Holleman: On Jane Kenyon and Puppies

Thanks to January featured author Marybeth Holleman for this final guest-post.

Lately I’ve been puppy-sitting Ivy, a three-month old Siberian Husky-Labrador mix. God, is she cute, and God, is she crazy-wild. The only way to keep her from tearing up my houseplants and irritating my two older dogs is for my husband to walk all three dogs in the morning, for me to walk them in the afternoon, and for me to spend the rest of the time playing fetch, tug-of-war, and where’s-the-biscuit.

So, yeah, it’s affected my writing time. But, yeah, it’s worth it. No one knows better how to be in the present moment than a puppy. And when we’re out on the trail, the three dogs racing ahead of me, Ivy with that loopy puppy gait that’s as much about rolling along as running, my writing muse smiles. She knows I’m doing good work.

Two of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver and Jane Kenyon , are often walking with their dogs in their poems. They must have learned, as I have, that walking with a dog wakes you up even more to the present moment than does walking alone. Alone, your limbs can go on autopilot, and you can slip into thought, the mind anywhere but where you are. With dogs, that doesn’t happen, at least not for long, and never with a puppy.

I’ve written here before about the power of poetry. Poets in particular seem good at capturing the power of an everyday moment, what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being.” But as Woolf and others have said, it’s the primary job of every writer to pay proper attention. When we are in the present moment, and paying attention to the present moment, inspiration finds us. And it’s often the seemingly mundane moments of life that bring us the greatest treasures. As the philosopher Nietzche wrote, it is “…the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling…” that makes up the best happiness. And the best writing.

Kenyon’s poems especially remind us of the power of these familiar moments. They are filled with the everyday, but they seem infused with such power we wonder what wizardry she’s up to. No wizardry, just skill in revealing what’s there all along. Take, for example, this poem:

The Clearing
The dog and I push through the ring
of dripping junipers
to enter the open space high on the hill
where I let him off the leash

… (click here to read the rest of the poem)

I recently read Donald Hall’s Without , a collection written during and after Kenyon’s illness and death. It sucks she left us so early, dying of cancer at the age of 47. What might she have written if given another 47 years, we’ll never know. But what she left behind! It was a short life, but one well-lived.

Lucky for us, besides all her poems, she left behind the guidelines she lived her writing life by, a list she gave in a lecture on writing. As you read them, you might just realize they’re exactly the kind of things you’d learn from walking with your dog. I have them posted near my desk, and I’ve shared them with every writing class I’ve taught. Read them attentively, as if you were sipping a fine wine or nibbling the finest chocolate. Or playing with a puppy.

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.
Take the phone off the hook.
Work regular hours.

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