Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Readings: That Small, Quiet Voice

The final piece in the excellent book, Bright Unequivocal Eye, is an essay entitled “Sweetness Preserved” by poet and novelist Wendell Berry. Berry expresses so beautifully what it is that I love about Jane Kenyon’s poetry, and those rare personal qualities possessed by Jane Kenyon that glow behind her words, that I am going to post a long excerpt from that essay here, without additional commentary. Berry says it all.

Berry’s relationship to Kenyon’s husband Donald Hall was established long before he met Jane Kenyon, as he discusses here:

Now the requirement of honesty is going to embarrass me a little, for I have to confess that I didn’t read anything by Jane for a long time after I met her. For one reason, I felt a certain complicated sympathy for her—a poet who had set up shop smack in the middle of another poet’s subject. The other poet’s claim to this subject was well established; the other poet was her husband. It was easy to wish that she might have been, say, a painter. Another reason was that I liked her, and if she was a bad poet I did not want to know.

Berry continues:

… Finally, late in the day [at a poetry reading in Ann Arbor, January 1986, featuring Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, and Galway Kinnell, but not Jane Kenyon] somebody…said, “Jane, why don’t you read us a poem?” …And then that quiet woman read beautifully her poem “Twilight: After Haying”:

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
reluctant to leave the field,
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed—
XXXXXWhip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
--sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen…the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses…

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

I hope I have adequately prepared you to imagine my relief.

…here was a poet present in her work with an authority virtually absolute.

…all her gifts are in it: her quietness, gentleness, compassion, elegance, and clarity, her awareness of mystery, her almost severe good sense. This poem, like just about every one of her poems, is unconditional; it is poetry without qualification. It has no irony, no cynicism, no self-conscious reference to literary history, no anxiety about its place in literary history, no glance at the reader, no anticipation of the critic, no sensationalism, no self-apology or self-indulgence.

… When I read a disparagement of the book Otherwise in The Hudson Review, I was offended, but also puzzled. How could anybody able to read fail to see the quality of that book? But after a while, I believe, I figured it out. Jane Kenyon’s work, in fact, makes an unnegotiable demand upon a reader. It doesn’t demand great intellect or learning or even sympathy; it demands quiet. It demands that in this age of political, economic, educational, and recreational pandemonium, and a concomitant rattling in the literary world, one must somehow become quiet enough to listen. [emphasis added]