Nationality: British. Born: Birmingham, Warwickshire, 7 May 1932. Education: St. Hilda's College, Oxford, 1950–53, B.A. (honors) in English 1953. Career: Reporter, Westminster Press Provincial Newspapers, mid-1950s; lived in South Africa, 1957–59; pub land-lady, London, 1969–72; language teacher, 1972–74; lecturer in extramural and adult education departments. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1961; Cholmondeley award, 1975; Arts Council grant, 1976; James Tait Black memorial award, for fiction, 1986; traveling fellowship, British Society of Authors, 1995. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature. Agent: John Johnson, 45–47 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R OHT. Address: 17 Windmill Road, Minchinhampton, Near Stroud, Gloucestershire GL6 9DX, England.
The Unlooked-for Season. Northwood, Middlesex, Scorpion Press, 1960.
Rose in the Afternoon and Other Poems. London, Dent, 1974.
The Thinking Heart. London, Secker and Warburg, 1978.
Beyond Descartes. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983.
The Inland Sea. Watsonville, California, Papier-Maché Press, 1989.
Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1992.
Ghosts and Other Company. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1995.
All the Things I See. London, Macmillan Children's Books, 2000.
Excerpt from Persephone. Oxford, Argo Magazine, 1985.
Persephone. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1986.
Extended Similes. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1997.
Nursery Series (Boots, Wheels, Water, Wind, Tea, Sunday; for children). London, Constable, 6 vols., 1966–68.
Beached Boats, photographs by Robert Mitchell. Petersfield, Hampshire, Enitharmon Press, 1991.
Warning. London, Souvenir Press, 1997.*
Jenny Joseph comments:
It is usually easier for a writer to talk about what he or she is interested in doing now or next than about what has been done. Work already published is there for all to see and off the writer's hands. However there are things I can say have interested me in other writers, not that I would claim to be like them.
I am interested in the use of the speaking voice, not merely to provide a realistic character for dramatic monologues but as material, recognizable straightaway on one level to the reader, in the musical use of language, and I enjoy a singing quality in poetry. Poetry, it seems to me, is not a novel manqué or a play manqué or a piece of music manqué or a line of philosophic enquiry manqué or political statement, but it should be able to deal with the material that goes into all these.
I think my poetry is fairly full of references to the surfaces of the world, but you could say that of anything that uses language, and it still contains a certain amount of enquiry into questions of reality, i.e., how things work. "Art" and "artificial" are words that to me are closely allied. Art forms a separate world that to have any point must always feed through roots in nonart, just as language must depend on something that is not language for its life.
The fiction I wrote between 1972 and 1979 and that was published in 1986 (Persephone) uses prose and verse. My interest in the structure for this book came out of my attempt in "The Life and Turgid Times of A. Citizen," a long poem in The Thinking Heart, to do a narrative poem where the thread was a consciousness rather than a conventional protagonist, the different verse forms representing different shifts of that consciousness. A work I wrote in the '80s and '90s—Extended Similes—which is also fiction, not discursive writing, is composed of short prose pieces. For these I wanted to use prose rhythms in service to poetic mode, metaphor and simile being at the heart of the poetic method to my mind, and my interest in this came about through attention to Samuel Johnson's prose style. Some of my more recent verse has been in the form of songs and shorter lyrical pieces.
Ghosts and Other Company (1995) includes songs, tales, and longer pieces using perhaps rougher language rhythms, a mixture to be found in earlier volumes.* * *
Jenny Joseph's poetry tends to be philosophical in tone; there is an air of detachment about her work. As she stated in The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets, through her writing she attempts to explore the outside world, not the labyrinth of her own mind. Her ideal is to write something that becomes part of the currency of common language, like ballads or sayings. Her past as a scholar and a journalist are revealed in a meticulous attention to detail. She has a fine ear for dialogue and frequently incorporates direct speech into her poetry, and she also makes effective use of dramatic monologues.
The Unlooked-for Season, which won a Gregory award, is rather hermetic; the poet is constantly testing the line between reality and imagination, between fiction and truth. Death and loss permeate the collection; winter prevails, and summer, "the unlooked-for season," is an "amnesty." Such poems as "Lazarus," "Danae," "Persephone Returns," and "Euridyce to Orpheus" suggest a preference for classical myth over contemporary life.
Joseph's second collection, Rose in the Afternoon, contains her best-loved and most often anthologized poem, "Warning," which begins,
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me …
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth …
This delicious streak of rebellion reappears throughout the collection, as does the more relaxed, colloquial language. Her tone is still largely objective, but there is more warmth, more empathy than in her earlier work; she is concerned with human characters rather than archetypes.
The poems are full of striking images, as in "Women at Streatham Hill":
They stand like monuments or trees, not women …
Nobody asks what they have done all day
For who asks trees or stones what they have done?
They root, they gather moss, they spread they are.
The busyness is in the birds about them …
This collection contains some of Joseph's best dramatic monologues, including "Old Man Going." There is also an extremely effective long narrative poem, "Thoughts on Oxford Street from Provence and Elsewhere," that in its interweaving of verse and prose anticipates her fictional work in Persephone. The poem assembles a vivid cast of outspoken characters, from the abusive old man who assaults the reader with such statements as "Don't waste my time thinking that I think /That you're of any interest— /Don't waste my time if you've fucking nothing for me …" to the equivocal liberal who asks, "Can you accept the man who accepts you neither at your own estimate nor his? … Can you play a game if there not only are no rules but no one to play with?"
Joseph's third collection, The Thinking Heart, demonstrates a move toward lyricism and celebration in such poems as "Chorale" and "Not Able to Resist the Spring," which begins exuberantly, "There is too much stuff here: /Everything crowded, duplicated and far too many words …" The hint of subversiveness that revealed itself in the previous volume hovers just beneath the surface of many of these poems. When it breaks free, Joseph produces wonderful, witty pieces, and when it does not, there is a tenseness that is sometimes dramatic, though sometimes it is simply solemn. In this collection the poet frequently eschews dramatic monologue to address her reader directly. Though she does not deal overtly with women's issues, such poems as "Modern Witches" or "There Are More Accidents in the Home Than on the Roads" reveal a delightful, sly streak of feminist indignation.
In her fourth collection, Beyond Descartes, Joseph experiments with short imagistic poems. There is an air of compression and mystery about these works, the poems like parables or icons. She also exhibits a new sense of social conscience, as though her earlier philosophical musings have been honed down and anchored to the real world. Her characteristic wryness and use of colloquial speech combine well in a poem like "Collection for Cripples," which ends, "Did the poor crippled lady ever get home, I wonder? /Sure, somebody better equipped than I will have helped her home."
Although she has written children's books, Joseph's first venture into adult fiction was Persephone. As a tale of lost innocence, the book demonstrates a continuing concern for women's lives and gender politics as the young Persephone loses her illusions and gains the wisdom to tame the betrayer Hades. Joseph has said that Persephone is the work that has most satisfied her as a writer, and, with its integration of poetry, prose, parody, and myth, it combines the best of her narrative and poetic talents.