Mike Pride: A review of ‘The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon’

  • ‘The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon’ will be released by Graywolf Press on April 21. Graywolf Press; Cover photo by ROBYN BROWN

  • Jane Kenyon Ken Williams

Monitor editor emeritus
Published: 4/19/2020 7:30:14 AM

Jane Kenyon had only begun to write her best poetry when she came down with what seemed to be a severe case of the flu. It turned out to be acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

For a year she fought the disease with courage, surviving a stem-cell transplant only to have the cancer return. A few days later, she died at the age of 47. Those who had witnessed her rise as a poet lamented her death as both a personal tragedy and a loss for American poetry. Some of her best poems seemed written to console those who knew her, but the pages of her future fell forever blank.

Kenyon has been gone for 25 years this month, time enough to assess her work without dwelling on the unfulfilled promise of her life. Graywolf Press, her publisher, has just released The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon. Selecting them was one of the last literary acts of her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who died in 2018. The two now lie together beneath a black gravestone whose epitaph reads:

.

I believe in the miracles of art but what

prodigy will keep you safe beside me

.

These are lines from “Afternoon at MacDowell,” which Kenyon wrote when the couple’s concern was Hall’s cancer, not hers. In the poem, the lofty epitaph resides in an ordinary moment. The two of them have just left a summer outing at the MacDowell Colony, a retreat for writers and artists in Peterborough. The poem’s last stanza reads:

.

After music and poetry we walk to the car.

I believe in the miracles of art, but what

prodigy will keep you safe beside me,

fumbling with the radio while you drive

to find late innings of a Red Sox game?

.

By the time Kenyon wrote “Afternoon,” she had become a poet of a place that had once been alien to her. In 1975, three years into her marriage to Hall, they moved to Eagle Pond Farm in rural Wilmot. Hall’s mother’s family had owned the house and lived in it for 120 years. The possessions of these packrat generations cluttered house and attic: photographs, high-chairs, dresses, spinning wheels, land deeds, diaries. Floors creaked, ceilings sagged, and old fixtures and appliances acted their age. In the barn, tools, handmade ladders, sleighs, and old wagons gathered dust and caught the slants of winter sun.

In the title poem of From Room to Room, Kenyon’s first collection, she declared her hope of turning this little world into a universe. The narrator lives in a house so foreign to her that she feels “a little dazed, like the fly. I watch it / bump against each window.” “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” a hymn she sings at the church down the road, moves Kenyon to seek the tie that will supply her with the language to overcome her dislocation.

I knew Jane and Don for years and witnessed her striving and her glory days. Still, although the new book is thin, I wondered when I picked it up whether she had written enough “Best Poems” to fill such a volume. Kenyon did not hit full stride until the 1990 collection Let Evening Come and published only one more collection in her lifetime, Constance in 1993. Flat language and bland images mar some early poems chosen by Hall. Yet their content does allow the reader to follow Kenyon’s exciting journey to the lyric gems of her last years.

While settling into the territory, she studied the poets she most admired. Speaking of John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop, and Anna Akhmatova in a 1990 interview, she told me: “I’ve taken those poems apart the way you take a watch apart – to see how they work and how they go back together again.” In the small farmhouse, she and Hall found ways to be together while being apart and working in their own creative spaces. Hers was a neat upstairs office with yellow walls, a view of Mount Kearsarge, and a small woodstove she lit most mornings, even in summer.

Her early poems show how she came to see and love the place, to live to its rhythms and seasons, and to bond with the women who had preceded her there. Their presence made her realize she was not alone but “part of the great stream.” They entered her work in subtle ways while she also sought to elevate the experience of women in her own time. She found poetry everywhere: birds at the feeder, flowers in the garden, the detritus of the past, the call of the whippoorwill, walks in the woods, hikes up Mount Kearsarge, swims in Eagle Pond. And especially in her own inner life, as in this brief poem, “The Pear”:

.

There is a moment in middle age

when you grow bored, angered

by your middling mind,

afraid.

.

That day the sun

burns hot and bright,

making you more desolate.

.

It happens subtly, as when a pear

spoils from the inside out,

and you may not be aware

until things have gone too far.

.

This poem reminds me of how Hall reacted when anyone suggested that he was a poet of big ideas while his wife wrote sweet and simple poems. “Yeah,” he’d say, “her style is a glass of water – a 100-proof glass of water.” She created “The Pear” in free verse with perfect line breaks. No word wants to be moved. Kenyon deployed long vowels so sparingly and carefully that the poem stays quiet. Even its most striking phrase, “making you more desolate,” only hints at the feelings Kenyon will later explore in depth in “Having It Out with Melancholy.” The lyrical effects in “The Pear” are neither too many nor too few. The doubling of “middle” in the first stanza emphasizes lost youth; the rhyme in the third chimes just enough to make the slightest of jokes over the dire metaphor of the rotting pear. Fifty-three words, 100 proof.

“The Pear” suggests two other things readers will find in The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon. The first, as she said during our interview, quoting Ezra Pound, is this: “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” Here, that is the pear, its spoiling the perfect simile for what happens to some people as they age. The second is how deft Kenyon became at ending a poem. Note the ominous slamming door of her last line: “until things have gone too far.”

Shortly after her death, because I had written a book about the Civil War, Hall asked me to read Kenyon’s “Gettysburg: July 1, 1863” at a memorial service for her. It was daunting. I was a non-poet in a ring of mostly poets that day in the barn of the Robert Frost Farm in Derry. The poem, which is in Best Poems, imagines the dying minutes of a Union soldier, “hardly more than a boy,” after he is shot on the first day of this storied battle. Its last three lines read:

.

A streak of sun climbed the rough

trunk of a tree, but he did not

see it with his open eye.

.

After the reading, a poet friend told me Kenyon had written the entire poem of fifty lines just for its ending. I regret never having asked her when the last line came to her, but my friend’s comment gave me another clue to how to read her poems.

“Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks,” from around the same time, may be the most overtly religious poem Kenyon wrote. She found Christianity in her community church under the influence of Jack Jensen, the pastor, who sometimes quoted poetry in his sermons. In time her religious life invaded her literary life. “It became impossible for me to keep it out of my work,” she said. In some poems she adapted the cadence of incantation from verses and hymns. “Briefly It Enters” borrows the voice of Jesus in John’s gospel assuring believers, “I am the light of the world,” and “I am the resurrection and the life.” The poem is a string of “I ams”:

.

I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

.

I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

.

I am the heart contracted by joy . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .

.

Following Pound’s dictum, the images are concrete, not abstract. Their particularity overrides any conceit in assuming the voice of an all-knowing deity. The poem is person-to-person, inviting the reader to see and feel.

Readers familiar with Kenyon’s work usually know some combination of this poem, “Otherwise,” and “Let Evening Come.” The last of the three is read at funerals, “evening” being an obvious metaphor for death. Although I once read it myself at the celebration of a beloved aunt’s life, I prefer to take Kenyon’s “evening” literally, as the close of another blessed day. The poem consists of six three-line stanzas, four of them ending with the refrain. Here is a sample:

.

Let the 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 her 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.

.

At Eagle Pond Farm, in her element, Kenyon experienced the dying of the day again and again. It is likely she observed every image in the poem. And yet she spoke of the writing of “Let Evening Come” as “a mystical experience,” an exception to her long, deliberate making of poems. “It seemed to come from some very secret place,” she said, “some place I hardly know myself – or else from somewhere else. It came through me.”

During our interview Kenyon spoke of her future as a poet. She felt at home on the farm and confident in her work. “For me, poetry comes out of silence,” she said, “and I can have silence here.” She was wary of the rut of repetition, of falling back on her gift for writing brief lyrical poems and not pushing herself to do more. “I need to work on some frontier where I don’t know myself what’s going to happen next,” she said.

While leukemia cut this ambition short, she did leave readers a glimpse of the new frontier. The day we spoke in the front parlor of the farmhouse, she asked to take a break from the interview. Dressed in jeans and a checked flannel shirt over a turtleneck, she lay quietly on her side with her eyes closed on the divan opposite my chair. After a few minutes she sat up and we resumed. Only three years later when I heard her read “Having It Out with Melancholy” for the first time did I realize what might have happened that day. Maybe her break from our interview was simple fatigue, but I think Kenyon suffered a moment of darkness.

The poem, from Constance, her last collection, delivers what its title promises, the story of her struggle with depression. It is big, bold, and brave, opening with an epigraph from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard: “If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.” Kenyon emptied the medicine chest of supposed remedies into a stanza titled “Bottles.” While knowing that naming the enemy could not vanquish it, she nevertheless scorned the illness as “the anti-urge, / the manipulator of souls,” “a crow who smells hot blood,” a “coarse, mean” intruder, and the “Unholy ghost.” Neither faith nor will could overcome her melancholia. The only consolation, hard-earned but never lasting, was the experience of its coming and going.

.

I come back to marriage and friends

to pink-fringed hollyhocks; come back

to my desk, books, and chair.

.

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work

but I believe only in this moment

of well-being. Unholy ghost,

you are sure to come again.

.

The night I heard Kenyon read “Having It Out” in the Wilmot Town Hall, women crowded around her afterward. I stood just outside their circle watching them reach out to touch her and hearing their soothing tones. As personal as the affirmation seemed, I found it a remarkable statement about both the power of the poem and Kenyon’s courage in confronting her illness publicly.

The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon measures what was, not what might have been. Like others who knew Kenyon, I marveled at the blossoming of her work. When she died, we mourned her and commiserated about the poems she would not write. Against the odds, we hoped that what she had written would endure. And so it has.

(Mike Pride is editor emeritus of the Monitor and retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes.)




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