Analysis of Poem The Blue Bowl by Jane Kenyon

Updated on March 17, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Jane Kenyon
Jane Kenyon | Source

Jane Kenyon and The Blue Bowl

The Blue Bowl focuses on the burial of a cat and is a touching poem that gives the reader a sensitive, detailed snapshot of family life.

Burying a beloved member of the family is always difficult and the speaker in this poem is no exception. The world is changed by such a loss or rather the emotional world we inhabit is never quite the same again.

This is the poem's theme - the contrast between the interior and the exterior, the emotional world and objective reality. When an animal humans have loved dies, there is always a vacuum left to fill and a sense of closure isn't easy to attain.

Jane Kenyon had an ongoing battle with depression most of her adult life. Poetry helped her put things into perspective, although she often was modest about her achievements, or didn't think she wrote well:

'I can't write a line that doesn't sound like pots and pans falling out of the cupboard.'

Domesticity and life on a rural farm, suffering and tranquil moments all feature strongly in her work which are mostly written in a calm, natural and straightforward manner.

Her most famous poem was inspired by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who she translated, and is called Having it out with Melancholy, a nine part poem dealing with the subject of depression and drugs.

The Blue Bowl was first published in Poetry Magazine in 1987 and appeared in the book Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, 1996.

Always keen to help other writers, a lover of nature, her empathy towards those in need of healing seems clear:

'We have the consolation of beauty, of one soul extending to another soul and saying, I've been here too.'

The Blue Bowl

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole. It fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
that grew between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.
We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows much 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.

Analysis of The Blue Bowl

The Blue Bowl is a free verse poem of 16 lines, a single stanza. It has no set rhyme scheme or regular consistent meter (metre in British English).

The tone is hushed, subdued, down to earth but it also suggests an undercurrent of fateful unease. There is an acceptance that somewhere along the line in life things will disappear; there will be loss but also a need to put these losses into perspective.

Reading through this short poem, which begins and ends with a simile:

  • like primitives (because they've used their hands, because they're country folk)
  • like the neighbor (an actual neighbor or a fictional type who always misunderstands a situation)

the reader is taken into a sad world, one that is both innocent and experienced enough to know that sadness comes in degrees. Losing a pet cat is awful but there are far worse things happening to animals and people out in the world.

  • The fact that the cat is buried with a bowl is significant. Just what sort of bowl it is we're not told, but it could be a food bowl, a symbol of love and nourishment and something the cat could take with it as it makes the journey to wherever it's going.

Not the internal rhyme of bowl/hole and toes/nose and hiss/his as the poem progresses, binding lines and meaning. And some alliteration brings texture to the sound - scraped sand....fur, the white feathers...than these.

The detail described as the cat lies in the ground and the sand and gravel are scraped back in, is revealing and intimate. Though there is no name for this animal he must have been loved - perhaps he was a working cat, who had to earn his keep.

Nature is very much in evidence after the burial. A storm comes and goes and a robin is noticed next day, singing. Such a natural thing to happen...but, the speaker cannot yet take it in for what it is, an expression of beauty, an outburst of communication.

The speaker seems to imply that the robin's song is an irritant; it doesn't quite fit in with the speaker's emotional world. This last line shows that the burial of the cat has upset the family emotionally, as expected, and that even a simple robin's song cannot bring happiness or joy, yet.

It's difficult to know what to do with a neighbor who is always saying the wrong thing. They cannot help it but it means that the recipient has to adjust their head and heart and sometimes that is a challenge.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey


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