Jane Kenyon

On Stewardship

Be a good steward to your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.  

Poet Jane Kenyon intended these words as instructions for writers, a set of inviolable regulations to both promote and protect the creative thought process and the work ethic. Like most people who want to write - or pursue any kind of artistic lifestyle - I yearn for a set of rules to follow. I want someone to lay it out point blank, someone to give me a roadmap. Just do this and thus and so, and at the end you’ll have the masterpiece you want so badly. I want the protocol like the doctor in the emergency room, or the chemist in the laboratory. I want the boilerplate an attorney might use, or the set of formulas an engineer would employ.

In the sense that there are any such things for a creative person, I suppose Jane Kenyon’s principles come as close as anything to fulfilling that role. Protect your time. Have good sentences in your ears. Work regular hours.  Be a good steward to your gifts.

Like anything worth doing, being a good steward to your gifts takes a conscious effort. It starts when I stop scheduling appointments in the morning so I can have that hour or two to work. It continues when I disable the internet (the 21st century version of taking the phone off the hook) and bring both dogs upstairs to my office so they aren’t barking at every other Fido, Max, or Maddie walking by. It’s fed by the inspiration in a select group of books on my desktop, the words of my “teachers” - Dani Shapiro, Katrina Kenison, Anne Lamott, Karen Maezen Miller - who stand before me with gentle encouragement and well-wishes.

Most often the things that derail me from good stewardship are the demands of ordinary life. The grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments, the dog whose hair needs trimming, the laundry that overflows the basket in my closet. These tasks are my job. They don’t pay the bills, but they keep our lives humming smoothly along, which is important for me.  Truth? I am obsessive-compulsive enough that I need that full pantry, clear calendar, and empty laundry basket in order to focus my attention on anything else - like writing.

Or at least I think I do.

Good stewardship, the kind Kenyon talks about, must start with the belief that this writing thing is worth all the effort. And there is the most difficult concept of all. The belief that what I do matters, that the words I try to weave into a coherent whole can make something meaningful. That even if I’m the only person who feels excited about what I put on the page, it’s still necessary to spend the time putting it there.

What I need more than anything is an unwavering conviction in the value of my gift. Only then can I make the dedicated and concerted effort necessary to protect it, nurture it, fulfill it by following Kenyon’s prescriptions. And if I look at her precepts even more closely, I see that they fulfill most of my personal requirements for a good life, irrespective of writing at all.  They are the backbone of a calm and collected way of being that is among my highest aspirations. Feed your inner life. Read good books. Walk. 

Anne Lamott writes about this kind of life in the final pages of Bird by Bird. “This life of reading, writing, corresponding...is nearly ideal. It is spiritually invigorating. It is intellectually quickening. One can find in writing a perfect focus for life. It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment. We see our work as a vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood."

“In this dark and wounded society,” she concludes, “writing can give you the pleasures of a woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, ‘This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.’"

So here I am, in my quiet room at the top of the stairs, my notebook on my lap, my dogs napping peacefully beside me, surrounded by words of my own making and those of writers I admire.

This is my niche. This is where I live now. This is where I belong.

This is my gift.

The Lives of the Poets

Lately I’ve been reading and studying about the lives of poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. Frankly, I’m obsessed with them.

deskIt all began with a quote of Hall’s which led me to some of his prose writing, which led me to his poems, which led to more of his prose, which in turn led to Kenyon and her poems…and well, here I am, surrounded by piles of books about two people whom I’ve never met but with whose lives I feel utterly familiar.

This isn’t the first time I’ve become enthralled with the lives of poets. When I was a teenager, it was Emily Dickinson who caught my attention, that brilliant recluse in her white dresses, floating through the woods with tiny scraps of paper drifting behind her. Then in college I developed a macabre fascination with Sylvia Plath, her life, her work, her death, all of it appealing to a morbid streak I’ve never been able to quell. My bookshelves are still testimony to both these obsessions, overflowing with texts by and about these two women.

Is there a purpose to such enchantment, besides my simple curiosity? Are poets and writers my “celebrity” obsession, the way some people fixate on movie stars or sports heroes? Or am I looking for insight into my “teachers,” the people whose work and minds I admire?

I think (or at least I hope) that it’s more the latter. Writers like Hall and Kenyon have a rich inner life which they translate into magical poetic imagery. But their outer lives, their day to day existence, is really much like my own. They loved their home, they protected their solitude, they were happy slaves to their daily routine. They cherished the mundane, yet gave us a body of literature conveying life’s sacredness.

I often write about the extraordinary ordinary, how the seemingly small events of everyday life take on great significance if you look at them with an awesome perspective, the way these poets often do in their verse. “The newspaper, the coffee cup, the dog’s/impatience for his morning walk/These fibers braid the ordinary mystery,” writes Hall in his poem The Coffee Cup. “Ordinary days were best/when we worked over poems in our separate rooms,” he writes in Letters With No Address, after Kenyon’s death. “In the bliss of routine/coffee, love, pond afternoons, poems/we feel we will live/forever…"

Kenyon focuses her bright poet’s eye on the “Luminous Particular," imbuing powerful emotion into a particular  image or event which in turn becomes luminous in importance. “I scrub the floorboards/in the kitchen, repeating/the motions of other women/who have lived in this house./And when I find a long gray hair/floating in the pail/I feel my life added to theirs.”

These days I am living in what Hall would probably describe as one of the best years of my life.  They are the years, he said, that you remember least because nothing notable happens. They are not the years of disease or sadness, not even the years of great events or travel. They are the years filled with one ordinary day after another. The best moments of our lives, he wrote, “were the days of repeated quiet and work.” Work meaning doing the things they loved - reading, writing, walking their dog, climbing the mountain, eating sandwiches, watching baseball, playing ping pong.

“It might have been otherwise,” Kenyon writes in what is probably her best loved poem (Otherwise) as she lists the things she does on a day she obviously considers one of the best. Getting out of bed on “two strong legs", eating cereal with “sweet milk, a ripe flawless peach,”  taking the dog "uphill to the birch plantings", eating dinner with her mate at “a table with silver candlesticks.”

“But one day, I know,” she concludes, “it will be otherwise.” As of course it was, when just a few months after writing those words she was diagnosed with leukemia and was dead just a year later.

How extraordinary is the best of everyday, especially when seen in the light of what might be otherwise. Even today, when yesterday’s promised hope of spring has dissolved and the sky hangs heavy with clouds and cold icy rain. I am blessed with my warm house, with the companionship of these small dogs who are sentinels at my feet. With tea in a green cup crafted by the hands of a friend. These fibers “braid the ordinary mystery."

The lives of the poets remind us. Their work gives us a way to see it anew.

Because we know otherwise will come.


*April is National Poetry Month. Poetry has always been important in my life. I’ve written more about that here.