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.


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.

Kenyon’s Highs and Lows

When I was an undergraduate and devoted to poetry, I used to wish I could see the world with the kind of “romantic” extremes my favorite poets did. I knew that wasn’t to be, though, when I was introduced to Aristotle’s Golden Mean in a freshman philosophy class. I knew immediately that that was the guiding principle in my life, a realization confirmed in later life with my fondness for Taoism’s Yin and Yang and Buddha’s Middle Way. That doesn’t mean that, at times, I don’t still admire poets who can see the world in all of its extremes in ways I can barely imagine.

Though Kenyon’s poetry tends to see the world through the darker side of her bipolar vision more often than the light side, she is still capable of allowing the reader to literally see the bright side of life.

Philosophy in Warm Weather

Now all the doors and Windows

are open, and we move so easily

through the rooms. Cats roll

on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp

climbs the pane, pausing

to rub a leg over her head.

All around physical life reconvenes.

The molecules of our bodies must love

to exist: they whirl in circles

and seem to begrudge us nothing.

Heat, Horatio, heat makes them

put this antic disposition on!

This year’s brown spider

sways over the door as I come

and go. A single poppy shouts

from the far field, and the crow,

beyond alarm, goes right on

pulling up the corn.

There is a natural ease about this poem that seems impossible to deny. We’ve all felt free and easy on a warm summer day. My favorite image in the poem, probably because I would never in a million years have thought of using it, is “The molecules of our bodies must love/ to exist: they whirl in circles/ and seem to begrudge us nothing.” Such joy is not just in our mind; it pervades us a the molecular level. We can’t help but be happy.

Rain in January is much more typical of Kenyon’s poetry as a whole, and is a poem I can identify with living here in the Pacific Northwest where we are in the midst of two weeks of unusually heavy rain, likely to extend into mid-June.

Rain in January

I woke before dawn, still
in a body. Water ran
down every window, and rushed
from the eaves.

Beneath the empty feeder
a skunk was prowling for suet
or seed. The lamps flickered off
and then came on again.

Smoke from the chimney
could not rise. It came down
into the yard, and brooded there
in the unlikelihood of reaching

heaven. When my arm slipped
from the arm of the chair
I let it hang beside me, pale,
useless and strange.

I’ve been known to let extended rainy periods get me down and force me to make cynical pronouncements, but luckily I have only felt as bad as the narrator when I’m befallen by thyroid cancer, throat cancer, prostate cancer, or serious bouts of pneumonia. Which is to say that, despite my generally optimistic view of the world, I can, unfortunately, still identify with the poet’s condition. As I suppose most of us can.

I suspect it was not just the smoke that “brooded there/in the unlikelihood of reaching/heaven.” It’s bad enough to feel alienated from heaven, but it’s much worse to be alienated from your body, from a “useless and strange” arm.

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

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.