Thursday, December 21, 2017
"Joy: 100 Poems"
Christian Wiman is Professor of the Practice of Religion and Literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. A few years ago he was diagnosed with an incurable blood disease, underwent a bone marrow transplant, and through days of treatment and a measure of recovery wrestled with a fundamental question, expressed in a 2012 interview: "What might it mean for your life--and for your death--to acknowledge the insistent, persistent call of God? … My work--prose and poetry--is still full of anguish and even unbelief, but I hope it's also much more open to simple joy."
It is the season of joy, but "what might that one word, in these wild times, mean?" That question appears in an extraordinary introduction to a poetry anthology, edited by Wiman, that attempts not to define but to inhabit its subject.
"Joy: 100 Poems" ($25 in hardcover from Yale University Press) "is aimed against whatever glitch in us or whim of God has made our most transcendent moment resistant to description. … The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wondered why it is that we have such various and discriminating language for our pains but become such hapless generalizers for our joys."
Wiman's essay drives the reader beyond the safe bounds of mere happiness. Joy "is a homesickness for a home you were not aware of having." Richard Wilbur knows: "Joy's trick is to supply/ Dry lips with what can cool and slake,/ Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache/ Nothing can satisfy."
"But," Wiman writes, "there's no forcing it. Clamoring after joy leads only to fevered simulacra, … the collective swells of manipulative religion, the manufactured euphoria of drugs. … So what does one do with this moment of timelessness when one is back in time?"
The answer comes from experiencing the poems, mostly from our own time, whose diverse voices are sometimes hard, profane (there's an ode to urination), but also comprehending something about our lives that can't be said flat out.
It's like, writes Lisel Mueller, the sadness that comes when we are transported by music. "Joy, joy, the sopranos sing,/ reaching for the shimmering notes/ while our eyes fill with tears."