In Other Words Joy: 100 Po­ems

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Priyanka Ku­mar

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.

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