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Poet Jane Kenyon’s Advice on Writing: Some of the Wisest Words to Create and Live By

“Be a good steward of your gifts.”

In Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life — one of the finest, most insightful reflections on the creative experience ever committed to words — writer Dani Shapiro mentions a set of instructions by the poet Jane Kenyon (May 23, 1947–April 22, 1995), a writing mantra of sorts, which she keeps tacked above her desk.

Literature being the original internet, I followed this analog hyperlink to Kenyon’s A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, The Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem (public library) — an altogether marvelous posthumous collection.

These uncommonly sage instructions appear in a piece titled Everything I Know About Writing Poetry — Kenyon’s notes for a lecture she delivered at a literary conference in 1991, a superb addition to this growing compendium of writers’ advice on the craft. Although her advice is aimed at poets, at its heart is tremendous wisdom that applies to every field of creative endeavor and can electrify any artist. Spoken with the unpretentious honesty of her own experience as a working poet with decades of trial and triumph under her belt, Kenyon’s counsel comes as an offering of love:

Tell the whole truth. Don’t be lazy, don’t be afraid. Close the critic out when you are drafting something new. Take chances in the interest of clarity of emotion.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

The closing passage — the one tacked above Shapiro’s desk — contains some of the most ennobling tenets for a human being to live by:

Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly wonderful A Hundred White Daffodils with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the vitality of “fertile solitude,” Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking, and Mary Ruefle on the nourishment of good books, then revisit Shapiro’s indispensable memoir of the writing life.

Published September 15, 2015




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