I have returned to Jane Kenyon’s poetry over and over again, as if to some kind of scripture that might offer solace or a space for meditation. The four books of poetry she published during her life time — From Room to Room (1978), The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), Let Evening Come (1990), and Constance (1993) — stand as a record of the quiet hours Kenyon spent in communion with the particulars of her world, inner and outer. Indeed, the poems might be imagined as a modern-day version of the medieval books of hours, those devotional books, often beautifully illuminated, that were used, primarily by women, as an aid to liturgical life. Such books were intended to engender mindfulness of the presence of God in daily life. They also marked the passage of time; liturgical calendars were often included in such books. Likewise, Kenyon’s meditations evince a keen awareness of the passage of time, specifically the rhythm of life on a New Hampshire farm, every detail of which becomes, for Kenyon, a luminous moment in which to praise the particulars of the physical creation.
I went back to Kenyon’s poetry this time not merely to enjoy it but to study how it works, and I discerned one key element critical to its success: what Kenyon herself refers to in her discussion of Anna Akhmatova’s poems, twenty of which she translated, as “the luminous particular.” Kenyon greatly admired Akhmatova’s poems; she loved their twists and turns of thought, their disjunctions and unusual structures, and their surprise endings. But most of all, Kenyon admired Akhmatova’s ability, as Kenyon describes it in her preface to her translations, to “celebrate sensual life” through the skillful use of the image and the resulting “beautiful clarity” — the goal of the Acmeists with whom Akhmatova identified herself. It was this clarity that drew Kenyon to Akhmatova’s work and inspired her to give her attention to it as a translator. “Image embodies feeling,” Kenyon writes, “and this embodiment is perhaps the greatest treasure of lyric poetry.” And very likely it is for this reason that, in her translations, Kenyon chose “to place the integrity of the image over all other considerations.”
In its use of the image, Kenyon’s own poetry is no less rich and evocative than Akhmatova’s own. Here are some of my favorite images from her work: “I wore a yellow/ summer dress, and the skirt/ made a perfect circle....” (“Evening Sun”); “Today I brought from the bug-riddled remains/ of my garden. A single ripe tomato — last fruit, immaculate....” (“At the Town Dump”); “The infant’s coffin no bigger than a flight bag....” (“The Sandy Hole”); “I wish you would look at the hay —/ the beautiful, sane and solid bales of hay....” (“Evening at a Country Inn”); “Like a mad red brain/ the involute rhubarb leaf/ thinks its way up/ through loam....” (“April Chores”); and “...a vision of souls/ stacked up like pelts/ under my soul, which was ill— /so heavy with grief/ it kept others from rising.” (“Sun and Moon”)
In her belief in the primacy of image over form, and, indeed, over every other element of poetry, Kenyon is very much an imagist, but a latter day one, for her work moves beyond that of earlier imagists like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in the explicit way it links the details of sense with feeling. Indeed, Kenyon habitually locates the image in a clearly identifiable landscape of emotion. The image infant’s coffin “no bigger than a flight bag,” for example, is unambiguously located in a landscape of grief. Kenyon’s skill, not only in identifying the “luminous particular” that can bear the weight of poetic meaning, but in correlating that image with feeling, is possibly her greatest gift as a poet. Such a gift renders her poetry one not only of place, but of powerful emotion.