Born May 23, 1947, in Ann Arbor, MI; daughter of a jazz musician and a singer; died of leukemia April 23, 1995, in Wilmot, NH; married Donald Hall (a poet), April 17, 1972; children: (stepchildren) Philippa Smith, Andrew Hall. Education: University of Michigan, B.A., 1970, M.A., 1972.
Poet. Associate faculty member at Bennington College, beginning 1994.
Avery and Julia Hopwood Award for poetry, University of Michigan; fellow, National Endowment for the Arts, 1981, and New Hampshire Commission on the Arts, 1984; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1992-93.
From Room to Room, Alice James Books (Cambridge, MA), 1978.
The Boat of Quiet Hours, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1986.
Let Evening Come, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1990.
Constance, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1993.
Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1996.
(Translator) Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Eighties Press (St. Paul, MN), 1985.
A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, the Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, Notes, Interviews, and One Poem, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 1999.
Work represented in anthologies, including The Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry, 1976. Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Harvard magazine, New Criterion, New Republic, New Yorker, Pequod, Ploughshares, and Poetry.
Some of Kenyon's poetry was set to music by William Bolcom as Briefly It Enters: A Cycle of Songs from the Poems of Jane Kenyon for Voice and Piano, 1994-96, Bolcom Music, 1996.
Poet Jane Kenyon was noted for creating verse that probes the inner psyche, particularly demons of depression such as those that plagued her throughout much of her adult life. Kenyon was not a prolific writer, publishing just four volumes of poetry in her lifetime: From Room to Room, The Boat of Quiet Hours, Let Evening Come, and Constance. Although her output was limited, her work is notable for its power and precision.
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kenyon spent her first two decades in the Midwest, attending the University of Michigan in her home town, and completing a master's degree there. While a student, she met her future husband, poet Donald Hall, who was an instructor at the university. They married and took up residence at Eagle Pond Farm, a New Hampshire property that had been in Hall's family for generations. It would be Kenyon's main residence until her death from leukemia at the age of forty-seven. The setting inspired 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."
Discussing Kenyon's first published collection, From Room to Room, Robin M. Latimer, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, called it "the poetic diary of a honeymoon, in which a young wife explores the spaces between her and her husband, and her new and former homes." As Kenyon was a generation younger than her husband, she had a great deal of his past to assimilate into her life. The poems' subjects include the gender gap, a husband's absence, and a wife examining some of his possessions. Latimer went on: "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." Latimer concluded, "The fact that it manages to sidestep all of its potential triteness lies in Kenyon's craft—her haikulike precision in rendering an effect and her clear regard for smooth sound."
Kenyon's next collection, The Boat of Quiet Hours, was praised by Carol Muske in the New York Times: "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." In fact, 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."
A Poet's Poet
Latimer pointed out that Keats is actually a character in Kenyon's Let Evening Come, "evoked, in the speaker's knowledgeable reconstruction of his last days, in various reposes. This reference to Keats is refreshing on the part of Kenyon 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 in which the speaker registers alarm at or resistance to public places, events, the uneducated, and the unwashed." Latimer further noted that in the collection, "as one has come to expect, Kenyon's craft in sound and image is consummate. The poems, pointedly arranged so as not to concentrate linked themes and subjects, invite a slow, unaggressive reading, one that recapitulates the rhythms of water, leaf, and wind—despite all the clamor for something more stimulating. Faith and meaning, Kenyon urges, as in all of her works, lie in a rhythm so constant one might view it as cliché."
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, the poet took what a Poetry essayist called "a darker turn," exploring 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," wrote Muske in a review of the 1990 volume for the New York Times Book Review, the critic adding that the poet's "descriptive skills" are "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.
Struggles with Illness
After Kenyon and Hall had been married for some time, Hall contracted colon cancer, which spread to his liver. The prognosis for his recovery was very poor, and part of his liver was removed. As Hall's
friend Liam Rector recalled in American Poetry Review: "We didn't think he had long to live. I orchestrated a tribute to Don's work at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Because we thought Don was soon to be a goner, there was something of a memorial service in this, while Don was still alive. Don accepted all this cheerfully (if a bit ruefully), gratefully, and great swarms of his many friends came to speak. There were other tributes, in different places. But, as fate would have it, Don recovered; Don endured." Ironically, after standing by her husband throughout his illness and treatment, Kenyon herself was eventually diagnosed with leukemia, which brought about her early death.
Kenyon's last work was collected in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, a posthumous collection containing twenty poems written just prior to her death, as well as several taken from her earlier books. Kenyon herself selected the poems during her last months, with Hall's help. In Otherwise Kenyon "chronicles the uncertainty of living as culpable, temporary creatures," according to Nation contributor Emily Gordon. The poems avoid easy sentimentality, as Muske stated in the New York Times Book Review: "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."
Reviewing Otherwise for World Literature Today, Sandra Cookson wrote: "Kenyon's poems are the earnest, spare, often moving record of a life of work at her craft, of years of struggling with painful depression, of the daily bearing witness in the intimacy of the New Hampshire countryside where she lived. Given the limited range and voice of Kenyon's poetry, she is at her best in the brief lyric, which in some of these poems opens into the apercu that is the reward of closely observed details…. Many of the best poems in the collection are lighted by or open out into a surprising and fully earned moment of revelation. Such are the rewards of patient and careful observation, of the poet's faith in her work."
Another posthumous work, A Hundred White Daffodils, collected some of Kenyon's prose writings, including the newspaper column she produced for several years before her death. Reviewing the collection for Booklist, Ray Olson stated, "They are exquisite little essays, mostly on seasonal events, especially in the garden, for Kenyon was an ardent flower gardener." In Olson's opinion, the newspaper columns in A Hundred White Daffodils "are the heart of this companion to her deeply moving final selection of her poems, Otherwise." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly also gave the book a strong recommendation, finding that "the woman who comes to life in these pages is witty, guileless, humble and heartbreakingly intelligent. One is left wanting more, as if continuing the interviews could restore this vibrant person to life."
If you enjoy the works of Jane Kenyon
If you enjoy the works of Jane Kenyon, you may also want to check out the following books:
Edward Thomas, Collected Poems, 1920.
Sylvia Plath, Ariel, 1965.
Carol Muske, Red Trousseau, 1993.
In 2002 Kenyon's publisher, the Graywolf Press, presented "Jane Kenyon: A Celebration in Words and Song," a multimedia tribute to the late poet held in Minneapolis. The event included Hall reading some of Kenyon's poems, classical musicians performing musical settings, and the premier of J. Mark Scearce's "American Triptych," based on three of Kenyon's poems about New England.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Carruth, Hayden, Letters to Jane, Ausable Press (Keene, NY), 2004.
Contemporary Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 6th edition, 1996.
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Hall, Donald, Without, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1998.
Timmerman, John H., Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 2002.
American Poetry Review, November-December, 1994, Robin Becker, review of Constance, p. 23; November-December, 2004, Liam Rector, "Remembering Jane Kenyon," p. 57.
Booklist, April 1, 1996, Ray Olson, review of Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, p. 1340; November 1, 1998, review of Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, p. 483; September 1, 1999, Ray Olson, review of A Hundred White Daffodils, p. 58.
Library Journal, September 1, 1999, review of A Hundred White Daffodils, p. 191.
Nation, April 29, 1996, Emily Gordon, review of Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, p. 28.
New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1987, p. 13; March 24, 1991; January 5, 1997.
Poetry, July, 1997, pp. 226-240; November, 2004, Donald Hall, "The Third Thing," p. 113.
Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of Let Evening Come, p. 56; July 12, 1993, review of Constance, p. 75; February 26, 1996, review of Otherwise, p. 101; July 19, 1999, review of A Hundred White Daffodils, p. 171.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 27, 2002, Gwendolyn Freed, "Poetic Tribute," p. 11F.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1979.
Wisconsin State Journal, December 4, 1996, John Aehl, "Poetic License: Blending Words, Music, Voice," p. 1D.
World Literature Today, spring, 1997, Sandra Cookson, review of Otherwise, p. 390.
A Life Together (documentary film by Bill Moyers), broadcast on PBS, December, 1993.
Washington Post, April 25, 1995, p. B7.*