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Book Review: Jane Kenyon, a Literary Life by John H. Timmerman

Drawing on unpublished journals and papers, interviews, and recollections from her husband, as well as her published volumes, John H. Timmerman presents a thoughtfully crafted biography of poet Jane Kenyon.   In addition to sharing her personal history, he traces the development of her writing style and offers insightful analysis of both the writing process and the actual wording of a number of her best-known pieces from earliest drafts to final published versions.

Timmerman also includes accurate information about depressive illness and an empathic view of how it impacted Kenyon’s work.  He examines her affinity for the natural world, her strong ties to her physical surroundings, her struggles with both psychological and physical disease, and her spiritual searchings through the lens of her poetry.  Finally, Timmerman shares glimpses into the relationships that shaped and sustained Kenyon:  her long marriage to fellow-poet Donald Hall, and the writing community made up of herself, Alice Mattison, and Joyce Peseroff.

I usually encounter a poet the other way round – first reading the poems and then, if they resonate with me, finding out more about the person behind them.  In this case, however, this biography with its delicate balance of attention to both the poet and her work has given me an excellent foundation for reading Kenyon’s poems with a deeper understanding than I would ordinarily have had this early in my experience with them.

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