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The Luminous Particular
by Susan Spear

"Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace" (Frederick Buechner).


ane Kenyon's gift to her readership is her unflinching resolve to put down in words what she saw, and she did not censor what she saw. She composed her poems using binaries such as light and dark, joy and sadness, day and night, and faith and doubt. She struggled her entire life with bi-polar disorder, or "melancholy" as she called it, she wrote about the beauty of the natural world and the joys she experienced, and though Kenyon grew into a woman of deep Christian faith, she wrote of wrenching doubt. During her life and after her death, her work continues to draw enthusiastic readers. Kenyon does not speak to her audience; she speaks for us. She writes of human experience, hers and ours, which includes a pendulum swing of deep joy and debilitating sorrow. Kenyon's driving force as a poet is imagery. Kenyon believed that the "natural object is always the adequate symbol" (Pound). Through the study of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and eventually the translation of twenty of her poems, Kenyon found "someone practicing the craft in the way she herself had already intuitively started to work as a poet" (Timmerman 134). During her immersion in the writing of Ahkmatova, Kenyon coined the term the "luminous particular." Because of her ability to capture the luminous particular in her poems, her work has moved readers and spoken for grass roots lovers of language.

Jane Kenyon was born on May 23, 1947, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Reuel and Pauline (Polly) Kenyon. Both her parents were musicians. Her father performed and gave piano lessons; her mother was also a seamstress and taught sewing lessons. Jane and her brother went to sleep at night listening to music playing on the RCA record player. A childhood saturated with song influenced her writing and Kenyon said in an interview in 1993: "I am working at one thing—the short lyric. It is all I want, at this point: to write short, intense, musical cries of the spirit" (A Hundred White Daffodils 61). Another early influence on Kenyon was her paternal grandmother, Dora Kenyon, a strict Methodist. She had loving memories of her grandmother, but she reacted against the strictures of organized religion when she told her parents that you " 'can't be an intellectual and a Christian'….I had put my gold and blue Methodist Youth Fellowship pin in the bottom of my jewelry box, where I would never see it. Nature and beauty would be my god, and I would be a good person without benefit of the sacraments, just by trying" (A Hundred White Daffodils 94). Kenyon not only benignly rebelled against organized religion; she also communicated her dislike for the school system and even the book selection in the public library. As an adult, Kenyon clarified her early rejection of religion. In "Childhood, When You Are in It" she says, "Even in my years of apostasy I never doubted that God exists, and that I exist in relation to God. I doubted everything else that Grandmother ever told me, but never that" (A Hundred White Daffodils 68). Another lifelong influence was her father's avid gardening. Nature was not her god, but she inherited a love of the natural world seen throughout the span of her poetry. The journals of her middle and high school days reveal her early attempts at poetry that often expressed her frustrations and insecurities.

Kenyon had not yet settled comfortably in her own skin when she entered the University of Michigan in 1965, in the middle of a tumultuous decade. She majored in French and sang in the Michigan Chorale. She pursued her interest in poetry by taking Donald Hall's "Introduction to Poetry for Non-English Majors" and afterwards she continued by signing up for his "Creative Writing" course. Her biographer, John Timmerman, writes: "No more excavation of inner turmoil. Kenyon now felt the strong pull of design, or images structured so that the reader might relate to them, and of lyricism that sang through the intensity of the right words and phrasings" (19). Kenyon found a home among the creative writing community, winning a prestigious Hopwood scholarship prize for writers. She earned a B.A. in English in 1970 and an M.A. in English in 1972. Her academic relationship with her teacher Donald Hall progressed to friendship, then to romance, and they married in 1972. Because Hall had been Kenyon's teacher and was 19 years older than she, there was a period of adjustment during their early marriage. It was not long, however, before they grew into a relationship of equals as writers and spouses.

Hall and Kenyon remained in Ann Arbor for three years following their marriage. In 1975, they moved to a New Hampshire farm dubbed Eagle Pond that came to Hall from his mother's side of the family. Initially, their move was a one-year experiment, but they both loved farm life. Jane enjoyed the outdoor work and the regular, daily writing schedule. She had a room of her own with a view of the barn and her flowers. Here in New Hampshire, the couple returned to the local church. Attendance was social at first, but the ministry of Jack Jensen drew Jane to revisit her profession of faith. Kenyon wrote of him: "{Jack} was the shepherd of his sheep, and he slipped his crook around my neck so gently that I was part of the South Danbury fold before I knew what had happened" (A Hundred White Daffodils 95). At Eagle Pond, Kenyon's faith and writing flourished.

Kenyon published From Room to Room in 1978 with Alice James Books. Through her association with this press, she became friends with Alice Mattison and Joyce Peseroff, also published by Alice James. The three shared drafts via mail and met together for face-to-face critiques several times a year. The poems in From Room to Room contain images that reappear in later poems. In these poems, Kenyon strains to turn the natural object…into the adequate symbol. In "For the Night" the third stanza foreshadows beloved images in her well-known poem "Let Evening Come":

Last light moves
through the cracks in the wall,
over bales of hay.

Early writing is crucial because it informs and foreshadows what is to follow. Kenyon's poetry is maturing toward her goal of seamlessly joining the natural object to its implicit message.

In the late 1970s during a visit to Eagle Pond where Kenyon and Hall lived, Robert Bly suggested that Kenyon find a mentor poet, living or deceased. She responded favorably but qualified that she could never have a male mentor. Even though Kenyon had long adored the lyrical work of Keats, she never sought to imitate the form and metrics of his work. Bly immediately recommended Akhmatova (1889-1966, Russian modernist poet), and Kenyon "began collecting translations of Akhmatov…and didn't think any….were good. So…{she} began collecting all the versions {she} could of a given poem" and tried to write her own versions (A Hundred White Daffodils 178). Kenyon studied the Russian poet's work for so long that "{she} forgot they weren't {hers}" (A Hundred White Daffodils 178). Russian scholar and émigré Vera Sandorsky Dunham consented to work alongside Kenyon, although she opposed Kenyon translating the metrical, rhymed Russian poems into verseless, unrhymed English. Kenyon stated that she sacrificed form for image. The influence of Akhmatova on Kenyon's own writing was remarkable. The poems in The Boat of Quiet Hours, published in 1986 by Graywolf Press, had longer lines and the rhythms within the lines were tighter, although not following a particular metrical form. In "Evening Sun" she uses the image of a twirling skirt to communicate one moment of beauty that dispels bleakness and propels her forward into life:

Why does this light force me back
to my childhood? I wore a yellow
summer dress, and the skirt
made a perfect circle.

           Turning and turning
until it flared to the limit
was irresistible…The grass and trees,
my outstretched arms, and the skirt
whirled in the ochre light
of an early June evening.

           And I knew then
that I would have to live, and go on
living: what a sorrow it was; and still
what sorrow burns
but does not destroy my heart. (84)

Kenyon imprints this meaning-infused image on our minds, acknowledging the sorrow that penetrates but "does not destroy" her human heart. She lives and thrives, albeit with a melancholy that "burns."

"Mud Season," another poem from The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), uses seasonal imagery to evoke the yearly resurrection from death to life. Kenyon alludes to the Biblical story of the resurrection of Lazarus to add a hint of the supernatural force at work.

…On the floor of the woodshed
the coldest imaginable ooze,
and soon the first shoots
of asparagus will rise,
the fingers of Lazarus…

In Kenyon's work there is not hope without recognition of the imperfection of the world:

…Earth's open wounds—where the plow
gouged the ground last November—
must be smoothed; some sown
with seed, and all forgotten.

Beside the porch step
the crocus prepares an exaltation
of purple, but for the moment
holds its tongue…. (99)

And in the final stanza Kenyon uses the crocus image to enforce that the humble "exaltation" of life is certain, but alas, not yet. The crocus waits to share its triumphant purple.

The poems in this 1986 collection are deeply informed by Kenyon's immersion into reading, writing, and translating Anna Akhmatova. Timmerman expresses it thus: "One way to measure the heightened craftsmanship in The Boat of Quiet Hours is by Kenyon's own criterion of the sharp, arresting image. By her own admission, the intensity of Akhmatova's imagery deeply affected her own artistry. In this volume the images emerge from their context with stinging clarity and with an aesthetic appropriateness that leaves the reader saying, 'Yes, that's exactly the way to put it'" (139). Kenyon does not speak to the reader; she speaks for the reader.

Let Evening Come was published in 1990, also by Graywolf Press. In this volume, Kenyon's poems turn both more personal and more universal as she wrote them during the time that Hall suffered and beat cancer twice. The poem "Looking at the Stars" expresses that Jesus was a human with blood in his veins and that we can look to him for consolation:

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.

Kenyon expresses that the creator God, the God of the heavens is distant, but Jesus Christ was a human being whose blood "spattered the hem of his mother's robe."

The collection's eponymous poem "Let Evening Come" is arguably Kenyon's best known and most beloved poem. Kenyon writes to her friend Alice Mattison:

I have written something new, which I am very excited about. While I was in Ann Arbor I heard my mother say, "Let evening come." We were talking about getting depressed as the day goes on, and wanting bedtime to come so you can become oblivious….
I think Let Evening Come is going to be my title. I have written the poem very fast ("Let It Grow in the Dark Like a Mushroom" pp. 131-132).

This poem is Kenyon at her best. Image after image builds the poem toward its ending of consolation. Interestingly, it is technically stronger than her previous writing as well. Kenyon uses a combination of iambic and anapestic feet that fall into a "two-step" rhythm that cooperates instead of working against itself. The poet builds many lines with the anaphoric "let…," and she utilizes consonance with the repetition of the gentle letter L throughout, as well as repeated instances of vowel assonance.

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through the chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Stanza one illustrates Kenyon's seamless motion between an iambic pattern and a triple meter pattern.

( u)      /      u      /      u      /      \      u      /

     Let | the light| of late| afternoon

(u)      /      u      u      /      u      u      /      /      u

     shine| through the chinks| in the barn,| moving

(u)      \      u      /      u      u      /      \      /

     up | the bales| as the sun | moves down.

Although neither pattern dominates the poem, it reads smoothly without jarring the reader's sensibilities. Kenyon demonstrates mastery over this poem's rhythm, harnessing the power of metrics rather than allowing them to artificially control the poem.

In a 1993 interview with Hall and Kenyon, Bill Moyers asked Jane, "How did you come to write "Let Evening Come"? So many people say that's their favorite of your poems." Jane's response is memorable and revealing:

The muse, the Holy Ghost. I had written all the other poems in the book…I felt it needed something redeeming. I went upstairs one day with the purpose of writing something redeeming, which is not the way to write, but this just fell out. I really didn't have to struggle with it.

Moyers probed further, "Do you still believe what that poem expresses, given Don's cancer and your own illness?

Not surprisingly, Kenyon responds:

"Yes. There are things in this life that we must endure which are all but unendurable, and yet I feel that there is a great goodness…This is a great mystery. How, when there could have been nothing, does it happen that there is love, kindness, and beauty?" (A Hundred White Daffodils pp. 170-171).

Constance, Kenyon's collection published in 1993, is home to poems with the strong imagery of the earlier collections and an ever-increasing strength of line. This volume is home to several poems containing more than one section: "The Stroller" and the tour-de-force "Having It Out with Melancholy," Kenyon's revenge on the depression that had stalked her "from the nursery." This poem chronicles the drugs used to combat bi-polar disorder, and the poet exposes a callous remark too often uttered to the depressed: "You wouldn't be so depressed / if you really believed in God." In section five Kenyon describes an ineffable experience she had while home alone at Eagle Pond. She believed she was:

a speck of light that undulates through time.
{She} was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors—those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few

moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist. (232-233)

Despite the pain and discouragement that she experienced battling melancholy, Kenyon concludes the poem with this beautiful image:

What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye. (235)

In Kenyon's luminous particular, there is no darkness without light, no death without an inkling of life, and no ugly aspect of existence devoid of beauty.

In early 1994, Jane Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia. She underwent chemotherapy and a subsequent bone marrow transplant in Seattle, Washington. During her battle with cancer, she and Hall worked to put together Otherwise, a collection solicited by Graywolf Press. Hall believed she should include "Woman, Why Are You Weeping?", but Kenyon adamantly disagreed and refused to include it. Following her death in 1995, Hall, Alice Mattison, and Joyce Peseroff agreed that it should be published as the sole poem in A Hundred White Daffodils. Kenyon wrote the poem upon returning from a trip to India on which she had developed a deep affection for the country. The poem juxtaposes Mary Magdalene's visit to the tomb the second morning after Jesus' crucifixion and burial. In the Biblical account, two figures, presumably angels, ask Mary, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Mary responds, "They have taken away my lord and I don't know where they have lain him." In the Gospel story Mary then sees a man whom she presumes to be the gardener, but who instead reveals himself to be the risen Jesus. This is a story with a triumphant ending, but Kenyon's poem is not triumphant. Her visit to India has riddled her faith with doubt. The poem is composed of six sections, packed with Biblical allusions and stark images from India:

Returned from long travel, I sit
in the familiar, sun-streaked pew, waiting
for the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
The old comfort does not rise in me, only
apathy and bafflement.
                     India, with her ceaseless
bells and fire; her crows calling stridently
all night; India with her sandalwood
smoke, and graceful god, many-headed and many-
armed, has taken away the one who blessed
and kept me.
           The thing is done, as surely
as if my luggage had been stolen from the train.
Men and women with faces as calm as lakes at dusk
have taken away my Lord, and I don't know
where to find him.

She continues in a following section:

…They have taken away my Lord, a person whose life I held inside me…


I've brought home the smell of the streets
in the folds of soft, bright cotton garments.
When I iron them the steam brings back
the complex odors that rise from the gutters,
of tuberoses, urine, dust, joss, and death.

and the final stanza,

"What shall we do about this?" I asked
my God, who even then was leaving me. The reply
was scorching wind, lapping of water, pull
of the black oarsmen on the oars…. (A Hundred White Daffodils 205-209).

The poem concludes without resolution to the speaker's (Kenyon's) doubt, but these natural objects are symbols adequate to speak for the saints who have carried the burden of doubt throughout the centuries. To speak for the true believers who experience normal, inevitable doubt when they see the horrors of poverty and injustice too prevalent around the globe.

Jane Kenyon passed away on April 22, 1995, after a valiant fight against the evil that is cancer. She left behind her dearly loved husband, Donald Hall, and her dog, Gus. Looking backwards, we see a life well-lived: a woman predisposed to melancholy who bravely saw her sorrows limned in joy, a woman of genuine faith who bravely wrestled with doubt, a young, insecure woman who matured into a loving wife and dear friend, and a fledgling poet who became a master of lyricism. Since Kenyon did not wish to include "Woman, Why Are You Weeping?" in Otherwise, I find it fitting to conclude this essay with a poem from Constance (267).

Notes from the Other Side

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one's own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Kenyon's belief that "God, as promised proves to be mercy clothed in light" provided the fire she needed to fight both melancholy and leukemia. Not all of her poems explicitly deal with faith, but it is certainly the light which illuminated her world.

Works Cited

Kenyon, Jane. A Hundred White Daffodils. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1999. Print.

___________. Collected Poems. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2005. Print.

Mattison, Alice. " 'Let It Grow in the Dark Like a Mushroom': Writing with Jane Kenyon." Michigan Quarterly Review (Winter 2000): 121-37. Print.

Pound, Ezra. "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste." Poetryfoundation.org. 30 Oct. 2005. Web. 3 Jan. 2016.

Timmerman, John H. Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2002. Print.

Jane Kenyon
Years: 1947-1995
Birthplace: USA
Language(s): English
Forms: Free verse and poems in variable length iambic lines
Subjects: Ordinary human beings and “luminous” objects in the natural world
Entry By: Susan Delaney Spear
32 Poems
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