Jane Kenyons death from leukemia at the age of forty-eight in April 1995 was a significant loss to American poetry. As frequent publishers of her workfrom 1984 to 1991, twenty-five of her poems appeared in our pageswe feel the loss especially acutely. It is offset somewhat by the publication of Otherwise, which contains a selection from Kenyons four previous books as well as twenty-one new poems, most of which were written before she became ill in January 1994. (The only unrepresented book is the 1986 chapbook, Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova.) But if Otherwise confirms Kenyons place in the first rank of the poets of her generation, it is also an unhappy reminder that we will have no more poems from her pen.
Unique is a much misused term these days, yet there is no poet to whom it may be applied more justly than Jane Kenyon. Ours is the age of the pigeonhole, in which poets are forever being forced into niches, no matter how uncomfortable the fit. In Kenyons case, the main temptation seems to be to lump her with confessional poetsthose who write in the manner of Anne Sexton or Robert Lowell (in his later work) and for whom the revelation of personal matters is primary. A second temptationat least when Kenyon is not writing about death and illnessis to diminish her achievement by consigning her to the ranks of nature poets who dispense hackneyed truths about the hills and mountains.
In fact, Jane Kenyon fits comfortably into neither category. Indeed, her resistance to easy categorization is one mark of the special character of her writing. There are in her work sharp bifurcations of mood and spiritbetween a dark, inward-looking self, and a hopeful, outward-looking one. These doublenesses, in which contrasting emotions sometimes compete for our attention in the space of a few lines, do not cancel each other out so much as enrich our experience. The souls bliss// and suffering are bound together/ like the grasses, Kenyon writes in Twilight: After Haying, a sentiment that is manifested again and again in these sometimes blissful, sometimes painful poems.
Everywhere one looks, in fact, one sees a poet writing in ways wholly unlike other confessional or country poets. Whether it is a flash of humor in the midst of the despair, or an unexpected reaction to naturethe New Hampshire countryside gets most of Kenyons attentionshe refuses to be tempted by any form of poetic cliché, including, one might add, that of speaking as a woman to women. This, together with a masterly proselike styleone that has been perfected in our day by Louis Simpson, and which is one of the hardest to master and to appreciateguarantees that Kenyons poetry will endure.
I have gone on record to note my dislike of confessional verse. Often the last hope of the mediocre poet, confessional poetry places too great an emphasis on the merely personal. It traffics in a subject matter that, precisely because it is so closely bound up with the poets private experiences, is beyond criticismat least literary criticism. I prefer an odyssey of invention that is untethered to the small events of personal life, and I tend to admire most those poets who transform rather than merely recapitulate their experience. Yet, despite my reservations, I have to acknowledge that there are poets who have used their private experience and their skills as reporters to good effect. L. E. Sissman, whose struggle with cancer became the focus of his late poems, is one. And the arc of Kenyons grief, spanning the illnesses and deaths of friends and family, her husbands illness, and lastly her own, seems even larger than Sissmans.
On occasion, one discovers language so ordinary in these poems that one feels at the threshold between prose and poetry: I grieved for you then/ as I never had before (What Came to Me); I am overcome// by ordinary contentment (Having It Out with Melancholy); How lucky we are/ to be holding hands on a porch/ in the country (Song). I love these lines; but more engaging, to my mind, is the metaphor- and image-rich writing that manifests the idiosyncratic part of Kenyons vision. In The Beaver Pool in December, for example, the animals of the title pass without/ effort moving like thoughts/ in an unconflicted mind; in American Triptych cousins arrive like themes and variations; and in The Three Susans a chill rises from the moss/ prompt as a deacon.
Evidence of this sensibility is also found in the shifts within poems. Sometimes these are shifts of mood, sometimes of perspective: either way they surprise. Consider The Three Susans. This poem begins with the frost that wreaked havoc on her neighbors gardens, moves on to the village graveyard, where Kenyon finds stones memorializing the dead, and winds up at Keatss grave in Rome, where wild cats are stalking the moat.
Ancient maples mingle over us, leaves
the colors of pomegranates.
The days are warm with honey light,
but the last two nights have finished
every garden in the village.
The provident have left green tomatoes
to ripen on newspaper in the darkness of
The peppers were already in.
Now there will be no more corn.
I let myself through the wrought-iron gate
of the graveyard, andmeaning to exclude
the dogI close it after me. But he runs
to the other end, and jumps the stone
wall overlooking Elbow Pond.
Here Samuel Smith lay down at last
with his three wives, all named Susan.
I had to see it for myself. They died
in their sixties, one outliving him.
So why do I feel indignant? He suffered.
Love and the Smiths peculiar fame
to nothingness do sink. And down the
Sleepers are living up to their name.
The dog cocks his leg on a stone.
But animals do not mock, and the dead
may be glad to have life breaking in.
The sun drops low over the pond.
Long shadows move out from the stones,
and a chill rises from the moss,
prompt as a deacon. And at Keatss grave
in the Protestant cemetery in Rome
it is already night,
and wild cats are stalking in the moat.
What begins as a routine reflection on death in her community becomes a journey, not only from the somber to the lightheartedthe jibes about the Sleepers and the dog relieving itself on the stone form a refreshing counterpoint to the theme of deathbut from one end of the world to another. The poem shows Kenyon to be interested in recounting more than what is immediately perceptible. It also reveals a poet who is not spellbound by a single, surface emotion.
Wonderful details abound: the Sleepers living up to their name, but only in death; the provident who save the last of the seasons fruit in the face of death and decay; the invocation of two famous literary precursors, Shakespeare (through quotation) and Keats, who have been invited to Kenyons little graveside gathering along with the less renowned Smiths and Sleepers. If it all werent so funnyand it is, despite the glum conclusionone could call The Three Susans a democracy of sorrow.
Man Eating contains another surprising scenic shift:
The man at the table across from mine
is eating yogurt. His eyes, following
the progress of the spoon, cross briefly
each time it nears his face. Time,
and the world with all its principalities,
might come to an end as prophesied
by the Apostle John, but what about
this man, so completely present
to the little carton with its cool,
sweet food, which has caused no animal
to suffer, and which he is eating
with a pearl-white plastic spoon.
The followers of William Carlos Williams maintain that poets should render faithfully what they see, and Kenyon certainly lives up to this injunction, at least until the second stanza. At this point we see an explosive shift in mood and setting, underscored partly by the way the poet precedes it with a scene that is perfect Williams. In a 1982 essay on Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney remarks that Larkins verse strikes into the realm of pure being and that some of his poems have openings at their imaginative center that take the reader through and beyond. Kenyons language may not be visionary in the way that Heaney suggests Larkins is, but its effect is similar.
Insomnia at the Solstice begins brightly enough, with Kenyon celebrating the wood thrushs song at the end of the suns single most/ altruistic day. But as if to pay for it all, in bed that night Kenyon is bedeviled by:
Here again Kenyon explores a range of emotions off limits to most confessionalists. This time the humorous touch comes at the end.
on love and death, worry about
money, and the resolve to have the vet
clean the dogs teeth, though
theyll have to anesthetize him.
An easy rain begins, drips off
the edge of the roof, onto the tin
watering can. A vast irritation rises .
I turn and turn, try one pillow,
two, think of people who have no beds.
A car hisses by on wet macadam.
Then another. The room turns
gray by insensible degrees. The thrush
begins again its outpouring of silver
to rich and poor alike, to the just
and the unjust.
The dogs wet nose appears
on the pillow, pressing lightly,
decorously. He needs to go out.
All right, cleverhead, lets declare
a new day.
Washing up, I say
to the face in the mirror,
Youre still here! How you bored me
all night, and now Ill have
to entertain you all day .
In Pharaoh, an ironic remark at the beginning of the second stanza offsets the impact of devastating news:
The future aint what it used to be,
said the sage of the New York Yankees
as he pounded his mitt, releasing
the red dust of the infield
into the harshly illuminated air.
Big hands. Men with big hands
make things happen. The surgeon,
when I asked how big your tumor was,
held forth his substantial fist
with its globe class ring.
The shift from baseball to tumors certainly qualifies as wrenching, but even more head-turning is the observation that men with big hands/ make things happen. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and such grief-avoiding ironies make Kenyon even less confessional and Williamsonian in spirit. Pharaoh, not quoted here in its entirety, is one of Kenyons finest poems.
Also dashing confessional expectations is Prognosis. Here the menacing title leads to a poem containing no anguished revelations at all. Again, Kenyons unwillingness to follow confessional orders and relate juicy details is gratifying.
Another aspect of Kenyons poetry we dont associate with the confessional impulse is her reliance on literary images. Sometimes writers are mentioned, as in Chekhovs Story, Lines for Akhmatova, and The Three Susans; sometimes characters turn up (Madame Bovary in Thinking of Madame Bovary, The Cherry Orchards Varya in Going Away, and Rabbit Angstrom in Insomnia at the Solstice). One poem has an epigraph from The Cherry Orchard, Shakespeare is quoted in The Three Susans, and in another poem Kenyon is reading Proust. Their hunger is Homeric, she writes in Chekhovs Story, and in Alone for a Week a pillow is plump, cool,/ and allegorical.
Sometimes lines of Kenyons recall other poets well-known lines. But sometimes what looks like disaster/ is disaster (The Pond at Dusk) seems to be a retort to Elizabeth Bishops One Art. And Having It Out with Melancholy, in which Kenyon rings off the names of anti-depressants Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,/ Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,/ Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloftrecalls Donald Halls far happier Names of Horses, which ends: O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost. Most confessional or nature poets strain to appear as unliterary as possible, but not Kenyon, who in the poem entitled Who declares words to be her food.
In his excellent afterword to Otherwise, Donald Hall mentions Kenyons voracious reading and rereading of certain authors, citing in particular Chekhov, Akhmatova, Keats, and Bishop. Her poetry gathered resonance and beauty as she studied the art of the luminous particular, Hall writes. The natural objectshe liked to quote Poundis always the adequate symbol.
If I had to choose the one writer Kenyon most resembles it would probably be Chekhov, the Chekhov who took the world as his subject but whose seeming bleakness baffled the critics of his day. What Kenyon found appealing in Chekhov, I think, was the modesty of his undertaking, his refusal to search for final meanings, and the tendency to chuckle rather than rail at the world in the face of despair. Philosophy in Warm WeatherKenyons title of a poem devoid of philosophycould have been written by Chekhov, if he had been tempted by poetry.
But thats not all Kenyon took from her Russian mentor. She also borrowed his spare style and those luminous particulars that seem easy to master, but arent. For they dont become luminous until they have been transformed by someone with the patience, skill, and vision to make them linger in our mind.
In his Introduction to American Literature (1971), Jorge Luis Borges wrote of Crane and Dreiser: The former imagined reality, the latter impresses us as having studied it. Where between these two extremes does Kenyon fit? She certainly does more than study reality in order to replicate it on the page, as Dreiser and other hard-line realists did; she writes poems that go places she herself sometimes cant predict. This alone would make her closer in spirit to Crane.
Another reason to put her in the company of the imaginers has to do with her reliance on the luminous particular. For many of Williamss confessional progeny including those who flock to express themselves at open mikes everywherethe very idea of emphasizing one detail over another, and of making a few luminous at the expense of the rest, is too elitist. Unvarnished and undifferentiated details are what Lowell swore byin the late 1960s he admitted that his current productions were temporary and replaceableand when details are made luminous, the imagination is at work, a part of the imagination that isnt democratically at everyones disposal.
When we attempt to define Jane Kenyons poetic identity in the years to come, we should remember that while she was second to none in her love of the world, she made poems that are not so much reflections of that world as bold and brilliant responses to it. She will be sorely missed.
Robert Richmans book of poems, Voice on the Wind, was recently published by Copper Beech Press
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