This Old Poem #44:
Jane Kenyon’s Man Waking
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/12/03

  If there were a real life archetype of the Dead White Female poetaster there could be no better choice than the atrocious Jane Kenyon. She contributed nothing of note to American letters in her lifetime, died tragically of cancer before her 50th birthday, played the Academic game to perfection, even marrying her former English Professor- the equally horrid Donald Hall, so- you just know what had to happen. Yes, she has been feted endlessly as a martyr for women’s rights- despite there seeming to be a logical need for her to have lost her life in that cause, rather than withering away to run-amok cells, as well as getting a # of poetry contests (aka scams) named in her dishonor. Despite all this praise, when 1 really looks at her corpus, 1 can only wonder the level of contempt future generations will heap on this current generation which held up her amateurish workshoppy crap as some sort of twisted role model. Nonetheless, the bio: 

Jane Kenyon was born in 1947 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and grew up in the midwest. She earned a B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1970 and an M.A. in 1972. That same year, Kenyon married the poet Donald Hall, whom she had met while a student at the University of Michigan. With him she moved to Eagle Pond Farm in New Hampshire. During her lifetime Jane Kenyon published four books of poetry—Constance (1993), Let Evening Come (1990), The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), and From Room to Room (1978)—and a book of translation, Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova (1985). In December 1993 she and Donald Hall were the subject of an Emmy Award-winning Bill Moyers documentary, "A Life Together." At the time of her death from leukemia, in April 1995, Jane Kenyon was New Hampshire's poet laureate. A fifth collection of Kenyon's poetry, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, was released in 1996, and in 1999, Graywolf Press issued A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, the Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem.

  On the heels of such a generic resume it should come as no surprise than JK was often a regular in the mainstream poetry crap mags such as the American Poetry Review, Poetry, the New Yorker, & the Atlantic Monthly, where this piece of bilge washed up on:


He suggests pancakes at the local diner,
followed by a walk in search of mayflowers,
while friends convene at the house
bearing casseroles and a cake, their cars
pulled close along the sandy shoulders
of the road, where tender ferns unfurl
in the ditches, and this year's budding leaves
push last year's spectral leaves from the tips
of the twigs of the ash trees. The gathering
itself is not what astounds her, but the casual
accomplishment with which he has lied. 

  Let’s examine this poem. Oddly enough it has decent music & no bad line breaks. That alone makes this one of JK’s 10 best poems- but it’s still an utterly banal &, at best, mediocre poem- yet JK’s zenith.
  Starting with the title, there is absolutely no play with the idea in the poem. The closest thing to a little play is the ‘surprise’ that the female is taken that he partner could white lie to her about a surprise birthday party. OK, this is white bread, teehee- type humor- or its attempt. But look at what builds up to this ‘revelation’ at the end- an utterly bland recitation of hohum imagery. It astounds me how JK, or any reader, could believe that any reader of discernment could not be left thinking what an utterly barren poem this is. There is almost a sense that this poem could be a put-on, a parody, had JK had even an ounce of self-reflective humor. She didn’t.
  On to the poem in question- 1 that makes the aforementioned tripe seem a work of genius by comparison:

Man Waking

The room was already light when
he awoke, and his body curled
like a grub suddenly exposed
when something dislodges a stone.
Work. He was more than an hour
late. Let that pass, he thought.
He pulled the covers over his head.
The smell of his skin and hair
offended him. Now he drew his legs
up a little more, and sent
his forehead down to meet his knees.
His knees felt cool.
A surprising amount of light
came through the blanket. He could
easily see his hand. Not dark enough,
not the utter darkness he desired.

  When 1 encounters a poem as bad as this the 1st thought is to move on as quickly as possible, Being TOP, however, I cannot do that. From the 1st line’s banality & bad line break, through the last line & a ˝’s utter horror. Here we get the stereotypical WASP American Academic’s dilemma- the melodramatic thrust of utterly bourgeois doldrums conflated with something deep &/or primal. In case you missed it here’s a recap of the poem: a man sleeps in late, wakes suddenly, experiences something no man would notice nor care about- his bodily odors impinging negativity into his notice, then submits to the feminine imperative- he longs to return to the womb. Only a naďve woman could have written a poem from this perspective, & only a bad poet could have thought its recitation in such a manner could be art. Let’s NOT even go in to visually old Dismal Donny as the piece’s protagonist! The rewrite:

The Waking

The room was already light.
Awake, his body curled
like a grub suddenly exposed.

Work. He was an hour late.
Let that pass, he thought.
He pulled the covers over his head.

The smell of his skin and hair
offended him. He drew his legs
to meet his knees. Cool.

Not dark enough, a surprising amount
of light came through the blanket.
He could easily see his hand.

  Here’s one of the few instances in these TOP essays where breaking the poem into discrete units (stanzas) seems to help. The removal of ‘Man’ from the title helps, as the ‘Man’ in the title of the original was singular, not ‘humanity’- as well as being manifest from the get go. Stanza 1- we tighten the initial imagery & let it breathe alone. Stanza 2- again, tightened & let to stand on its own. Stanza 3- again, tightened- even though we allow the distinctly feminine perspective remain. Stanza 4- we shuffle the imagery a bit & get rid of the melodramatic ‘dark’ ending. The ending with the character noticing his hand is still the stuff of a real attempt at artsy-fartsiness. Nonetheless it’s loads better than the rewrite. I would still take the poem onward from their, substitute some imagery for something more believable & make the main character an actual character’, not a caricature, as this 1 is. But, why bother, when using your feminine wiles to your advantage can secure the publication of your crap. No one ever said JK was not a true ‘feminist’- nor that she ever worked more than 10 minutes on her densely-wrought ‘epopee’.
  Then, again, how many scams do I have named in my honor?

Final Score: (1-100):

Jane Kenyon’s Man Waking: 55
TOP’s The Waking: 67

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