On Joy: Three Poetry Anthologies

Reviewed By

The Australian singer-songwriter Sia’s recently released album, Everyday Is Christmas, seems to have a haphazard grammatical error in its title, but one which Atlantic Records didn’t see fit to correct, so let’s assume it’s intentional. Here in largely secular Portland, Oregon, “Christmas” suggests driving through the darkness to view the house lights on upper-middle-class Peacock Lane and the parade of festively lit pleasure yachts on the Willamette River. Despite the fact that Christmas may be removed from the religious and expropriated by commerce, for some it can be a once-a-year stand-in for wonder, perhaps even joy, in encountering a landscape transformed with colorful lights and happy spectators getting out of late-model Subarus, sipping hot cider from vacuum insulated stainless steel mugs, while Sia plays on the radio, singing “Everyday is Christmas.”

“Everyday”: ordinary, run-of-the-mill, mundane. So is Sia calling Christmas ordinary? Has wonder become run-of-the-mill? Is joy mundane? Or is it that we experience joy all of the time? Would that we did.

If joy has been in short supply this year and Sia’s music doesn’t readily bring it back, consider the carefully wrought lyrics recently collected by former editor of POETRY magazine, Christian Wiman, in Joy: 100 Poems (Yale University Press, 2017); by former associate editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, John Brehm, in The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy (Wisdom Publications, 2017); and by Roger Housden in Dancing with Joy: 99 Poems (Harmony Books, 2007).

In the first two anthologies, you will be reminded that, “To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the devil,” when you read Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense.” I don’t love the poem as much as the aphorism that comes from it. I love this one, too, from the same poem: “We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of the world.”

Gilbert’s arguments still resonate ten years after I first encountered “A Brief for the Defense” as the opening poem in Dancing with Joy. Housden’s anthology seems prescient in this year’s emergence of joyful collections, which, while containing plenty of overlap—all three anthologies also include poems by Jane Hirshfield, Denise Levertov, William Stafford, Anna Swir, Wislawa Szymborska, Tomas Transtromer, William Carlos Williams, William Wordsworth, and William Butler Yeats—distinguish themselves enough from one another to stand on their own.

In Joy: 100 Poems, Wiman justifies his selections with an extensive discussion of Gilbert’s poem in his scholarly introductory essay. The essay, “Still Wilderness,” appeared in The American Scholar this fall. It’s a tour-de-force, must-read and makes thorough distinctions between happiness and joy, while investigating the role of the poet in articulating joy, and meditating on the challenges of joy itself (its fleeting, difficult-to-define nature).

In Brehm’s introduction, he calls his own selections “nonscholarly” and makes primarily Buddhist assertions that, when taken with the afterwords “Mindful Reading” and “Meditation on Sounds,” allow this work to function, in part, as a secular Buddhist instruction manual. In fact, Brehm notes in his introduction, “Another of my goals has been to give Dharma teachers and students a broader spectrum of poetry to draw upon, beyond the widely popular poems of Rumi, Rilke, and Mary Oliver, and to introduce them to poems and poets they might not otherwise encounter.”

Both Wiman and Brehm seek to connect their joy with the spiritual, but without the demands of orthodoxy. Housden, meanwhile, quotes Wendell Berry at the start of his introduction—“Why all the embarrassment / about being happy?”—and his agenda as an anthologist seems less overtly secular-spiritual, and more driven by an urge to share and promote a neglected theme in contemporary poetry: “This book exists to celebrate the many colors and freedoms of joy.”

At the same time, each anthology takes a slightly different tack toward joy. Brehm’s anthology is particularly rife with Japanese and Chinese poets (he’s the only one to leave out Emily Dickinson and Wendell Berry); Wiman’s in representing a pluralism of contemporary American writers and including prose quotations on theological and philosophical subjects (he’s the only one to focus primarily on “poets born during or after modernism” per his introduction); and Housden’s for his mildly erotic inclusions from poets like Kim Addonizio, “What Do Women Want”; Grace Paley, “Here”; Mark Strand, “Eating Poetry”; and Billy Collins, “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” Mary Oliver appears four times in Dancing with Joy, and not at all in either of this year’s anthologies. After all, her work would probably not be a new discovery for most readers of poetry in 2017, leaving room for many others.

The sharing of that which we “might not otherwise encounter” is a worthy goal for any anthologist, and all three of these volumes deliver. Here are just a few of my favorite discoveries: From Housden, finding Eros again, Dorianne Laux’s “Kissing Again” and Holly Hughes’s more platonic “Mind Wanting More,” which ends, “… as if this quiet day / with its tentative light weren’t enough, / as if joy weren’t strewn all around.” From the Brehm collection, I was grateful to discover Tracy K. Smith’s “Credulity” and several haiku by Yosa Buson including, “Such a moon— / the thief / pauses to sing.” And, “My arm for a pillow, / I really like myself / under the hazy moon.” For new discoveries, Wiman’s anthology was the deepest mine, making it my top pick if I were going to recommend just one of these volumes. Where some anthologists may document the consensus of the day, others shape consensus for the future. Such is Wiman’s influence here with his inclusion of poets like Jen Hadfield, Maureen N. McClane, P.K. Page, Pablo Medina, Aracelis Girmay, Vijay Seshadri, Taha Muhammad Ali, and more. For a new reader of poetry, Housden’s book might be more accessible; for the Buddhist on your shopping list, Brehm’s might be the most relevant.

Note that Brehm’s book has fifty pages of biographical notes—twenty percent of the book—but no index (neither does Wiman’s include an index). Ellen Bass appears on the back cover of Brehm’s book saying, “Each time you read one of these poems, a path opens to seeing more precisely, feeling more deeply.” It’s hard to disagree, but a surprise, then, to open and find one of her moving and memorable poems included in the collection: “If You Knew,” in the section on impermanence. The poem wonders, in the context of people dying unexpectedly:

What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

It’s certainly a worthy inclusion. I like Brehm’s collection for the separate section on impermanence, an inescapable companion to joy.

With impermanence and “praise for the devil” all around, it’s a gift to rediscover joy, no matter how fleeting. There is no guarantee it will last, and perhaps “everyday” is not Christmas after all, but in reading, and rereading these anthologies, joy, and its expression in poetry, may sparkle more often than once-a-year, even more appealingly than the lights on Peacock Lane.

Edward Derby, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has previously published reviews at The Rumpus and Kenyon Review Online. His poems have appeared in numerous journals. He hopes to receive his MFA in poetry from the University of San Francisco in December. More from this author →