New Release Review: The Heart’s Necessities

Jane Tyson Clement with Becca Stevens, The Heart’s Necessities (Plough, 2018)

The Heart’s Necessities is a book with at least four layers. The foundation layer is a selection of poems by Jane Tyson Clement, written over a period of more than fifty years and mostly unpublished during the poet’s life. Each section of poems, arranged in roughly chronological order, is introduced by a brief biographical sketch — the second layer — giving insight into the quiet but strong spirit behind this lifetime of work.

This would all be interesting enough, but there’s a third layer of commentary by Becca Stevens, a rising young singer-songwriter who discovered Jane’s poetry when looking for lyrics for a song to honor a friend who had died. Becca eventually set five of Jane’s songs to music and developed a deep sense of connection and admiration for her as a person and an artist, which shines through her personal notes on some of the poems that have been most meaningful to her. And finally, going beyond the printed page, you can watch and listen to Becca playing her songs here.

One can obviously approach this book in a number of ways. Some music-lovers will be interested in getting to the source of the lyrics they have enjoyed. Others with a connection to the Bruderhof, the Christian community that Jane joined as an adult, will appreciate following her spiritual path as revealed through her life and work. (Plough is the publishing house of the Bruderhof, which produces a wide range of titles on spiritual life, social issues, education, and more.)

I was simply intrigued to delve into the work of an unknown poet who seemed to have such appeal in a variety of directions. I found her simple, unpretentious style very appealing, and free of the strenuous word-wrestling that I often find off-putting in contemporary poetry. These are the poems of someone who is trying to think with the heart, with honesty and compassion.

Though Jane’s  faith was the center of her life, her poems seldom speak explicitly of God or Jesus. When they do, it is not in a narrow sectarian way, but as a universal creative presence, a spirit of love. Mostly, she writes from her personal perspective about nature, the people she cares for, her evolving ideals of peace and justice, and the paradoxical mix of sorrow and joy that makes up our life.

I’m so glad to have met these poems, and the songs that inspired them, and will find these words enriching my life for a long time to come. I am grateful for the permission to share a few samples with you below; to learn more or purchase the book, please check out this page.



I feel the stirring of the unprofitable years,
the weight of prophecy and ancient grief.
We talk, the words flash golden and then die;
the thin smoke curls, beyond the window’s dark
a bat cheeps, faint, repeating, in the night.

Words are the symbols of a mind’s defeat,
they shape the hollow air with resonant life,
and trick and twist and make the spirit reel,
vanish like ember’s fire, devour and leave
brave husks and echoes of lost majesties.


Jane Tyson Clement, from The Heart’s Necessities ©Plough Publishing House, 2019, used with permission.

Jane noted next to this poem: “after an intellectual discussion on the peace question.” I love how it brings out the insufficiency of words, the frustration of mere talk — and yet the act of writing such a poem is a struggle toward meaning as a creative deed.



Am I deceived, if I have given love
the voice to spell the essence of my days,
authority to rule in all its ways
and with its urgency my spirit move?
Am I betrayed, in yielding love this power,
in giving it the scepter and the crown,
the brightest banner and the sole renown,
unchallenged victor over every hour?

It is not I but love who is deceived,
and love who risks disaster, trusting me,
and puts its energy in jeopardy
and will by my defaulting be bereaved.

I have not strength nor majesty to bring
sufficient zeal to such a lord and king.

from the chapbook The Heavenly Garden (1952)

Jane Tyson Clement, from The Heart’s Necessities ©Plough Publishing House, 2019, used with permission.

Jane’s poems are often formal in rhythm and rhyme scheme, and she wrote a number of sonnets. Here’s one on a favorite philosophical theme.



I carry life or death within me,
this little stirring, blind and pushing creature
is the sweet paradox
weighing me down with either joy
or sorrow.

Teach me, my little one, the slow acceptance,
whether death or life is borne within me.

I am in God’s hands, and you
in God’s hands
through me —
all of it God’s: the light, the dark,
the winter,

and this wild, petal-drifting,
sun-dazed May.


Jane Tyson Clement, from The Heart’s Necessities ©Plough Publishing House, 2019, used with permission.

The paradox of death within life is one that Jane often ponders in her poetry. The essence of her spiritual path is a journey toward the acceptance she describes here, of the winter that we must live through in order to come to a truer experience of spring.



Do you read (or write) poetry?

I used to read a fair amount of poetry but have fallen out of the habit in recent years. Lately I’ve been hungering for it, though, and so I picked up The Heart’s Time compiled by Janet Morley, which offers a poem a day for the season of Lent and the first week after Easter, along with brief commentaries. It’s a wonderful journey through this time of year, which lends itself to meditation upon ourselves and our relationship to the world. Some of the poems are explicitly religious, some are not, but all seek to open our hearts and our vision to the wonder and surprise, as well as the pain and difficulties of this earthly journey. That can so often be poetry’s gift to us, whatever its ostensible subject.

Do you read poetry, and why? What are some of your favorite poets, or collections?

I’ve been quite astonished that not only have I started reading poetry, but I became inspired to write some again after a fallow period of a couple of decades. I was so impressed last year by Simon’s writing a poem a day during Lent, but thought I would never, ever be able to do the same. However, this year for some reason I just started on Ash Wednesday and have continued on an almost daily basis. It’s been a surprising and wonderful gift to me to discover how words can bring healing, insight, and rejuvenation when I let them speak to me in this way.

Below, I humbly share some of my poetic efforts with you. If you’ve written anything I’d love to know about it as well!

This one was addressed to my husband, who inspired a lot of my poems.

The game

When I throw thoughts at you
They come back as poems.
Like tennis balls
I toss and bounce,
Except they change in midair.

A flower, a bird,
An arrow, a stone –
Watch out, this game could get dangerous.

Swish, smack –
Does your head hurt
From all these knocks?
Should I stop flinging
My shouts of self
At your poor battered skull?

Or will you one day
Wake up and catch me
And fire back your name?


A poem about prayer that is also itself a prayer:


Let silence grow in me
Deep as the falling snow
That blankets the world in softness
Made of invisible stars.

Let peace expand in me
Wide as the mountain range
That reaches the bounds of my seeing
And stretches to infinite space.

Let rhythm breathe in me
Steady as the pulsing sea
That through storm and stillness
Faithfully turns the tide.

Let rest envelop me
Healing as sacred sleep
That restores my self in darkness
And wakens my inner light.


The idea for the following poem came as I was taking a walk, looking at all the different colors found in mosses, leaves, etc. and thinking that trying to describe them as different shades of “green” would not work at all for someone who had not or could not see that color, and therefore would have no idea what “green” meant.

Seeing Green

If I say “green”
It cannot mean
A thing unseen.

Within the mind
Of one born blind
No green you’ll find.

Can words be found
To say green’s sound?
Sharp? Hollow? Round?

Or can I tell
Its taste or smell?
Not very well.

I’ll tell you where
Things greenness bear:
Leaf, meadow, pear.

Such signs, I say,
But point the way.
The essence? Nay.

That you must try
To come nearby
With your own eye.

And when you’ve seen
Your own true green
We’ll speak, and mean.

Blogging the Spirit: The Last Invocation

Afternoon in November by J. Francis Murphy – 1917 (source)


At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.

Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks–with a whisper,
Set ope the doors O soul.

Tenderly–be not impatient,
(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh.
Strong is your hold O love.)

–Walt Whitman

November is traditionally a time for thinking of those who have crossed the threshold of death, and who can feel very close to us in this season of mists and shadows. At a gathering that I attended earlier this month, the poem above was read, and continued to sound in my mind. Whitman evokes a quiet but powerful picture with the rhythm and sounds of his language.

What has spoken to your spirit lately? Please join us on the last Sunday of the month at Relevant Obscurity if you’d like to share in this topic.

Words and Pictures: Pruned Oak

Landscape with an Old Oak Tree, Adriaen van Ostaede – 1650 (source)

Pruned Oak

Oh oak tree, how they have pruned you.
Now you stand odd and strangely shaped!
You were hacked a hundred times
until you had nothing left but spite and will!

I am like you, so many insults and humiliations
could not shatter my link with life.
And every day I raise my head
beyond countless insults toward new light.
What in me was once gentle, sweet, and tender
this world has ridiculed to death.
But my true self cannot be murdered.
I am at peace and reconciled.
I grow new leaves with patience
from branches hacked a hundred times.
In spite of all the pain and sorrow
I’m still in love with this mad, mad world.

— Hermann Hesse

From The Seasons of the Soul: The Poetic Guidance and Spiritual Wisdom of Hermann Hesse, translated and with commentary by Ludwig Max Fischer, published by North Atlantic Books, original work in German copyright © 2011 Surhkamp Verlag Berlin. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books; please do not copy without permission.

New Release Review: Galvanized

Leland Kinsey, Galvanized: New and Selected Poems (2016)

GalvanizedGalvanized came to me courtesy of Green Writers Press in Vermont (an exciting new publishing company about which I’ll be telling you more very soon). It arrived at the perfect moment, since my intention is to focus on poetry and drama during this month for my Reading New England Challenge, and I was looking to explore some contemporary voices of the region. I was so glad to meet a new-to-me poet through this marvelously rich and rewarding collection, which gathers selections from seven volumes of poetry published between 1991 and 2014, along with thirteen new poems.

Leland Kinsey’s Vermont roots go deep, as his Scottish ancestors settled there in the 1800s, and he grew up on the family farm. The hard work of rural living forms the bedrock of his poetry, which often deals with seemingly prosaic actions and events: repairing a chimney, making pickles, pulling weeds. But this is no prettified picturing of country life. Violence and injury are not uncommon motifs — one poem is descriptively titled “Small Wounds and Minor Ailments”; another begins “The whitewashed walls were smeared with blood / the day the bull rampaged inside the barn” (from “Surviving Bulls”). Kinsey’s spare, restrained, but strongly rhythmical style embraces and contains these extremes of experience, both the sensational and the mundane, while delivering insights that are visceral, unsentimental, luminous and raw.

Many of the poems are firmly based in the Vermont countryside, but others take us further afield, to Alberta, Havana, Tanzania. However exotic the setting, the basic needs and drives of human life remain constant, and are given dignity and grace through Kinsey’s thoughtful poems. Far better than my attempts to describe them is for you to read an example; thanks to Green Writers Press for permission to reprint the following in its entirety. Like many of the poems in this volume, it addresses the experience of New England families through the generations — what passes away and what remains. I hope that you will enjoy it, and will seek out more of this fine poet’s work.


by Leland Kinsey

I used to read Farmer Boy to my boy
just as my mother read it
to my siblings and me.
But I sit on his bed in bright lamp light.
My mother sat at the top
of the stairs, between bedrooms,
and read by candlelight
and later flashlight,
the wan column of light falling
on each of us when she was done.
The house had been wired
during the war by Rural Electric,
so only the downstairs was done
and poorly. She sometimes sat
in brighter light unseen by us
and played piano for us.
Through the open stairwell door
music flowed, the reverse of cascades,
rose up riser and tread and cold air well
as she played slow jazz, show tunes,
and fast paced hymns.
We slept after our chores
while father and she finished theirs.
I often sang to my son,
work songs from the thirties
or protest songs from my own youth.

The boy in the book knew cold —
driving oxen in deep snow,
cutting ice —
as did we. Water in winter
froze on our dressers,
and the iron stove in the morning
sat like fresh dug Arctic ore.
Woods work for firewood
or logs to sell often chilled
hands and feet beyond feeling,
but, Oh, the ache of its return.
My son’s known cold, but not that,
or the purple swelling of frozen ears,
or the agony of chilblains
after outdoor winter work.
But neither did his kinder childhood
allow him to know
the work he did helped pull
the family through.



Reading New England: Poetry and Drama


800px-The_Tenth_Muse_by_Anne_BradstreetThis April is the twentieth anniversary of National Poetry Month, an appropriate time to explore the poetry and drama of New England. The orally transmitted songs and rituals of the Native Americans came first, of course, but are largely lost to us. The first English-speaking American poet, Anne Bradstreet, was one of the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Her book The Tenth Muse was published in London in 1650, a significant landmark for American literature. Among her descendants are several other distinguished writers, including Sarah Orne Jewett, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Richard Henry Dana.

The works of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets who followed Bradstreet are pretty obscure now, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some of the greatest American poets and poetry came out of New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton…an incomplete list can be found at the end of the New England Book List, and further suggestions are most welcome.

November 1954: The Bristol Old Vic Company in a scene from Arthur Miller's play 'The Crucible', which told the story of the Salem witch trials. Original Publication: Picture Post - 7840 - Crucible - unpub. (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Getty Images)
The Crucible performed by The Bristol Old Vic Company, 1954. (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Getty Images)

When it comes to drama, it’s not so easy to track down plays set in New England. We do have the Big Three that are consistently ranked among the greatest American plays ever: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (New Hampshire), Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill (Connecticut), and The Crucible by Arthur Miller (Massachusetts). But beyond these, my investigations turned up very little, and almost nothing I had ever heard of. The Pulitzer-prize winning Painting Churches by Tina Howe is one exception. If you have read or seen any others, please let me know!

As for my own plans, I have to revisit Our Town, since I now live 15 minutes away from Peterborough, New Hampshire, the basis for the Grover’s Corners of the play. I’d also like to read Long Day’s Journey into Night and check out the film with Katharine Hepburn, and maybe The Crucible as well. I wish I could see some live productions, but those are few and far between in my area.

In the realm of poetry, I’m curious to look into Anne Bradstreet and maybe some other early poets, and I’d definitely like to revisit some of my favorites from Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I might even get around to the Dickinson biography I have sitting on my shelf, My Wars Are All Laid Up in Books. There’s also a new book by David Orr that looks interesting, The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. I’ll look for some more modern and contemporary poets to explore too. And as always, I’m looking forward to seeing what you discover!

Thornton Wilder pantomiming scenery while playing the Stage Manager in Our Town. Wellesley, MA, 1950. Source


Literary Pilgrimages: Emily Dickinson’s House

2015-09-21 10.19.25
The Dickinson Homestead

This visit was made in anticipation of next year’s challenge, Reading New England. To learn more and sign up, click on the link.

In Amherst, Massachusetts stands the house where Emily Dickinson lived during most her life and wrote much of her incredible poetry. It’s now a museum where you can see some of the original furnishings owned by the family, view a reconstruction of Emily’s bedroom, and hear about her life and work.

Though I had been there more than twenty years ago, I had almost no memory of the visit and I thought it was time to make another pilgrimage. I was so glad I did, as I gained a new appreciation and understanding of the poet’s family and surroundings. Although in comparison to some other author-house-museums I have seen the physical furnishings are spare, our tour guide was able to bring them to life through stories, anecdotes and quotations from the poetry. I found it especially enlightening to stand in Emily’s corner bedroom, with its large windows giving a sweeping view of the hills to the southeast (if we imagine away the trees and power lines that have grown up since her time). Without leaving the house she could make observations such as “I’ll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time” and “A bird came down the walk: He did not know I saw.”

We looked briefly at some facsimiles of the manuscript poems, with their multiple variants of many words and phrases scribbled in the margins, and considered how differently they can read when different editorial choices are made. Seeing Emily’s actual handwriting, even if only as a photocopy, brought us closer to her creative process.

2015-09-21 10.15.27
The Evergreens

It was also very illuminating to hear about Emily’s family: her father, who bought her all the books she wanted and then begged her not to read them; her mother, from whom she remained somewhat distant until the older woman needed care in old age; her sister, who burned her letters on Emily’s request after her death but thankfully preserved the poems; and her brother, with whom she shared the illicit reading of novels and conspired to hide them in the piano.

This brother, Austin, married one of Emily’s close friends and moved next door. Their house, The Evergreens, was also part of the tour, and is in a fascinating state of decrepitude. The furnishings and wallcoverings are largely original, a marvelous collection of Victoriana, but have suffered much during the years and have not all been restored to glossy museum-style perfection. This was a bit unusual, but somehow made them more poignant and real.

Here we heard more about family feuds and scandals, particularly in connection with arguments over Emily’s poetry after her death. It’s strange and sad that such a legacy of genius became a bone of contention among her heirs, but the fact that she never settled upon a final, “publishable” form for her poetry in some ways invited in this response. She remains an enigmatic, ambiguous figure, leaving us with much to decipher and wrestle with in our understanding of who she was and what she meant to say.

Here are a few more images, which the museum graciously granted me permission to share with you:

The wallpaper in Emily's room has just been restored from fragments found during remodeling. Photo courtesy of The Emily Dickinson Museum.
The wallpaper in Emily’s room has just been restored from fragments found during remodeling. Photo courtesy of The Emily Dickinson Museum.


Vintage cooking implements in the kitchen of The Evergreens. Photo courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum.
Vintage cooking implements in the kitchen of The Evergreens. Photo courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum.


A poetic fragment shows how the poet worked with many variants for a single word or phrase. Photo courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

In 90 short minutes there was only time to touch briefly on the many mysteries of Emily’s life, and I left wanting to know more. I bought a biography, My Wars are Laid Away in Books, that I hope to read next year for Reading New England, and I’m inspired to revisit the poetry as well. Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem?