It is a testament to the enduring power and beauty of Jane Kenyon's poetry that many people - even those not particularly interested in poetry - know her work. What forces and influences shaped Kenyon's writing? And what shaped her as a person and a poet? These are the questions that John Timmerman seeks to answer in Jane Kenyon: A Literary Life. In the opening chapters Timmerman beautifully limns the story of Kenyon's life, drawing on unpublished journals and papers of hers and recollections by her husband, the poet Donald Hall. To show how her art grew out of her life, Timmerman proceeds to explore, volume by volume, the form and substance of Kenyon's work. By frequently examining the multiple drafts that Kenyon wrote in the process of reaching a finished poem, Timmerman reveals how she winnowed and refined ideas, images, and language until a poem was honed to its essence. She was especially interested in the "luminous particular," the arresting image that would focus a poem. She also took care to use simple, grounded language and natural objects and events - often drawing on and reflecting on the life she lived at Eagle Pond Farm in rural New Hampshire.
Throughout her life Kenyon struggled with depression, but she never let it define her or her work. She also struggled with her faith almost constantly, yet her faith was "unrelenting," according to Timmerman, and she still wrote poems of great beauty and spiritual consolation. Her poetry, even when very personal, reached out - and still reaches out - to the reader, establishing that vital thread of human connection. Indeed, as Timmerman says, Kenyon's poems are "soundings of the human soul." Kenyon was cut down in the prime of her writing life by leukemia, and Timmerman concludes by exploring Hall's mourning of her death in Without, a wrenching collection of poems. But Kenyon's voice lives on in her work, and Timmerman's insightful, often moving study shows why this unique literary voice continues to touch readers with its beauty, grace, and power.