Posted by: megshoeman | November 19, 2008

Happiness: A Poem by Jane Kenyon


just no accounting for happiness,

or the way it turns up like a prodigal

who comes back to the dust at your feet

having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?

You make a feast in honor of what

was lost, and take from its place the finest

garment, which you saved for an occasion

you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

to know that you were not abandoned,

that happiness saved its most extreme form

for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never

knew about, who flies a single-engine plane

onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes

into town, and inquires at every door

until he finds you asleep midafternoon

as you so often are during the unmerciful

hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.

It comes to the woman sweeping the street

with a birch broom, to the child

whose mother has passed out from drink.

It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing

a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,

and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots

in the night.

       It even comes to the boulder

in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,

to rain falling on the open sea,

to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

I’ve been meaning to share that poem by Jane Kenyon. In moments of sadness, I sometimes turn to some of the poetry of Anne Sexton, a person who seemed to have been drowning in emotional pain since the day she was born. Lately though I’ve turned more instead to Kenyon’s work. Their respective poetry, I think, makes for valuable comparisons.  Both women were intimately acquainted with loss and grief, and in powerful ways.** The difference is: Anne finally gives in (She killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974). Jane, though she stumbles along in suffering at substantial depth, catches glimmers of light and glimpses of beauty as it really is. I mean no judgment here at all: pain is pain and it would be wrong to dictate its character to another person.  Both women work with beautifully, sometimes heartbreakingly true spiritual themes. Only one finally recognizes the realest of the real for who he is, and so she waits that out.

**See Anne Sexton’s poem 45 Mercy Street for a representative view of her forever longing to get back again what she’d after all lost for good.  Listen too, to Peter Gabriel’s beautiful song in honor of Anne. That’s Mercy Street, from his 1986 album So. Hear also Grey Street from Dave Matthews Band’s 2002 Busted Stuff.




  1. Kenyon’s partner, poet Donald Hall, did some beautiful poems about her during her illness and death. Powerful stuff.

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