The Luminous Particular

A new biography of Jane Kenyon frees the poet from the shadow of her famous older husband.
A black-and-white photo of Jane Kenyon sitting a table looking downward. A lit candle is nearby.

It’s 1993, and local celebrity poets Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall, a husband-and-wife duo hailed as the modern-day “Brownings of America,” as the composer William Bolcom called them, are on the Wilmot Town Center stage in Wilmot, New Hampshire, giving a reading that PBS will later televise. The contrast between them is stark. She is reserved and elegant, with abundant dark hair. He is vivacious and charming—and nearly 20 years her senior. The audience feels an immediate kinship with Hall, a Wilmot native telling Wilmot tales. Between them, the couple shares a prodigious number of accolades and are in great demand nationally and internationally. “Their story was irresistible, and people wanted to believe it,” the scholar Dana Greene writes.

Subtext: that doesn’t mean you should believe it.

So opens Jane Kenyon: The Making of a Poet (University of Illinois Press, 2023), Greene’s compressed and focused biography, which aims to disentangle Kenyon from the narrative woven by her charismatic, much beloved, older husband. In Greene’s estimation, Hall maintained “a myth of their oneness,” in which the two were “a single soul” devoted to “the third thing”: poetry. Only, it’s not that easy to tease out Kenyon’s truth. By Greene’s own admission, “Kenyon was a private person who shared little of herself except in her poetry, and even there her revelation was limited. That left it to Hall to tell her story for her.” How, then, to distinguish Kenyon’s vision from Hall’s?

“Donald Hall cannot be excluded from this story—they were married for twenty-three years,” Greene writes, “and he was instrumental in her success—but here Kenyon will be moved to the foreground and Hall to the background.” It’s a worthy, albeit sometimes patchy, effort. If, as proves to be the case, there are stretches of time in which Greene relies on only Hall’s recollections, we can hardly blame her. Kenyon was tightlipped about private matters and suffered from repeated episodes of mania and depression, many of which required hospitalization and left her unable to write for months.

Greene’s secondary aim is more general: to work out how Kenyon’s life informed her writing. However, as poets know, these correlations are not always straightforward, and there is risk in adopting too narrow a biographical approach that might elude something truer and more subtle about poetic influence. As Kenyon said in a 1989 interview with Bill Moyers: “It’s funny how everything in your life, every experience, everything in your reading, everything in your thinking, in your spiritual life—you bring it all to your work when you sit down to write.” The facts of life are often merely a starting place for those deeper mysteries of inspiration, that “negative capability” Kenyon prized above all in Keats.

Kenyon was born in 1947. Her early life is largely unrecorded, save for her later reflections, and yet Kenyon attributed her poetic foundations to those formative years. Greene skillfully paints the isolation of Kenyon’s childhood, with the poet’s depressive temperament revealing itself from a young age. Kenyon envied the freedoms her older brother, Reuel, enjoyed and had, by her own estimation, “neither the courage to rebel nor an obedient heart.” She was seen as a bitter child, the self-proclaimed black sheep of the family, and she often felt lonely and sad. Her parents appeared to be a typical midwestern couple raising their family in Ann Arbor Township, in Michigan, but her father was a musician and piano teacher who wrestled with the realities of supporting a family at the expense of his art, while her mother was a singer turned seamstress. This would suggest an appreciation for the arts at home, but the combination of familial reserve and Kenyon’s own depressive predisposition left her with a bleak impression of childhood.

Dora, Kenyon’s widowed grandmother, amplified this early oppressiveness with her apocalyptic Christianity and her conception of a vengeful, capricious God. Kenyon’s mundane trespasses—such as cursing at an elementary classmate who’d angered her—instilled in her a profound fear of hellfire. She addresses Dora in “Having it Out with Melancholy”: “You taught me to exist without gratitude. / You ruined my manners toward God: / ‘We’re here simply to wait for death; / the pleasures of earth are overrated.’”

This, perhaps, is where biography is most revelatory, making plain the distance Kenyon’s mind traveled from this early restriction to its own free conclusions about faith. Spirituality and inner life are Kenyon’s subjects par excellence, and yet they were formed by a total rejection of the Christianity Dora espoused (Kenyon later clarified that it was not God she doubted but organized religion). As she worked to establish a relationship with God on her own terms, she discovered poetry, “a safe place always, refuge,” as she called it. Poetry satisfied her need to connect with others; still, her reluctance to be a “joiner” left her floundering on the campus of the University of Michigan, where she enrolled as a biology major in 1965. She failed her first year, dropped out, then returned home to work a sales job. Greene speculates that Kenyon’s depression alienated her further, which seems likely. Still, we recognize Kenyon’s desire to be a part of things (or, at least, not painfully apart from them) combined with a streak of stubbornness. Poetry brought her the community she craved.

Kenyon reenrolled at Michigan as a French major in 1966. In the spring of 1969, she took Hall’s Introduction to Poetry for Non-English Majors, a lecture class of 140 students. He was a dramatic, inspirational professor who had once hoped to be an actor. He had a long list of honors and a wide circle of poet friends whom he regularly invited to the university. After graduating from Harvard, Hall received a second undergraduate degree from Oxford University, where he was the first American to win the prestigious Sir Roger Newdigate’s Prize for poetry. He was, by all accounts, a campus celebrity. Kenyon changed her major to English and was accepted into a small seminar with Hall based on the merit of five poems. The classes were enriching, with the usual baffling practices that would raise eyebrows today (the availability, for instance, of drugs and beer throughout the three-hour seminar). Kenyon found her people and her self-confidence in poetry. She won a university competition judged by Robert Bly and X.J. Kennedy for a set of poems, among them the sexy, charming “The Shirt.”

In 1971, after a six-month relationship with John Briggs, a Vietnam veteran who worked as a projectionist at a local movie theater and who dumped Kenyon for another woman, she accepted a dinner invitation from Hall. Greene does a fine job summarizing Hall’s “charmed life” which, though not without its disappointments, was full of opportunities, acclaim, and transatlantic experiences. His divorce from his wife of 16 years was followed by a period of general misery, which is about the time Kenyon turned up in his class (he later recalled Kenyon as neither a standout nor physically remarkable). “Both Hall and Kenyon were needy and searching for solace,” Greene writes, but it is Kenyon’s articulated desire here that interests me: “I needed a man capable of complexity.” Hall was that sort of man, and I like to think that Kenyon’s needs went beyond solace. Rather, it was more likely an intellectual need—a poet’s need—understanding the potential in a 19-year age gap: not status or the thrill of the catch, but the chance to develop her own mind by sparking against a worthy counterpart.

Meanwhile, Kenyon was terra firma for Hall during a period in which the poet appears to have been almost comically lost. In March 1972 he traveled to Florida to try out for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. (He was 43 and completely out of shape.) Hall had a string of affairs and drank heavily prior to his relationship with Kenyon, but, likely at her insistence, he dismissed the other women in his life. He was increasingly disenchanted with his university career and admitted to being “petrified of marriage,” seeking the help of a therapist to work out his commitment issues.

While neither had previously expressed a desire for marriage, a terrible argument (over what, we’re never told) led them to marry, and while that has all the markings of a doomed enterprise, it proved far from the case. Here again, though, an absence of Kenyon’s letters or journal entries omits her point of view. Greene’s work teasing out the two narratives begins in earnest here: Kenyon was initially paralyzed by living with one of the country’s best-known poets and was not helped by Hall referring to her as “a talented kid poet.” (Gregory Orr, with whom the couple sometimes workshopped, more appropriately called Kenyon “Our Lady of Sorrows.”) The couple moved to Eagle Pond, Hall’s ancestral home in Wilmot and a sort of living museum to him, which further challenged Kenyon to assert her own poetic voice. His writing was their sole source of income—Greene notes that Kenyon often joked that she was supported by a perpetual “Hall Fellowship”—while she took care of the house. Kenyon admitted in later interviews to having initially felt “disembodied” and “annihilated” by the move, but it was Wendell Berry who captured it best, comparing Kenyon’s efforts to adapt to Hall’s Wilmot to Ruth’s struggles in the Bible.

Kenyon addresses this bewildered state in “From Room to Room”:

Here in this house, among photographs
of your ancestors,…
I move from room to room,
a little dazed, like the fly…
My people are not here, my mother
and father, my brother. I talk
to the cats about the weather.

But just as Dora had fueled a desire for a faith that could offer solace, Kenyon’s initial hardships in Wilmot led to lifelong blessing. She came to love the town of barely more than 500 people and her life at Eagle Pond—how, exactly, we don’t know, as Kenyon’s privacy leaves another gap in the record. Greene suggests the poet slowly found a sense of community and cherished the house and its surrounding farmland. On their first Sunday in Wilmot, the couple attended the South Danbury Christian Church, whose minister quoted Rilke, winning both poets over and ending Kenyon’s fierce rejection of the church. She became an avid daytime gardener, working on poems at night, with a midday break in which she and Hall made love and napped. She articulated similarities between gardening and poetry: “They both teach us about death and resurrection. They teach us patience, humility…The love of beauty is in both.” She began to write for the local newspaper and volunteered in a hospice.

Hall encouraged her to take her craft seriously, but Kenyon did not always heed Hall’s critiques, which says a great deal about her imperviousness to influence. She valued image in her poems over Hall’s sonics and intuitively knew they were different voices with different goals on the page. Her first collection, From Room to Room (1978), features forays into many of Kenyon’s major subjects—inner life, spirituality, domestic spaces, depression, the natural world—and reviews were generally positive. In “Finding a Long Gray Hair,” she writes of feeling a connection to the women who preceded her at Eagle Pond:

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.

A series of painful events, including the death of her father, led to one of Kenyon’s severe depressive episodes, and finally to her being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in 1989. She took a cocktail of psychiatric drugs from that point on. The most significant developments in those years were Kenyon’s close friendships with Joyce Peseroff and Alice Mattison, with whom she formed a workshop. “My women friends in particular give me the courage I need to just be who I am,” she later remarked. Her wider circle of women poets included Maxine Kumin, Marie Howe, Jean Valentine, and Carolyn Finkelstein. But Hall, Greene notes, suffered from Kenyon’s absence and became increasingly possessive, claiming he felt at peace and able to work only when she was around.

The couple’s trip to Japan and China in 1986, during which both poets were actively working and lecturing, was riddled with the sort of sexism Kenyon struggled against lifelong. She wrote of the pain of being treated as a subordinate (only Hall was ever addressed), but this experience partially gave her a powerful understanding that women everywhere were treated as second-rate poets regardless of the merits of their output. Kenyon could be by turns irreverent about these slights or deeply wounded. In later years, Hall sympathized with her plight; he called her style “a glass of water—a hundred-proof glass of water.” But as Greene succinctly notes: “Hall wanted Kenyon’s success, but as it came, it challenged their relationship.” Through her church, Kenyon was invited on a two-week international exchange to the USSR, which Hall did not want her to accept (she went anyway, and he burst into tears whenever she spoke of her trip).

Kenyon soon fell into another depression that required hospitalization, and relations worsened between her and Hall, who himself was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes, limiting his ability to perform sexually. Kenyon needed to have sex regularly to alleviate her depression, and she began an affair with one of Hall’s friends that lasted two years. Whether or not Hall knew is unclear (Kenyon called him “the Charles Atlas of Denial”). Hall was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1989, but despite a grim outlook, recovered and continued to work on five books at once. Greene observes that Kenyon “fully understood that her productivity depended on his, because if he did not work so hard, she would not have the luxury of writing what she wanted to write.”

In 1990, Kenyon published Let Evening Come, the title poem of which (one of her most beloved and anthologized) manifested her belief in a God of love, not a God of punishment: “Let it come, as it will, and don’t / be afraid. God does not leave us / comfortless, so let evening come.” Kenyon complained to Mattison about a favorable review that nevertheless compared her poems to Hall’s, saying “the author respects Don’s poems more because they are harder to understand.” However, Greene’s remarks that “as Kenyon became more successful, his poetry deteriorated” and “the pupil had exceeded the teacher” feel a bit easy. I’m not sure the “pupil surpassing teacher” narrative does anyone justice, and we cannot discount the age gap: Hall was by then in his 60s and undergoing treatment for cancer, while Kenyon was in her 40s and fully realizing her powers as a poet. What seems true instead is that Kenyon had an unshakeable sense of self. In an interview with Pride that year, she said of Hall: “He knows things nobody else knows. But I also know things nobody else knows.”

The biography inevitably traces the arcs of Kenyon’s most severe depressions, which shaped the plot of her life. Confiding again in Mattison, Kenyon wrote, “To give you an idea how my mind works when I’m down: When the paper toweling runs low on the roll it makes me sad! Everything makes me sad. Birdsong makes me sad. Late summer flowers make me sad.” And yet, through at least some of these episodes, she continued giving readings and workshops, going on walks and hikes, and attending church with Hall. In her 1993 interview with Bill Moyers, she shared valuable wisdom about the condition: “You have been through it enough times so that you know, sooner or later, if you can just stick it out, it’s going to lift. It’s going to be better.”

“Having It Out with Melancholy” from Constance (1993) is her most confessional poem about depression. In Orr’s estimation, the autobiographical poem is an example of the “postconfessional” mode, distinguished by an act of witness that could be of service to others, in contrast to the confessional poets whose depression often ended in suicide. Kenyon had hoped the nine-part poem would give readers better insight into the disease and ease its sufferers, and indeed, many found it helpful. Constance also contained “Otherwise,” a poem that almost prophetically begins, “I got out of bed / on two strong legs. / It might have been / otherwise” and hauntingly ends, “But one day, I know, / it will be otherwise.” Critics agreed it was some of her finest work.

Hall was diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer in 1993 (he lived until 2018), and in 1994, Kenyon was admitted to the hospital for a severe nosebleed and diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (she died the following year). She wrote two of her happiest poems, “Dutch Interiors” and “Happiness,” during this time. The latter begins:

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

She won the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry for “one for whom the exceptional promise seen in earlier work has been fulfilled and who continues to mature with each successive volume of poetry,” with Jean Valentine accepting the award on her behalf. Greene notes that “there are no poems, letters, interviews, or journal entries by her for these last months of her life” as Kenyon awaited her bone marrow transplant. When Kenyon was discharged from the hospital, Hall dutifully managed her care during an arduous time in which she developed neuropathy, suffered memory loss, and was incontinent. In 1995, Kenyon was named to a five-year term as poet laureate of New Hampshire; Hall took it on instead. She passed the 100-day mark that promised remission, but soon relapsed and was given only a month to live.

Kenyon asked to die at home. She and Hall spent her last days reading, swimming in their pond, making love, playing ping pong, and celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary. Hall curated her papers for archival purposes, and together, they worked on her last collection, which Hall suggested she call Otherwise. He held her hand as she died on April 22, 1995. He received fifteen hundred letters of condolence and answered all those with return addresses. Eight hundred people attended a memorial for Kenyon at Harvard. Hall continued to give interviews and write essays about his life with Kenyon, and in 2010 he established the Hall-Kenyon Prize to be awarded to major poets.

Their marriage may not have been the blissful relationship that Hall imagined, but as Greene attests, Hall was instrumental, practically speaking, in making it possible for Kenyon to be the poet she wanted to be. That Hall “created the myth of their mutual devotion, and Kenyon did not publicly challenge it” suggests to me that Kenyon genuinely was devoted to him, despite the complications of their codependence. While Kenyon complained to friends of Hall’s latent sexism and insensitive criticism, she never expressed a desire for permanent severance. Kenyon showed fierce integrity in the areas of life that mattered most to her. She dismissed, for instance, the 1989 poem “Three Songs at the End of Summer,” which was reprinted in The Best American Poetry, sayingThere’s very little invention in it. It is memory and reportage.” It failed to meet her own standard for the alchemizing of pain. Which is to say, she doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would not have spoken up against Hall’s view of things for fear of rocking the boat.

However, Greene believes that until the end, “Hall could not help viewing [Kenyon] as his dependent, his latter-day student. He recounted, ‘I watched in grateful pleasure as her poems became better and better,’ a pleasure that, while genuine, reflected pride in his teaching prowess.” I’m not sure I discern Hall’s self-satisfaction in that remark. If we agree with Greene’s reading, this still says more about Hall’s delusion than it does about Kenyon. That she “had to resist this merger of identities to realize her authentic poetic voice” may be true, but as I got to know Kenyon through Greene’s valuable research, I wasn’t entirely sure that she had ever been in danger of merging with Hall at the expense of her own voice. Kenyon was, as letters and poems reveal, her own arbiter, and not one to be bullied or bossed into anything. She took the feedback she agreed with and was often indignant at what she disagreed with. Hall seems to have been fairly honest, at last, in his understanding of their dynamic: “Maybe Jane in her twenties took cover in my shadow, but at forty-six she cast her own lively shadow.”

Although I found myself occasionally resisting some of Greene’s conclusions, her aim to uncover “the fullest truth possible” offers readers a much-needed and nuanced portrait of a poet who believed in the power of art, calling artists “keepers of the flame.” Throughout her short but impactful life, Kenyon became an advocate for what poetry could do in the wider world, and a believer in the redemption of sadness: “There really is consolation from sad poems. And it’s hard to know how that happens. There’s the pleasure of the thing itself, the pleasure of the poem, and it works against the sadness somehow,” she told Bill Moyers.

The many pains of Kenyon’s life had the effect that fog does on light. As a fog refracts and lifts, it catches impossible variations; as it clears, what’s there to be glimpsed is seen with a clarity whose insight is hard-earned (“The soul's bliss and suffering are bound together,” Kenyon wrote in “Twilight: After Haying”). She believed in—embodied—a spirit of resurrection and regeneration, having so often experienced a miraculous return to sanity and ease. Her fiercest rejections of dogma and her own discomforts led to her greatest gentleness on the page, deepening that inner resilience and vision, giving a shape and a reprieve to suffering through writing. Her desire for repute—“I can’t die until I have a reputation,” she insisted—was paired with a profound spiritual selflessness. “To love and work and to cause no harm” was her motto. Her attention was brilliantly suited for the focused, idiosyncratic attention needed to filter a large world through a narrow aperture, making her short lyric poems containers for what she called “the luminous particular.” She saw poetry as a vehicle for reporting on the inner life, and she delivered that vital news.

Originally Published: November 20th, 2023

Maya C. Popa is the author of Wound is the Origin of Wonder (W.W. Norton, 2022) and American Faith (Sarabande Books, 2019). She is the poetry reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and teaches poetry at New York University.