In Other Words Joy: 100 Poems
If you have ever been in the enviable position of considering the difference between happiness and joy, you might find yourself nodding when the latter is characterized as being wilder and more indescribable. Still, it is no surprise that many poets, even modernist poets, have tried to describe joy. Christian Wiman, a professor at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, collects such modernist attempts for us in a bracing book, Joy: 100 Poems. Before getting to the poems and prose excerpts, however, Wiman acknowledges a difficult question: How can we be joyous in times of sorrow, when children are starving, as they always are, someplace? Other questions may hover over the reader. How can we presume to read poems about joy while living in such turbulent times? Or do most generations perceive themselves as living in turbulent times?
In her essay “Joy,” Zadie Smith writes, “The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?” These pages encourage us to seek joy in everyday moments, even in the midst of despair. In his Autobiographies, quoted in this book, W.B. Yeats laments that life seems to him “a preparation for something that never happens.” On a facing page, the narrator of Yeats’ poem “Vacillation” sits in a solitary state in a “crowded London shop,” when, all at once, he feels transported.
While on the shop and street I gazed My body of a sudden blazed; And twenty minutes more or less It seemed, so great my happiness, That I was blessèd and could bless.
Isolation can yield inexplicably to joy, as Yeats demonstrates. Even 20 minutes of joy deserve our gratitude. Speaking of short bursts of joy, the poem “Slim in Atlanta” is notable. Sterling A. Brown’s poem, published in the early 1930s, sends up the culture in Atlanta, where African Americans were discouraged from “laughin’ outdoors.” In the poem, the law requires black people to do their laughing in telephone booths. When Slim Greer, a visitor to Georgia, takes in the hundreds lined up to get into booths, he laughs so hard at the spectacle and takes up so much time in one booth that those in line are forced to hold their sides in order to not break Georgia laws. In the end, an ambulance is sent for Slim. Brown braids humor and poignancy when he describes Slim’s exit:
De state paid de railroad To take him away; Den, things was as usural In Atlanta, Gee A.
A sense of humility is a fundamental condition for experiencing joy. In the featured excerpt from her essay collection The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson writes that in her childhood, “when the presence of God seemed everywhere and I seemed to myself a mote of exception, improbable as a flaw in the sun, the very sweetness of experience lay in that stinging thought — not me, not like me, not mine.” She further characterizes her childhood as being filled “with an intensity of experience that made happiness a matter of little interest.”
The less we chase joy and beauty, the less they might run from us. As Simone Weil writes in Gravity
and Grace, “Distance is the soul of beauty.” Maybe we scrutinize too much minutiae in the digital age, instead of keeping a sense of distance and experiencing life. When we are content with simply being, as Yeats was in that London shop, joy may deign to glance our way. In his manifesto “The Morning of Acmeism,” Osip Mandelstam writes, “To exist is the artist’s greatest pride. He desires no paradise other than being.” What a liberating thought!
The memorable poems here are the experiential ones. To read Sandra Cisneros’ poem, “Little Clown, My Heart,” is as endearing as watching a child doing somersaults even when she’s not quite ready, though it makes her hands hurt or her body flip in scary ways.
Alley-oop and here we go Into the froth, my life, Into the flames!
Joy needn’t be complicated. It can be as simple as peeling a grapefruit every morning for breakfast. Craig Arnold calls the act “so sweet a discipline” in his poem “Meditation on a Grapefruit.”
In “Wedding Poem” by Ross Gay, “a goldfinch kissing a sunflower” brings into focus how little we need in order to experience joy. Joy comes and goes unexpectedly, on its own terms. Writers are privileged in that they have the ability to preserve joy, which seems to delight in slipping through our grasping fingers. The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska ends a poem thus:
The joy of writing. The power of preserving. Revenge of a mortal hand. While joy and despair coexist in our world, while newspaper headlines blare out more despair than joy, it is worthwhile now and then to breathe in, breathe out, and watch for a goldfinch kissing a sunflower.