A year ago, I was asked to give a reading and brief speech for the newly-inducted Phi Beta Kappas at Connecticut College. I chose six poems and wove them into the theme, “Some Ways to Think about Happiness and Success.” I delivered the speech from the dais of seven heavy-hitting Conn faculty (all of whom were Phi Beta Kappas) wearing for the first time my academic hood and a borrowed black gown. When I sat down, having entered that great little triangle edged by “daunted,” “relieved,” and “I did as well as I could,” one of the faculty members leaned over and asked if I’d be interested in giving the talk again. And so I have— three times.
It turns out that Professor Lawrence Vogel teaches a summer course at Yale on the philosophy of happiness. Each June, about fifteen undergrads from the US and around the world meet in a high-ceilinged, high-tech room in the English department for six hours a week and mine the rich syllabus he’s given them.
This year, Larry and I used the class session to approach the idea of happiness over the lifespan. Do the things that make me happy as a child, a teen, a young adult, also make me happy in midlife? Can we predict, as social science attempts to, happiness in old age? How does a good poem add to what we know about happiness? What does poetry do differently than other disciplines in terms of examining—even embodying—a state such as happiness?
I didn’t know if any of the students had read much poetry or even had an interest in it, so I began where I begin with all my students.
- Artists are creatives. Our work orbits around two centers: to filter out much of the world’s noise and to pull seemingly disparate things together in new ways.
- A poet is an artist whose medium is language.
- Poets are creatives who distill language in order to make meaning from things that may at first appear random, opaque, or unimportant.
- An astronomer locates a group of stars in the heavens, maps them, and gives them names. A journalist gathers accurate information about these stars and writes about them in such a way that a wider audience can understand. A poet reads the astronomer’s report or the journalist’s article then writes in the most lively and compressed language a poem which helps the reader see those stars in a way she never has before.
- A good poem beckons the reader into its word-world, encouraging her to find meaning through the use of her own associations; it encourages her to remember this meaning through the use of pattern, repetition and other word-music.
Last, I read a few poems with the theme of happiness to the class. All of them, as it turns out, were written by poets in midlife or later. These poems share a sense of acceptance and humility—they speak about what is shared by us all, regardless of where, when, and how we live.
“Late Ripeness” by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz is a beautiful example of a poem which moves the reader toward an idea of happiness that surprises, and in the end comforts. It is happiness free from the grasp of culture, free from a sense of striving. It is happiness that illuminates from within.
Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer
ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget—I kept saying—that we are all children of the King.
For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.
We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago—
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef—they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
I also designed a short questionnaire for the students in which I asked about their ideas of happiness. I’ll focus on their replies in a later post.