Jane Kenyon Essay - Critical Essays


Jane Kenyon’s readership and critical attention increased steadily throughout her career. When she died, she was fully confident of her own techniques and at the height of her poetic voice. In her works, her life and art intertwine like a fine cross-stitch. She was an artist of exquisitely intense lyrics that, like faceted diamonds casting prismatic light, threw off soundings of the human soul.

Several premises in particular guided Kenyon’s artistry. She always sought what she called the intense, passionate lyric. Indeed, the heightened musical qualities of her verse have been well recognized. In 1997, composer William Bolcom produced the score Briefly It Enters: A Cycle of Songs from Poems of Jane Kenyon. Also in 1997, J. Mark Scearce composed American Triptych, based on Kenyon’s three poems of that same title.

Kenyon also sought the “right” word, a process that appeared in the extensive drafting of her poems. The right word for her was a “naming” word, one that immediately evoked the essence of the object. She preferred Old English stock words and used relatively few Latinate/Romance derivations. Kenyon’s use of imagery and figurative language formed the lifeblood of the poem, permitting the reader to see things in new and surprising ways. Her aim throughout her career was to allow the reader to enter the poem and share the experience.

From Room to Room

Although Kenyon had published many of the poems collected in From Room to Rooom in leading periodicals, she still faced the usual difficulties of locating a publisher for the collection. Eventually, she published it with Alice James Press. Several of the poems were composed during her days at the University of Michigan, but the poems are woven tightly around the theme of the convergence of past memories on the present moment at Eagle Pond farm. Even as she records childhood memories, she senses the whispers of Hall’s ancestors all around her in the farmhouse. In “Finding a Long Gray Hair,” she describes herself as washing the floors, “repeating/ the motions of other women/ who have lived in this house.” Then, when she finds a long gray hair floating in the pail, she feels “my life added to theirs.” It is at once a volume of dislocation and of finding one’s place as she moves from room to room in the new house.

The Boat of Quiet Hours

Most of the poems in The Boat of Quiet Hours were written during the five-year period when Kenyon was translating the poems of Akhmatova. The individual poems bear far more vitality, precision of imagery and language, and confidence than those in From Room to Room. Moreover, many poems are more overtly personal. For the first time, the reader sees Kenyon openly encountering her struggle with depression. Similarly, there are many poems directly dealing with her spiritual questions and beliefs. However, alongside such poems appear many others of the pastoral sort she had written earlier. The poems are infused with concrete images from Eagle Pond farm. In “The Pond at Dusk,” she writes, “A fly wounds the water but the wound/ soon heals.” Often, as with Robert Frost, nature is a springboard into metaphorical speculation. Often, Kenyon leaves those speculations open-ended, for the reader to resolve.

Let Evening Come

The themes of Kenyon’s previous volume—her search for the divine, her attempts to understand her depression, her playfulness and joy in nature—continue in Let Evening Come. However, those themes turn more intensely personal and introspective. This volume has been a favorite of readers and reviewers alike, heralded for Kenyon’s skillful mastery of craft and honest engagement with her thematic issues. The volume includes the much-admired “Three Songs at the End of Summer” and what may well be Kenyon’s masterpiece, “Let Evening Come.” The haunting lyrics of the poem trace the shifting evening light: “Let the light of late afternoon/ shine through chinks in the barn, moving/ up the bales as the sun moves down.” The imprecatory word “let” appears twelve times in the poem, signaling at once ease in the...

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