Jane Kenyon, “Not Writing”

For a number of us, quarantine entails meeting our insecurities and rediscovering our weaknesses.

This isn’t to say that getting attention constantly is a good thing. But more social interaction, a more active, outgoing life, helps me fully realize what can be done with time alone. It helps put things in perspective, helps me think about what I value and why.

Right now, though, there’s nightmare, fantasy, and some kind of warped middle ground between them. That middle ground is not unlike shutting down, as it whispers “Why even bother?” in such a way that I don’t recognize the question. I do recognize there are answers to other dilemmas for which I need to wait. I do recognize that other attempts of mine to do more have failed. “Why even bother?” is inaudible, but its spirit characterizes my inaction, as if my spirit were less a dove and more like a wasp (no offense to wasps, which actually make efforts toward survival):

Not Writing (from Isak)
Jane Kenyon

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

Kenyon suggests that her inability to write is like not being able to enter her own brain. The wasp rises to the nest, daubs at the gray shape, but can’t get in. The wasp—all credit to it!—tries. It makes painting-like motions, multiple but clumsy attempts to enter. A writer trying to enter her “papery nest,” one would assume, has done all the prewriting exercises. She’s done freewriting for hours, read the work of others and made notes, checked her own diary entries, tried to write on an object she remembers from childhood, etc.

I want my “yeah, I’ve done nothing” confession to count the same as those efforts. On the one hand, it simply can’t–I’ve done nothing. The wasp built that house and is trying to enter it. Other writers are spending their time writing something unfit by their standards or trying to write.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a more fundamental issue, that of fumbling around with one’s own mind. That fumbling seems to link those of us who aren’t even trying with those who are trying with all their might.


A wasp rises to its papery nest under the eaves. There’s an ascent towards home for the wasp. Home isn’t some imagined promise. It’s real, “under the eaves,” anchored to a location, of substance itself. A writer’s products are real: the poems, essays, journals, stories, novels, even the bad ones, get readers and attention.

“Attention” requires disambiguation. I think of those who can never go without a significant other, not for one moment. Always a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and if they’re about to break up with one, the next is ready to go in a matter of minutes. I don’t want to judge, but I can’t relate to that need. I don’t need to know I’m wanted no matter what.

Then I think of those who desperately need respect. Everything is a show of authority. I’m not speaking of those who insist on the respect they deserve and use that respect to benefit everyone. No, I’m speaking of those who can’t show the least amount of respect, who try to make everything a joke or an excuse to act out, or those who create artificial standards for every person or situation they meet. Again, it’s a need for attention to which I don’t relate. When I’ve needed respect, it’s because people were treating me like I didn’t exist, like even my physical presence was negligible.

I can speak to what a lack of attention does. I replay in my head my “greatest hits.” Times I’ve given successful papers at conferences. Lectures or writings that inspired questions which had me musing for weeks on end. A lack of attention means I instinctively attempt to give myself attention, not realizing what I’m doing or why. It’s hard to see one’s own value in this state. It’s hard to remember that one’s sense of value is real, that it’s what makes home desirable in the first place.


It daubs at the gray shape, but seems unable to enter its own house. Our minds are more than what we value or don’t value. They can put us in motion, allowing us to start the activities which should benefit ourselves and others.

All well and good. So what does it mean to “daub” and fail to find words with which one is comfortable?

It seems like such a small problem. Plenty of people talk without caring about what they say and why. But for some of us, we really need to understand why. We want our words to count.

“Daub” is the key. We need to produce some kind of image which we can relate to and reflect on. That image should be one we can communicate to others. In my teaching recently, I’ve pointed out times that Aristotle seems to take on the persona of someone who is incredibly crotchety (“the young can’t govern! They’re all hormones! Excuse me while I yell at this cloud”), or how Kant may sound like an extremist in order to get us to clarify what we believe. The images of “crotchety old man” or “extreme fundamentalist” are necessary not just for my understanding, but for having any hope of clarifying my understanding. I’m probably wrong, and I’ll realize I’m wrong when what I observe in the text and through others’ reactions shows me another image I must take seriously.

The poem implies that for the writer, the image, for a variety of reasons, is missing. The daubing happens, but the words are either not there or don’t mean anything. Before writing on Kenyon, I tried writing on another poem which had one strong, quotable line and a bunch of other words that if I did something with, I would rewrite the entire poem. It’s possible to write and write and write and say… nothing.

The question is whether one wants to consider this—either my bad writing or the bad poem—a failure of craft. It could speak to someone, no doubt. It’s too glib to call it success, though, and its too personal to let the feeling of failure go. What’s at stake is that something essential needed to be said, not just for the writer but all of us, and at this moment its not being realized. There may be hope, but the future isn’t always helped through present inability.

1 Comment

  1. Heck, maybe we are written by words. I sort of believe that. And it’s not as if calamities are as rare as the hen’s proverbials. We been round this way before. It’s the prickly pear. ALL WE NEED NOW IS baNdiTS IN OUR aLphabets! But that didn’t happen it happens.

    SCENE I. The Forest of Arden.

    Enter DUKE SENIOR, AMIENS, and two or three Lords, like foresters

    Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
    Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
    Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
    More free from peril than the envious court?
    Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
    The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
    And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
    Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
    Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
    ‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors
    That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
    Sweet are the uses of adversity,
    Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
    Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
    And this our life exempt from public haunt
    Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
    Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
    I would not change it.

    Happy is your grace,
    That can translate the stubbornness of fortune
    Into so quiet and so sweet a style.

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