Jane Kenyon, “Who”

Who (from Otherwise)
Jane Kenyon

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?

Comment:

Admittedly, locating the Muse is difficult. Authors like Homer and Virgil seem divinely inspired. If we knew what moved them so, we might have access to divine status ourselves.

Kenyon’s speaker starts with what looks a more humble proposition. In attempting to write, in coming to language, she has to wonder who she is and what is within her. “These lines are written by an animal, an angel, a stranger sitting in my chair:” she’s at once all three and none at all. She is lowly, supernatural, and alienated from her own self. Despite the overtones of religious rhetoric, she has depicted the central puzzle of trying to be rational. One works to apprehend the truth, understand it fully, and apply it to one’s own life. Needless to say, these are three separate tasks with massive ironies lying in wait for those who think knowledge of one thing alone allows mastery over one’s own life. (1)

To be sure, the puzzle of trying to be rational leads back to the issue of divine status. If one could live “without trouble among books, and pots and pans,” one would be self-sufficient, ready to receive and use enlightenment. It almost seems only a god can truly know and use knowledge in the way we wish. It feels like the rest of us are confined to miserable ironies every time we make a pretension to knowledge. (2)

Kenyon, in the face of this, just wants to make her question clearer. “Who is it who asks me to find language for the sound a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes a stone?” The desire to convey experience to another comes from wanting to be a part of the human species. All the same, the religious image is unmistakable. It sounds like a lost sheep is spoken about here, a sheep trying to climb something it probably shouldn’t attempt. I posit she still wonders, specifically, what drives her. Who needs to feel part of humanity, who wants to describe our motions, both those sustainable and those imperfect? What does it mean to follow blindly and be satisfied, to be lost and perhaps saved?

Finally, what of an intellectual necessity? “The words which are my food” are spoken by the speaker who does not understand what she says. She’s articulated her ignorance, her attempt to have knowledge where she might collapse into belief. Ultimately, the poem’s progression turns life on its head. In order to understand the alienation one feels as a writer, one had to assume oneself a writer. This means that daily life, even with troubles regarding books and pots and pans, takes care of itself to a degree. To find the words that accurately find one a mere sheep is to find a truth that does not mean what we think it means. We are not, in a sense, mere sheep. Yet we are, because we needed those words, our own.

Notes

1) Xenophon, Memorabilia III.9.10 – “[Socrates said] kings and rulers are not those who hold the scepters, nor those elected by just anybody, nor those who obtain office by lot, nor those who have used violence, nor those who have used deceit, but those who understand how to rule.” Leaving aside the problem that Xenophon’s Socrates has completely dismissed political legitimacy in any recognizable sense, and in fact makes himself guilty of the charges by saying such a thing, we have an endorsement of a view opposite to mine by no less than Socrates. Can’t we say that true knowledge is mastery? Doesn’t knowledge enable perfect practice? The quick answer: Socrates’ rhetoric is excellent. Better than dynastic claims, currying the favor of voters, getting randomly elected, or any tyrannical attempts at rule is actually knowing what you’re doing. Knowledge is superior to the typical practice of politics, and even to a degree to law itself, when things have to get done. I don’t know that the scope of this rhetoric should be extended to individual lives without qualification.

2) There are people who have made it their mission to take poetic musings and use them as hard limits on what one is allowed to question and know. In this sense, and perhaps only this sense, are philosophy and poetry distinct.