Jane Keyon

The Quivering Pen: Sunday Sentence: “The Sick Wife” by Jane Kenyon:

Jane Keyon is one of my favorite American poets (Richard Wilbur another). Her poetic voice is discrete, everyday – modest but it rings out nonetheless. Her husband was Donald Hall, both Kenyon and Hall were poet laureates of New Hampshire and they were happily married for twenty-three years. In 1995 Jane Keyon died of Leukemia.

They were a fascinating talented couple. Of course, when I began reading more about them, I found that this was Donald Hall’s second marriage. His first ended in divorce. Too bad.


Donald Hall wrote a wonderful article about their marriage called “Third Thing” it can be found in its entirety here. Here are some excerpts:

What we did: love. We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing. Jane and I had no children of our own;

Literature in general was a constant. . . we made clear boundaries, dividing our literary territories. I did not go back to Keats until she had done with him. By and large Jane read intensively while I read extensively. Like a male, I lusted to acquire all the great books of the world and add them to my life list. One day I would realize: I’ve never read Darwin! Adam Smith! Gibbon! Gibbon became an obsession with me, then his sources, then all ancient history. . .

It took me half my life, more than half, to discover with Jane’s guidance that two people could live together and remain kind. When one of us felt grumpy we both shut up until it went away. We did not give in to sarcasm. Once every three years we had a fight—the way some couples fight three times a day . . .

Of course: the third thing that brought us together, and shone at the center of our lives and our house, was poetry—both our love for the art and the passion and frustration of trying to write it. When we moved to the farm, away from teaching and Jane’s family, we threw ourselves into the life of writing poetry as if we jumped from a bridge and swam to survive. I kept the earliest hours of the day for poetry. Jane worked on poems virtually every day; there were dry spells. In the first years of our marriage, I sometimes feared that she would find the project of poetry intimidating, and withdraw or give up or diminish the intensity of her commitment. I remember talking with her one morning early in New Hampshire, maybe in 1976, when the burden felt too heavy. She talked of her singing with the Michigan Chorale, as if music were something she might turn to. She spoke of drawing as another art she could perform, and showed me an old pencil rendering she had made, acorns I think, meticulous and well-made and nothing more. She was saying, “I don’t have to give myself to poetry”—and I knew enough not to argue.

However, from year to year she gave more of herself to her art. When she studied Keats, she read all his poems, all his letters, the best three or four biographies; then she read and reread the poems and the letters again. No one will find in her poems clear fingerprints of John Keats, but Jane’s ear became more luscious with her love for Keats; her lines became more dense, rifts loaded with ore. Coming from a family for whom ambition was dangerous, in which work was best taken lightly, it was not easy for Jane to wager her life on one number. She lived with someone who had made that choice, but also with someone nineteen years older who wrote all day and published frequently. Her first book of poems came out as I published my fifth. I could have been an inhibitor as easily as I was an encourager—if she had not been brave and stubborn. I watched in gratified pleasure as her poems became better and better. From being promising she became accomplished and professional; then—with the later poems of The Boat of Quiet Hours, with “Twilight: After Haying,” with “Briefly It Enters,” with “Things,” she turned into the extraordinary and permanent poet of Otherwise.

Hall writes of the competition between the two:

People asked us—people still ask me—about competition between us. We never spoke of it, but it had to be there—and it remained benign. When Jane wrote a poem that dazzled me, I wanted to write a poem that would dazzle her. Boundaries helped. We belonged to different generations. Through Jane I got to be friends with poets of her generation, as she did with my friends born in the 1920s. We avoided situations which would subject us to comparison. During the first years of our marriage, when Jane was just beginning to publish, we were asked several times to read our poems together. The people who asked us knew and respected Jane’s poems, but the occasions turned ghastly. Once we were introduced by someone we had just met who was happy to welcome Joan Kenyon. Always someone, generally a male English professor, managed to let us know that it was sweet, that Jane wrote poems too. One head of a department asked her if she felt dwarfed. When Jane was condescended to she was furious, and it was only on these occasions that we felt anything unpleasant between us. Jane decided that we would no longer read together. . .

. . . When places later asked us both to read, we agreed to come but stipulated that we read separately, maybe a day apart. As she published more widely we were more frequently approached. Late in the 1980s, after reading on different days at one university, we did a joint question-and-answer session with writing students. Three quarters of the questions addressed Jane, not me, and afterwards she said, “Perkins, I think we can read together now.” . . .
There were days when each of us received word from the same magazine; the same editor had taken a poem by one of us just as he/she rejected the other of us. One of us felt constrained in pleasure. The need for boundaries even extended to style. As Jane’s work got better and better—and readers noticed—my language and structure departed from its old habits and veered away from the kind of lyric that Jane was writing, toward irony and an apothegmatic style. My diction became more Latinate and polysyllabic, as well as syntactically complex. I was reading Gibbon, learning to use a vocabulary and sentence structure as engines of discrimination. Unconsciously, I was choosing to be as unlike Jane as I could. Still, her poetry influenced and enhanced my own. Her stubborn and unflagging commitment turned its power upon me and exhorted me. My poems got better in this house. When my Old and New Poems came out in 1990, the positive reviews included something like this sentence: “Hall began publishing early . . . but it was not until he left his teaching job and returned to the family farm in New Hampshire with his second wife the poet Jane Kenyon that . . .” . . . Two years after her death, a review of Jane began with a sentence I had been expecting. It was uttered in respect, without a sneer, and said that for years we had known of Jane Kenyon as Donald Hall’s wife but from now on we will know of Donald Hall as Jane Kenyon’s husband. . . 

We did not show each other early drafts. (It’s a bad habit. The comments of another become attached to the words of a poem, steering it or preventing it from following its own way.) But when we had worked over a poem in solitude for a long time, our first reader was the other. I felt anxious about showing Jane new poems, and often invented reasons for delay. Usually, each of us saved up three or four poems before showing them to the other. One day I would say, “I left some stuff on your footstool,” or Jane would tell me, “Perkins, there are some things on your desk.” Waiting for a response, each of us already knew some of what the other would say. If ever I repeated a word—a habit acquired from Yeats—I knew that Jane would cross it out. Whenever she used verbal auxiliaries she knew I would simplify, and “it was raining” would become “it rained.” By and large we ignored the predicted advice, which we had already heard in our heads and dismissed. Jane kept her work clear of dead metaphor, knowing my crankiness on the subject, and she would exult when she found one in my drafts: “Perkins! Here’s a dead metaphor!” These encounters were important but not easy. Sometimes we turned polite with each other: “Oh, really! I thought that was the best part . . .” (False laugh.) Jane told others—people questioned us about how we worked together—that I approached her holding a sheaf of her new poems saying, “These are going to be good!” to which she would say, “Going to be, eh?” She told people that she would climb back to her study, carrying the poems covered with my illegible comments, thinking, “Perkins just doesn’t get it. And then,” she would continue, “I’d do everything he said.”


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