To me, this is the most famous of Jane Kenyon’s poems, my first acquaintance with her, which made me so happy, I immediately copied it by hand into a notebook. I think it was in a collection of writings lent to me by an acquaintance, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, by Wayne Muller. In my notes I called this book a “syncretistic” gathering, but said that it still contained “lots of tidbits I wanted to record.”
In a review of a new book about poetry for those who “don’t see the point,” titled The Point of Poetry, by Joe Nutt, the reviewer Dr. Oliver Tearle says this about one use of poetry: “Many claim it has saved their life, or at least made them feel a little less low during dark times (Stephen Fry once picked Philip Larkin’s depressing poem ‘Aubade’ as one of the poems he turns to when feeling down, because simply seeing your own grim feelings expressed so deftly and movingly lifts the spirits by showing you what human beings can achieve with words).”
He well expresses one reason that I find some poems very nourishing. I’m surprised that I haven’t posted this favorite before; probably because one blogger or another over the years was sharing it already. But I found it again this evening in Poem a Day Volume 2, and I’ll just let my happiness spill over this time.
My father and my father-in-law were unusual, in that after their wives died, they each lived another nine or more years. Many men die soon after their wives, and people speculate about why. It seems that women in general do better when they lose their spouses; I have read theories about why this is… probably a lot of things contribute. Here are my ideas, largely gleaned from other people. Please forgive the over-simplification and generalities – we are all probably exceptions at least sometimes:
1) Women are used to taking care of things and people, so they know how to take care of themselves. They at least get the necessary things done for survival during the period while they are learning to live without their husbands. But if men have been used to the women cooking for them and in various ways making the house a home, they would be at risk for becoming less healthy very fast when their wives are gone, to some degree reverting to the risky behavior characteristic of unmarried men.
2) If women are, in the words of author John Gray, like “waves” whose emotions periodically roll over people around them, perhaps they know instinctively to let that tide of grief flow as long as it must. Men, on the other hand, don’t know how to deal with things they can’t control, and they want to fix problems such as emotions. If we know that we will get through this, and that there is no going around it, we are able to survive.
3) Women often have support networks with other women, and these friends help them to not feel alone. They have someone to talk to, and/or go shopping with, etc. They have a pattern of activity with other people that they can continue in some fashion as widows so they don’t start from nothing when creating their new lives. Men are notorious (at least, among most of my women friends) for not having friends in the same way. They are more likely to become depressed.
About this last point, I know that you readers of my blog have been a important part of that network for me. I have never been in the habit of going out to lunch or taking walks with friends on a regular basis, being part of a knitting group, etc. I don’t even get helped by talking about my grief, but I am without a doubt helped by writing about it, especially if at least one person is reading-listening and affirming. So I thank all of you very much – you are extending my life span!
What sparked my thinking on these things recently was finding a quote by Donald Hall, the poet who was married to poet Jane Kenyon when she died in her 40’s. He wrote:
Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears.
Many years ago I enjoyed in The New Yorker an article that Hall wrote about his late wife. It was the first I knew of him, but several times over the years I’ve read more of his prose. He is still alive, though she died 20+ years ago, and he was almost 20 years older than she. Now he writes only prose, but I thought that if I were going to share that quote I ought to read some of the poetry he wrote after she died. So I borrowed the collection Without from the library.
I found most of the fresh-grief poems to be too fresh and overwrought, and I don’t know if that is only because I’m past that stage myself, or because of something to do with him being a man. Perhaps he was too distracted by mourning to be able to do his best work. I never did find one I loved; I like his prose so much better. But this later one serves well:
Letter After a Year
Here’s a story I never told you.
Living in a rented house
on South University in Ann Arbor
long before we met, I found
bundled letters in the attic room
where I took myself to work.
A young woman tenant of the attic
wrote these letters to her lover,
who had died in a plane crash.
In my thirtieth year, with tenure
and a new book coming out,
I read the letters in puzzlement.
“She’s writing to somebody dead?”
There’s one good thing
about April. Every day Gus and I
take a walk in the graveyard.
I’m the one who doesn’t
piss on your stone. All winter
when ice and snow kept me away
I worried that you missed me.
“Perkins! Where the hell
————-In hell. Every day
I play in repertory the same
script without you, without love,
without audience except for Gus,
who waits attentive
for cues: a walk, a biscuit,
bedtime. The year of days
without you and your body swept by
as quick as an afternoon;
but each afternoon took a year.
The poem goes on for many more stanzas – this first part was my favorite, especially the last four lines. (The poet intended for the phrase “In hell” to be indented with only white space in the gap, but I haven’t been able to teach WordPress about this aspect of poetry — hence the filler line.)
Ten years after his wife’s death Hall published The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. I was surprised that the majority of the book is about their life after her diagnosis of leukemia. It does include the essay The Third Thing, in which he writes about their years as a whole and how the writing life figured into it. The story of how he brought Jane, not yet 30, to New Hampshire from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to his grandmother’s house where from a child he had always wanted to live, is very touching.
She fell in love with the place at Eagle Pond, but their joint realization of the strong desire to move there came in stages. It seemed preposterous for him to quit his reliable teaching job to do it.
“It was late October when Jane made the definitive announcement: She would chain herself to the walls of the rootcellar rather than leave New Hampshire. I was terrified; I was joyous.”
I wonder at my interest in a couple whose poetry I’ve barely read, with whom I might seem to share very little in common, unless you count, as I do heavily, their love for a secluded life at home by a lake, in the garden, reading and writing much of the day. They were part of a warm church community of which Donald’s relatives were also members. Donald loves baseball, and has been a lifelong smoker (Well, no, I don’t share that with him). They lived a life that perhaps the majority of the population would not be able to endure. In fact, some people asked, “What do you do?”
From “The Third Thing”: “What we did: we got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems. We had lunch. We lay down together. We rose and worked at secondary things. I read aloud to Jane; we played scoreless ping-pong; we read the mail; we worked again. We ate supper, talked, read books sitting across from each other in the living room, and went to sleep. If we were lucky the phone didn’t ring all day.”
I would probably find it easy to read about other couples also if they knew how to write as well about their everyday satisfactions – and sufferings. But I will have to move on, when I have finished this article, without learning everything that might be known about Donald and Jane, their life and their loves.
Though I might yet read more of their poetry. I have the fat Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon in the house right now, and will share with you this:
In the Grove: The Poet at Ten
She lay on her back in the timothy and gazed past the doddering auburn heads of sumac.
A cloud — huge, calm,
and dignified — covered the sun
but did not, could not, put it out.
The light surged back again.
Nothing could rouse her then
from that joy so violent
it was hard to distinguish from pain.
Donald Hall is 87 now. In a review of Essays After Eighty we read, “Jane Kenyon’s presence is everywhere in Essays After Eighty. The couple were married for 23 years, until her 1995 death from leukemia. Kenyon was 47 years old. Hall endured a period of intense pain, captured in two poetry collections and a memoir. Twenty years later, raw agony has become constant, aching loss: ‘I will mourn her forever.’”
Perhaps his writing is the support that has kept him going, even though he had cancer before Jane ever got sick, and last we heard, he was still smoking a pack a day.
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
I have read this poem so many times, and still feel that I’m not equal to it, I can’t hope to plumb its depths. In that way the poem is like its subject, which speaks to me of the grace of God, something of Himself He gives us even though we are undeserving, unworthy, dense as rocks. It falls in the form of joy or peace or repentance, and when you’ve recovered from the surprise, you want to bake a cake and give a party.
There’s no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.