Jenny Joseph (1932-2018)

Jenny Joseph (1932-2018)

The poet Jenny Joseph has died, aged 85. She was best-known for her poem ‘Warning’ (‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple'), a dramatic monologue in which a young woman talks of her fantasies of old age, voted Britain’s favourite modern poem in a BBC poll in 2006. The second line of this poem (‘With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me…’) inspired the formation of America’s Red Hat Society, an international women’s social group which encourages fun, friendship, freedom and fulfilment in old age.

The poem’s fame infuriated her to the extent that she blocked its inclusion in many anthologies and refused to include it in readings, but at the same time she was delighted that it had been translated into numerous languages and was known throughout the world. What she disliked most was that this early poem written in her 20s overshadowed the rest of her work, which was largely concerned with the duality of existence, a track that runs through all her writing, whether for children or adults, in poetry or prose. She viewed her poems as attempts to present ‘how things work’ at the core, at the edge.

Writing in The Times, Robert Nye said that she ‘writes poems full of mist and reason, poems strange in what they say but plain in the way they say it, poems rooted in an English tradition of passionate but quiet exactness…careful craftsmanship, an honest exploration of the human heart, and statement after statement that nags at the memory’.

Jenny Joseph was first published by John Lehmann in the 1950s. She lived in London for many years and then for much of her life in Gloucestershire before moving to live with her daughter in Swansea after she became housebound in her early 80s. Her first book of poems, The Unlooked-for Season (1960), won her an Eric Gregory Award, and she won a Cholmondeley Award for her second collection, Rose in the Afternoon (1974). Two further collections followed from Secker & Warburg, The Thinking Heart (1978) and Beyond Descartes (1983). Her Selected Poems was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1992, drawing on these four books.  This retrospective includes her famous poem 'Warning'.

Her later work includes four other titles from Bloodaxe: Persephone (1986), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Ghosts and other company (1995); a book of prose, Extended Similes (1997), and a collection of new and later selected poems, Extreme of things (2006). Her other titles include a collaboration with photographer Robert Mitchell, Beached Boats (Enitharmon Press, 1991); All the Things I See (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2000); a gardening memoir, Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells (Souvenir Press, 2002); and Nothing Like Love (Enitharmon Press, 2010), a selection of her love poems.

Born in Birmingham in 1932, the second daughter of Louis and Florence Joseph, she spent her childhood in Buckinghamshire before being evacuated to Devon during the war: ‘Her parents were Jewish, but she never felt particularly Jewish, and her family practised no traditional Jewish customs or rituals […] She wrote poetry from an early age. At fifteen she went to Switzerland, where she learned to speak fluent French, and in 1949 she was awarded a scholarship in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.’ (June Wedgwood Benn, Dictionary of Literary Biography)

After graduating in 1953, she worked as a journalist on newspapers in Bedford and Oxford before moving to South Africa in 1957, where she worked for Drum Publications and taught at an Indian high school in Johannesburg before being expelled from the country in 1959.  In 1961 she married Tony Coles in London, and they had three children, a son and two daughters. She and her husband kept a pub in Shepherd’s Bush from 1969 to 1972, after which she spent the next two decades teaching for the WEA and various university extra-mural departments before retiring to Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire.

Jenny Joseph: born 7 May 1932, died 8 January 2018.

Fellow Bloodaxe poet David Constantine paid tribute to his friend Jenny Joseph on Radio 4’s obituary programme Last Word on Friday 19 January (repeated 21 January).   He explained how her famous poem ‘Warning’ was inspired by her time spent working in an old people’s home near Worthing.  Although she disliked being known only for that poem, David quoted her as having said:

‘To have your work swim away from you, to have it treated virtually as ‘anon’, is the most privileging thing a writer can have happen to them.  It is the biggest tribute you can be paid.’ – Jenny Joseph, on her poem ‘Warning’.

Jenny’s son Martin Coles also contributed to the programme.  The poem he chose to remember her by was ‘Dawn walkers’, which he began reading the latter part of; the poem was completed by an archive recording of Jenny Joseph reading it.  The item began with clips of Jenny Joseph reading her poem ‘Warning’ and speaking about her poetry more generally.  Both ‘Warning and ‘Dawn walkers’ are from her Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1992). 

Click here to listen. Forward to 17.30 to hear Jenny Joseph tribute. 

Radio 4's Front Row paid tribute to Jenny Joseph on 17 January.  Actor Juliet Stephenson read Jenny Joseph’s most famous poem ‘Warning’.

Click here to listen. Forward to 27.08 to hear the poem.

Alan Brownjohn's tribute can be read in The Guardian here.  Notices have also appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph.


Jenny Joseph reads 'Warning'

Jenny Joseph reads 'Warning', Britain's most popular post-war poem, according to a poll conducted by the BBC in 1996. Jenny Joseph reads 'Warning', Britain's most popular post-war poem, according to a poll conducted by the BBC in 1996. She first published 'Warning' in 1961 in The Listener – when she was 29 – and later included it in her second collection Rose in the Afternoon in 1974, and then in her Selected Poems from Bloodaxe in 1992. Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed her reading the poem during Ledbury Poetry Festival in July 2008. 


Jenny Joseph (1932-2018)

In July 2008 Jenny Joseph was filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce reading a set of poems she felt represented the range of her work: two extracts from ‘Fables’ (from Selected Poems, 1992), ‘Another Story of Hare and Tortoise’ (from Extreme of Things, 2006); ‘Patriotic poem against nationalism’ (from Ghosts and other company, 1995); and ’Such is the sea’ (from Extreme of Things, 2006). She scripted this informal reading, with introductions, for later inclusion in the Bloodaxe Books DVD-anthology In Person: World Poets. These are followed here by a separate reading from the same filming session (made before her reading at Ledbury Poetry Festival) of her best-known poem, ‘Warning’, a dramatic monologue in which a young woman talks of her fantasies of old age, voted Britain’s favourite modern poem in a BBC poll in 2006 (from Selected Poems, 1992).

[22 January 2018]

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