Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kenyon spent her first two decades in the Midwest, attending the University of Michigan in her hometown through completion of her master's degree in 1972. It was while she was a student at the University of Michigan that Kenyon met her future husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. After her marriage, Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, a New Hampshire farm that had been in Hall's family for generations and where she would spend the remainder of her life.
Kenyon published only four volumes of poetry during her life: From Room to Room, The Boat of Quiet Hours, Let Evening Come, and Constance, and translated a volume of works by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Despite her relatively small output, her poetry was highly lauded by critics throughout her lifetime. As fellow poet Carol Muske remarked in the New York Times when describing Kenyon's The Boat of Quiet Hours, "These poems surprise beauty at every turn and capture truth at its familiar New England slant. Here, in Keats's terms, is a capable poet." Indeed, Kenyon's work has often been compared with that of English Romantic poet John Keats; Roberts dubbed her a "Keatsian poet" and noted that, "like Keats, she attempts to redeem morbidity with a peculiar kind of gusto, one which seeks a quiet annihilation of self-identity through identification with benign things."
The cycles of nature held special significance for Kenyon, who returned to them again and again, both in her variations on Keats's ode "To Autumn," and in other pastoral verse. In Let Evening Come, her third published collection—and one that found the poet taking what Poetry essayist Paul Breslin called "a darker turn"—Kenyon explored nature's cycles in other ways: the fall of light from day to dusk to night, and the cycles of relationships with family and friends throughout a long span of years brought to a close by death. Let Evening Come "shows [Kenyon] at the height of her powers," according to Muske in a review of the 1990 volume for the New York Times Book Review, with the poet's "descriptive skills . . . as notable as her dramatic ones. Her rendering of natural settings, in lines of well-judged rhythm and simple syntax, contribute to the [volume's] memorableness."
Constance began Kenyon's study of depression, and her work in this regard has been compared with that of the late poet Sylvia Plath. Comparing the two, Breslin wrote that "Kenyon's language is much quieter, less self-dramatizing" than that of Plath, and where the earlier poet "would give herself up, writing her lyrical surrender to oblivion, . . . Kenyon fought to the end." Breslin noted the absence of self-pity in Kenyon's work, and the poet's ability to separate from self and acknowledge the grief and emotional pain of others, as in her poems "Coats," "Sleepers in Jaipur," and "Gettysburg: July 1, 1863," which imagines a mortally wounded soldier lying in wait for death on the historic battlefield.
In Otherwise, a posthumous collection containing twenty poems written just prior to her death as well as several taken from her earlier books, Kenyon "chronicles the uncertainty of living as culpable, temporary creatures," according to Nation contributor Emily Gordon. As Muske added in the New York Times Book Review, Kenyon avoids sentimentality throughout Otherwise. "The poet here sears a housewife's apron, hangs wash on the line, walks a family dog and draws her thought from a melancholy, ecstatic soul as if from the common well, 'where the fearful and rash alike must come for water.' In ecstasy," Muske continued, Kenyon "sees this world as a kind of threshold through which we enter God's wonder."
- From Room to Room, Alice James Books (Cambridge, MA), 1978.
- The Boat of Quiet Hours, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1986.
- Let Evening Come, Graywolf Press, 1990.
- Constance, Graywolf Press, 1993.
- Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1996.
- A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, the Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, Notes, Interviews, and One Poem, Graywolf Press, 1999.
- Collected Poems, Graywolf Press, 2007.
- (Translator) Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Eighties Press, 1985.
- Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit), 1997.
- Hall, Donald, Without, Houghton (Boston), 1998.
- Nation, April 29, 1996, p. 28.
- New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1987, p. 13; March 24, 1991; January 5, 1997.
- Poetry, July, 1997, pp. 226-40.
- Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1979.
- Washington Post, April 25, 1995, p. B7.
Poems By JANE KENYON
- After an Illness, Walking the Dog
- Afternoon at MacDowell
- Alone for a Week
- Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
- Christmas Away from Home
More poems by Jane Kenyon (36 poems)
- Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer
- Dutch Interiors
- Evening Sun
- Gettysburg: July 1, 1863
- Having It Out with Melancholy
- Heavy Summer Rain
- Let Evening Come
- Man Sleeping
- Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993
- No Steps
- Not Here
- On the Aisle
- Portrait of a Figure near Water
- Private Beach
- Reading Aloud to My Father
- Sun and Moon
- Taking Down the Tree
- The Argument
- The Blue Bowl
- The Call
- The Clearing
- The Pond at Dusk
- The Shirt
- Thinking of Madame Bovary
- Three Songs at the End of Summer
- Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School
Audio & PodcastsPoem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poetry Off the Shelf
Cruel, Cruel Summer
Poems that don't exactly celebrate the season from Weldon Kees, Howard Nemerov, and Jane Kenyon
Poems to Fight Against the Dark
Christmas poetry full of love and light.
Jane Kenyon: Essential American Poets
Archival recordings of the poet Jane Kenyon, with an introduction to her life and work. Recorded 1988, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
LIFE SPAN 1947–1995