Jennifer Ruth "Jenny" Joseph was born to secular Jewish parents in Birmingham, where her father was an antiques dealer. When she was a small child, the family moved to a new home in Buckinghamshire. Jenny attended Badminton School, studied French in Switzerland, and won a scholarship in 1950 to read English at Oxford University.
There she befriended fellow student poet Elizabeth Jennings. Jenny's first poems were published and broadcast on the radio during this time. After graduating, she taught English as a foreign language and worked as a reporter for local newspapers such as the Oxford Mail. In 1957, she went to Johannesburg, South Africa, where she worked for the leftist newspaper New Age before being expelled from the country for her anti-apartheid views and associations. Returning to Britain in 1961, she settled in London and married publican Charles Coles, with whom she had three children. Jenny continued to write and teach as well as work with her husband at their pub, the Greyhound. She also served on the council of the Poetry Society and as the British Council delegate to the international poetry conference in Struga, Yugoslavia, in 1982. In the 1980s and early 1990s, she was a member of the committee that launched the National Poetry Speaking Competition. Jenny's first collection of poems, The Unlooked-for Season, was published in 1960 and won the Gregory Award for poets under age 30. Subsequent volumes included Rose in the Afternoon and Other Poems, which won the Cholmondeley Award and contained what became her most famous and best-loved poem, "Warning." It inspired the creation of the Red Hat Society. Her experimental work Persephone (1985) was a modern retelling of the myth of rape mingling poetry and prose and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Led By the Nose (2002) was a calendar of a year in her Cotswold garden. Her last poetry collection, Nothing like Love, was published in 2009. She also wrote short stories and six children's books.