Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Varieties of Irreligious Experience II: Jane Kenyon

Certainly an argument can be made suggesting Lamott, Dubus, and Kenyon all found religion after tragedy: Lamott, the deaths of her father and best friend, Dubus, the car accident that cost him his legs, Kenyon, her lifelong battle with clinical depression.

Interesingly, though, each claims a prior investment in belief, and in Lamott's and Kenyon's cases, an uneasy acknowledgement of God.

For Jane Kenyon, early experiences with a staunchly Christian Grandmother who pressed the notion of sin into her led to terror, and later, disdain:

"By the time I was in high school I grew contemptuous of religion and the people I knew who practiced it...I announced to my parents that one could not be a Christian and an intellectual, and that I would no longer attend church." (66 Hundred)

When she moves with husband Donald Hall (currently our United States Poet Laureate) to his hometown in New Hampshire, church suddenly looms again, for attendance is a family--and community--affair. There, in her late twenties, she is drawn in.

I don't know how anyone could read Kenyon without loving her. Her brutal frankness, her delights in her garden, Gus the dog, and her marriage all make the reader wish she were a close friend; she certainly feels like one, and to read of her terrible death from cancer in Hall's works "Without" and "The Best Day the Worst Day" is endure a sense of personal loss.

Much of Kenyon's poetry is religious, but so often the words are colored by her ever-hovering depression that they do not offend the agnostic reader. Poems like "Who" or "Briefly it enters, and Speaks" strike one more as a struggle against crushing sadness: winter will end, summer will arrive with its peonies and tomatoes. In an interview with Bill Moyers, reprinted in "A Hundred White Daffodils", Kenyon states her belief in God kept her from harming herself (161). We, her readers, were thus given more of her terribly short life--she was only forty-seven when leukemia killer her--than we might have had. More of her wonderful work.

Kenyon was much attached to the liturgical calendar; Advent brought happiness during winter's cold, dark hours. If there were any person whose faith I might wish most for, it would be hers, with its ordering, its loving acceptance.

One of her most famous poems is "Having it out with Melancholy". Find it in The Collected Poems, or the wonderful posthumous collection of her writings, "A Hundred White Daffodils".

I will not quote the entire poem, only a bit here:

from Section Four: Often

Often I go to bed as soon as dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep's
frail wicker coracle

Who would not, beneath such pain, seek refuge in God? How lucky to find it.


Kenyon, Jane: A Hundred White Daffodils. Minnesota: Graywolf Press. 1999: 66, 155-6, 161.

Hall, Donald: The Best Day the Worst Day. New York: Houghten Mifflin, 2005.

____________ Without. New York: Mariner Books, 1999.

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