The poet Jenny Joseph, who has died aged 85, might well have wondered a little ruefully whether WH Auden was altogether correct in maintaining that “poetry makes nothing happen”. Her famous Warning (“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/ With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me ... ”) was written when she was 28, and after its appearance in an early book went almost unnoticed for 25 years. Then, because of its contention that growing old should be a defiant process, it gradually began to be slotted into serious selections of writing about old age, and for its merit ended up in one or two grander places, such as Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse in 1973.
With unforeseen consequences. It was eventually spotted by a retired public relations aide to Lady Bird Johnson, widow of the US president Lyndon Johnson, who enthused about it in an article in Reader’s Digest as an encouragement to older women looking to feel defiant and active again after recovering from illness.
After that it went through numerous reprintings, spread to greeting cards and tea towels, and became an unorthodox addition to the stock of “message” poems brought into service for weddings, funerals and other solemn events. In a BBC poll in 1996 it was voted the most popular postwar poem. The red hat, unsuitably worn with purple clothes, finally supplied the name and symbol for the Red Hat Society, a worldwide league of clubs for women who identify themselves by wearing one for their meetings.
The poet, who in fact thoroughly disliked the colour purple, greeted this success with a mixture of astonishment, pleasure and weary frustration. Warning was, after all, just one poem in a considerable and wide-ranging body of work of which most of its readers remained unaware. Joseph issued denials: the piece was not autobiographical and she did not plan to fulfil its outrageous promises (“I shall ... pick the flowers in other people’s gardens/ And learn to spit”). But they went unheeded. People expected her to come and read to audiences as the self portrayed in the poem.
Meanwhile, critical regard steadily increased for a succession of books which established her as a serious and talented poet with an acute, disarmingly explicit sense of the oddity and pathos of the human condition.
Daughter of Florence (nee Cotton) and Louis Joseph, she was born in Birmingham, where her father was an antiques dealer. Louis’s knowledge and enterprise quickly brought a family move to a new home in Buckinghamshire, from where he ran a successful shop in Knightsbridge, London. Jenny attended Badminton school and won a scholarship to study English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, in 1950.
She and her student contemporaries, a sizable group of poets that included Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Thwaite and Alistair Elliot, were of a generation that just missed the influence of the postwar no-nonsense mood in poetry that went into the making of the later 50s Movement associated with Larkin, Kingsley Amis, John Wain and others – though one Movement poet, the slightly older Elizabeth Jennings, was an important friend. The two were both nearer than the Movement to an English Romantic tradition.
From the beginning, Joseph’s poems, slowly composed and carefully crafted though almost entirely free in form, showed an appealing ability to catch the detail of everyday living. The Unlooked-for Season (1960), published by John Rolph’s small Scorpion Press, set the tone and the themes for almost all her subsequent writing: sensitive and yet never routine treatment of home and domestic life, childhood, love and loss, nature and natural disasters (River Rising in India, February Floods, 1953). They also frequently featured people, such as beggars and outcasts, who obstinately refuse to meet the requirements of “normal” society. Perhaps there was something of herself in that preoccupation.
After graduating, she had worked variously as a teacher of English as a foreign language, a cleaner (in hard times) and a reporter for local newspapers such as the Oxford Mail; she also worked in South Africa for a radical publishing enterprise,Drum, just as apartheid was coming into full force with the election of the early Nationalist governments. She was in effect expelled from the country for her views, though she was reticent about her life and work during that period.
Returning to Britain, in 1961 she married Charles Coles and raised three children while working with her husband as proprietors of the Greyhound, a west London pub. Despite all the effort that required, she went on to produce Persephone (1985), a modern retelling of the myth of rape mingling poetry and prose, Led By the Nose (2002), a calendar of a year in her Cotswold garden with its distinctive scents, and volumes of poetry at regular, if long, intervals.
Among those was Rose in the Afternoon (1974), in which Warning first appeared, inconspicuously, as one of a batch of poems about “some people”, almost as if she was detaching herself from the speaker. It shows an unfashionable forthrightness and an open pity which is never mawkish, in poems about ordinary, deprived people; as in Thoughts on Oxford Street from Provence and Elsewhere, in which a beggar challenges her sympathy with “I’m a dirty old man ... The rain cements my shoes to me./ The dustbin furnishes meals to me./ Why wasn’t anyone interested seven years ago/ Before I became a character and stank?” Ghosts and Other Company (1996) renewed and enriched her earlier reflections on memory and mortality, characteristically celebrating “the graceful ne’er-do-wells who cavort and slap/ Their boards about on the concrete under the walkways”.
She was never too much satisfied with her own good fortune, though disappointed about what she considered her failures: not producing an academic study of Shakespeare, never making films, and not finding the time to put the entire Warning story into a book, so as to “take my revenge on people”. But the dedication to what is probably her best volume, The Thinking Heart (1978), quietly and philosophically sums up her view of the conflict between her two kinds of creative activity. It says simply: “To my children, preventers of literature, life-savers.” That is like her, as a poet whose mood is predominantly poignant sadness and regret; but she is being much too modest about her achievement.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
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.
From "Warning" (1961)