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Arts and Culture

Literary Biographies with Sue Ellen Thompson #2- Jane Kenyon


Welcome to Delmarva Public Radio’s celebration of National Poetry Month featuring “Literary Biographies with Sue Ellen Thompson.” I’m your host Harold Wilson. Today’s talk: “Marriage, Metaphor, and Mortality, the Poetry of Jane Kenyon” is the second in our series of lectures by Sue Ellen Thompson on the life and work of three great American poets: Robert Frost, Jane Kenyon, and Jack Gilbert.  Sue Ellen, an important poet in her own right, has published five books of poetry, served as editor of the 2005 edition of the Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry and is the recipient of numerous awards including nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Her poems have been read a number of times on National Public Radio’s “The Writer’s Almanac.”

All four of the programs in this series are produced by Delmarva Public Radio with the cooperation of the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, Maryland and The Talbot County Arts Council which funded the original lecture series on which this program is based. All of the lectures were recorded in the Frederic Douglass room of the Talbot County Free Library before a live audience.

In her poem, “Having It out with Melancholy,” Jane Kenyon reveals a life-long struggle with what she calls melancholy:

When I was born, you waited

Behind a pile of linen in the nursery

And when we were alone, you lay down

On top of me, pressing

The bile of desolation into every pore.

Anecdotal evidence and biographical sketches suggest that many highly creative people like Kenyon are no strangers to severe depression. We saw it in Robert Frost after the death of his wife, and biographical data suggests that depression and mania including despair, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts may have affected Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charles Dickens, to name just a few writers. Many people assume from this anecdotal evidence that there must be a direct link between creativity and depression. Scientific studies are mixed in terms of a direct link. However, they do seem to indicate that while a mild to moderate depressed mood might promote literary work, severe depression and mania can actually be a liability to creativity. Where does Jane Kenyon fit in this spectrum, and how did her melancholy affect her poetry?

Here is Sue Ellen Thompson and “Marriage, Metaphor, and Mortality, the Poetry of Jane Kenyon.”

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