Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems

I finished reading Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems awhile ago, but haven’t found time to write about it, perhaps because it is one of my favorite “new” (to me, at least) poetry books of the last ten years and I didn’t want to just gloss over it.

I loved her early poems (published in 1978), which reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ imagistic poetry.

Finding a Long Gray Hair

I scrub the long floorboards
in the kitchen, repeating
the motions of other women
who have lived in this house.
And when I find a long gray hair
floating in the pail,
I feel my life added to theirs
.

It’s amazing how much these straight-forward images convey. Almost everything here could be conveyed in a two-minute video, black-and-white, of course. It’s the last line, though, that raises this to a poem since there’s no easy way to express that joining visually, much less convey whether having her “life added to theirs” is a good thing or a bad thing, though I did enough janitorial work while attending college to conjecture that it’s not entirely a good thing.

At first glance “The Clothes Pin” seems more optimistic than many of her poems, but its impossible to ignore the underlying sadness conveyed in the third line.

The Clothes Pin

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost heap, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line
with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin.

Sometimes you can forget the sadness in your life by focusing on what has to be done as Kenyon seems to imply here, but in the end you probably need to do more than carry firewood, throw out the garbage, or hang clothes on the clothesline to find happiness.

A little later, her poems reminded me of Theodore Roethke’s poetry. Kenyon was bipolar, and it is manifested in her poetry the same way it was in Roethke’s poetry. There seem to be an awful lot of bipolar poets, but Kenyon directly alludes to Roethke in several of her poems, as in this one.

Afternoon in the House

It’s quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I’m writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I turn on the radio. Wrong.

Let’s not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.

The cats request

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke.

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.

I know you are with me, plants,

and cats—and even so, I’m frightened,

sitting in the middle of perfect
possibility.

Kenyon refers directly to Roethke’s The Meadow Mouse but Roethke lovers would certainly see a closer connection to Roethke’s The Geranium. These lines from “The Geranium” seem particularly relevant here: ‘Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me--/ And that was scary--” Almost as scary as “sitting in the middle of perfect/ possibility,” I’d imagine.

3 thoughts on “Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems

  1. A wonderful poet — who I believe struggled with depression. “Afternoon in the House” works on so many levels of understanding (the way good things should), but I also read it as being about the writer’s lonely craft. Thank you very much for your review.

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