Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems assembles all of her collections and adds her few uncollected poems. Published at the tenth anniversary of her death, it is a handsome volume of poems which will continue to claim readers in the future.
As a poet who died young and who was ill for some time before her death from leukemia in 1995, Kenyon is an appealing figure: One realizes that the photograph of her on the book’s back flap is a well-known one. Looking like an old child with streaks of gray through her long hair, she sits, studious, and eyes downcast, in front of a typewriter. The image of the serious child is projected in the poetrya sincere, serious, direct tone maintained from first to last page. One might think that a full-length collection of such work would pall, as sometimes individual poems seem slight. This is not the case, however. Although perspective remains the same throughout the decades of Kenyon’s poetry, her subjects change; the angle of vision becomes more and more clear to the reader as she looks at different aspects of experience.
Kenyon has many devoted admirers. She has had the same publisher, Graywolf Press, from her first book, From Room to Room, published in 1978. She had four books published before her death in 1995, and Graywolf has released two posthumous collections, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (1996) and A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, the Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem (1999), in addition to Collected Poems. Collected Poems contains all of Kenyon’s published poems, including those previously uncollected. The arrangement is chronological, except for the translations and uncollected poems, and so the reader can follow the directions of the poet’s life in her art.
The poems from From Room to Room are mostly short, observing New England scenes and pondering the meaning of details of daily life. There is a lightness in the texture of her free verse despite the sometimes heavy themes of the omnipresence of sadness, death, lossthe lightness is the counterweight of nature’s vulnerable beauty. The natural scenes of New England in the early poems and the speaker’s delight in her new experience of married life provide the surface of these poems: their depths are shadows, glimpses of past and future losses, the constant realization that youth and energy do not stay.
These poems narrate small events: cleaning the rooms of her new home, attending a Baptist potluck dinner, enduring the felling of an eighty-year-old oak destroyed by a storm. The quiet of these poems is not equal to peacethere is a lot of anxiety in it. She looks for links to the pastin the feminist way of the 1970’s, she seeks her place among the women of her family and her history, and yet her finding the links is not necessarily reas8suring, because it reminds her that she who is present will soon be part of the past. There is a lot of housewifery in this bookthe trivial daily acts of a wife which acquire meaning, almost a sacramental meaning, through repetition.
The second section, from her 1986 book The Boat of Quiet Hours, moves more into conceptsthe poet plays with philosophical ideas but always brings them down to earth, makes them concrete. Some of these poems make daring leaps from tenor to vehicle of a metaphor. A theme here seems to be simply perspective, what affects it, how it is changed by knowledge or position. The poems, mostly narratives, chronicle brief experiences which produce lasting or permanent changes. She also begins her travel poems, travel being another catalyst for change. More and more the poems are preoccupied with time, attempting to fix the moment; they are dominated by images of weather, elements of passing seasons and places.
The third section, from Let Evening Come (1990), has as its title poem the work that is seen in many anthologiesa poem that chronicles the events of an ordinary day, with its refrain, “Let evening come.” Almost reminiscent of Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 children’s classic Goodnight, Moon, its details emanate peace:
Let dew collect on the hoe abandonedin long grass. Let the stars appearand the moon disclose her silver horn.
(The entire section is 1805 words.)