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A reflection on Jane Kenyon, by Tim Summers

Here is one of my favourite poems by the poet Jane Kenyon (1947-1995).

Twilight: After Haying

Yes, long shadows go out

from the bales; and yes, the soul

must part from the body:

what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,

too tired to leave the field.

They talk and smoke,

and the tips of their cigarettes

blaze like small roses

in the night air. (It arrived

and settled among them

before they were aware.)

The moon comes

to count the bales,

and the dispossessed--

hip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will

--sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen... the soul's bliss

and suffering are bound together

like the grasses...

The last, sweet exhalations

of timothy and vetch

go out with the song of the bird;

the ravaged field

grows wet with dew.

What do I want to say about Jane Kenyon, and this particular poem? I don't want to give a line-by-line commentary as I think this would risk destroying the magic of a poet, and a poem, that should not (unlike some!) require a study guide. So instead I will explain why, in fact, you were right first time about the poem - why you need no literary training to enjoy this, why it's as simple as it seems, while also being sophisticated - and what Jane Kenyon means to me.

I'll start with the personal aspects and work backwards from there.

When I was a kid, my family had a farmhouse out in remote Herefordshire, in the Golden Valley, where we went to stay several times a year. My paternal grandfather had bought it in the 1950s, and the use of it was shared between his three children and their families. Amid the fields and barns of a working farm (not ours, but miraculously available to us) it was a paradise for us boys, which in the end became a paradise lost - in the Romantic-Christian, nostalgic sense that I've been writing about in some of these reflections - when the family sold the place when I was 14. So instead of becoming a teenage hangout, as it was for my older cousins, or a practical problem as it became for my Dad and his sisters, "The Farm" remained enshrined in my soul as an unspoiled Fern Hill of childhood, and it assumed a central place in my personal mythology.

Part of its influence on me was the idealisation of farmhouses, life carried on in farmhouses, and then (as my ideas of "the good life" were fleshed out further in my twenties) a specifically literary life, and then also religious life, carried on in a farmhouse, preferably shared with a fellow poet. Indeed idealisation is just the right word here, for it is fair to say that there developed in my mind an Ideal, a Platonic Idea, of this life and the kind of poetry that would ensue from it.

Unfortunately (as I found after trying at length) I had neither the life situation nor the genius to write this poetry - but I could say just what it should be like. It would evoke those slant evening sunbeams, motes of hay dust, rusty farm equipment, and cast over all these things a cloak of warmth and humour and domesticity and Christian spirituality. What an unlikely mix to achieve! It was no wonder I failed at it. And yet I felt someone might come along who could do it.

Eventually, in my thirties, I came across the poetry of Jane Kenyon. Not for the first time, I discovered that someone - with a similar sensibility to mine but with incomparably greater gifts - had indeed embodied my Ideal, in both their creative work and their actual life. The farmhouse was Eagle Pond Farm in New England; Kenyon lived there with another poet, her husband Donald Hall; she was Christian, and in just the contemplative way that appealed to me; and she wrote verse which was was magically sensory and evocative - as to the slant sunbeams and old house and surrounding landscape and nature - while also being plain-spoken and simple, with little apparent poetic device.

Which is a long way of saying that you read the above lines aright, and not much commentary is needed other than yes, you were right first time. This writing, and the life it describes, is indeed the lovely thing it seems to be. She is describing the spirituality of lying in a freshly mown hayfield. What a wonder!

Of course if one tries to write like Kenyon, one cannot do it. One cannot catch her note of humour and welcome (in that one cannot be her, cannot have her personality); one cannot achieve this simplicity of "spoken" voice while also achieving the music of the lines. It is the same case as we find in all good poets who seem to be doing something simple. There is great craft, but it is kept from view. In the words of WB Yeats in Adam's Curse (which characteristically seeks to dissuade us ordinary folk from having a shot at being poets ourselves):

I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.'

So the purpose of this reflection is to introduce you to this favourite writer of mine, Jane Kenyon, whose work is open to all and yet sophisticated, whose poems can yield fruit on both a quick reading and a sustained meditation. A lot of the "Greenbelt" type Christians I know enjoy the works of Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, who are of a similar school and contemporaneous, but don't know about Jane Kenyon. You should really have her Selected Poems. She knew all the major US poets then living (including Berry) and was steeped in the whole English and American literary tradition (she's terrifyingly erudite in interviews about Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Keats, etc) and yet her doctrine, if it can be called that, turns out to be simple and - like her work itself - accessible to everyone. Here are the opening lines of an interview conducted in 1993:

David Bradt: "We assume that poetry matters. Why does it matter?"

Jane Kenyon: "It matters because it's beautiful. It matters because it tells the truth, the human truth about the complexity of life."

The above image is a photograph of Jane Kenyon taken by Donald Hall.

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