Images in Jane Kenyon’s Happiness
by Dr. Holly Ordway
A mysterious dance of reader and words, memory and imagination, takes place in the reading of a poem. A good poem leads the dance with skillful steps, drawing the reader in without shoving him around. Jane Kenyon’s poem “Happiness” is provoking and unsettling, yet subtly so. As a reader, I found myself thinking about, responding to, and in part resisting the idea of happiness here… but then as a poet, I found myself stepping back to notice the way that Kenyon does her work.
Happiness is not just a prodigal returning, but one “who comes back to the dust at your feet.” That slight turning of the image from Scripture – for in the parable, the father runs out to embrace the returning son, and the prodigal does not kneel in the dust – hints at the mixture of dark and light that follows in the poem.
Another vivid image: “the uncle you never / knew about, who flies a single-engine plane / onto the grassy landing strip…”: a tiny narrative with its hinted backstory folded into one stanza of the poem, and left open. The uncle, though metaphorical, is so vivid that one is almost taken by surprise when Kenyon passes to new images in the next stanza.
And the last set of images is both spare and evocative: “perpetual shade of pine barrens… rain falling on the open sea.”
As a poet reading this poem, I am reminded of the importance, the necessity even, of being grounded in the concrete. We are, after all, embodied. I find it all too easy to move directly to the abstraction, the conclusion, what I see as the insight I am trying to convey in a poem, only to find that the resulting words ring hollow.
It is hard work to find just the right words for an image. It is hard work in part because finding the right words for what I see means that I have to really see: I must not just look at, but notice; not just notice, but attend; not just attend, but reach after what Hopkins, that great poet of seeing clearly, called inscape. It’s hard work but good work; I’m glad of Kenyon’s reminder to keep returning to build the foundations, brick by brick.