God does not leave us comfortless

Jane Kenyon: Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the 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.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

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.

I came to Kenyon via her husband, Donald Hall, a poet I admire deeply (I’ll post one of his poems tomorrow). Kenyon’s own work is very interesting, and I do own her Collected Poems, where I took this poem. However, I’ll admit freely that I have trouble connecting to the lilt of her work sometimes. I do recommend reading Kenyon, though. Her voice is strong and her command and use of form is intriguing. I find myself frequently moved by her work, but for personal reasons more than anything else.

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26 thoughts on “God does not leave us comfortless

  1. Interesting. I think it may be a misreading. Kenyon battled with depression and her theology, her use of and belief in God is close to that of, say, John Berryman, a personal, direct, deeply felt need and connection. I would argue that her sense of God is closer to that feeling that you had when you read the poem up to “God”. I am currently writing about three poets who make ample use of religion (Berryman, Lowell, Bishop) and critics are too often dismissive of that angle or try to read it differently, because of their own ingrained problems with religion.

  2. oh, mercy man, i should have known.
    (but i never even suspected you to be the struggeling type.)

    this is nothing else but a prayer in disguise
    and a not very good one if you ask me – i mean, the disguise

    i can’t handle it and therefore could never admire it

    yes, i know the lecture: if it’s good it’s got to be me
    but it ain’t

    and no, i don’t have problems with religion
    just with christianity

  3. The poem finally is an expression of Jane Kenyon’s belief system. I don’t deny a poet the right to express this in a poem, but it becomes a distraction to readers who not only lack that belief system but also have rather strong critiques of it. So, while I accept that this poem has aesthetic merit, it must be seen above all as a private poem that isn’t fit for public consumption. I am left with the picture of a depressive woman who is trying to cope and has adopted as her coping method stories that I find ridiculous. I would probably feel the same way about sincere Stalinist poetry if I ever read it. If a poem is to express the universal, this poem fails by excluding too much.

  4. @ paul

    even if i agree to most of your arguments;

    a poem expressing the universal is only one kind of poem.
    there are many other ways of poetry.

  5. I recognize that there can be different kinds of poems. Non-doctrinal poems are of greater interest to me than religious or political ones. One of my favorite poets is Denise Levertov, and she fell in many people’s standing when she wrote explicit anti-war poems. I believe that the essay is a more appropriate vehicle for expressing religious and political beliefs. My favorite collection of poems is “A Book of Luminous Things,” edited by Czeslaw Milosz; you won’t find a single ideological poem in that book. As far as “Let Evening Come” is concerned, rather than leaving me in a state of poetic rapture, it leaves me feeling like an anthropologist or a psychiatrist examining a patient.

  6. I love personal poetry. My favorite poets are often those who write deeply personal poetry, say Berryman, Plath, and in other poets it’s these poems I love most, say Milton’s sonnets or Hopkin’s “terrible sonnets”. I love the personal, and I believe every writer transmits his or her belief system through the poetry, some however do it more explicitly. Kenyon is one of the latter. There’s the difference between us, yes? I am deeply attracted by explicitly personal (not biographical) voices in poetry. I think the “universal” is an illusion, and every poem is personal, it’s just more dishonest if you cloak it in other terms.

    @Eli: what should you have known? I am not religious, I am a atheistic agnostic or an agnostic atheist (whatevs). I am just deeply invested in American (or Anglosaxon) poetry. Deformation professionelle, yes?

  7. As I’ve said earlier, I’m not a great poetry buff. Yet I agree with you that some of the best poetry is highly personal. I just have a hard time of it when a poet resorts to external, conventional ideas, such as religion or pacifism, to sum up the personal. Christianity, despite its private meaning to some, is an orthodox external organization.

    One of my favorite poems is about as personal as you can get:

    The Ache of Marriage

    The ache of marriage:

    thigh and tongue, beloved,
    are heavy with it,
    it throbs in the teeth

    We look for communion
    and are turned away, beloved,
    each and each

    It is leviathan and we
    in its belly
    looking for joy, some joy
    not to be known outside it

    two by two in the ark of
    the ache of it.

    Denise Levertov

  8. Christianity may be external to you, but it’s not to many who practice it. Belief, feeling and self-reflexion go hand in hand for many (most) Christians. God’s existence is more than dogma, it’s as much a fact of life as that tree in the courtyard just outside this window or the rumbling of this borrowed computer is. And just as biology or geography can be used to explain and discuss the tree and its existence right there, or as mechanics and physics can be used to explain and discuss the computer and its peculiar rumbling noise, so can theology and dogma (not the same) be used to explain God. I realize that this may be hard to explain to non-Christians, especially since Dogma and personal experience often go hand in hand (one thinks of Augustine), but belief is as personal and private as love, hate or desire. In fact, in my doctoral thesis, I try to prove that some poets’ confessional modes are trained on, or derived from, orthodox Catholic and Protestant prose and poetry (Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Crosss, Augustine, Milton, Hopkins, george Herbert etc etc). belief is not more (indeed, to some christians arguably less) external than words and grammar that make poetry possible. words, grammar, and conventional concepts of love and relationships, if we look at Levertov’s poem. Love poems, plaintive ones as well as jubilant, cannot plausibly be read in other conventions of love and relationships than the one of the poet’s culture and time. The anguish, the logic, the problems, they all stem from that. They are not universal. We may spiritually connect with Marvell’s love poetry, or Villon’s, but both these poets are obvious in their dependency on their own cultural frame work. You can even see it in contemporary poetry, with groups where convention is strained, shifted, adapted, how references also strain, shift, adapt. I think of Marilyn Hacker’s early-to-middle-ish work, Adrienne Rich, Mark Doty, even. Some critics read them as marginal, specific, different, but that’s because they assume that the normal white male western perspective is ‘universal’, which it’s not. Sometimes in poetry, where we read closely, our ears ring with odd differences. Ko Un, the perennial Korean Nobel Prize candidate, sometimes takes odd images, odd detours when looking at himself and others. As readers, we often skip the specifics and abstract (as with Marvell) until we reach a level where the references fit again. It’s something we do quickly and automatically, but non-Christian readers and critics often decline to provide a similar service to explicitly Christian poetry, so they either purge it of religion by reading explicitly religious poems in a secular manner (@Eli: Hugo) (John berryman is a victim of this practice), or they ignore or downplay references altogether (as many critics do with Bishop) or they just plain ignore the poet. Jane Kenyon’s poetry is one that suffered from this.

  9. I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment competently on all of your references. Perhaps I should give Jane Kenyon more credit. I can see how some poetic styles may have originated in the confessional Christian mode. Nevertheless, my most basic test for good poetry requires originality and/or insight. Expressions of religious faith have become one of the most hackneyed themes in Western civilization, with a history dating back two thousand years. Today, with the majority of the American population claiming to be Christian, this type of poem leaves some of us with a feeling of oppression rather than joy. By advertising herself as a Christian, Kenyon unwittingly puts herself in the same camp as Maoist indoctrinators as far as some of us are concerned. By placing a Christian stamp on the poem, she seems not to care that some of her readers can witness “the cricket take up chafing” without going into rapture. Strictly speaking, the poem is good, but I find it thematically too conventional to be of much interest.

  10. Again, the conventions of love and relationships (and love poetry) are just as rigid and conventional as that of religion, I’d argue, and it’s arguably older and more hackneyed than religious faith, but I guess what it comes down to is personal taste, right?

  11. Yes, it probably comes down to personal taste, though I don’t think I would enjoy most love poetry either. I was raised a Christian, and think that if this poem were set to music it could be put in a hymnal amongst other, less artistic, hymns. So, to me, it is at best a specialized kind of poem that doesn’t interest me. If the ending had been different, I would have found it more palatable.

  12. i could laugh my head off, mercy, because we had a similar discussion about another poem the other day, remember? it was the first line then, and a sunday…

    and i stick to my opinion that the poem paul would have liked to read (and the one i liked without that sunday) could have been just ultimate poetry – because every specialisation, every focussing on personal stuff is diminution.

    and i still say that ultimate poetry can’t be the only one that is being written – its essence being rare! which brings us entirely back to taste…

  13. As a point of reference, I reread some of Denise Levertov’s late poems, which contain religious themes.

    A CRYPTIC SIGN

    August. The woods are silent.
    No sway of treetops, no skitter of squirrels,
    no startled bird. Sky fragments
    in rifts of canopy,
    palest silken blue.
    In the crook
    of an old and tattered snag
    something gleams amid the stillness,
    drawing the gaze: some bit of heartwood
    so long exposed, weather and time
    have polished it, as centuries
    of awed lips, touching
    a hand of stone, rub it
    to somber gleaming.

    SCRAPS OF MOON

    Scraps of moon
    bobbing discarded on broken water

    but sky-moon
    complete, transcending

    all violation.

    ***

    I find far more poetry here than in Jane Kenyon, but perhaps it’s just a matter of taste.

  14. I have trouble connecting both to Kenyon and to Levertov. I own a copy of Levertov’s late poetry and once I’m home I’ll giove it a look-see.

  15. Not to continue this debate, but I think one thing should be made clear. The overwhelming majority of people on this planet believes in some kind of deity, a large portion of them even believes in a monotheistic kind of deity. If poets like Kenyon include religion in their work they don’t cater to special interests. They represent the broad, overwhelming majority of humans. You and me, we are ‘special interests’. This poem? Not so much. You don’t get more universal than that and there is nothing you’ll find more people agreeing on.

  16. The above is acceptable as a poem, and indeed has the potential to be received with enthusiasm by many people. As I said, it could work well as a hymn sung in churches (most hymns aren’t as good). However, popularity is not the same as universality. Does Rod Stewart belong in the same category as Beethoven? Not to diminish the poem, it belongs in the class of vernacular poems rather than the class of poems of Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, etc., who write for posterity or their peers more than for broad audiences.

  17. Bishop’s poems are not driven by faith but threaded through and through with religion and religious references and wholly unthinkable without them, the same applies to Rilke except in a stronger degree.

    My point was not about popularity, it was indeed about universality. This was the point you raised in your first post, where you complained that this poem was closed off to you because your faith differs from Kenyon’s. So the question is: will this poem speak to the majority of people? Yes. And not despite, but because of the religious content. Most people are religious. An atheist complaining about the religious content of poetry because of its limiting effect is like a gay man complaining about the limiting effect of a heterosexual love poem. Sure there are many gay people, but there are far more heterosexual ones.

    By the way, except for his late poetry, I think Rilke is a deeply mediocre poet, writing on a considerably lower level than his German contemporaries. There is this explosion in his late poetry, the sonnets to orpheus and the duineser elegien, but everything else was written for an audience, not for posterity, and it shows sorely.

    That said, I agree that Kenyon is not a great poet. Currently, Bishop is generally assumed to be the best American post-war poet (taking over from Lowell), and any comparison shows how lacking Kenyon is. Kenyon’s major problem for me is sentimentality. A lot of it is quite sappy. I think this poem is very moving, but it is, as you say, transient.

  18. Universal is big.
    Humanity is small.

    And the only thing I know for sure (let me quote) is this:
    “I guess I’d say if it is just us… seems like an awful waste of space.”

  19. Sorry, but the word universal refers explicitly to humanity. Eli, you and I, we’re Germans, we know that. Humboldt, anyone? Schlegel? That’s what the word means in this context. Full stop.

  20. There are several definitions to “universal.” Several of them have nothing to do with humanity. When I used the term above, I was thinking of a universal truth that might be expressed in a poem. Contextually, I would argue that the “God” mentioned is specifically Christian. The universe pictured seems to exclude many other religions. If I were religious, I’d be a Buddhist, and it would be a bit of a stretch to see Buddhism within the poem. In that sense, the poem doesn’t speak to all of humanity and is perhaps a little ideological.

  21. That’s a beautiful poem, an expression of faith in the face of the onset of mortality and the inevitability of death. I’m not Christian, or indeed religious at all, but the poem still possesses a clear power and indeed grace.

  22. I do think Paul is right to make a comparison with Dickinson (who I suspect I rate more than he does). It is reminiscent of her work. Not only structurally, but also in a profound optimism which sadly I cannot share but which is beautifully communicated all the same.

  23. Sorry to bump this old post, but it really bums me to see you all read Kenyon this way, like reception was the issue, or her relation with her god was the issue. I’m not going to forward what I think that issue was, except to say that you’ve missed everything remarkable about her work.

    We play this pissing game, talking up and talking down the merits of what we’ve read and pretend to understand and blah blah blah… Kenyon’s best quality is that she refuses this cerebral theater, the desire to talk high or talk low, to finnick, to parade herself. Shigekuni, you say you have the Collected, though it seems like maybe its just another thing to own. Crack that book, it could be any page the voice is so consistent. You’ll find her to be always plain, unstriving, grateful of living, unthinking of reputation, never bitter, ever loving of the things that make up her world. In one of the first posts, someone calls her saccharine. This couldn’t be less true: saccharine is an affect, while Kenyon is nothing if not genuine.

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