Poetry's unlikely heroine hates her most popular work Popular writer has more than one best-loved poem

Writer irritated by success in poll of favourite poems
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The Independent Online
National Poetry Day yesterday found an unlikely heroine with an unlikely response to being judged one of the nation's best loved poets. Jenny Joseph, 64, claims that the poem that has placed her above the likes of John Betjeman, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin in the nation's affections, is completely untypical of her work. And she is irritated by its success.

Indeed, from her Gloucestershire cottage she has instructed her agent to restrict its appearance. "I think," said her publisher, Neil Astley, at Bloodaxe Publishing yesterday, "that she has grown to hate it."

The poem, called "Warning", which is a homage to elderly women behaving badly, is the frontrunner to win the BBC's country- wide poll to find the nation's Favourite Poem. Phone-lines closed at noon yesterday and the result will not be announced until tonight on BBC Television. Ms Joseph's poem was ahead of all its rivals just hours before polling closed.

Her national popularity is now outshining poets who are household names. Born in the same year as Sylvia Plath, she has been publishing prize- winning poetry since 1960. But, though gregarious herself, she has never been a part of the London literati, though she may well have entertained some of them - with her husband, she ran a pub in Shepherd's Bush, west London, in the mid-Sixties.

Ms Joseph grew up in Buckinghamshire, the daughter of Jewish though not religious parents. During the Second World War, she was evacuated to Devon, where the landscape made a lasting impression upon her. At St Hilda's College, Oxford, she was the Senior Scholar of her year. She then worked as a reporter on the Oxford Mail and later on Drum in South Africa, but was expelled from the country.

With her husband, Terry, from whom she is now separated, she brought up three children, ran a pub and became a tutor with The Workers' Education Association. She has lectured on poetry in Britain and abroad. She says she wrote as a child "to hold the world".

Later she became interested in the experiences of "ordinary citizens". She published lengthy narrative poems such as "The Life and Turgid Times of a Citizen", mixtures of contemporary dialogue, and passages of lyrical beauty. She has also written a novel, fables, and fairy stories. Often noted for a sardonic didacticism, her tales include "Cutting off one's ears for someone else is wrong". But it was "Warning", her 1974 ironic dramatic monologue on hopes of future unrespectability, that guaranteed her immortality. Philip Larkin immediately included it in his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.

Judith Palmer, head of Poetry International, Britain's biggest poetry festival, at the South Bank Centre, said: "Jenny Joseph is certainly irritated by the success of this poem. Poets want to shout 'what about my other achievements'. Jenny is well-regarded in poetry circles, but she's not a public poet."

The popularity of "Warning" may spring from its inclusion in school anthologies and Fleur Adcock's Anthology of 20th Century Poetry. In the US so many people have photocopied and distributed the poem that its authorship has frequently got"lost". "People in America tend to claim that their grandmother wrote it," Mr Astley said.

"Warning" is also viewed by some as a consummate example of the "popular poem". According to Judith Palmer, "it's the sort of poem that covers all bases and offends no one. It's anthologisable. It's a striking one- off party piece".

Ms Joseph was not at home and unavailable for comment, enigmatically elusive as ever.

Michael Heath, page 17

Leading article, page 17

A Poem for the Man from The Independent. 'Got It, Good'

The poet John Hegley (above) composed this poem exclusively for the photographer Brian Harris yesterday at the Piazza at Covent Garden, London, when he was appearing with other poets in a National Poetry Day event. Hegley is well known for concise works.

You show me a poem

That I can understand

And I'll show you someone

Who makes money