Joy, a collection of poems 100 poems about joy edited by Christian Wiman. I finished reading it a little over a week ago but I’m not really finished with it. It’s one of those books that lingers with you even after you’re done (kinda like Gilead or Stoner). I found myself returning to it, flipping to random pages or to pages I had marked, reading and rereading passages and poems. It has a pleasant and calming effect, and I know that can be found in reading in general but there was something about it that I can’t quite explain.
The knowledge of the fallen world does not kill joy, which emanates in this world, always, constantly, as a bright sorrow. -Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, qtd. by Wiman in “Joy” pg. 22
Modern and postmodern literature dismissed joy a long time ago and glorified nihilism and cynicism. Joy in its non-self-help form is portrayed as meaningless and frivolous. And that’s putting it nicely. Wiman is trying to reclaim the term in this collection and he quotes Derek Walcott “The Elegist”:
I once asked [Zagajewski] if he believed in happiness…and he said that he does not believe in Happiness, but he does believe in Joy. Happiness if for the Declaration of Independence, a political condition, and also for the ending of movies. Joy, by contrast, is an illumination, as in Blake and Wordsworth and Rilke, a benediction, a visitation. In the twentieth century, it required nothing less than a belief in angels.
What does such an epiphany, in a taxi in jerky traffic at mid-morning with the crowds on the pavement, and with the sense of impatience and rage that a busy city can convey–what does such a visitation of delight do but confirm the reality of the soul, the redemption of experience, the affection of hope, of gratitude to the light and to the unheard music that light contains, blessing the hectic avenue as well as a railway platform in unhappy Poland, but most of all confirming a calling, to be a poet, and to have the friendship of poetry by a writer in your own time, one who believes in archaism, with capital letters, such as Joy and Beauty? Why be a coward, like almost every critic?
-Derek Walcott qtd. in Joy ed. Wiman pg. 61, emphasis mine.
So being the anxious person that I am, I was hesitant about reading it at first. I was afraid it’ll be another one of those cheesy self-help pseudo-psychology books that talk about happiness and joy or “positive emotions.” Those books have turned happiness and joy into something of a commodity, a pathetic and insincere object that you can achieve if you try hard enough. But Wiman does something else in Joy. The poetry collected in the anthology captures that evasive essence of joy in a sincere and beautiful way. It acknowledges the complexity and simplicity of the feeling, the sorrow and bliss that accompany joy. It allows you to experience joy, the joy of reading, the joy of poetry.
The anthology left me speechless. It’s a joyful experience. I found myself smiling, chuckling, and sometimes getting all teary as I read it. I felt a sense of awe and bliss. And sometimes I felt nothing. It’s utterly beautiful.
Some of my favorites were: “Joy” by Lisel Mueller, “Meditation on a Grapefruit” by Craig Arnold, “Happiness” by Paisley Rekdal, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” Wendell Berry (which is one of my all time favorite poems even before reading the anthology), “Late Beethoven” by Adam Zagajewski, and “The Answer” by Sara Teasdale. But nearly all the poems in the collection are incredible.
What Wiman successfully does in this anthology, and he talks about it in the introduction, is show how some feelings like joy cannot be explained and theorized and the moment you do that you’re missing the whole point of it. If you try to nail it down, it’s no longer joy. And this is where poetry and literature comes in, poetry allows you to experience joy and even understand it in a way that language fails and it acknowledges how it is different for each person. There are some entries where the joy explored is that related to marriage, childbirth, food, religion, travel, pain, health, etc…. it reminds me of William James’ approach to religion in “Varieties of Religious Experiences,” it is a universal yet individualized experience and the individual experience is as valid as the universal one. If I tried to describe the book, or the poems, I would be selling it short and robbing you of the experience. I recommend picking it up and flipping to any poem and just read it, slowly. Don’t rush it or try to understand it, simply read it and savor the moment. I know this may sound like something out of gnosticism or a poster at Target, but trust me it’s not as bad as it sounds.
‘I hear you are entering the ministry,’ the woman said down the long table, meaning no real harm. ‘ Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?’ And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else’s. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure. Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death.
I pick the children up at the bottom of the mountain where the orange bus lets them off in the wind. They run for the car like leaves blowing. Not for keeps, to be sure, but at least for the time being, the world has given them back again, and whatever the world chooses to do later on, it can never so much as lay a hand on the having-beenness of this time. The past is inviolate. We are none of us safe, but everything that has happened is safe. In all the vast and empty reaches of the universe it can never be otherwise than that when the orange bus stopped with its red lights blinking, these two children were on it. Their noses were running. One of them dropped a sweater. I drove them home. -Fredrick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, qtd. in Wiman pg. 32