Jan 23, 2003
Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life
"Fell in love with her,” is John H. Timmerman’s brief yet eloquent reason for writing a book about the poet Jane Kenyon. Unfortunately for the professor of English at Calvin College, his attachment to Kenyon occurred a year after her 1996 death. The book that emerged from that posthumous relationship intertwines two biographies: the poet’s and that of her work.
In “Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life” Timmerman sketches Kenyon’s childhood on a farm in Ann Arbor, her education at the University of Michigan — where a friendship with professor and poet Donald Hall metamorphosed into marriage — and the couple’s writing years in New Hampshire. As he lays out the poet’s life, Timmerman keeps an authorial eye on her unfolding gift, tracing her poetry’s beginnings from teenage journal entries through her mature work.
Illness marked both life and work. Kenyon was manic depressive, and her last years were spent in a battle with leukemia, the disease that claimed her at the age of 47. Through thoughtful line-by-line analysis, Timmerman demonstrates how the poet transfigured her sufferings in works like “Having it Out with Melancholy” and “The Sick Wife.”
And he shows that Kenyon fought fiercely on a spiritual battle ground. Turned from Christianity by a grandmother who lectured her about the eternal lake of fire, the poet embraced the faith after her marriage. “She had wonderful attributes as a Christian,” Timmerman said. “Her faith was a way of walking through life. It encompassed everything — work, travel, whatever.”
In arguably the book’s most moving chapter, Timmerman tells of Kenyon’s trip to India, where the sight of a dead infant in a sacred river challenged her deeply held Christian beliefs; her poem “Woman, Why Are You Weeping?” deals with this spiritual loss of equilibrium. “For Kenyon, in some ways, it was easier to deal with her own illnesses than with the pathos and tragedy she found on some of these journeys,” he said.
Throughout the book, Timmerman explores both Kenyon’s poetic principles and the traits peculiar to her verse. Foremost among the latter is the “luminous particular,” which Timmerman defines as the concrete image that communicates a larger idea to the reader: “Instead of beginning with an abstraction or an idea, she always begins with the physical reality.” (Kenyon first used the term “luminous particular” to describe the poems of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose work she translated.)
The professor first met Kenyon in the classroom: “In my modern poetry class, I assigned my students to read two volumes of outside modern poetry. A student read ‘Otherwise’ (A Kenyon collection) and I said, ‘I have to read more of her.’”
When Hall visited Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing in 1998, Timmerman seized an opportunity to get better acquainted: “It was supposed to be a breakfast meeting, and we spent the morning talking about his wife.” Hall invited his wife’s admirer to visit Eagle Pond Farm, the New Hampshire homestead where the two poets lived and worked for nearly 20 years. Timmerman spent a week in 1999, researching amid Kenyon’s journals and drafts of her poems there and at the University of New Hampshire in nearby Durham.
“He said, ‘Come on in, wander around her study, do what you want. I got to know her really well that way,” said Timmerman. Not surprisingly, the person he met through her physical surroundings, the woman whose poetry prized the physical image was a down-to-earth lady. “She was happiest just in her old pants and sweater, walking her old dog Gus around.”
See a review in Sojourners
~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson