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.”
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.
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.
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.”