Sky entered and held surprise wide open
(‘The Skylight’, Seamus Heaney)
It seems I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are
(‘Blacksmith Shop’, Czesław Miłosz, translated by the author and Robert Hass)
Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises
(‘The Way We Live’, Kathleen Jamie)
Happiness and creativity are uneasy bedfellows. ‘Happiness writes white’ (Henry de Montherlant)… ‘Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know’ (Ernest Hemingway)… ‘All happy families are alike’ (Leo Tolstoy)… such famous lines have a pithy, swaggering authority, and the message is that happiness is dull, especially for writers.
But don’t most of us want to be happy, at least some of the time – isn’t that why we seek out friendship, love, food, art and nature? And if we look to stories to understand the world, then of course we need ones which offer a persuasive pattern for finding joy and satisfaction. I have offered some of my favourite singing, leaping, beating lines on happiness throughout this post, and I hope they demonstrate that writing about joy is as textured and existential and punchy as any other subject.
…everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing…
(‘Saint Francis and the Sow’, Galway Kinnell)
You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves
(‘Wild Geese’, Mary Oliver)
If I didn’t care for fun and such, / I’d probably amount to much. / But I shall stay the way I am, / Because I do not give a damn
Philosophers tend to be keener on the idea of happiness. They may not agree on the way to find it – virtue? living apart from society? God? reason? – but it is a high, shimmering aim. Happiness is deliciously complex that way. On my new online course, Two For Joy: Happy Poems, we will be merry magpies, nabbing a gum-wrapper of Seneca here, a ring-pull of Epicurus there, and constructing our own philosophies. We will swirl together the intellectual and the sensual, considering happiness on a grand scale, as well as the kind we find in small details. We will be giddily unfashionable and uncynical (except for when we’re taking pleasure in being fashionable and cynical).
O cycle, Sister! Look at you now, freewheeling
through the air conditioning of the morning
(‘Nun on a Bicycle’, Jonathan Edwards)
There is enough sun / For everybody
(‘With Only One Life’, Marin Sorescu, translated by D.J. Enright with Ioana Russell-Gebbett)
I’ll never make out what’s going on / around me, and that’s the joy of it
(‘I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miró’, Moniza Alvi)
Happy poetry has become a more urgent matter for me as I become increasingly involved in children’s poetry, which helps young people encounter the language to process their intense emotions. It is important that we do not imply to young people that happiness and optimism are solely the preserve of childhood and children’s literature. I don’t mean the easy happy-ever-after of fairytales, where happiness is indeed found in the white space at The End. I mean the kind of happiness which is robustly present in real life. It may be a fleeting streak of pleasure, or a quiet thrum of satisfaction, or hard-earned comfort. It may be found in the city or the country, through faith or the material world, through solitude or companionship. I think it’s profoundly important that there are abundant examples of these for young readers moving on to ‘grown-up’ poetry.
Because the birthday of my life / Is come, my love is come to me
(‘A Birthday’, Christina Rossetti)
Your smile leaps out from behind your teeth
(‘Domestic Bliss’, Mark Robinson)
But still, you could mollify my lionlimbs
with your vivid joy, and be the vivid joy
(‘Come Round at Last’, James Brookes)
At some point, as the poet in your social group, you will probably be asked to write a poem – for a wedding, a significant birthday, a loss… It can be an intimidating task. To write something purely celebratory is surely at odds with our poetic instinct for nuance? But happiness is nuanced too. In many ways it’s an act of defiance. And writing someone a poem is one of most enduringly lovely things you can do, a simple and affordable way to actually generate happiness (stand down, philosophers). One of my aims on my course is to make you actively long to write and perform a poem for a friend or family member. I believe this act carries the heartbeat of poetry’s ancient social, oral role, and it’s a great pleasure to tap back into it.
A string of pips exploding on my tongue
(‘North(west)ern’, Patience Agbabi)
Come, / Let us roam the night together / Singing
(‘Harlem Night Song’, Langston Hughes)
I love you. I’m glad I exist
(‘The Orange’, Wendy Cope)
On a more practical note, having some happy poems in your repertoire allows you to give your readings light and shade, and to end on a celebratory fanfare if the fancy takes you. And speaking as an editor, it is always a pleasure to encounter a powerfully cheerful poem in a pile of submissions – I always look on them with a kindly eye, for giving me a burst of cerebral vitamin C. Life is a huge orange: let’s peel it, and share it, and be glad for a bright and juicy space of time that we exist.
Doesn’t that seem like a glorious challenge – to write a muscularly, incisively, defiantly happy poem? Sign up to Rachel Piercey’s new online course Two For Joy: Happy Poems. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.
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