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Jane Kenyon's "The Blue Bowl"

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

Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon

Introduction and Text of "The Blue Bowl"

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

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.

(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 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 "The Blue Bowl"

Commentary

Jane Kenyon's eerily satisfying piece, "The Blue Bowl," is dramatizing the special relationship that a couple enjoyed with their recently deceased pet cat.

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 the above two lines. Rather matter-of-factly, the couple performs this practical act, but then the speaker oddly but accurately admits that there are greater losses than 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, the weather cooperates by storming all night. But by morning the weather had cleared and they heard a bird chirping outside from his wet perch. To the mourners, this intrusion of a bird sound seemed peculiarly out of place like some bumbling individual who means well but can quite express his meaning well. Their mourning was not over, and they were in no mood to enjoy the bright melodies of a birdsong just yet.

An Unfortunate Omission

Not a truly skilled poet, Jane Kenyon does offer a kind of simple poetry that is almost always eerily satisfying despite its flaws as it often focuses on life around the home. "The Blue Bowl" exemplifies that eery yet pleasant quality despite the major flaw of failing to reveal the name of the cat. That namelessness detracts from the suggested deep attachment and then heartfelt sorrow at the death of the pet. What cat lover would allow a belovèd feline pet to remain without a name, especially after it has become the subject of a memorial poem?

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes