Otherwise: New And Selected Poems
By Jane Kenyon
232 pp., $23.95
When readers bemoan the state of contemporary poetry, they often point to the past as a model and the present as little more than a wasteland.
Yet what many forget is that poetry is the face of each age, and while it may someday take on the countenance of immortality, it must first be true to its own unique identity.
That's why it's important for aspiring writers - or any true poetry fan - to become familiar with books like "Otherwise: New and Selected Poems," by Jane Kenyon, who died last year.
Here was a poet who wrote about traditional subjects - her family, the farm she shared with her husband, Donald Hall, the rhythms of the natural world - and yet was celebrated by some of this century's most prominent writers and publishers.
Kenyon's work was a model of simplicity: the perfect voice for an age that shuns adornment. There was nothing flashy about her poems; some might even call them unpoetic. But the best of them were unpoetic in the way that William Carlos Williams's highly visual "The Red Wheelbarrow" was "unpoetic." The imagery stands alone with an understated beauty that needs no additions or explanation.
Hers were poems that captured moods and moments. They hint at the invisible forces or connections underlying the obvious aspects of an experience. The work routinely employs strong closing images and has a surface as calm as a glassy lake, as in this poem from "The Boat of Quiet Hours":
The hen flings a single pebble aside
with her yellow, reptilian foot.
Never in eternity the same sound -
a small stone falling on a red leaf.
The juncture of twig and branch,
scarred with lichen, is a gate
we might enter, singing.
The mouse pulls batting
from a hundred-year-old quilt.
She chewed a hole in a blue star
to get it, and now she thrives....
Now is her time to thrive.
Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron's
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.
But as any fan of Kenyon's will know, there is often a strong, undertow beneath the smooth exteriors. Of the four books in "Otherwise," the strongest two are "From Room to Room," the poet's first collection, and "The Boat of Quiet Hours," Kenyon's second. The former shows a sensibility emerging with confidence and grace; the latter a writer at the height of her powers. The poems work individually and as a larger exploration of what it costs to struggle spiritually.
When the poems fall short, especially in the later collections that deal with Kenyon's depression and the illnesses of her loved ones, it is because the poet seems to have forgotten what her "face" looks like.
The images don't carry the same immediacy or resolution. The poems feel a bit like journal notes: good ideas that haven't yet metamorphosed. And metaphysically, the poet seems to be retracing familiar ground without going forward.
Perhaps the lesson in Kenyon's shortcomings is simply the flip side of what one learns from her successes. Namely, that contemporary poetry can be simple but not simplistic.
There must be an energy that propels and elevates the language from line to line. There has to be a sense of vision that allows the vehicle - and the reader - to be transformed.
*Elizabeth Lund is poetry editor of the Home Forum page.