Otherwise, by Jane KenyonI’ve been dipping into Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise: New and Selected Poems for the last few weeks, and will note it here, at the end of National Poetry Month. This was Kenyon’s final volume of published poems before her death in 1995 after a struggle with leukemia. It represents what she considered the best of her four previous volumes (she took the opportunity to make some revisions) as well as her final poems.

Kenyon’s poems center around carefully selected and described details—whether of nature or human experience—that yield far deeper and more extensive meanings. Most of the poems fill only a single page, if that; she has distilled her observations and her experiences to the essential images, the precise words. Each poem feels “right” just as it is—nothing more is needed. She reminds me of Mary Oliver, another favorite of mine, but Oliver is more exuberant; Kenyon’s epiphanies are more quiet but no less awe-inspiring. This is the final stanza from “Camp Evergreen”:

“Some small thing I can’t quite see
clatters down through the leafy dome.
Now it is high summer: the solstice:
longed-for, possessed, luxurious, and sad.”

I can only imagine how many words she experimented with before choosing those four startling words to capture summer.

I love so many of these poems: about the New England seasons, small town life (she lived with her husband, the poet Donald Hall, on his family’s farm in New Hampshire), memories of childhood, love, insecurity, loss. I also find in Kenyon’s work echoes of the great poet of New England, Robert Frost, in her honest appreciation of nature (not just prettiness) and emotions (not only happiness). She and Frost share that sense of deep melancholy as they see and try to describe the world as it is: beautiful and yet terrifying.

Here is the final poem from the collection, “Notes from the Other Side,” which I have long admired:

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.