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.