Jane Kenyon Essay - Kenyon, Jane

Kenyon, Jane

Introduction

Jane Kenyon 1947-1995

American poet, translator, and essayist.

Kenyon was one of the most highly respected woman poets of the late twentieth century. She employed simple language and relied on understatement and imagery to convey the underlying emotional themes of her works. Her frequently short poems are introspective and observational, and are regarded as masterpieces of form, subtlety, and verbal skill and economy. Often compared with the works of John Keats, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Anna Akhmatova, Kenyon's poems contemplate mortality, God, and the joys, fears, and pains of human existence. In their essay on Kenyon's works, Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack suggest that in her poetry, “Kenyon discovers in our mortality a form of grace, a kind of redemption inherent in the inescapable movement toward death that may lead into the light, away from darkness.”

Biographical Information

Kenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 23, 1947. She spent her childhood living in the countryside outside Ann Arbor, and attended her hometown university, the University of Michigan, where she earned the Avery and Julia Hopwood Award for poetry in 1969. She received her B.A. in English in 1970, and her M.A. in English in 1972. She married Donald Hall—a fellow poet and a teacher at the university, and in 1975, the two relocated to Eagle Pond Farm, a farm in New Hampshire that had been in Hall's family for several generations. At first Kenyon had a difficult transition to New England living, as evinced in her first collection of poetry, From Room to Room (1978). She acclimated to the change though, and her later poems are filled with her love for and wonder at the New England countryside. At a time when Kenyon was having trouble with her own poetry, Robert Bly, renowned author and family friend, suggested that she work on translating Anna Akhmatova's poetry from Russian into English. Kenyon published Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova (1985) and attributed her newly regained sense of poetic vision and form to her work on these translations. Throughout her life, Kenyon struggled with depression and many of the poems in Constance (1993) detail her thoughts on depression. She was the recipient of the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1992, and became New Hampshire's poet laureate in 1995. In 1994 Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia. Although she underwent bone-marrow transplant treatments, efforts to cure the disease were unsuccessful. Kenyon died in her home at Eagle Pond Farm on April 23, 1995.

Major Works

The title of Kenyon's first collection, From Room to Room, refers to her adjustment to New England and her husband's family home. In the poem “Here,” she addresses her husband: “You always belonged here. / You were theirs, certain as a rock. / I'm the one who worries / if I fit in with the furniture / and the landscape.” Although Kenyon shows her growing comfort with her new surroundings in the poems collected in The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986)—many of the pieces describe the beauty and serenity of rural New England—the poems in this collections illustrate Kenyon's battle with depression. In “Rain in January” she metaphorically likens depression with rainwater that completely envelops the house; in “Thinking of Madame Bovary” she purports: “the soul's bliss / and suffering are bound together / like the grasses.” Kenyon's third collection, Let Evening Come (1990), illustrates Kenyon's quest to understand God and her growing acceptance of mortality. Repeated throughout the title poem are the words “let the evening come”; the final stanza bids: “Let it come, as it will, and don't / be afraid. God does not leave us / comfortless, so let evening come.” In “Having it Out with Melancholy” from Constance: Poems, Kenyon discusses her history with depression and her attempts to overcome it. The poem has seven sections, each with a different aspect of her struggle. She encounters the empty feeling of depression in “August Rain, After Haying,” and in “Pharaoh” she considers her husband's mortality during his battle with colon cancer. Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (1996) was compiled by Kenyon and her husband after she was diagnosed with leukemia. The majority of the poems were previously published, but the volume also contains twenty new poems such as “Happiness” and “Reading Aloud to My Father,” a poem about her father's last days. The last poem in the collection is “The Sick Wife,” Kenyon's unfinished, final poem.

Critical Reception

Critiques of Kenyon's body of work are largely favorable. Commentators applaud the quiet elegance of her poems about the commonplace, everyday aspects of life. Her poems are praised for their portrayal of raw emotional themes in a dispassionate, almost disassociated way, a technique that renders them fiercely moving without being melodramatic. She often explores themes of death and dying, yet observers emphasize that her poems often contain peaceful and optimistic views on these inevitable consequences of life. Kenyon's poetry is commended for both its finely controlled form and the author's adept selection of words and images to convey the wonder and the emotional weight of human existence. Critic Robert Richman observed with sorrow that “we should remember that while [Kenyon] was second to none in her love of the world, she made poems that are not so much a reflection of that world as bold and brilliant responses to it. She will be sorely missed.”

Principal Works

From Room to Room 1978

Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova [translator; with Vera Dunham] 1985

The Boat of Quiet Hours 1986

Let the Evening Come 1990

Constance: Poems 1993

Otherwise: New and Selected Poems 1996

A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, the Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem. (miscellany) 1999

Criticism

Adrian Oktenberg (review date spring 1982)

SOURCE: Oktenberg, Adrian. Review of From Room to Room by Jane Kenyon. Ploughshares 8, no. 1 (spring 1982): 168-71.

[In the following review, Oktenberg expresses her approval of the simple, straightforward poems in Kenyon's From Room to Room.]

Jane Kenyon is apparently translated to New England from Michigan; New England suits her well. Its depressive terrain and weather fit her gusty, solitary moods. Its Puritan heritage, still lived by in those towns, sparks her to spare meditations on the nature of the body, and on living this life. Her first book, From Room to Room, is the most ambitious of this group, conceived of as a body of work and not a collection of disparate poems; it is also the most fully realized.

Her subject is the situation, or the web of circumstances, in which she finds herself. Briefly, the story is this: A woman comes with the man she loves to live in his ancestral home. Although she loves him, she says, “I hated coming here.” She has her doubts about how she will fare:

You always belonged here.
You were theirs, certain as a rock.
I'm the one who worries
if I fit in with the furniture
and the landscape.

(“Here”)

But the house itself is handsome:

And when I come over the hill,
I see the house, with its generous
and firm proportions, smoke
rising gaily from the chimney.

(“Here”)

Gradually, despite herself, she begins to settle into it, and into the life of the new community:

I feel my life start up again,
like a cutting when it grows
the first pale and tentative
root hair in a glass of water.

(“Here”)

“Life is so daily,” Ben Belitt said. “Getting through...

(The entire section is 752 words.)

Linda Gregerson (review date February 1988)

SOURCE: Gregerson, Linda. Review of The Boat of Quiet Hours by Jane Kenyon. Poetry 151, no. 5 (February 1988): 421-23.

[In the following review, Gregerson commends Kenyon's form and control in the poems contained in The Boat of Quiet Hours.]

The beauty of repose is a beauty most of us may only fitfully emulate or wistfully, and from a distance, behold. It is the chief beauty of Jane Kenyon's poetry and the informing ground of her vocal and speculative range. She moves, in The Boat of Quiet Hours, through the articulate seasons of her New Hampshire home and through the many modulations of human affection, human grief, the ceremonies of loss and sustenance....

(The entire section is 690 words.)

John Unterecker (essay date summer 1988)

SOURCE: Unterecker, John. “Shape-Changing in Contemporary Poetry.” Michigan Quarterly Review 27, no. 3 (summer 1988): 490-92.

[In the following excerpt, Unterecker notes the difference between Kenyon's first collection, From Room to Room, and her second, The Boat of Quiet Hours, concerning her feelings of belonging in her New England home and community. Unterecker also compares Kenyon's intellectual clarity with that of John Keats.]

Jane Kenyon's second book, The Boat of Quiet Hours, is a significant development over From Room to Room (1978), itself a most eloquent statement of the uneasinesses and uncertainties of a woman who leaves the...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

David Baker (essay date June 1991)

SOURCE: Baker, David. “Culture, Inclusion, Craft.” Poetry 158, no. 3 (June 1991): 161-64.

[In the following excerpt, Baker laments that, aside from a handful of quality poems, most of the verse in Let Evening Come is terse and redundant—which he finds disappointing, considering the quality of Kenyon's previously published poems.]

If Goldbarth's multiverse is rapidly expanding, blasting outward, then the universe of Jane Kenyon's Let Evening Come is undergoing a severe contraction, a collapse, a falling inward toward density and gravity. It's a poetry common to the minimal, primitivist impulses of the past three decades. Even while I acclaim the...

(The entire section is 1063 words.)

Jane Kenyon and David Bradt (interview date March 1993)

SOURCE: Kenyon, Jane, and David Bradt. “Jane Kenyon: An Interview.” Plum Review, no. 10 (winter 1995): 115-28.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in March, 1993, Kenyon discusses art and politics, the necessity of the arts in the schools, poetry translations, and the importance of poetry and the poet in today's society.]

A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jane Kenyon won the Avery and Jule Hopwood Award before completing her degrees at the University of Michigan. She has also won awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New Hampshire Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Voelker Award, and the Frederick Bock Prize from...

(The entire section is 4420 words.)

David Barber (review date June 1994)

SOURCE: Barber, David. Review of Constance: Poems by Jane Kenyon. Poetry 164, no. 3 (June 1994): 161-64.

[In the following review, Barber contends that some of the poems in Constance: Poems feel as if Kenyon is experimenting with, and not quite perfecting, poetry with a larger scope than that of her previous works. Barber observes, however, that other poems in this collection are extremely well written and have strong poetic and emotional impact.]

Jane Kenyon possesses one of our day's most scrupulously transparent idioms. Deliberate, fastidious, disarmingly bare of adornments and conceits, her poems' colloquial surfaces can at first seem too artless to...

(The entire section is 1200 words.)

Emily Gordon (essay date 29 April 1996)

SOURCE: Gordon, Emily. “Above an Abyss.” Nation 262, no. 17 (29 April 1996): 29-30.

[In the following excerpt, Gordon comments on the various tones and subjects in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems.]

For Jane Kenyon violence is, as in nature, inevitable, necessary, even welcome. Kenyon wrote about the seasonal gradations of rural life, where the rustle of leaves is “like so many whispered conversations.” Like the poems of Elizabeth Bishop (one of Kenyon's favorites) and Robert Frost, the poems in Otherwise—twenty new ones as well as selections from her four previous books—are rooted in a sympathetic observation of the physical world.

...

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Robert Richman (essay date May 1996)

SOURCE: Richman, Robert. “Luminous Particulars.” New Criterion 14, no. 9 (May 1996): 76-80.

[In the following essay, Richman explains that Kenyon's poems are difficult to categorize because her poetry contains unexpected elements. Richman also compares Kenyon's poetry writing with Chekhov's prose.]

Jane Kenyon's death from leukemia at the age of forty-eight in April 1995 was a significant loss to American poetry. As frequent publishers of her work—from 1984 to 1991, twenty-five of her poems appeared in our pages—we feel the loss especially acutely. It is offset somewhat by the publication of Otherwise, which contains a selection from Kenyon's four...

(The entire section is 2476 words.)

Adrian Oktenberg (review date July 1996)

SOURCE: Oktenberg, Adrian. “In Solitude and Sorrow.” Women's Review of Books 13, nos. 10-11 (July 1996): 27-8.

[In the following review, Oktenberg contemplates the beauty, simplicity, and expertise of Kenyon's poetry and discusses the recurring themes in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems.]

Jane Kenyon's death at 47 in 1995 was a bitter loss to American poetry. In 1981, I had the pleasure of reviewing her first book. It was clear to me at the time that this was a unique voice, one with staying power.

Kenyon's voice is the body and soul of her poetry, full of gravity and grace, characterized by a kind of simplicity which is the product of long...

(The entire section is 1761 words.)

Sandra Cookson (review date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Cookson, Sandra. Review of Otherwise: New and Selected Poems by Jane Kenyon. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 390-91.

[In the following review, Cookson purports that the genius of the simple poems in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems is Kenyon's spark of imagination and her ability to convey the inspiration of their creation with skillfully chosen words.]

The poems in Jane Kenyon's collection Otherwise were selected by the poet on her deathbed, with the aid of her husband, the poet and author Donald Hall, as she lay dying of leukemia in 1995. They represent her four published volumes plus twenty new poems, previously...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Paul Breslin (essay date July 1997)

SOURCE: Breslin, Paul. “Four and a Half Books.” Poetry 170, no. 4 (July 1997): 230-33.

[In the following excerpt, Breslin details the evolution of Kenyon's poems from From Room to Room to Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. Breslin sadly notes the irony that Kenyon was just beginning to expand and mature creatively at the time of her death.]

The late Jane Kenyon's posthumous Otherwise: New and Selected Poems reminds us of what a fine poet we lost by her premature death. A group of twenty previously uncollected poems opens the book, followed by generous selections from the four volumes published during her lifetime, in chronological order. It is...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Wesley McNair (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: McNair, Wesley. “A Government of Two.” Iowa Review 28, no. 1 (spring 1998): 59-71.

[In the following essay, McNair explores Kenyon's relationship with her husband, Donald Hall, and underscores the overt and the subconscious influences they had on each other's work.]

Two or three years ago, something happened to my friends Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon that I'd never seen in the literary world before. Up to that time each was well known to poetry audiences—he as a senior American poet and recent recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, she as a younger poet with a growing reputation. Then, their relationship itself became famous. Through their...

(The entire section is 4843 words.)

Constance Merritt (review date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Merritt, Constance. Review of Otherwise: New and Selected Poems by Jane Kenyon. Prairie Schooner 72, no. 1 (spring 1998): 171-76.

[In the following excerpt, Merritt analyzes the poems collected in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems and notes Kenyon's preoccupation with death and dying. However, Merritt asserts, this morbidity is tempered by Kenyon's reverence for the common, everyday realities that make up human existence.]

Although her name does not appear among those “certain authors” that Donald Hall, in his afterword to Kenyon's posthumously published New & Selected Poems, tells us she “read and reread … with excitement and...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)

Paul Breslin (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Breslin, Paul. “Jane Kenyon's ‘Manners Toward God’: Gratitude and the ‘Anti-Urge’.” In Bright Unequivocal Eye: Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference, edited by Bert G. Hornback, pp. 39-45. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Breslin explores Kenyon's poem “Having It Out with Melancholy” and investigates the levels and different definitions of the melancholia depicted in the poem.]

Reviewing Otherwise for Poetry (July 1997), I noted how Jane Kenyon's attention to the physical world, which in her earliest work could seem mere description for description's sake, came to have deeper...

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Judith Harris (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Harris, Judith. “Vision, Voice, and Soul-Making in ‘Let Evening Come’.” In Bright Unequivocal Eye: Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference, edited by Bert G. Hornback, pp. 63-8. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Harris lauds the serenity in the face of an inevitable death, and the calm assurances of solace in Kenyon's poem, “Let Evening Come.”]

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through the 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 the dew collect on...

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Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Davis, Todd F. and Kenneth Womack. “Settling into the Light: The Ethics of Grace in the Poetry of Jane Kenyon.” In Bright Unequivocal Eye: Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference, edited by Bert G. Hornback, pp. 87-97. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Davis and Womack center on the often-repeated theme of mortality in Kenyon's poems. The critics contend that while Kenyon does face mortality with trepidation, her poems on the subject are gracefully tempered with gratitude for life—however fleeting—and peaceful contemplation of the life to come.]

Into light all things must fall,
glad at last to have fallen....

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Ann Hostetler (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Hostetler, Ann. “Food as Sacrament in the Poetry of Jane Kenyon.” In Bright Unequivocal Eye: Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference, edited by Bert G. Hornback, pp. 105-13. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Hostetler studies the many references to food and hunger in Kenyon's work. Hostetler notes that Kenyon often uses food imagery to symbolize sustenance—actual food for the body and metaphorical nourishment for the soul.]

Communion of one sort or another seems to be at the heart of eating in Kenyon's poems, whether it be the poet's communion with life or with another being, human or animal. Eating the...

(The entire section is 3072 words.)

Robert Spirko (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Spirko, Robert. “Affective Disorders: The Treatment of Emotion in Jane Kenyon's Poetry.” In Bright Unequivocal Eye: Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference, edited by Bert G. Hornback, pp. 121-26. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Spirko examines the techniques Kenyon uses to express and control emotion in her poetry.]

… I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can.
.....What we feel most has
          no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

—“The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” by Jack Gilbert

It is a common myth that...

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John H. Timmerman (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Timmerman, John H. “Otherwise: Old and New Poems.” In Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life, pp. 212-23. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

[In the following essay, Timmerman observes the poignancy of the poems in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems and analyzes works from her earlier volumes and previously uncollected writings that were not included in this collection.]

In November 1994, Fiona McCrae, who had replaced Scott Walker as editor of Graywolf Press, proposed the collection of Kenyon's poems that would become Otherwise. Her letter arrived about ten months after leukemia had begun its virulent course...

(The entire section is 4002 words.)