Poetry Sunday:
“For Jane,” by Joan Baranow

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

We’ll start with what I’ve been calling “the MFA flyover,” a description of the form and structure of today’s poem. “For Jane” is written in free verse, without patterned meter or end rhyme. There are, however, several instances of internal rhyme, often made use of in free verse to add music and bind the lines. For example, the first stanza rhymes “lays” with “glaze” and twice repeats the –s sound in “wrist” and “spice,” a sound picked up later in “rising” and “solace,” “nursed” and “malice,” “poison,” “us,” and “lattice,” and finally in the last stanza’s “insistent.” We hear assonance  in line 7 between “like” and “strife” and full rhyme in the first syllables of “followed” and “solace,” and in the last stanza, “here” slant rhymes with “air.” Perhaps the most striking instance of internal rhyme occurs in the last two lines, where “the air sweats with it” and “Life you saw into, the way poets do” help bring sonic closure to the poem.

The meter fascinates me. To begin with, I was struck by the abundance of words that, lifted out of context, scan as clear trochees: spicebush, Stage Coach, chainsaw, rising, followed, solace, Donald, addled, malice, nothing, prayer, poison, lattice, freight train, and into. I was struck, too, by the high incidence of lines with unstressed, or feminine endings. Context is everything in meter, though, and the presence of trochees does not always translate automatically into a trochaic or other falling meter. Some lines in this poem scan as trochaic, some as iambic, some iambic with first-foot trochaic inversions, and others do not scan at all. Although most lines have three or four beats, the beats do not follow a regular pattern, which is why I am calling it free verse. The rhythm is, in the end, the rhythm of human breath, but breath molded by those hard-driving trochees into the kind of breathing—forced and stuttered—that accompanies painful and deeply-felt expression.

Diction is plainspoken and vernacular, qualities that, along with the absence of formal end rhyme and meter, contribute to the intimacy of this speaker’s voice. The poem’s 22 lines are gathered into six variable-length stanzas of 3, 4, 5, 3, 4, and 3 lines, creating the shape of a rising, cresting, and falling wave, a kind of structural chiasmus that gathers the most intense expression into the longest stanza, also the one that occurs at precisely the poem’s center. It’s an example of deep poetic structure supporting and amplifying expression and meaning.

The form is epistolary; that is, it takes the form of a letter or other kind of direct address from Baranow to another poet, the well-loved and much-missed Jane Kenyon. We understand this immediately from the title. Many people (and not just poets) have told me that Kenyon’s work seems to speak to them personally and powerfully in the same way it has obviously spoken to Baranow. You can read some of Kenyon’s remarkable body of work here.

Poets writing poems to other poets is an old and venerable tradition, with many examples in the canon as well as in contemporary verse. Long before there was such a thing as an MFA, poets honed their craft by reading, imitating, and responding to works written by others. Poets reading other poets often feel a particular intimacy with them, a kind of communication across time and space, like Facebook before there was a Facebook. Because the community of poets is relatively small, sometimes there is also an actual real-world connection that blooms into a friendship. This poem, written after Jane Kenyon and her husband Donald Hall had already passed, addresses Kenyon from across the great divide of life from death. We know this right away because of Baranow’s use of the conditional verb in line 1’s “You would have liked.” As such, “For Jane” could also be said to be an example of elegy, explaining the tone of lament that haunts the poem.

“For Jane” opens with a striking image from nature—the way sun looks on a “spicebush”—and says how much Kenyon would have loved seeing that ordinary miracle. Notice the way the image (“silver glaze” and slender “curved wrist”) evokes qualities of the beauty, subtlety, and fragility often said to characterize Kenyon’s own poems. This and ensuing images are distinguished by Baranow’s keen eye: the plant is specifically named, and what is noticed is more the effect of light on it than the plant itself. In the next image, details are likewise cut with brilliance and precision, and more than one sense is invoked. We hear the “buzz” of the chainsaw, and we know exactly what kind of tree is being cut down (a “spruce”) and also that it was “old.” There is something brutal about an old tree being shredded by a chainsaw, and that presages what cancer does to the body, a topic we’ll hear about later. The stanza concludes with an abstraction that arises from the image “strife followed by solace,” which will become the poem’s main message.

Stanza 2 moves into reflection and memory, telling us that Kenyon’s husband Donald Hall has recently died from cancer and that the speaker remembers Kenyon “nursing him through” an earlier bout of that illness—ironic and poignant when we learn in the next lines that cancer is what killed Jane Kenyon after her own brief, brutal illness. In this stanza, the longest and lying at the very heart of the poem, the intensity of emotion peaks, and we hear the speaker’s protest and outrage in “the addled cells struck you next / deliberate, as if with malice.” This, readers, is the “strife.”

“Solace” comes next, as the speaker understands the futility of railing against what happened, and how there was nothing—not even that wonderfully consonant “poison nor prayer”—that could have been done to prevent it. “You left us” is an example of an effective line break which, for a few seconds, leaves us bereft before comfort is offered in “the calm lattice of your words.” That last phrase communicates a gift, and it is the gift of solace.

The speaker does find succor, and it is in nature, the same nature so often appreciated and celebrated in Kenyon’s poems. Cued by the word “now,” stanza 5 makes a clear turn, away from reflection and memory and back into the present and corporeal world. The first image is of a “freight train” whose labored movement perhaps represents the speaker’s effort to pull herself out of sorrow and strife. Then, “a cardinal dips past.” Suddenly there is lightness and life, underscored in “insistent life” and in the wonderfully visceral “the air sweats with it.” The last line moves again into abstraction, stating a larger truth that brings the poem to its very satisfying conclusion, one which, as Yeats said about good poem endings, clicks shut like the lid of a well-made box. This is a sad poem, readers, but one that offers its own comfort, something we need now more than ever.

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  • Gail Willis March 11, 2019 at 2:32 am

    When I saw this title I immediately thought of Theodore Roethke’s poem ‘Elegy for Jane (my student thrown by a horse) one of my favorites of his. The thread that ties that and this poem for me is that Roethke grew up in Saginaw Michigan and got his undergraduate degree at UM where Donald Hall later taught. Roethke taught at the University of Washington where I was a student in the early 1960’s shortly before his untimely though not unexpected death in 1963. During that same time Donald Hall gave a wonderful reading on campus. As a Junior high student I went to hear Roethke and Dylan Thomas give a reading. Roisterers both they had spent the afternoon drinking themselves into an almost stuperous state; that was an eye-opener for a literary wannabe little girl. It did not however dim my admiration for their poetry.