Listen to this commentary here:
Jane Kenyon’s premature passing in 1995 at the age of 48, from leukemia, brought to a close a singular American poetic imagination. Spare, rough and simple images from her rural life are transformed into diamonds of clarity and revelation on the human condition. Kenyon was tormented by struggles with depression for much of her life, alternating with heights of vision. She was often compared with Sylvia Plath in her ability to mold language with astonishing intensity. But Jane Kenyon’s skill affirms life, while Sylvia Plath’s takes your head off!
Kenyon was born in 1947 and grew up in the Midwest. While a student at the University of Michigan, she met Donald Hall, a well-established poet in his own right. Though he was some 19 years her senior, she married him, and they moved to Eagle Pond Farm, Hall’s ancestral home in Wilmont, New Hampshire.
For a long time, Jane Kenyon was known as “Donald Hall’s little wife – who writes a little poetry too.” But today there are few anthologies of American poetry that do not feature her as one of the strongest voices in American literature. She was New Hampshire’s poet laureate when she died.
In this week’s poem, she gets to the heart of the matter with characteristic simplicity, and depth.
At the Public Market Museum: Charleston, South Carolina
By Jane Kenyon
A volunteer, a Daughter of the Confederacy,
receives my admission and points the way.
Here are gray jackets with holes in them,
red sashes with individual flourishes,
things soft as flesh. Someone sewed
the gold silk cord onto that gray sleeve
as if embellishments
could keep a man alive.
I have been reading War and Peace,
and so the particulars of combat
are on my mind – the shouts and groans
of men and boys, and the horses’ cries
as they fall, astonished at what
has happened to them.
Blood on leaves,
blood on grass, on snow; extravagant
beauty of red. Smoke, dust of disturbed
earth; parch and burn.
Who would choose this for himself?
And yet the terrible machinery
waited in place. With psalters
in their breast pockets, and gloves
knitted by their sisters and sweethearts,
the men in gray hurled themselves
out of the trenches, and rushed against
blue. It was what both sides
agreed to do.
From “Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems” (Graywolf Press, 2005), reprinted with permission of the publisher and the estate of Jane Kenyon.