Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise”

I've already mentioned that Jane Kenyon, like many artists, was bipolar and the darker side of her condition seems to dominate her poetry, which serves to make poems like "Otherwise" stand out in contrast.

Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

Some readers might argue that this, too, is a "dark" poem, and they would not be wrong to read the poem that way. After all, the poem certainly ends on a dark note. Bur dark days and the end of days are inevitable, aren't they? There's no denying that. Some lucky people are able to ignore that inevitability and focus on their happy moments, living just in the moment, but that's not the only way to get the most out of life.

There's also something to be said to savoring those happy moments precisely because they are short-lived and because sorrow is an inevitable part of life. The Japanese call this feeling mono no aware, an appreciation of the beauty in things by their very impermanence.

One could also argue that the poet's ability to transcend this knowledge of the "alternative" by doing "the work I love," by transforming that sense of impending sorrow into pure art is precisely what makes her poetry so meaningful, so valuable to us.

One thought on “Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise”

  1. I also think this is a positive poem. It celebrates those moments of joy and clarity, knowing it might have been otherwise. We just bought a book of poetry titled Mono No Aware by a fellow blogger and Facebook friend. Joy and sorrow are truly inevitable aspects of our lives, and if we are lucky we can transform both somehow into art.

What do you think?