Feb 5, 2014

Jane Kenyon's "Happiness"

There is much to love about Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Happiness,”

Happiness by Jane Kenyon : Poetry Magazine

especially if we violate the New Criticism and read her life into her lines—her death from cancer at age 47 and, according to Poetry Foundation, “the depression that lasted throughout much of her adult life.” We might expect such a person and such a poet to challenge the whole notion of Happiness.

However, if we look only at the poem itself, as it centers on one of life’s trickiest, most amorphous subjects, happiness, there’s not a single false note, and there are brilliant gifts along the way.

The first two stanzas are dangerously general and discursive; they resemble an essay’s thesis or topic sentences. But the calmly bold opening line is much more profound and perceptive than we might have thought. How often have occasions that were supposed to be happy turned out otherwise?

The reverse is even more important. As serious readers of poetry, we might be inclined toward a gloomy worldview, which is easy to support with examples of death and destruction. But Kenyon is not the easy thinker that we are. She argues that happiness shows up just where and when we’d least expect it—or deserve it, perhaps. The comparison of happiness, a condition, to the Bible’s prodigal son, a human, is so unlikely I think it deserves the label of conceit (an extremely far-fetched metaphor or simile).

Like other good conceits, Kenyon’s argument holds. The prodigal son does not deserve forgiveness, and it seems we should not be happy to have him back. After all, he’s wasted everything we gave him. However, if for no other reason than an abatement of our loneliness in his absence, we are happy he’s returned. Our love for him outweighs, or simply negates, any anger we feel.

It’s a peculiar logic that I, for one, had never thought of, but in the end, it makes sense. It’s also brutally honest: we don’t necessarily forgive because we’re generous, or good, or selfless, but because we were bereft without the offending person in our lives.

If Jane Kenyon were in a workshop these days, I bet someone would have suggested that her poem really begins—and really takes off—with the third stanza and she should delete the first two. In many cases I might be that critic because most abstractions don’t have Kenyon’s power of surprise, freshness and important insight into human nature.

Still, once she begins the specific details, she maintains her perceptiveness and originality. Who else would have thought to introduce an unknown uncle? Who else would have placed him 
An Unknown Uncle Flies into Town
in a single-engine plane on a grassy air strip, would have him hitchhiking into town and knocking on doors?

This guy is a bit of an avatar, out of the blue, yet I believe in him completely. If he’s fictional, I don’t care—then it would be the world’s fault for not containing such an airstrip and such a hitch hiking uncle, who loves an unseen niece that much, that daringly. In fact, does he sound just a little like Jesus?

I also believe in Kenyon’s monk, her sweeping woman, the child of the drunk mother—and my favorite single image, for this human might most resemble us all:  “the clerk stacking cans of carrots / in the night.” 

From there Kenyon makes another daring move—she personifies inanimate objects and acts out John Ruskin’s famous concept of the Pathetic Fallacy, or the attribution of human qualities to nature.

At the same time—near the end of the poem!—she develops the new theme of labor, first with her catalogue of humans, and concluding with inanimate subjects. Beginning with the monk, everyone works, has a function. In the final four lines, that labor, that fact of being, expands to the boulder, the rain, and the wineglass. They all do their jobs, and maybe they all become weary. At least the wineglass does, explicitly, holding up wine—or is that blood, in the biblical sense of blood?

But it’s also true that all the characters and objects receive happiness. Happiness ministers to them, perhaps because they labor and have functions. Maybe we are left with the implication that the destiny of the prodigal son’s family is the labor of receiving him back into their arms and hearts, 
and that labor is their happiness, or at least happiness is the reward for their labor.

With the ordinary word happiness, maybe Kenyon is talking about grace—grace made evident for those not inclined to believe it. I’d like to think so.

Happiness by Jane Kenyon : Poetry Magazine


-K- said...

Love Jane Kenyon.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

-Jane Kenyon

Banjo52 said...

K, fantastic! And chilling. Thanks so much. Sounds like she knew of the cancer at this point?

I didn't intend it this way, and it's hardly a perfect comparison, but maybe we can think of Jane Kenyon and Philip Seymour Hoffman together, two tremendous talents lost. Or at least we can mourn them together.

Anonymous said...

Well hit that poem at Fitzgerald's three o'clock in the morning.

When I was a kid, there was a board game, one that didn't last for the ages. But as I recall, at the beginning you had to pick one of three goals: Money, Fame, or Happiness. And not one of us little heathens ever chose happiness. We went for something we didn't already have, rather than what we assumed was a given.

Banjo52 said...

AH, and three p.m. as well:
"until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair."

Also, I wonder if you're hearing at the end an unspoken line that happiness comes to everyone and everything EXCEPT the speaker. That might as likely as not.

A kids' board game . . . at least you remember yours!

Stickup Artist said...

"...until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair." Brings tears to my eyes.

And the poem Otherwise posted by -K- is so universal, inescapable, beautiful, sad, and true.

I didn't know about this poet. Now, I can't get enough. Love her...

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, glad to hear it. I find it rare that I find a poem, much less a poet, I actually WANT to keep coming back to, and now I've recently gotten started on both Kenyon and Mary Reufle (very different poets)

Also, there's the tragic outline of Kenyon's life--while a college student, meets eminent poet and prof, Donald Hall, marries him, an "older man," moves to his family farm in N.H., he gets cancer, survives, she gets cancer and does not survive. Donald Hall's "Names of Horses" is still one of the most moving poems I've ever read. I put it up here some years ago--people can search for it here.

Jean Spitzer said...

Also resonate to the bit about the uncle finding her asleep.

Wonderful photos, too.

Ken Mac said...

Happiness, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's where he gave me the absolute willies. That guy could channel pain deep pain like nobody's business.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, thanks. And yes, something about a young kid asleep in the middle afternoon--it could be innocent, of course, but that's not likely to be our instinctive reaction.

Ken, he often gave me the willies, whatever the movie or scene. Sometimes I have trouble thinking of American male actors who rival the Brits, but he's up there with anybody.

Rune Eide said...

Of course I would be happy if an unknown uncle turned up, preferably with a fortune in his pocket, but as a father of four I would roll out the red carpet if any one of the four turned up after a yearlong disappearance. Whatever their state.

Excellent photos as usual - the last one for me, please.

John Evans said...

That footloose uncle who appears out of the blue -- to me, so fitting.

I'd prefer to keep the first lines, if only because they prepare me for what follows and set the general theme.

How can one control happiness -- when it comes, when it goes, how long it stays?

So many times I've gone out on a trip with the expectation of happiness, or enjoyment, only to end up feeling vaguely disappointed.

I wonder how many people feel that vague disappointment at Disneyland.

And on other times, I've just gotten into the car and left without any expectation, and found enjoyment and happiness and discovery along the way.

Great poem. The audio really helps.

Julie Brown said...

Informative discussion of the poem, as well as the comments from your readers.

Banjo52 said...

John, Disneyland! Don't get me started . . . . And yes, it's so important to experience the journey, often spontaneously, rather than becoming fixed on the destination.

Julie, thanks.

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