Joy's Mysteries

For the modern poet, joy is a problem. Writing of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the years after his conversion to Christianity, T.S. Eliot confessed how hard it could be for the reader to embrace a poetry of salvation, beatitude, and joy:

It is apparently easier to accept damnation as poetic material than purgation or beatitude; less is involved that is strange to the modern mind . . . We have (whether we know it or not) a prejudice against beatitude as material for poetry.  The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries knew nothing of it; even Shelley, who knew Dante well . . . was able to enounce the proposition that our sweetest songs are those which sing of saddest thought.

Since at least the psychological pronouncements of Thomas Hobbes, our culture has granted a wider span to fear and suffering than to love and joy. Hobbes claimed we could love only what we know, but we could fear the unknown precisely as unknown; the world contains vastly more that is terrible than adorable. Because the fear of suffering is so widespread, he judged that it is also the fundament of human experience, the one universal fact, and the general condition of mankind. We trust therefore that the painful approximates more closely to the real than does the joyful. Fear delivers truth, joy mere anesthetic. (Eliot himself admitted to one of his correspondents that his tenuous conversion to faith in Christian salvation was rooted in an unshakable fear of damnation.)

If this is a genuinely modern prejudice, it poses particular problems for the poet. As Eliot suggests, we presume that not just emotion but sorrowful emotions are more universal and so must also serve as the occasion and subject of the greatest poetry. But this leaves out, at minimum, some of human experience, and it even leads us to the doubtful judgment that Dante was at his greatest in writing the Inferno—that tour through hell which is in many ways a mere elaboration of Virgil—and that those two canticles in which he scales the heights of the cosmos, the Purgatorio and Paradiso, are less great or “sweet.”

One has only to consult the general course of the arts over the last 200 years to confirm that we do suffer from just the prejudice Eliot says we do. Although our art is rarely tragic, it is typically traumatic; if it has lost the capacity to imagine genuine damnation, it nonetheless excels at depicting meaningless suffering and melancholy. We have a thousand and one ways to express our woe.

Even so, Eliot’s words cannot ring wholly true. If the arts in general have taken sorrow for their subject, that increasingly invisible art form, the lyric poem, has always reserved a place for the various species of bliss, epiphany, ecstasy, wonder, and joy as its subject matter. If we are going to understand the meaning of joy, and perhaps find a place for it in our age, then doing just what Christian Wiman aims to do in his quirky new anthology, Joy: 100 Poems, may make a good deal of sense.

Wiman, himself a talented American poet, and the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013, proposes at the outset that “the best way of thinking through any existential problem is with poetry.” In one sense, he is surely correct. When Socrates criticized the poets in his dialogues, he did so only because they were capable imitators of appearances but lacked the formal knowledge of truth itself. Jacques Maritain, early in the last century, offered a more charitable formulation of this quality: Although the philosopher may rise by way of abstraction to a knowledge of essential being, the poet operates within the concrete reality of existence itself and produces, in turn, a work that provides us a felt, intuitive, but nonetheless intellectually insightful grasp of being. Lyric poetry in particular has to convey a rich and accurate sense of the experience of our existing. That is its proper function.

And faithful to this poetic calling Wiman tries to be. In an extended essay, “Still Wilderness,” he meditates on the nature of joy with a minimum of philosophic abstraction and chooses, instead, to circle around the question by way of the often-conflicting testimony of a good range of modern poets. He does so to explain his rationale for gathering together 100 poems by modern poets and a couple dozen short prose excerpts by various hands, saying that while they by no means settle the question of joy, they do suggest what human experience shows us about it, and how that experience has been interpreted over the last century.

Modern thought has, on the whole, succumbed to what Hans Jonas called the “ontology of death.” From Descartes and Hobbes forward, Jonas argued, human beings came to view the universe as dead matter, governed by mechanistic laws and energized only by physical force. In this thoughtless, material abyss, life was the strange exception.

Just over a century after Descartes and Hobbes, William Wordsworth and other poets fashioned a response to this vision in what came to be called “romanticism.” If the world, like the modern industrial city, was primarily a grim place of dust, stone, metal, and machinery, in which we have imprisoned ourselves out of the fear of death, then the poet’s task was to reaffirm the natural world as a last refuge of spiritual freedom. Nature was a loving mother with whom we could enter into relation. In that relationship, moreover, our spiritual imagination cooperated with Nature’s forms to create the world, and this—however vaguely—afforded us a revelation, a sign of our divine, spiritual birth from the God of Nature. Such moments of divine revelation in Nature’s beauty and sublimity are just what Wordsworth meant by joy. The poet’s task was to acknowledge the suffering of the city but to afford the burdened spirit, “in the city pent,” with a winged glimpse of its true destiny.

Romanticism was a rearguard defense, as is only too obvious given its apparent internal contradictions. If the world is really just composed of dead matter, how can any material stuff, even that of the unspotted wilds of nature, serve to affirm the reality of spirit? And, if our minds play such an integral role in constructing our experience of the world, might it not be more accurate to say that we make Nature’s meaning—that we foist or project our meaning onto it—than to say that the divine spirit enters into relationship with us and impregnates Nature with significance for the sake of our discovery and consolation? The soul comes to seem a prize dearly bought, a useless consolation prize floating atop the mechanistic universe as it pursues its senseless grind.

I think the desperate ambiguities of Wordsworth long ago adequately explain why joy should have become such a central subject of lyric poetry, against the grain of the arts in general, and why, further, Wiman evidently found it a very tall order indeed to anthologize poetic accounts of joy. Most modern poetry even now persists within Wordsworth’s basic framework, but the poets’ responses to it are various indeed.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai appears in the early pages to affirm the initial Hobbesian judgment about the world as a place of fear and suffering:

The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office.

Pain’s reality is particular and definite, whereas we can describe that rare thing, joy, only with clichés or frankly acknowledged failure: “I have no words.” But joy does have this much in common with pain: they are both brute facts that occur whether or not we have a theoretical apparatus to explain them.

Moreover, joy has something pain clearly lacks. The cause of pain is seldom far to find and we generally judge its reality to be less rich than its experience was overpowering. Hence, we tend to forget pain as soon as it leaves us, we look back on it and laugh, and we even speak of the “banality” of evil. Joy, in contrast, even when its occasion is right before us, seems to conceal its true cause in mystery. There is always more to it than meets the eye, and so it requires of us some kind of explanation. One cannot help but experience joy and believe in its reality, but its full meaning always seems to exceed what we can say about it.

The poems gathered here affirm all this. True, that Nietzschean materialist and California poet, Robinson Jeffers, has little more to say about joy than that it is inferior to nature’s wild strength and will be crushed soon enough; but most of these poems make good on, as it were, clarifying why joy is an abiding mystery to whose reality we are often at a loss to respond.

Many of these poets give us a slightly more disenchanted vision of what is still basically Wordsworth’s world, revealing in gritty detail the viscera of the world’s body even as they affirm its capacity to illuminate the spirit. Galway Kinnell writes of a “small boy” at “dusk in Illinois,” who “After an afternoon of carting dung” hears “the pond frogs all / Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.” It is not just noise but “fine music” and is his first wakening to happiness. He is not alone; the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig also heard some frogs and had an epiphany.

Richard Wilbur’s “Hamlen Brook” is perhaps the most successful investigation of the Wordworthian conceit, and not only because it is a very fine poem by perhaps the finest American poet of the last century. It also registers the central problem of joy for a people who may experience it in the natural world but, predisposed to the “ontology of death,” struggle to trust its deliverances:

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

Does joy grace us with knowledge of our meaning, purpose, and spiritual transcendence, or does it merely “trick” us, promising what it cannot deliver, hinting at mystery but only as a joke?  Craig Arnold’s “Meditation on a Grapefruit” offers one response to this doubt. Joy is an aesthetic pleasure—“To ease / each pale pink section out of its case / so carefully without breaking / a single pearly cell”—and, as such, is “a discipline / precisely pointless.” For Jack Gilbert, joy is a cruel fact, a proof of the world’s absurdity and the viciousness of all attempts to justify it. “Sorrow is everywhere,” he begins, before rejoining sarcastically, “But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.”

Many of these poets perceive that joy entails being drawn out of ourselves, in keeping with Wordsworth’s romanticism, but they truncate such ecstasy even more than Wordsworth did.  While Wordsworth certainly did not expect us to encounter the divine outside the world of nature, poets such as Michael Donaghy, Denise Levertov, and Grace Paley figure joy in terms of still more immanent communions: sex, marriage, the union of one body with another.

I counted at least four poems that embraced sweat and urine as central motifs, as if to say that, yes, joy is caused by an experience of self-transcendence and communion, but not with the Holy Spirit. Joy’s more credible being is the naked body and the grind of flesh and bone. “The ache of marriage,” Levertov writes, “thigh and tongue, beloved, / are heavy with it.” Thom Gunn’s clever “Yoko” performs the final reductio ad absurdum, here, by hinting that all joy may be nothing other than the inane, instinctive, tail-wagging delight of a dog smelling his master.

Many of the poets included are true to their existential calling. Donald Hall, Les Murray, Derek Walcott, Elizabeth Bishop, and Paisley Rekdal all succeed in conveying the fullness of joy as an experience and respect its mystery. Rainer Maria Rilke rightly observes that joy occasions an increase in being, an ever-more-fullness of existence, while Louis MacNeice manages to convey the timelessness of the experience of joy, in whose sweet isolation we cannot help but affirm “God or whatever means the Good.”

Less happily, Li-Young Lee shows what happens when a poet mistakes such existential perceptions for a definitive (and arrogant) philosophical insight. The result? Variations on the theme of the liberal Protestant theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, wherein “religion” is reduced to a feeling for the infinite, the poet elevated to its true priest, and all knowledge of God dismissed as “calcified poetic images.” Some readers may embrace this, in which case they will be better off reading Matthew Arnold; for the rest of us, it sounds like a category mistake.

Joy remains a problem in our experience and in our poetry, I have proposed, and in at least three ways. First of all, given the “ontology of death” that governs the unreflective philosophy of our age, joy should not exist, but it does. Second, we have difficulty representing it in a compelling way; there are simply more adequate words for the hard slap of pain and suffering, and so, to speak of joy often feels unreal. Third, and finally, joy takes hold of us, not we it, and, while our lives depend on understanding its deliverances accurately, if not adequately, most of the time our language reduces or misinterprets the depths of joy rather than conveying its abiding fullness and mystery.

Wiman wonderfully speaks to this last point in observing that joy allows us to “claim again” the word “soul” and, further, that joy “is what keeps reality from being sufficient unto itself, which is to say, it is what keeps reality real.” Here he comes closest to what the philosopher Josef Pieper argued in his many books. Joy can seem like a mere feeling; enjoyment, after all, means simply “to take pleasure” in something, and many poets gathered here reduce joy to pleasure. But others perceive, as Pieper did, that joy is the fruit of the soul’s spontaneous recognition that the world is the teeming, prodigal gift of God who makes that world’s being to be true, to be good, and to be beautiful. The “ontology of death” was wrong from the start; all things are alive with the prodigal, intelligible mystery of their creator. Life is the basic fact of being. Lyric poems are, in turn, an ontology of living existence.

During his decade editing Poetry, Wiman briefly restored that journal as a valuable forum of contemporary letters. But to read his poems is to see that his keenest poetic joy is in the hefty, striking, discrete phrase. That enables him to find joy in poems that have good elements but are not as a whole very good. Such editorial generosity of spirit mars this anthology, which does what it can to make a virtue of incoherence. As an exploration of a vexing but essential theme, it is of some interest. As an anthology of poems, less so. I fear many readers will go away dismayed; when they see the odd assemblage that all passes under the name of poetry, all thought of joy will drop away, and they will cease to wonder why poetry has become such an inconsequential art form.