Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Jane Kenyon's A Hundred White Daffodils

I just finished reading Kenyon's posthumous book, A Hundred White Daffodils. It's wonderful. I loved everything about it. There's so much here. It was like devouring my way through a box of Godiva chocolates. First come the twenty translations of Akhmatova's poems. This section is followed by three sections of Kenyon's essays, none of which I'd read before. One essay section contains pieces about gardens, hiking, and her childhood. The next section contains the columns Kenyon wrote for a newspaper, the Concord Monitor. The remaining prose section contains pieces about literature, especially poetry. Section V consists of three interviews, and the book concludes with a poem. The introduction to the collection is by Donald Hall, while the introduction to the translations is by Kenyon. I'm going to include some snippets of my favorite parts.

In Kenyon's introduction she writes about Akhmatova's relationship with her son. I was interested to learn how difficult the Russian poet found motherhood, referring to it as a "bright torture. I was not worthy of it. . ." Akhmatova described the work of translation as "eating one's own brain." Having previously read Stanley Kunitz's translations of Akhmatova and his comments about the art of translation, I was interested to read what Kenyon had to say on the subject. She, too, talks about what must be sacrificed. Her choice was to sacrifice formal elements in order to retain "the integrity of the image. . ."

In her essay "Every Year the Light," Kenyon speaks of her friend Edna Powers who each year wrote a Christmas play for the church children to perform and who left behind these beautiful words: ". . .the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Good words to return to during grim times.

In "A Proposal for New Hampshire Writers," Kenyon exhorts her fellow artists to do what they can to preserve public funding for the arts: ". . .we must have art always before us. We must make our visions and gifts accessible to all. Everyone needs art, but not everyone knows it. Not everyone knows when they need to consume more calcium—they just know that they are sick, and can't figure out how they got that way. So with art. People must have it or they sicken. It is soul food."

In the interview with Bill Moyers, Kenyon speaks of those times when the writing doesn't want to arrive. She says, "But I think that also happens to me when I'm getting ready to make some kind of leap, either in the subjects I undertake to talk about in my poems or some technical change, maybe longer lines or something else—I don't know. These silences often come over me before something new breaks in, but they're hard to wait out."

Speaking with David Bradt in a later interview, Kenyon explains why she thinks poetry matters: "It matters because it's beautiful. It matters because it tells the truth, the human truth about the complexity of life. . . It tells the entire truth about what it is to be alive, about the way of the world, about life and death. Art embodies that complexity and makes it more understandable, less frightening, less bewildering. It matters because it is consolation in times of trouble. Even when a poem addresses a painful subject, it still manages to be consoling, somehow, if it's a good poem. Poetry has an unearthly ability to turn suffering into beauty."

The book then finishes with an extensive bibliography. This collection, like Kenyon's poetry, is soul food.

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