New Hampshire's poet laureate at the time of her untimely death at age forty-seven, Jane Kenyon was noted for verse that probed the inner psyche, particularly with regard to her own battle against the depression that lasted throughout much of her adult life. Writing for the last two decades of her life at her farm in northern New England, Kenyon is also remembered for her stoic portraits of domestic and rural life; as essayist Gary Roberts noted in Contemporary Women Poets, her poetry was "acutely faithful to the familiarities and mysteries of home life, and it is distinguished by intense calmness in the face of routine disappointments and tragedies."
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kenyon spent her first two decades in the Midwest, attending the University of Michigan in her hometown through completion of her master's degree in 1972. It was while she was a student at the University of Michigan that Kenyon met her future husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. After her marriage, Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, a New Hampshire farm that had been in Hall's family for generations and where she would spend the remainder of her life.
Kenyon published only four volumes of poetry during her life: From Room to Room, The Boat of Quiet Hours, Let Evening Come, and Constance, and translated a volume of works by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Despite her relatively small output, her poetry was highly lauded by critics throughout her lifetime. As fellow poet Carol Muske remarked in the New York Times when describing Kenyon's The Boat of Quiet Hours, "These poems surprise beauty at every turn and capture truth at its familiar New England slant. Here, in Keats's terms, is a capable poet." Indeed, Kenyon's work has often been compared with that of English Romantic poet John Keats; Roberts dubbed her a "Keatsian poet" and noted that, "like Keats, she attempts to redeem morbidity with a peculiar kind of gusto, one which seeks a quiet annihilation of self-identity through identification with benign things."
The cycles of nature held special significance for Kenyon, who returned to them again and again, both in her variations on Keats's ode "To Autumn," and in other pastoral verse. In Let Evening Come, her third published collection—and one that found the poet taking what Poetry essayist Paul Breslin called "a darker turn"—Kenyon explored nature's cycles in other ways: the fall of light from day to dusk to night, and the cycles of relationships with family and friends throughout a long span of years brought to a close by death. Let Evening Come "shows [Kenyon] at the height of her powers," according to Muske in a review of the 1990 volume for the New York Times Book Review, with the poet's "descriptive skills . . . as notable as her dramatic ones. Her rendering of natural settings, in lines of well-judged rhythm and simple syntax, contribute to the [volume's] memorableness."
Constance began Kenyon's study of depression, and her work in this regard has been compared with that of the late poet Sylvia Plath. Comparing the two, Breslin wrote that "Kenyon's language is much quieter, less self-dramatizing" than that of Plath, and where the earlier poet "would give herself up, writing her lyrical surrender to oblivion, . . . Kenyon fought to the end." Breslin noted the absence of self-pity in Kenyon's work, and the poet's ability to separate from self and acknowledge the grief and emotional pain of others, as in her poems "Coats," "Sleepers in Jaipur," and "Gettysburg: July 1, 1863," which imagines a mortally wounded soldier lying in wait for death on the historic battlefield.
In Otherwise, a posthumous collection containing twenty poems written just prior to her death as well as several taken from her earlier books, Kenyon "chronicles the uncertainty of living as culpable, temporary creatures," according to Nation contributor Emily Gordon. As Muske added in the New York Times Book Review, Kenyon avoids sentimentality throughout Otherwise. "The poet here sears a housewife's apron, hangs wash on the line, walks a family dog and draws her thought from a melancholy, ecstatic soul as if from the common well, 'where the fearful and rash alike must come for water.' In ecstasy," Muske continued, Kenyon "sees this world as a kind of threshold through which we enter God's wonder."
Abranowicz, W. (n.d). Jane Kenyon. Retrieved Feb 7, 2017 from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/jane-kenyon
A Close Reading of "Otherwise"
The poem has no discernible rhyme scheme, syllabic pattern, or metaphorical language. The only true structure comes in its division into two stanzas and repetition of the phrase, "It could have been otherwise".
The speaker narrates a simple day in their life from wake to sleep. The first stanza, the morning, the speaker is alone, doing the work he/she loves. The second stanza, the afternoon and night, the speaker enjoys the company of his/her mate. The stanzas mark a change in the speakers attitude from enjoying solitary work to enjoying the company of a loved one.
Throughout the poem, the phrase "It could have been otherwise" is repeated after every image of a daily event. The idea of losing anything or everything we love permeates the poem and gives the speaker a depressing tone.
Many people read "Otherwise" knowing of Jane Kenyon's battle with depression and illness. To them the poem literally describes a day in Kenyon's life and the repetition of the phrase is the constant nagging, depression in her mind. Perhaps, the phrase is not depression, but thankfulness. Perhaps she makes a concerted effort to appreciate her life. People who see the speakers recognition of otherwise as thankfulness for life often find a spiritual message in the poem.
Kenyon's "Otherwise" is simple. The narration captures interest, but does distract from meaning. Each event is a simple image, not a metaphor. The organizations into two stanzas without rhyme isolates the purpose of the poem: otherwise. With a simple title, structure, and purpose "Otherwise" invites readers to contemplate the inevitable nature of otherwise.