Beautiful Clarity: Jane Kenyon, Anna Akhmatova, and the Luminous Particular
David Harbilas | September 2007
|Jane Kenyon||Anna Akhmatova|
Jane Kenyon's conversion from a young poet of promise to one of national notice makes for an interesting study in poetic influences. Her mastery evolved, as it does for many poets, through a never-ending appreticeship that began with her first published poems.
Many of Kenyon's friends and peers have recounted her interest in Akhmatova—from essays in the recent Simply Lasting, edited by Kenyon's friend Joyce Peseroff, to the biography, Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life. Kenyon herself describes her introduction to Akhmatova in an essay called "Kicking the Eggs," published in her prose collection, A Hundred White Daffodils. Robert Bly had come to visit Kenyon and Donald Hall at their New Hampshire home, and after reading some of her early poems, Bly urged Kenyon to read a single poet as a master. She responded by saying that she could not have a man as a master. Bly suggested Akhmatova.
Kenyon's first book, From Room to Room, was published in 1978, featuring a short selection of translations of Akhmatova, which she later expanded into the separate volume Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova. In Akhmatova she found an equivalent in terms of emotion, allegiance to place, and expression of the self. Yet it was Akhmatova's use of the image which anchored Kenyon's interest, and she ironically discovered what seemed an American preoccupation without going the familiar route of the Imagist forefathers.
The Imagist poets were a group centered most famously on Eliot, Pound, and Williams, but whose originators were two English poets. T.E. Hulme and F.S. Flint began a series of meetings in 1909 New York City, to which they later invited Pound. (The history of the group is described in detail in the introduction to the anthology The Imagist Poem, edited by William Pratt.) Hulme set the bar for the discussions, recommending that poems be "absolutely accurate (in) presentation and (with) no verbiage."1 Two years later, Akhmatova, her husband Nikolai Gumilev, Osip Mandelstam, and others were meeting outside of St. Petersberg, Russia discussing similar ideas under the name of Acmeism. The Acmeist principles suggested a like-minded obsession with clear and evocative language, which Kenyon describes in her introduction to the Akhmatova translations. "These poets announced they were craftsmen not priests, and dedicated themselves to clarity, concision, and perfection of form. They summed up their goals in two words: 'beautiful clarity.'" That modifier "beautiful" seems to add a bit of necessary mystery to what could merely be a list of details, and Kenyon further elaborates on the Akhmatova translations, that "These poems celebrate the sensual life and Akhmatova's devoted attention to details of sense always serves feeling." A good example of this might be poem #11 of the Kenyon translations.
We walk along the hard crest of the snowdrift
toward my white, mysterious house,
both of us so quiet,
keeping the silence as we go along.
And sweeter even than the singing of songs
is this dream, now becoming real:
the swaying of branches brushed aside
and the faint ringing of your spurs.
Readers of Kenyon's poems will find this familiar and welcome territory. The poem is set in a rural place, the season is described, and the speaker is walking and addressing her loved one—things Kenyon would do in her own poems. Yet the surprise comes in those last two lines. While we expect something to be said of the unspoken tryst between the lovers, what stands in for physical joy or sexuality are the most vivid details of scenery recalled around the event. Yet these details are not mere furniture—the sound of the branches being pushed aside might suggest a chivalrous act on the part of the man as the two walked through the woods, while the faint sound of his spurs seems both slightly ceremonial and a rugged guise of masculinity. The event is spiritual in its quiet attention, and the details are doing the emotional work. Three poems by Kenyon which show a growing sense of maturation and mastery of the image are "For the Night," from Kenyon's first book, From Room to Room (1978), "Twilight: After Haying," published in The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), and her signature "Let Evening Come," from the book of the same title published in 1990.
"For the Night" begins with a barnyard image: "The mare kicks / in her darkening stall, knocks / over a bucket." The three lines which comprise the opening stanza are pleasing on many levels: We can easily see what is depicted, the rhythm and breaking of the lines call attention to sound ("kicks" and "knocks" stand out as a near rhyme, also suggesting the speed of cause and effect in the mare's actions), and there is an economy of language. The horse's kicking also suggests some equivalent emotion in the speaker, yet the tone seems to be one of quiet attention, perhaps due to the repetition of long vowel sounds in "mare," "darkening," "knocks," and "stall."
A similar effect is created in the following stanzas, as the second stanza simply reads, "The goose..." and the third, "The cow keeps a peaceful brain / behind a broad face." Where earlier we were indoors, now we seem to have moved outdoors, and the change is pleasing. Yet it is nearly impossible to tell what defines the goose as singular and deserving of attention. Is it making a noise? Is it flying away from the speaker? (And do the ellipses suggest an increasing distance from the speaker?) Does some physical feature resemble something within the speaker? We seem to be in a world of languor and ease, and the cow appears as a figure of Zen modesty, perhaps embodying too human a characteristic to be a thing of its own.
There are more causes for celebration, as the animal references remain consistent, and the lengthening lines in the third stanza, along with the long vowel sounds in "peaceful brain" and "broad face" depict the care and leisurely sight of the speaker. Yet the poem's fourth stanza moves away from animals: "Last light moves / through cracks in the wall, / over bales of hay." The image of light shining through wood planks, which will later appear in "Let Evening Come," seems other-worldly and spiritual, born of the kind of rapt attention one might expect of a person who has spent much time on a farm. It feels authentic and factual, yet the language reaches for the intangible. The alliterative phrase of "last light" suggests concepts too large to fit into the frame of our attention. (The very last beam of light? Wave of light? The last light of all being?) Yet in this stanza one can clearly sense something happening in the speaker which has risen out of the particulars. The final stanza is slightly anti-climactic, as a "bat lets / go of the rafter, falls / into black air." An arc is completed: where we began in anxiety now we end in acceptance. The speaker might be learning to surrender to night and all it represents, yet the bat falling from the rafter seems passive in a way similar to the image of the cow in the third stanza. Many of the details seem to be wearing too much intent for them to be entirely adequate symbols, despite the fact that the poem is so spare as to be nearly a collage.
In "Twilight: After Haying," a number of changes are evident. Most noticeably, an authorial distance between speaker and subject has been created. The first stanza's refrain of "Yes"—"Yes, long shadows go out from the bales..." and "Yes, the soul / must part from the body..."—seem a response to a question, and we are thrust into some moral or emotional situation. The image of the shadows going out from the bales casts darkness as an element of the earth, or perhaps something gathered by the workers. It is also an accurate description, and seems to support the slightly excessive nod to mortality and the soul in the lines that follow.
Yet the second and third stanzas more adequately describe the emotional mind-set of the speaker. Our attention may be willfully manipulated, in that we are told of little else about the men except that they stand near the baler and are tired—they "sprawl near the baler, / too tired to leave the field."—yet those details are enough to tell us it is the end of the workday. Their nonchalant attitude is conveyed mostly by their smoking, yet that odd comparison of the cigarettes to roses at first seems out of place. ("...the tips of their cigarettes / blaze like small roses / in the night air....") The "night air" is a backdrop of sorts, and the minor miracle of something as beautiful as a rose's color being evident in darkness is a fitting stand-in for the worker's self-absorption and lack of regard for dusk. And that "It arrived / and settled among them / before they were aware" seems not only evidence of that conceit, but of the "otherness" of night or death. These are men who seem slightly heroic for their willed ignorance.
The third stanza contains the height of the poem's figurative expression, as the moon evaluates the men's work as it illuminates all it touches.
The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed—
—sings from the dusty stubble.2
There may be a fallacy in these lines, as it would really be the speaker who would count the bales, but the intent is clear—that there is something not only shining on what they've made, but that it stands as a judgment of sorts. The singing "Whip-poor-will" is lonely not only for being solitary but for being "dispossessed," as if the bird was looking for more of its flock. Yet this detail also seems to speak to the allusions to the soul throughout the poem, and it may be the one place in the poem where Kenyon makes use of the objective correlative-little comment or embellishment is given to the image, and yet it's plain that there's some correspondence between it and the emotional terrain of the poem.
The fourth stanza again makes use of some slightly excessive author's comments on the subject, yet it is necessary in that it alludes to the irony of something being both beautiful and sad at once. ("...the soul's bliss / and suffering are bound together / like the grasses....") The final stanza seems a process by which one thing dies, in the smells of the field, and another is born. As the night comes to an end, dew collects on the field, yet it lies "ravaged," as if the men took something of its beauty when they left. There's an unmistakable sense of the male and female in these last lines, yet the suggestion is thematically fitting in that the two seem to need each other in ways that are impossible to explain or part with. It may also be the one place in the poem the speaker makes a slight jab at death and depression.
"Let Evening Come" begins with the best image of "For the Night," that of the light moving over bales of hay, yet the language has been sharpened. "Last light" has become "the light of late afternoon," and we are immediately cast into a romantic landscape with the repetition of "let," which, ironically, calls for the speaker to allow things to be as they are. She wants to let the light "shine through chinks in the barn, moving / up the bales as the sun moves down." The more particular "chinks," which seem definite in size and origin, do more work than the previous "cracks," and the repetition of "moving" with "moves," and "up" with "down," describe the track of the sun along the horizon. The effect is similar to that of a fulcrum: as the sun shifts overhead its beams move along the ground, then up the walls of the barn to the chinks, then along the ground inside the barn and up the bales, all as the sun lowers in the sky.
The poem proceeds through a series of similarly charged particulars, many of which tell a miniature "story" of sorts. The second stanza tells "a cricket [to] take up chafing / as a woman takes up her needles / and her yarn." The comparison is not only apt—one can immediately see the similarity between the cricket's legs being rubbed together and the knitting needles moving against each other—but suggestive of loneliness. The cricket's mating call causes the woman to look like a spinster filling her time with a hobby, and the sound of the cricket (which ironically isn't mentioned) seems to punctuate the silence so that we might also "hear" the sound of the knitting needles. Yet "chafing" suggests need, and the rubbing of legs in the cricket is biological where it might suggest something sexual in the woman. We might guess that she is still in her middle-age and looking for a companion.
The third stanza's image of "dew collect(ed) on the hoe abandoned / in long grass" improves on the languor of "For the Night," as it tells of someone who quit their chores before completion. We have the image of the hoe and the long grass, which is silhouetted in the late afternoon light. It's an idyllic image, and yet what of the worker? We know of him only through the word "abandoned," and yet we can sense his ease or joy in leaving his chores. And the dew suggests the passage of time, as the air cools and moisture condenses on the hoe as night approaches. The "silver horn" of the moon sets the time as late summer and the time of harvest. (It might be called a harvest moon and seem savage, marking a time when the light of a full moon is absent, making it safer for small animals to emerge.) Yet the moon is personified as female, and might be considered a mothering influence, reaffirming the poem's conviction to let things be as they are.
The fourth stanza extends the metaphor of death, telling "the fox (to) go back to its sandy den," to "let the wind die down" and "the shed go black inside." It is obvious that the fox is returning to its home for rest, but the image of the shed conveys emotional turmoil. (This is an image that also appeared in an earlier Kenyon poem, "Two Days Alone.") The speaker is clearly denoting a difference between light outside and the darkness within, and there seems a hesitation before going inside, as if the shed, standing solitary and empty, contains some equivalent of her fear, anger, or depression. Similarly, the wind is not just a description of the weather but a more general turmoil and something outside the speaker's realm of control. Ultimately, a calming effect is sought, and the slight change in syntax in the fifth stanza seems well-timed to elicit this sense of surrender.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung,
let evening come.3
The bottle seems random, yet it shares something of the abandoned with the hoe (as well as a sense of leisure and carelessness). The scoop is also a work image, yet where the hoe was left before the task was completed here the scoop seems in its place. The implication seems to allow for the workday to come to an end. Yet "air in the lung" is an unmistakable address to mortality, and the spiritual sense of attention to the natural world elides with that of communion. One is breathing the darkness in and letting it penetrate the body. The spiritual seems a natural point on which to end the poem, and the prosody seems particularly effective as a means for a slightly rhetorical tone. We are told to "let (evening) come, as it will, and don't / be afraid. God does not leave us / comfortless." To break the line after "don't" heightens the sense of imperative while it creates expectancy-are we meant to not be angry? scared? violent?-and when we are told that "God does not leave us" the suggestion of an afterlife or belief in heaven seems at its most explicit. Yet what are the comforts God gives us, aside from his presence? Those, perhaps, of the natural world listed throughout the poem.
Readers of Akhmatova may see a great number of dissimilarities with Kenyon, despite their mutual admiration for the image. To be sure, Kenyon noted the evolution of Akhmatova's early, more personal lyrics to the enigmatic, longer Poem Without a Hero, which chronicled the horrors of Stalinist Russia. (Akhmatova would defend her decision to include such references in the poem, and the British critic Isaiah Berlin noted that when speaking with Akhmatova on the subject of annotating the poem's references to people and events of her time she said, "it was written not for eternity, nor even for posterity."4) Kenyon never became the political poet that Akhmatova grew into, though she did write poems of moral conscience on the Gulf War, depression, and religion. Kenyon's means were private and personal, often hinging on daily routines and the dynamics of weather. Yet like Akhmatova, Kenyon showed a fierce devotion to place, and she also often listed the names of places in her poems. The effects were such that the miraculous could be found in the everyday. The Imagists also believed in this, but their reliance on the objective correlative displaced the self in an attempt to reach the eternal. "Let Evening Come" achieves a balance between the everyday and the eternal without sacrificing the self, despite its list-like quality. Kenyon agreed with Pound: the natural object is the most adequate symbol. But for Kenyon—and Akhmatova—what was fitting for nature was fitting for the self, and details of sense always serve feeling.
David Harbilas is the author of a chapbook, To the Man Renting Tuxedoes (Pudding House, 2006), and his poems have appeared in 5AM, Poetry East, Two Rivers Review, and others. He lives in southern New Hampshire, where he edits Four Corners.
- William Pratt, The Imagist Poem (Ashland: Story Line Press, 2001).
- Jane Kenyon, "Twilight: After Haying," Otherwise: New & Selected Poems (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1996).
- Jane Kenyon, "Let Evening Come," Otherwise: New & Selected Poems (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1996).
- Isaiah Berlin, "Anna Akhmatova: A Memoir," The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, tr. Judith Hemschmeyer (Brookline: Zephyr Press, 1997).