There's usually no mention of long jogs, shopping trips, or elaborate gardening projects. Reading great books with a highlighter pen or painstakingly translating others' poems are also topics rarely discussed in the average book of contemporary poetry. But in order to create precise and memorable language that captures a moment, a poet does all kinds of other things besides actually write. It's those other activities that give a good poem muscle.
A Hundred White Daffodils by the late Jane Kenyon -- an accomplished, graceful poet who died from leukemia in 1995 -- offers a priceless window into a poet's mind. This rather unusual book starts with a series of excellent translations of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. It also includes personal notes, newspaper columns, interviews, and ruminations on getting the mail and wandering through Woolworth's. There are essays on religion, thoughts on marriage, and fascinating remarks on a writer's need to find a "master" to guide her as she builds a literary career. Most importantly, by tracking just how a poet filled her days, this varied book shows how Kenyon created a world for herself in which outstanding poetry could be written.
In elegant prose, Kenyon details her love of gardening, her interest in beans, and her need to walk in nature -- and as she does so, the startling natural images in her poems begin to make more sense. A special treasure here is the section of great directions titled "Everything I Know About Writing Poetry," which says it all about how Kenyon lived:
Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.
Kenyon was a big believer in the spare and the simple. Until she was in the fifth grade, she attended a one-room school. The small and the remote informed her later poetry, as she moved to New Hampshire and wrote quietly beautiful poems, often praising the everyday in supple, sensuous verse. One of her best-loved and most magnificent poems, "Let Evening Come," seems to belong in the country, recited in an even, unpretentious tone:
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up 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.
Kenyon's ability to make tiny items in the natural landscape appear infused with spiritual meaning becomes evident in the last two stanzas. Following her own advice in "Everything I Know About Writing Poetry," she intentionally sticks to the specific and lets precise detail create power:
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.
What's most beautiful about reading this masterful poem in this book is that by the time the poem appears -- on page 170 -- how Kenyon taught herself to write these lines seems something we are privileged to snoop through and understand. We know that Kenyon spent years with the great Akhmatova as her master, and because she told us, we know she learned how to "turn" from Akhmatova's early lyrics. Kenyon notes that Akhmatova frequently included a sharp twist, often veering from joy to pain. We even know that Kenyon titled her first book of Akhmatova translations Evening, so the word itself had resonance for her. In the musical repetition of "let evening come," we can hear the years of devotion to thinking about evening.
We know, too, that Kenyon worked at making herself at home in her husband's landscape. Though she was married to the well-known poet Donald Hall, her poems show more of a concern with creating space for herself as a woman and a wife in her husband's home base than staking a personal poetic space next to his numerous volumes and university appointments.
One short and lovely Kenyon poem directly addresses how she "added" herself to her husband's life. This is called "Finding a Long Gray Hair," and it's quoted in its entirety in the Bill Moyers interview included in the book:
I scrub the long floorboards
in the kitchen, repeating
the motions of other women
who have lived in this house.
And when I find a long gray hair
floating in the pail,
I feel my life added to theirs.
This "repeating the motions" of others is a theme of the book. Hard work is made plain here, and the difficulty of being able to work is also addressed. Kenyon struggled with depression, and as Hall writes in the introduction, she knew her work was uneven. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that these seemingly disparate writings help explain how poems happen, and how a poet worked at increasing the possibility of poems occurring, of helping language come.