Christian Wiman, editor, Joy:100 Poems (New Haven: Yale, 2017), 188pp.
You don't have to look far in our day for good reasons to despair. Government corruption and incompetence. Corporate malfeasance. Gun violence, opioid epidemics, systemic racism. The mindlessness and vulgarity of television. Powerful technological means like gene editing or Big Data with precious few ethical ends to constrain them. A third of American children who do not graduate from high school. And a world in which half the population lives on pennies a day.
This book of poetry offers a counter-intuitive piece of advice: don't go there. Don't take the bait. However low the sociological trends and opinion polls sink, don't yield to the spirit of despair. Rather, and despite all that we know and experience, choose the most radical act of cultural defiance — the subversive act of genuine joy. Joy, these poets affirm, isn't just possible. It's an essential aspect of being truly and fully human.
Joy is more like an epiphany than an intellectual effort or a psychological emotion. It is often mediated through an experience in nature, like the smell of summer rain, the beauty of a flower, or the pounding waves of the ocean surf. Joy comes to us in the sacred ordinary, like working in the garden or enjoying a long run. It's different than mere pleasure or happiness. Joy is a sort of provocation or longing that nothing can satisfy, a stab or ache that points us to the transcendent.
In my own favorite poem from this collection, joy is even a duty or obligation. Consider "A Brief for the Defense" by Jack Gilbert:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
We must risk joy! And we do so without any sense of false-consciousness, or even (especially?!) of false conscientiousness. In Christian parlance, the English mystic Juliana of Norwich (1342–1416) put it this way: "The greatest honor we can give almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love."