Last fall I taught a poetry appreciation class to nonpoetry people, and the poem I brought to our first class was “Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon. We discussed the imagery, the repetition, and the feelings the poem aroused in us. I also told them a little about Kenyon.
“Would you be surprised to know she struggled with depression?” I asked them.
No one was.
Let Evening Come
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
And yet this is not a poem about depression, per se. Maybe it’s about the long December nights, especially in New Hampshire, where Kenyon served as state poet laureate, writing “it’s dark at four” in “Taking Down the Tree.” Kenyon passed away from leukemia at age 48, so maybe that could be in the mix as well.
Instead of maybes, Kenyon gives us concrete objects: cricket, hoe, barn, shed. She gives us weather: dew, wind, air. She gives us beauty — “let the moon disclose her silver horn” — and she gives us ugliness — “To the bottle in the ditch.” She gives us a woman with needles and yarn, and she gives us God. And she gives us evening, evening, evening, evening.
The refrain “let evening come,” comes irregularly. Struggling to learn this poem felt like my struggle to learn the alto parts of Christmas carols this year in the community choir after spending years as a first soprano. Sometimes the right note sounds wrong, until it’s heard within the chord. That’s this poem: comfort within dissonance.
Instead of writing out the entire poem, I wrote out the cues, almost like a cheat sheet. While memorizing, I used both hands, counting the stanzas on my left and the refrains on my right.
People who memorize poetry speak fondly about how the words will arise from nowhere, just when they need them. Matthew Kreider experienced this after he memorized a poem by Joanna Klink: “Just memorizing it felt like a gift, especially the way it seemed to grow inside me and speak to me…the way it popped into attention on the bus, on a sidewalk — unannounced…,” he told me.
I’d never had that happen until “Let Evening Come.” I chose it for December’s By Heart prompt because, for me and for many others, the holidays are hard. I hoped it would bring me comfort on comfortless days.
Spoiler alert: It did.
The poem seemed to know when it was needed, like the Thursday northwest winds started at 23 miles per hour and gusted to 50, and I had to be outside in the worst of it for a singing Christmas tree rehearsal. On that day Kenyon’s words popped into attention, unannounced, and whispered, “Let the wind die down.” Then I quietly said the whole poem.
It had already grown inside me. It had something to say.
“don’t / be afraid.”
Did you memorize “Let Evening Come” this month? Join our By Heart community and share your audio or video using the hashtags #ByHeart and #MemoriesWithFriends and tagging us @tspoetry. We also welcome photos of your handwritten copy of the poem.
By Heart for January
For the next By Heart gathering, January 25, we’ll memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (Betcha it doesn’t you take all month.)
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro