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Jane Kenyon's "The Blue Bowl"

Updated on December 12, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Blue Bowl"

Jane Kenyon's “The Blue Bowl” consists of three versagraphs; each versagraph is primarily unrimed; although there are two internal, apparently accidental, rimes: line 2 "bowl" and line 4 "hole," line 7 "toes" and line 8 "nose." The poem moves methodically but without a discernible rhythm scheme.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The theme of this poem is a simple one: the death of a couple’s pet cat that they loved very much. The poem offers a glimpse into the couple’s sorrow while recognizing the place of such a loss in the vast scheme of things universal.

The Blue Bowl

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole.
They fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.

We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows keener than these.

Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.

Reading of Kenyon's "The Blue Bowl"

Commentary

First Versagraph: The Cat and the Bowl

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole.
They fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.

World history has reported that certain ancient peoples buried their dead with the latter's most prized possessions. Thus the speaker in Kenyon’s poem claims, “Like primitives we buried the cat / with his bowl.”

Then the speaker reports that with bare hands this grieving couple covered the cat and his bowl with “sand and gravel.” Describing the sound of the sand and gravel falling into the hole as a “hiss / and a thud,” the speaker then offers a hint of what the cat looked like: “his long red fur, the white feathers / between his toes, and his / long, not to say aquiline, nose.”

Second Versagraph: There Are Greater Losses

We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows keener than these.

The second versagraph consists of only two lines: “We stood and brushed each other off. / There are sorrows keener than these.” Rather matter-of-factly, they perform this practical act, but the speaker oddly but accurately admits that there are greater losses then losing a pet.

Third Versagraph: A Quiet Sadness

Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.

Despite the mature awareness that, “[t]here are sorrows keener than these,” the couple’s demeanor the rest of the day demonstrates the deep sorrow they are experiencing. The speaker reports that in silence they “worked, / ate, stared, / slept.” Most of what they did was, no doubt, their ordinary routine including working and eating and sleeping, but that they “stared” reveals that from time to time their minds were filled with sorrow from the recent loss of their cat.

Then quite befitting their somber mood, “It stormed / all night.” But by morning the weather had cleared and “a robin / burble[d] from a dripping bush.” To the mourners, this aviarial intrusion seemed peculiarly out of place “like the neighbor who means well / but always says the wrong thing.” Their mourning was not over, and they were in no mood to enjoy the bright melodies of birds just yet.

Always Simple, Eerily Satisfying

Jane Kenyon’s poetry is always simple while it focuses on immediate domestic experiences. Her poems are eerily satisfying, and “The Blue Bowl” is no exception, even though it is an unfortunate omission that the cat is never named in this poem.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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