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Jane Kenyon epitomized many poets of the 1970s and 1980s: she was a feminist of sorts and an academic brought up through the ranks of little-magazine publication, who then won contracts with the independent presses. Her residence in New Hampshire and her marriage to well-known poet and editor Donald Hall were major influences on her work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Marriages Real and Poetic
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 23, 1947, Kenyon grew up in the Midwest. She attended the University of Michigan and earned her BA in 1970 and her MA in 1972. It was during her time at the University of Michigan that Kenyon met the well-known poet Donald Hall. She married him on April 17, 1972.
Her first book, From Room to Room (1978), is the poetic diary of a honeymoon, in which a young wife explores the spaces between her husband and herself, and her new and former homes. Several poems concern short spates of the husband’s absence; ”The First Eight Days of the Beard” explores the gender gap; and a furtive poem, ”Cleaning the Closet,” shows the wife finding a dusty suit her husband has not worn since his father’s funeral. Turning to see her husband watching, she ”fumble[s] to put the suit / back where it was.” This last line of the poem tells the story of the book. There is no ”back where it was” for either husband or wife.
The overlay of the new on the old continues as the main character progresses through her first anniversary, chronicled in ”Year Day,” revamping room after room of her new home. As she does so, she encounters the emblems, both universal and personal, of her female lineage, a grandmother’s tablecloth here, an heirloom thimble there. Kenyon’s young wife is alert to these emblems, perceiving them with a new feminist consciousness. So it is that, when she finds one of her gray hairs floating in the mop water, she feels akin to those who have scrubbed the floor before her, feels her life ”added to theirs.”
The Second Wave Feminist Movement
From Room to Room appeared during the Second Wave feminist movement, which began during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In contrast to the First Wave, which was focused primarily on women’s suffrage, the Second Wave aimed to elevate the status of women at all levels of society. In particular, some women fought to escape their roles as wives and homemakers. Others reacted strongly against these efforts, advocating a return to the Victorian model of The Feminine Idea—a back-to-quilting approach to feminism. This coincided with the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would have guaranteed equal rights to all, regardless of gender.
Joining the Tradition of New England Poetry
In From Room to Room Kenyon asserts her connection to the New England poetic tradition less in her fairly standard rendering of that region than in her vocal style. Critics of this book hailed its simplicity but also mentioned Kenyon’s thematic complexities and her masterful craftsmanship.
Kenyon closes From Room to Room with translations of six of Anna Akhmatova’s poems. Clearly the two poets share concerns—for example, desire as reflected in the natural world—as well as musicality and economical imagery. Kenyon’s follow-up to her first book was Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova (1985), which appears to be Kenyon’s contribution to a feminist revision of the literary canon as well as a set of exercises in the economical poetic style Kenyon prefers.
Increased Poetic Flexibility
In The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), Kenyon continues to employ a clear narrative framework for the poems, though a more flexible one than that of From Room to Room. The themes of her first book persist as well though this collection shows Kenyon’s range, her keen alertness to the concrete world, and her ability also to render the abstract.
Going On in the Face of Life’s Hardships
In 1989, Kenyon learned that her husband was suffering from colon cancer. The title of Kenyon’s Let Evening Come (1990) is perhaps a response to this fact, formatted to the chores and routines of the same contemplative but disciplined speaker as her previous work—one who, upon hearing news of a loved one’s recurring cancer, retains the capacity to ”snap the blue leash onto the D-ring / of the dog’s collar,” to attend to ”that part of life / [which] is intact.” Dog-walking is recurrent in this collection of close to sixty poems, a repetition that may bring accusations of mundanity and manipulativeness. However, that Kenyon dares use this simple image of coping, of the mind strolling with itself as it waits for what the speaker dreads, is somehow affirming.
Evoking John Keats
The poet John Keats, alluded to in The Boat of Quiet Hours, is a character in Kenyon’s 1990 collection, who is evoked, in the speaker’s reconstruction of his last days, in various guises. Kenyon’s reference to Keats is refreshing because it clarifies her awareness that she is subject, as was he, to the criticism that she is a poet’s poet. She baits this criticism in her poems by making the speaker register alarm at or resistance to public places, events, the uneducated, and the unwashed, opting for the privileged retreat to ”the sound of pages turning, and coals shifting.”
A Battle with Leukemia Her husband’s treatment for colon cancer proved effective, and in 1993, a Emmy award-winning documentary about Kenyon’s life with Donald Hall, entitled A Life Together, was released. Ironically, the following year Kenyon herself was diagnosed with leukemia. She died in April of 1995. During the last year of her life she had been working on Other-wise: New and Selected Poems, which was published in 1996. In 1999, a collection of Kenyon’s essays, interviews, Akhmatova translations, and newspaper columns were published as A Hundred White Daffodils. Graywolf Press published a compilation of her poetry in Collected Works (2005).
Works in Literary Context
Kenyon is frequently compared to Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, though such comparisons should be viewed as more evocative than exact. Her work is often discussed in the context of Donald Hall’s. Kenyon’s writing was influenced by her close interpersonal relationships and a variety of poets, including Anna Akhmatova, whose work she translated from Russian into English.
Kenyon’s writing contains much of what has been called ”quiet violence.” Kenyon’s violence is leashed, and is thus more alarming. In ”The Socks” one finds the wife folding her husband’s socks into ”tight dark fists,” for example. The anger expressed is a woman’s, more specifically a twentieth-century woman’s, insofar as it expresses the conflict of one who has been trained to desire security but who is also very aware of its costs, the sacrificing of individuality and sensitivity. Clearer examples of this anger might be found in a poem in which a wife inures herself to the fact that she has crushed a pet cat beneath the wheels of her car. Her response is to focus on what color to repaint the house. In another poem she uses the vacuum cleaner’s drone to block the noise of a man’s felling of the eighty-year-old oak, the branches of which menace the house.
Kenyon’s work is often discussed in the context of her early death from leukemia and her struggle with depression. She is known for her simple but emotionally powerful writing.
Works in Critical Context
Reviews of Kenyon’s work were largely positive when it was first published; critics found her poetry accessible and emotionally salient. As her career progressed, however, she was sometimes criticized for not experimenting with other writing styles. But she was also praised for the consistent high quality of her work.
The Boat of Quiet Hours
The reviewers of The Boat of Quiet Hours were virtually unanimous that, within her selected boundaries, Kenyon is formidable. But she was criticized for failing to flirt with excess, as if, having walked a tightrope above a host of similar poetry, she should also be required to attempt a somersault or two. That said, The Boat of Quiet Hours is more concerned with literary tradition than From Room to Room. Allusions—to John Keats’s Endymion (1818), William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Bible, and the plays of Anton Chekhov—abound. And one anonymous critic for the Women’s Review of Books observed that the persona of these poems has clearly become a New Englander as evidenced, for example, by the lines ”How long winter has lasted—like a Mahler / symphony, or an hour in the dentist’s chair.” According to reviewer Marianne Boruch in American Poetry Review, the poems in The Boat of Quiet Hours read ”like entries in a day book, patient commentary on things worth gathering.”
- Hall, Donald. The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
- Timmerman, John H. Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.
- Garrison, D. ‘‘The Poetry of Jane Kenyon.’’ The New Yorker (September 9, 1996): 90.
- Ignatow, David. ‘‘For Jane Kenyon.’’ Poetry 168, no. 5 (1996): 276.
- Mattison, Alice. ‘‘Let It Grow in the Dark Like a Mushroom: Writing with Jane Kenyon.’’ Michigan Quarterly Review 39 (2000), 121–37.
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