Jenny Joseph

b. 1932 – d. 2018

Jenny Joseph was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999.

Jenny Joseph’s best known poem, ‘Warning’, was written in 1961, first published in The Listener that year, and later included in her 1974 collection Rose In the Afternoon. ‘Warning’ was identified as the UK’s ‘most popular post-war poem’ in a 1996 poll by the BBC. Her first book of poems, The Unlooked-for Season won a Gregory Award in 1960 and she won a Cholmondeley Award for her second collection, Rose in the Afternoon in 1974.

Jenny Joseph remembered – by Jamila Gavin

Tender, approachable, funny and humane poet

Jenny was a generous, loyal and honest friend on whom I came to depend for reading some of my work and giving me feedback. I say ‘some’ of my work, because I knew the rigour of her intellect and judgement, so never just sent her anything that I hadn’t worked on and honed to the best of my ability.

To my amazement, she also used to send me some of her poetry to critique, and she would take on board my comments for better or worse. Our friendship, therefore, was based on a genuine regard for each other. And I did greatly admire her writing. I think Persephone (1986) is one of the most important books I have read about womanhood. It encapsulates for me a complete study of women which transcends any political or feminist agenda, but expresses, with sometimes shocking candour, the nature of the female in her totality from victim to goddess.

Above all, Jenny was a poet and while to meet her was to encounter the most exacting and unstoppable cerebral energy – constantly questing for the right word and the right meaning – her poetry is tender, approachable, funny and humane. The word love occurs over and over again, and her perception of people and their lives is always compassionate and full of concern.

Jenny was relentlessly curious and questioning to the last. When her body gave up on her, her brain continued, as alive as ever, and I believe she wanted to experience every single moment of her body’s journey towards death – even the pain. For her, there was more knowledge to be discovered than was possible in one lifetime, or a hundred, and she read extensively about science and philosophy. She would not allow anyone to describe themselves as an ‘atheist’, saying, ‘do you mean you have proof there is no God?’

I can’t believe her brain has stopped. Even as they lowered her coffin into the rich red earth, I could still fancy that it was continuing to churn away; that if she ever did find herself in the presence of God she would ask him or her how and why, and what was the right word to describe themselves.

Ashes, when you have gone, burnt bits on the lamp
That lit you on your way, but in your honour
As you pass by the window, love – bright flame.

(‘In Honour of Love’, Ghosts and Other Company, 1995)