The Sunday Poem : Jane Kenyon

 

 

 

 

After an Illness, Walking the Dog

 

Wet things smell stronger,
and I suppose his main regret is that
he can sniff just one at a time.
In a frenzy of delight
he runs way up the sandy road—
scored by freshets after five days
of rain. Every pebble gleams, every leaf.

When I whistle he halts abruptly
and steps in a circle,
swings his extravagant tail.
Then he rolls and rubs his muzzle
in a particular place, while the drizzle
falls without cease, and Queen Anne’s lace
and Goldenrod bend low.

The top of the logging road stands open
and light. Another day, before
hunting starts, we’ll see how far it goes,
leaving word first at home.
The footing is ambiguous.

Soaked and muddy, the dog drops,
panting, and looks up with what amounts
to a grin. It’s so good to be uphill with him,
nicely winded, and looking down on the pond.

A sound commences in my left ear
like the sound of the sea in a shell;
a downward, vertiginous drag comes with it.
Time to head home. I wait
until we’re nearly out to the main road
to put him back on the leash, and he
—the designated optimist—
imagines to the end that he is free.

 

 

 

About Jane Kenyon

New Hampshire’s poet laureate at the time of her untimely death at age forty-seven, Jane Kenyon was noted for verse that probed the inner psyche, particularly with regard to her own battle against the depression that lasted throughout much of her adult life. Writing for the last two decades of her life at her farm in northern New England, Kenyon is also remembered for her stoic portraits of domestic and rural life; as essayist Gary Roberts noted in Contemporary Women Poets, her poetry was “acutely faithful to the familiarities and mysteries of home life, and it is distinguished by intense calmness in the face of routine disappointments and tragedies.”

Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kenyon spent her first two decades in the Midwest, attending the University of Michigan in her hometown through completion of her master’s degree in 1972. It was while she was a student at the University of Michigan that Kenyon met her future husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. After her marriage, Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, a New Hampshire farm that had been in Hall’s family for generations and where she would spend the remainder of her life.

Poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon lived together at Eagle Pond Farm, a New Hampshire farm that had been in Hall’s family for generations. She spent the remainder of her life there until her untimely death at the age of 47.

Kenyon published only four volumes of poetry during her life: From Room to RoomThe Little BoatLet Evening Come, and Constance, and translated a volume of works by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Despite her relatively small output, her poetry was highly lauded by critics throughout her lifetime. As fellow poet Carol Muske remarked in the New York Times when describing Kenyon’s The Boat of Quiet Hours, “These poems surprise beauty at every turn and capture truth at its familiar New England slant. Here, in Keats’s terms, is a capable poet.” Indeed, Kenyon’s work has often been compared with that of English Romantic poet John Keats; Roberts dubbed her a “Keatsian poet” and noted that, “like Keats, she attempts to redeem morbidity with a peculiar kind of gusto, one which seeks a quiet annihilation of self-identity through identification with benign things.”

The cycles of nature held special significance for Kenyon, who returned to them again and again, both in her variations on Keats’s ode “To Autumn,” and in other pastoral verse. In Let Evening Come, her third published collection—and one that found the poet taking what Poetry essayist Paul Breslin called “a darker turn”—Kenyon explored nature’s cycles in other ways: the fall of light from day to dusk to night, and the cycles of relationships with family and friends throughout a long span of years brought to a close by death. Let Evening Come “shows

[Kenyon] at the height of her powers,” according to Muske in a review of the 1990 volume for the New York Times Book Review, with the poet’s “descriptive skills . . . as notable as her dramatic ones. Her rendering of natural settings, in lines of well-judged rhythm and simple syntax, contribute to the [volume’s] memorableness.”

Constance began Kenyon’s study of depression, and her work in this regard has been compared with that of the late poet Sylvia Plath. Comparing the two, Breslin wrote that “Kenyon’s language is much quieter, less self-dramatizing” than that of Plath, and where the earlier poet “would give herself up, writing her lyrical surrender to oblivion, . . . Kenyon fought to the end.” Breslin noted the absence of self-pity in Kenyon’s work, and the poet’s ability to separate from self and acknowledge the grief and emotional pain of others, as in her poems “Coats,” “Sleepers in Jaipur,” and “Gettysburg: July 1, 1863,” which imagines a mortally wounded soldier lying in wait for death on the historic battlefield.

In Otherwise, a posthumous collection containing twenty poems written just prior to her death as well as several taken from her earlier books, Kenyon “chronicles the uncertainty of living as culpable, temporary creatures,” according to Nation contributor Emily Gordon. As Muske added in the New York Times Book Review, Kenyon avoids sentimentality throughout Otherwise. “The poet here sears a housewife’s apron, hangs wash on the line, walks a family dog and draws her thought from a melancholy, ecstatic soul as if from the common well, ‘where the fearful and rash alike must come for water.’ In ecstasy,” Muske continued, Kenyon “sees this world as a kind of threshold through which we enter God’s wonder.”

 

“After an Illness, Walking the Dog” appears in Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon. Copyright © 2007 by Jane Kenyon. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. Jane Kenyon biography courtesy The Poetry Foundation.

 

By | 2016-11-11T21:53:00+00:00 03.18.12|Greatest Hits, The Sunday Poem, Words|6 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

6 Comments

  1. susan supley March 18, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    this is so simply beautiful lovely soul.

  2. Rob Dunlavey March 19, 2012 at 9:59 am

    I have lived under a rock and must read more of Jane Kenyon’s poems. Thank you so much for your excerpt and commentary.
    Being a painter however made me instantly question the credit you have included with the photo above. Gustave Caillebotte was a Parisian Impressionist painter and a reproduction of one of his works graces the cover of “Otherwise”. I do not know who took that beautiful photo (it wasn’t Caillebotte though). Carry on!

    • Michelle Aldredge March 19, 2012 at 11:55 am

      Thanks for your comment, Rob. I’m glad you have discovered Jane Kenyon. She’s a marvelous poet. Yes–I must have confused the credits when I took them off of the cover. Sorry about that! I am away from home at the moment and will correct the credit when I have my hard copy of Otherwise in front of me. Thanks for letting me know! Enjoy your day.

      • John Sieswerda March 19, 2012 at 5:33 pm

        Thanks Michelle for bringing Jane Kenyon’s work to light. It seems the style of poetry that I would enjoy reading and look forward to it. How sad to have such talent taken away so early.

        • Michelle Aldredge March 20, 2012 at 8:59 pm

          John and Sandra, Thanks for your comments. I can’t recommend Jane Kenyon’s work enough. I think her descriptions of rural New Hampshire seeped into my bones years ago when I was living in Atlanta. My first visit to New England felt like a homecoming of sorts, and I have to give Jane Kenyon some credit for this.

          John, as a long-time MacDowell Colony employee, you might like this poem Kenyon wrote after a visit to the Colony many years ago–the poem is called “Afternoon at MacDowell.

  3. Sandra March 19, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Lovely poem- I can “see” and “feel” the words…it made me think of the walks that I share with my faithful dog

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