In Search of the Great Goodness: The Poetry of Jane Kenyon

Along with others, I have grown weary of the term postmodern as the blanket characteristic covering our time. The term simply carries along too much baggage, and each bag opens, as a postmodernist would say, on different meanings for different audiences. From spiritual and ethical positionings, from ways of perceiving the world, and from ways of holding all human products up to critical scrutiny, analysis, or distortion, postmodernism has settled like a dense fogbank on the scholarly imagination.

One of the problems with postmodernism, however, is that some of its assumptions prove true. They are not altogether new, and hardly even modern, but they are truly worrisome nonetheless. One such claim is that modern humanity by and large lives in a spiritual vacuum. Already in 1964, philosopher William Barrett wrote in What is Existentialism that “The world of the eternal and supersensible has simply vanished as an historical fact, and we stand naked and alone in the world of men.” Two years later, the 8 April 1966 issue of Time questioned in its cover story, “Is God Dead?” It popularized the term “Christian atheists.”

Such assumptions created a confusing new world for poets who were by faith Christians. A generation earlier could at least assume a degree of biblical literacy among the general public. Since the early sixties, fueled perhaps by the secular university and liberal seminaries, the Bible fell into scorn as a popular myth. If you were a Christian, you either shut up about it or found a small fellowship of believers as a ward against the world. Similar options, and consequent frustrations, seemed to exist for a Christian poet. Does one give overt articulation to one’s faith, so that faith becomes the subject matter? Then is one’s audience limited only to those coded members of the spiritual club? Or, does one address an audience without attention to or awareness of one’s faith, limiting the work to encounter with the physical world described by William Barrett?

These are not new questions, but they are still haunting. The first response to all of them, it seems, is that the work of art be a work of such care and craftsmanship and compelling beauty that it is worth our paying attention to in the first place. In this regard, at least, the poems of Jane Kenyon, these works she honed through dozens of revisions to sharp, crystalline clarity and a physical imagery of poignant, sometimes heartbreaking beauty, satisfy the aesthetic urge of the reader’s attention. Of equal power, however, is the tale that lies like a foundation under the poetic stories: that is the tale of her conversion to Christianity, and the ways that her faith, as naturally as her own life experience, is embodied in the work. Jane Kenyon never set out to be a “Christian poet.” Even in her most grim trials and most consuming struggles with God, however, her faith was never absent. As such, her poetic works shape a valuable course for Christians to pay attention to, for Kenyon’s works above all embody a life lived through by faith.

Finding God

Jane Kenyon was born (23 May 1947) and raised in rural Ann Arbor, across the road from a working farm, attending a one-room schoolhouse for the elementary grades. She enjoyed the rural upbringing; her imagination flourished in the pastoral setting. Especially, then, her stays at Grandmother Kenyon’s large boarding house in downtown Ann Arbor posed a strange and dangerous world. At Grandmother’s boarding house, young Jane’s imagination took an unexpected turn. One day, after Jane helped Grandmother collect trash from the University of Michigan students’ rooms, they marched down to the basement incinerator. Recollecting the scene in an unfinished essay, “Childhood, When You Are in It,” Kenyon wrote, “As we worked, Grandmother talked about hell, a lake of fire, burning endlessly, or about the Second Coming of Christ, which would put an end to the world as I knew it.” Fearful thoughts for an eight-year-old child.These thoughts didn’t leave her. In her poem “Staying at Grandma’s,” Kenyon wrote:

“You know,” she’d say, turning
her straight and handsome back to me,
“that the body is the temple
of the Holy Ghost.”
The Holy Ghost, the oh, oh. . .the uh
oh
, I thought, studying the toe of my new shoe
and glad she wasn’t looking at me.

Religion at Grandmother’s house was comprised of rooms full of theological horrors and restrictive rules.

Partly rebellious by nature, and partly aware of her own capacity for wrongdoing, young Jane simply went home and announced that she was done with religion forever. Her adamancy persisted while she was a student at the University of Michigan during the 1960s, but since it was a trait of that era to test all things, for good or bad, Kenyon decided to give religion one more try. She attended a Unitarian church one Sunday morning, and left convinced of the correctness of her youthful choice.

Having married poet Donald Hall in 1972, Kenyon moved in 1975 with her husband to his ancestral farm in New Hampshire. The enterprise was not without risk. Hall gave up his position and benefits as a literature professor at the University of Michigan; Kenyon gave up a lifetime tied to Ann Arbor for a new culture. Just how quickly that culture encroached upon them became evident one Sunday morning when Hall suggested they attend South Danbury Christian Church. One might call it a social obligation–friends and family would expect to see them there. Nonetheless, by Kenyon’s recollection, minister Jack Jensen, referred to Rilke, and something stirred in her. She sought advice from Jensen, and he pointed her first to the early mystics–Julian of Norwich, St. Therese, and others–then to the gospels. Soon she and Hall were involved in Bible studies. The “little rebel” as she once called herself, bowed down at the altar of the Christian Trinity.

Faith and Art

Kenyon’s Christian belief, however, would be sorely tried in the remaining years before her death on 22 April 1995 of leukemia. Bouts of acute bipolar depressive disorder that had hounded her since her youth, and then the physical toll of fighting off cancers, first of her salivary gland and then of leukemia, exacted their physical, psychological, and spiritual toll. How can one begin to understand the remarkable interplay of both the joys and trials of her life and also the crisp honesty of her art? Two things help us.

From her earliest lines, Kenyon devoted herself to the lyric poem, searching for what she called “the luminous particular.” The aim of the lyric poem is to take an event or experience of particularly impressive quality upon the poet, but to craft it with such telling detail, crisp language, and physicality of imagery that the reader feels this is his or her poem. The reader enters and owns it, rather than the poet simply declaring. The poem thus requires absolute honesty and exacting care by the poet.

If the lyric poem supplies the event, then, does the poet simply recede from the picture altogether? Many in the postmodern tradition of poetry would have it precisely so. But Kenyon includes herself as part of the event. Precisely here her Christian belief comes to bear. But first an important qualification. With only one exception–“Woman, Why Are You Weeping?”–the subjects of Kenyon’s poetry are not her religious beliefs. The event or experience constitutes the subject. Kenyon adamantly believed, however, that faith was the means by which one lived through such experiences. In this case, faith isn’t passive, merely trusting that things will have a hopeful outcome, but it is active, pursuing the presence of God in a world rent by suffering. Kenyon abhorred easy answers. In “Having It Out With Melancholy” one of the most powerful sections defining melancholy is also the shortest. A friend advises her that

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

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Emily Dickinson once described poetry as “pretty words that cut like a knife.” So too can a friend’s comments. No magic buttons appear out of the sky, ready to have the right combination punched in for an instant cure.

By faith, one tries to live through it. While speaking about depression and thoughts of suicide during an interview with Bill Moyers, Kenyon commented in response to his question on what helped her through suicidal despair,

My belief in God, such as it is, especially the idea that a believer is part of the body of Christ, has kept me from harming myself. When I really didn’t want to be conscious, didn’t want to be aware, was in so much pain that I didn’t want to be awake or aware, I’ve thought to myself, “If you injure yourself you’re injuring the body of Christ, and Christ has been injured enough” (A Hundred White Daffodils 161).

The spiritual pattern Kenyon sought to live by is stated best, perhaps, in “With the Dog at Sunrise”:

Searching for God is the first thing and the last,
but in between such trouble, and such pain.

Nonetheless, one goes on, as Kenyon said, “searching for the great goodness.”

The Poetry

If we understand, then, that in Kenyon’s lyric poetry, which engages actual events and experiences but is also charged by the poet’s vision of that life, how is this spiritual life evidenced in the poetry? Essentially, three methods recur: first, religious or biblical allusions that provide Christian coloring in the poem, but are unpatterned and spontaneous; second, topical expressions of faith that arise from particular events or experiences; and third, an exploration of faith itself as meaningful in a world beset by ravaging illness or events.

Christian coloring consists of those random allusions and biblical references that a writer steeped in the Word can hardly escape. They represent a cultural phenomenon, rather than any deliberately designed pattern. The remarkable thing in Kenyon’s poetry, unlike so many Christian poets who lace their works with riffs of allusion, is that her work in its entire body is relatively free of them. “Biscuit,” a poem about her dog Gus, for example, is loosely based on the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:9-12. Someone without knowledge of the Bible, however, would not be the least bit aware of the allusion. First and foremost, the poem is about giving a dog a biscuit. Similarly, in the delightful poem “The Bat,” Kenyon describes her efforts to track down the elusive flight of the bat through her house. Exasperated, she writes that:

At every turn it evaded us
Like the identity of the third person
of the Trinity.

The poem is not about the Holy Spirit, however. Rather, the elusiveness of theHoly Spirit is a metaphor for the bat.

In several poems, secondly, we can see not just an allusion but a theology coming to bear. Nearly always, Kenyon handles these in an ironic, playful way (common traits of her poetry generally). “Dutch Interiors” reflects upon a trip to Europe with the requisite visits to an endless train of cathedrals. The crucifixes and icons all seem to converge until the narrator declares:

Christ has been done to death
in the cold reaches of northern Europe
a thousand thousand times.

Perhaps any traveler, satiated with a profusion of nearly overwhelming scenes, identifies with the comment.

The lines, however, merit closer inspection, for they fairly burst with irony. Yes, in fact Christ has been done to death a thousand thousand times. His sacrifice, his atoning work, is ongoing as each new believer enters his presence. Yes, we are constantly doing Christ to death as we heap our sins upon him.

But suddenly the poem shifts from the grand physical statements of faith showcased in cathedrals to a quiet statement in the interior of a Dutch household. Here bread and cheese “appear on a plate/ beside a gleaming pewter beaker of beer.” One recognizes the allusion to the Last Supper, of course–our commemoration of Christ being put to death. Here, however, the act is stripped of its grandeur. It is homey, confined, and particularized as Christ among his people. Thus, the narrator interjects:

Now tell me that the Holy Ghost
does not reside in the play of light
on cutlery.

The twist is delightful, from the grand proclamation through cathedral icons to finding the Holy Spirit in day-to-day life. When Kenyon spoke of “searching for the great goodness,” she found it precisely there–in daily living.

When one recollects Grandmother’s rigid spiritual life, one thinks of the light-hearted “Notes from the Other Side,” in which Kenyon envisions heaven as a place absent of certain annoyances in this world:

There are no bad books, no plastic
no insurance premiums, and
of course
no illness.

More significantly, however, she declares that “God as promised, proves/ to be mercy clothed in light.”

Occasionally, such poems as “Looking at Stars” position the mature believer still dealing with childhood theological fears (“Mosaic” is a similar poem). “Looking at Stars” is an odd little poem. Unlike other poems, it lacks physical setting altogether and veers toward overt declaration. At best, one has to construe a setting from the title alone. Nonetheless, while only four lines long the poem explodes with a collision of the poets’ varying mindsets.

The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood spattered
the hem of his mother’s robe.

Truly it is a disturbing theology. God is remote and cares little for us–it derives from the negative portrait of Grandmother’s God. Immediately, however, the portrait twists at the medial caesura of line 2: “but the son. . ..” The son will help us? How? Lines 3-4 tell us, the blood and grace of the Son of God shape our comfort and help.

While Kenyon’s faith is evidenced both through biblical allusion and also through those poems probing the mystery of God, the third evidence emerges in works of painful personal struggle. Now the questions become these: Can God lead me through this? Or, even, is there any meaningful presence of God at all? Not surprisingly, such questions arise as the twin demons of bipolar disorder and leukemia began raking their scaly claws inside her.

Often, however, emotions and spiritual positions clank raggedly from poem to poem. For example, Constance (1993) begins with an epigraph from Psalm 139 (7-12 KJV), a powerful testimony that the believer cannot be separated from God. The poems in Constance, sometimes called Kenyon’s “dark volume,” test that often.

The volume opens with “August Rain, After Haying.” Here the bleak landscape weighs on the spirit: “Even at noon the house is dark.” The narrator well knows that the rain benefits the land, a “benevolence of water.” Nonetheless, the narrator is left with an ambiguous longing:

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thinks
after something it cannot name.

The metaphorical equation of narrator to nature collapses in a heap. This thirst of the soul is an unnatural process, its aridity an unknown ache. Like Eliot’s Waste Land characters, longing goes unrequited.

The feelings of unrequited longing, of a deep spiritual thirst, slip through this volume like demons in padded slippers. They appear out of nowhere, and just long enough to dismantle joy. It is no surprise either that Kenyon’s “Having It Out With Melancholy” appears as centerpiece, for here she accuses melancholy: “You taught me to exist without gratitude/ You ruined my manners toward God.” As powerful as these poems that struggle with God are in th
eir own right, however, they are only part of a larger background story.

Travels

During the late 1980s and early 1990s Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall made several trips abroad on the State Department Cultural Exchange program. They clearly loved the opportunity to travel abroad, to do shared readings, to experience other cultures. Until, that is, they made their 1991 trip to India, an experience of profound impact on Kenyon. Kenyon kept a detailed journal throughout this, the first of two trips (1993) to India. She recalls how her Brahmin guide, Rajiv, took her on a boat ride “where the Yamuna and Ganges Rivers converge, one of the holiest places in India” (Kenyon’s Journal).

The poem that emerged from this expedition into a new culture and religious tradition, however, exploded against all the cultural and religious traditions that Kenyon had held dear. Posthumously published (first in The Atlantic, then in A Hundred White Daffodils), “Woman, Why Are You Weeping?” stands as a cry of uncertainty. This poem is unnerving from the start, opening as it does with Mary Magdalene’s bewildered words, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” Why these words? On this particular trip to India, as Jane took what was supposed to be a pleasant boat trip on the Ganges with her guide Rajiv, suddenly her eyes fastened on the dead body of a newborn nudging the grassy banks at Benares–close by a snake rearing up and a cast-off garland of flowers. In response to her horror, Rajiv explained that when a family is too poor to afford cremation, they will simply slip the body into the sacred river.

The juxtaposition between cultures and faiths collided. In the poem Kenyon sits in her church in New Hampshire, waiting to partake of Holy Communion. Her mind refuses to release the memory of India. The juxtaposition continues in unanswerable questions. If I have believed in a God of love and grace, where was He at the moment that baby was slipped into the river? There, destitute parents acted according to their belief. Were their beliefs true? And are my own, centered in this quiet land of plenty, true? Are all religious forms absurd?

During the last month of Kenyon’s life, Donald Hall and some friends fought against time to collect the poems for Otherwise, Kenyon’s new and selected poems. Kenyon’s readers can be grateful. Here is a poet whose spiritual beliefs (she once called the Virgin Mary her muse) were the essence of her personhood. Yet, those beliefs did not fracture her off from the world. She was constitutionally non-equipped for spiritual naval-gazing. Why? Kenyon believed that God placed her in the world–a world of “freshness deep down things,” as Hopkins had it, and also a world of the furious swirl, where things seldom make sense, but where the poet tries to search out the great goodness.

Often this quality–this powerful immersion–gives rise to poems of such luminous beauty they haunt the inner eye and change the way we look at the world. Sometimes, however, they also engage a world of spiritual (the disappearance of God) and physical (bipolar disorder) horrors so that we can feel the pulse of human nature beating hard and fast against the thin flesh, like the wings of a small bird held in hand.

Such qualities as these–her earnest searching and at least tenuous answers, her joy in nature and keen eye for every detail that constitutes it, and her polished poetic forms, so condensed and crystalline, that lie luminous on the page like a well-lit entryway for the writer–mark Jane Kenyon as one of the most significant Christian artists of the latter 20th century.

John H. Timmerman is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life (Eerdmans) appeared last year.