seem to attain a sufficiently decisive form, and some readers may find the verse discursive.
In Couzyn's fourth book, House of Changes, there is a paucity of sharp detail. Imagery has given way to incantation: "Leprechaun take back thy curse/Leprechaun take back thy curse &" This seems to be wrenched from a context, but no adequate background is given. Although there are more science fiction poems, they are even more dependent upon Philip K. Dick than the earlier ones were upon Aldiss. Sometimes, however, the poet succeeds in relating the areas of poetry and science fiction: "Insatiable one. I'm exhausted with eating/I'm a bag of bones, I am all stomach. Bloated/I lie here unable to move in my sea of flesh." This, from a poem titled "I and Wolverine," appears to be a dialogue between an exhausted woman and the unappeasable sexuality that devours her.
In Life by Drowning: Selected Poems, Couzyn appears to favor her more mystical poems at the expense of some earthy and domestic ones, most of which have been dropped. The effect is to render her work more abstract and less humorous than it seems to be if the books are read in progression. This adverse effect is exaggerated by the fact that the poems are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. The situation is not helped by the preface to a later book, In the Skinhouse, which describes Couzyn as "surrendering the mystery of the soul" and compares her work with the revelation accorded to Mary Magdalene. This may be held to describe the pieces in this particular collection: "Each mandala of lives/has a single life/at its centre." Such writing has not been conducive to the poet's reputation as a whole.
Africa, however, has been a redeeming feature throughout Couzyn's uneven career. The late book Homecoming is in some ways the best collection since Flying. The book is an account of a personal journey through contemporary South Africa. It begins by responding to the paintings of Cecil Skotnes and goes on to draw upon the work of Pippa Skotnes and Lucy Lloyd with respect to the San, a people now almost extinct. Here there is not that dependence found in Couzyn's earlier adaptations of science fiction, for these poems are self-substantive, with a specific grasp of imagery. "The Meaning of a Name," for instance, mourns the destruction of District Six in Cape Town with a power and certainty seldom equaled in poems of our time. This is what the English language tends to lack, a truly political—not a partisan political—poetry:
I photograph Violet Pogo in her half-finished house
squeezed among shanties spread across the flats
to the horizon like broken shells.
It's big, prompts Violet,
Well built. Rusty walls riddled with holes
nailed to flimsy beams …
This is mourning but also celebration. South Africa has replaced the science fiction analogues and the incantations that were a substitute for narrative in Couzyn's earlier poetry. Homecoming ends with an extended tribute to Nelson Mandela, not at all mystical and wholly appropriate to its eminent subject. This is work by a remarkable poet that exhales a fresh sense of discovery in exploring the world outside.