Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) produced only four books of poetry before her untimely death from leukemia at age 48: From Room to Room (1978), Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova (a work of translation, 1985), The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), Let Evening Come (1990), and Constance (1993). She passed away as New Hampshire’s poet laureate, and Otherwise: New and Selected Poems was published the next year. Though her life and work were cut short, she has very much to offer. Her poetry is still, spare, concrete, and lovely.
Here, I will focus on the ways she managed to live well, despite distinct challenges and set-backs. Her work’s attentiveness to the larger world allowed her to orient her often-painful personal experiences in a healthy and helpful way, and as an author who thought and wrote on Christian themes, Kenyon also offers a model of someone who received God through the world, but does not confuse him with it.
Kenyon’s poems can teach us how to live in a world that is both imperfect and beautiful. They are infused with living memories of the past – she and her husband, poet Donald Hall, lived in a farmhouse that had been inhabited by his family for generations. Likewise, her poems are often colored by the inexorable future, and by what might come after our inevitable end. But most of all, her poetry is written distinctly in and about the present. Almost exclusively written in the first person, these poems are attentive to the activities of daily life: redolent with association, imbued with meaning. Hiking up a mountain with her dog, canoeing with a troubled friend, driving home from a party – the mundane provides ample subjects for Kenyon’s distilled language, her quiet reflectiveness.
Like Emily Dickenson, Kenyon was a particularly placed poet. She lived in and loved the country, and often her poems engage the seasons, the land, and the people of her small New Hampshire town. Her poetry tends to suffer, or at least to lose its characteristic tautness and simplicity, when she writes from one of the many places she traveled to. Her voice is agreeably shaped by her situation, merging and mingling with the Northeastern seasons she observed so closely.
Her poems express a present alertness to the places around her, and also a present awareness to self. Kenyon was self-aware, self-attentive even, without ever being self-pitying. As someone who suffered from depression (who was both medicated and occasionally institutionalized for it), she was persistently confronted by limitations and challenges that, she felt, had met her at birth. She addresses this most directly in her poem “Having It Out with Melancholy.” In it, Kenyon describes returning to close relationships after a new treatment for depression, “With the wonder/and bitterness of someone pardoned/for a crime she did not commit.” In both her depression and in her sudden and swift cancer, she was confronted by the limits of life – apparently senseless frustration, challenge, pain, futility. She knew suffering intimately, and did not shrink from expressing it.
Pain did not dominate her writing or her attention, however. She was ever eager for and alive to the transcendence and the glory of humble pleasures in life. In the same poem she talks of “easeful air” that:
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
After a moment of “ordinary contentment” in the mild beauty of early morning, Kenyon is able to ask “What hurt me so terribly/ all my life until this moment?” and to turn her attention to an outer world, as well as an inner one:
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
She is able to acknowledge the beauty an external reality offers even in the middle of wrenching personal struggle. Rather than work her reader into a place of emotionally identifying with her experience through fraught language, Kenyon uses incisive imagery and exact commentary to describe her experiences, without demanding her readers share her reactions. She is not primarily interested in being understood by her audience; rather, she offers opportunities for mutual understanding of a larger world through evocative metaphor and a quiet pointing to external lights.
It is through these concrete, present details--these daily graces--that she is able to address larger reality. Instead of being trivialized by what they represent, the particulars she attends to are able stand-ins, graspable synecdoche for the less-graspable aspects of human experience. Again like Emily Dickenson, Jane Kenyon offers a powerful range of human experience through close attention to simple daily experience. She teaches through her writing how to be honest about her own experience, and see it for what it is in the scope of the whole world.
A ‘Perfumed’ Life
It can be a temptation for many poets, however, to deify the beauty they so closely observe in the natural world. Though the natural world seems an avenue of goodness to Kenyon, and though she was an observant Christian, she is careful to keep general revelation general. We know of her love of God through poems where she encounters another faith (“Woman, Why Are You Weeping?” where she describes a spiritual crisis brought about after a trip to India) or when she allows her mind to touch on eternity (“Notes from the Other Side”).
Mostly, however, the goodness of the world is just itself. It does not have a network of spiritual meaning demanded of it. The goodness of creation is worth marveling over and loving in itself, not only as an avenue to the one who created it. “The molecules of our bodies must love to exist,” she says in “Philosophy in Warm Weather.” Nature is something she returns to again and again, as a wealth of beauty outside the self, something to turn a wounded psyche outward, to soothe it.
In “Briefly It Enters, Briefly Speaks,” Kenyon offers that it is God, “the one whose love/ overcomes you, already with you/ when you think to call my name…” who expresses himself in “the heart contracted by joy,” “the stone step/the latch, and the working hinge…” God’s love is immanent in “the basket of fruit/ presented to the widow…” but does not overwhelm its fruitiness. She allows the world to be itself, admires and attends to the beauty it offers. In “Woman, Why Are You Weeping?” it is God’s goodness that “perfumed [her] life,” though primarily through the discrete and particular goodness of the world.
Often, as Christians, we can be in such haste to praise God for the goodness and beauty of the natural world that we skip straight to words of praise about God himself – rather than allowing ourselves to be instructed in God’s goodness through its manifestation in the world. Of course, there is nothing wrong with praising God directly, but Kenyon’s poetry offers us a reminder of the depth of wonder, and the experience of God’s love, uniquely available through close attention to the created order.
Let Evening Come
By Jane Kenyon
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Thanks to my delightful book group who offered lively discussion on Kenyon’s Collected Poems (Graywolf Press) in this last month, and who motivated my reread and re-admiration of Kenyon.