Poetry is the Place for Joy: Or How We Praise the Mutilated World
On Ross Gay, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Alan Shapiro, and Paisley Rekdal
Poems are social. One person writes a poem hoping another person will read it. I read it differently if I know that a computer assembled it. I read it differently if I know that a person wrote it by creating a set of rules that, computer-like, generated the poem independent of any subsequent personal will or awareness of others—of me. On the other hand, even a poem written by a person to resist assumptions about communication is a kind of communication; it implies awareness of the person it might resist.
But a poem isn’t social in the way that my sitting down to dinner with you would be. Neither is this essay. I write “you” without knowing exactly who that is or how or if or through what medium it might reach you. If you read it, you read it without the obligations that would come with seeing me, and I write it without the obligations or opportunities that being with you, knowing you, would entail.
So: how much do our usual assumptions about interacting with others apply? To what extent do our social values pertain to poems? Does it make sense to ask of a poem the same things that I might reasonably ask of or gain from any person I interact with in the rest of my social life? Do we, should we, can we, apply our values to poems? And when? And how much? And how?
Take joyousness. If you and I are together and care about each other, the joy of one might be a gift to the other, though you or I would likely dim that same joy if the other was suffering, out of care for the other’s feelings. My joy might feel, if I expressed it then, like indifference—and joy is, to some extent, indifferent, an all-in bodily sense of being possessed by the goodness and gift of things. (Which is why, on another, better day, our time together might bring both of us joy—the bright, apparently endless exchange between us pitching an energetic rightness into everything we touch. Joy so often begins in that, in social life.) And so to write a poem of joy and send it out into the world of suffering and injustice and despair and hatred (and joy), is potentially not just naïve but careless—the embodied delight turning into an active disregard.
But joylessness is at best a temporary answer to despair, and it feels insufficient to say that part of what makes lives worth living and protecting—part of what is deprived when the world goes wrong—has no place in our images of the world. The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski famously insists, in Clare Cavanagh’s translation, that all within earshot “Try to praise the mutilated world,” going further as he goes along, “try”ing no longer enough: “You must praise the mutilated world.” (It later shifts through “You should” to finally arrive, at the beginning of the poem’s last sentence, at a straightforward command: “Praise the mutilated world.”) Notably, that first heightened imperative comes not in the face of pleasure—“Remember June’s long days, / and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.”—but after the image that comes after that: “The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles.” But in calling for praise, Zagajewski has hedged the poem—its own moments of praise are part of its instruction to others, a rhetorical move that reinforces the very difficulty of doing what it instructs, a small reminder that praise still stands, even amid the poem’s persuasive conjuring of the praiseworthy, at one remove.
Appropriately enough, I started thinking about this in a social setting, talking over drinks with my friend Gabrielle Calvocoressi about joy in poetry and, in particular, in Ross Gay’s long poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” Gaby had already been thinking about joy and poetry, occasioned in part by her friendship with Gay, and not too much later she wrote a poem of joy of her own, “Praise House: The New Economy,” which is, it says, “after and for Ross Gay.” (A third poem also came from Gay’s, Alan Shapiro’s “Gratitude for Nothing.” I’ll get to that, as well as “Happiness,” by Paisley Rekdal, later on.)
Though neither poem shows any particular connection to Zagajewski’s, and though both are far more exuberant than his almost stately progression from instruction through example and back, they overlap with “Try To Praise the Mutilated World” in enough ways to suggest something about the impulses that might govern anyone who accepts Zagajewski’s imperative as a call to poetry. Most strikingly, for my purposes here, all three move, in one way or another, into a kind of social setting. Not coincidentally, I think, Zagajewski, whose poem is not at all joyful, creates the most impersonal of these—he lectures; he instructs—though there’s a strange intimacy to the way in which amid such instruction he seems almost to be implanting memories in the minds of his readers, memories that verge, often, on surprising particularity. And a strange sense, too, in that one “we”—“Remember those moments when we were together”—that the intimacy is another memory being offered to us as readers, who up to and after that point have seemed to be the “you.”
Notably, too, those memories seem, for the most part, humble. The yachts and ships are ones “you” merely watched; the strawberries grow wild; the wine comes in drops; the acorns were there to be gathered freely in the park. It resists separation and elevation, so when “the leaves eddied over the earth’s scars” it seems to be (a past just then coming into being) a kind of modest healing for us as well, us also not so far removed from the worst of it, even in our pleasures, in which we do not ask or take too much. In which we are innocent.
Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” is far more social. It’s first word is a direct address, “Friends,” and it goes out of its way (although the poem’s exuberant weaving makes the idea that anything is truly out of its way a stretch) to engage its readers as individuals who must be attended to, going so far at one point as to make a literal room for us to rest in as he goes—apologetically but, as promised, unabashedly—on:
And thank you, too. And thanks
for the corduroy couch I have put you on.
Put your feet up. Here’s a light blanket,
a pillow, dear one,
for I can feel this is going to be long.
I can’t stop
my gratitude, which includes, dear reader,
you, for staying here with me,
for moving your lips just so as I speak.
Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.
Alongside the slight formality of the address, which reads like an acknowledgement that the room is a poem with no actual couch, blanket, honey or tea, there is the poem’s own insistent modesty, in both its diction and its materials—the corduroy couch out of fashion and so presumably old, maybe second-hand, and the tea and honey as apparently natural as Zagajewski’s wild strawberries and acorns and even the wine, which like Gay’s tea is processed by humans in accordance with ancient traditions and from a single plant species that brings with it a taste of its earth.
Which is not to accuse either poem of dishonesty. (The same goes for Calvocoressi’s, which is just as studiously humble in its sources of joy.) Gay is a passionate gardener, a man who commits much of his non-literary and -academic life to tending the soil and encouraging its fruits. Rather, I find it interesting as a kind of decorum, an awareness of others as both context and individual (even if that individualism is necessarily collective) that guides the work of the poem in a way that’s at least analogous to our awareness of others in our social lives. It’s also, I think, a kind of moral decision, not that far removed from the choices many make about where to shop, what to buy, what to refuse, and what to give away.
Gay’s exuberance seems to pour into the poem’s social awareness, both its constant apologies for taking up so much of our time and in its intermittent work to rub some of the sheen off its materials: The dream bird has “shabby wings”; it calls him to strike up the “rusty brass band of joy”; “love bursts like a throng of roadside goldenrod”; the basketball game happens on a “cockeyed court”; etc. Eventually, he exults in ugliness itself:
and thank you, too, this knuckleheaded heart, this pelican heart,
this gap-toothed heart flinging open its gaudy maw
to the sky, oh clumsy, oh bumblefucked,
oh giddy, oh dumbstruck,
All of these moves seem playful, a more-than-winking acknowledgement of the artifice of all of this that serves as its own kind of welcome, as permission to put aside, for now, whatever in us might otherwise object that this is not the whole story of the world. Reading it, I feel the way I often do with an old friend—or that rare new friend in whom everything already feels familiar—free to follow the joke past reality or precision because we both already know what we’re up to and who we are, and because our time together brings joy, which colors everything.
But unlike that moment in the friendship, these poems do carry some greater obligation to test their joy against despair or injustice—to make themselves answerable and available to the mutilated world. At one point, the impulse towards humility carries all the way into gratitude for the harm not done, offering thanks for the ancestor
who loved you
before she knew you by not slaughtering
the land; thank you
who did not bulldoze the ancient grove
of dates and olives,
who sailed his keys into the ocean
and walked softly home; who did not fire, who did not
plunge the head into the toilet, who said stop,
don’t do that….
The run of negations is shadowed by the harm that often, elsewhere, simultaneously, is done. That it is takes up only small patches of the poem, but it does come up. In the poem’s riskiest (risky, that is, to its wish for our assent) and perhaps most essential move, Gay’s exuberance slams into destruction and goes on without pause, its anaphora another form of exuberance:
And thank you the baggie of dreadlocks I found in a drawer
while washing and folding the clothes of our murdered friend;
the photo in which his arm slung
around the sign to “the trail of silences”; thank you
the way before he died he held
his hands open to us; for coming back
in a waft of incense or in the shape of a boy
in another city looking
from between his mother’s legs,
or disappearing into the stacks after brushing by;
for moseying back in dreams where,
seeing us lost and scared
he put his hand on our shoulders
and pointed us to the temple across town.
It likely matters here that Gay points toward the murder of someone he knew, rather than injustices that never touched his life, much as it likely matters, especially given how little the poem touches on systematic oppression and the like, that Gay is black—that we as readers can safely assume he knows about such things, since American injustice has so many ways of entering black lives. But part of the point here is the ability to talk over devastation and horror, to name it persuasively in the voice of joy, much as W.S. Merwin does in another extraordinary poem of gratitude, “Thanks,” which concludes:
with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
Unlike Gay, Merwin gives the last word to the darkness it conjures to resist. “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” concludes in a more social and more playful stance, its last bit of bad news more of a call to joy than something to resist, its final line maybe a little too neat, the extra rhyme maybe a little too flat, but that feels almost irrelevant, given how astonishing, how surprisingly personal, the line before it feels, and how remarkably generative the last and largest bad news becomes in the almost slapstick final stanza here:
Soon it will be over,
which is precisely what the child in my dream said,
holding my hand, pointing at the roiling sea and the sky
hurtling our way like so many buffalo,
who said it’s much worse than we think,
and sooner; to whom I said
no duh child in my dreams, what do you think
this singing and shuddering is,
what this screaming and reaching and dancing
and crying is, other than loving
what every second goes away?
Goodbye, I mean to say.
And thank you. Every day.
The similarities, though, are striking. Both poems, like Zagajewski’s and Calvocoressi’s, are, as Gay’s title makes explicit, catalogues. And unlike “Praise the Mutilated World,” which is a call to praise but not actually joyous, all three move with remarkable and nearly relentless speed, so much so that the poems’ felt awareness of their materials as distinctive beings may be among their most impressive achievements. (Merwin’s “Thanks” seems most willing to elide such differences, reaching instead toward something almost archetypal, almost universal, an encompassing and adamant “we.”)
In taking up Gay’s summons, Calvocoressi makes cataloging even more integral to her movement. “Praise House” is almost 30 lines in before its first complete sentence, and even there the subject and verb (“I want”) merely point to the next marvel. Or, they almost only do so. If Merwin’s poem goes almost as far toward universality as one plausibly could and still praise, Calvocoressi’s is strikingly personal—and personal in a way that is also inevitably political. When Gaby and I sat down for that drink (“One cold beer / before I drink it and get sick,” she writes in “Praise House.” That evening, she didn’t finish the beer.) and as we marveled about “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” she was already asking herself (and asked me) how many truly joyful poems were written by women. We didn’t come up with many.
When that first subject and verb takes the reins, no longer tucked inside some sort of subordinate clause, she has just written about two guys: “Bros, yes”—the “yes” one of the countless doors and windows Calvocoressi opens so that our doubt can escort the usually unlaudable, the sometimes-downright-awful, in. “But lovely / in the golden light with brims swung / to the back.” “I want,” she continues, “shoulders like / they have. Want my waist to taper / to an ass built like the David’s.” That “want,” that movement toward masculinity, moves in all kinds of directions, one of them queer. And if queerness in a poem is no longer unusual, a queer body still has radical meaning in our society, especially when it crosses traditional barriers between male and female. (As I write this, the state of North Carolina, where both Gaby and I live, has recently passed a bill of sweeping cruelty, one it escorted in under the cover of easily manufactured panic about a law in Charlotte that guaranteed trans people the right to use the bathroom of their gender rather than the sex of their birth.)
That Calvocoressi, in that same movement, expresses dissatisfaction with her body, that her insufficient body is still the vehicle of praise—that so much of what it praises is attached to or enters that body, felt things: taste, feel, smell—suggests both humility (her materials, for the most part, just as humble as Gay’s) and its own faintly Whitmanesque willingness to stand at the center of a universe, though in this case it stands there eccentrically, by choice. If poems are social, part of their social lives in a culture that is at once diverse and discriminatory must be, like the rest of our social lives, alert to difference that is ultimately experienced and expressed at the level of the individual, the point where social forces intersect and are altered by difference that is never categorical in experience or whole.
But why these catalogs? Why these many multiples, this bounty? Joy, in our lives off the page, often seems to spring from just one thing—a new love, good news, time with friends, the lifting of a long despair. If you and I ever do meet for dinner and I happen to be feeling joyful that evening and you ask me why, there’s a good chance that I’ll describe a single cause. I will not tell you to look at the color of the light outside and smell the air and see that person over there, the way he holds his fork? But if I try to imagine a joyous poem with just one subject, it doesn’t seem joyous at all. Joy is, I think, a kind of pull, a sense of appetite and invitation—the sensation beginning, or so it feels, beyond the body, pouring in. It’s a belief about the world—however brief—that feels almost objective. A feeling of radiant health, harmonized, and if it cannot encompass or at least overlook whatever we see, it falters. It’s an all-or-nothing state. And the joyful poem has to bring us inside—or leave us out.
“Praise House” seems especially invested in that encompassing abundance. Whereas “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” will often spend an entire stanza on a single source of joy, Calvocoressi’s poem rarely gives more than two consecutive sentence fragments to any one thing—and those fragments, with their nouns in charge, lend a sense that the things of the world are lining up to be noticed. Across those fragments, “Praise House” shifts abruptly and frequently from personal experience to the experiences of others overseen to details of the world at large. And something in that feels generous. It feels eager to share, not just in the colloquial sense of telling others what you think or feel, but in a way that is sturdier and stranger: “The New Economy,” the subtitle says and the poem seems, really, to aspire to. It’s an economy based on naming, on welcoming, and it does not refuse our getting and spending (the shirt, the car, the dumplings, the bow ties, the plane ticket, the “perfect green shirt” that seems to confer worth on the man who wears it—all are purchased, as is so much else.)
“Praise House” does not intend to defer joy until a better world arrives, but it makes explicit that it would favor this world’s destruction if that’s what it takes. The declaration comes suddenly and out of a seemingly very different stance:
Mary Oliver. I love her. I really do.
The baseball she gave me
that says, “Go Sox!” Though, I love
the Orioles. Old Bay on all my shrimp.
And justice. And cities burning
if people need to burn them to get free.
There’s a kind of logic that runs from the declaration of love for Mary Oliver, a poet that many of Calvocoressi’s friends likely scorn, through so much that is marketed and cherished, both—the baseball given, the teams adored, and the beloved brand of seasoning with its willfully antiquated name—through the abstract concept into praise for the concrete, particular destruction of material conditions (the destruction of things as essential as shelter) if those in need need that. I’m not sure how often the burning of a city has ever done much to make people free, but I’m also not sure that’s the point. The new economy the poem seeks to enact is one that allows all to live in abundance, in joy, in terms that are meaningful to them and accommodating of the joy of others, too. It’s a place where everyone can move freely and askance.
“Praise House” includes one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read in a poem, one Calvocoressi seems, when we finally get there, to have been building toward all along. Early on, there’s the shift from a decaying peach to her partner’s still-ripe flesh:
How peaches mold into compost in a single day:
orange to gray to darkness into dirt.
Her ankle’s taste. The skin
right under the knob, delicate
as a tomatillo’s shroud.
Then there’s the admission that she wants a torso like the bros have, which concludes “I admit it: / this body’s not enough for me. / Still I love it.” And after that the first mention of bow ties, with their implication of cross dressing, and then, a little later, more intimate:
Boxer briefs and packing socks
in jockey shorts. Strap ons.
Soft and hard. Welcome in her hand
and in mine as I greet the real me.
That “real me.” That welcome. And then, at last, as soon as she has mentioned the cities burning, the poem races toward its end:
My grandmother gardening
in the late light. Sun Ra. The first time.
Paris, even though I’ve never been
there. Natal plums. Tattoos everlasting:
Clouds. Orion’s belt. Pushing inside her
with both hands holding myself
My weight. Her grabbing and saying,
“God.” “Fuck.” The neighbors.
Casablanca. Not knowing anything.
Angels. Mashed potatoes. Good red wine.
“’God.’ ‘Fuck.’ The neighbors.” I love how it spins back out, maybe suggesting a sudden realization that the neighbors can hear, maybe just thinking of someone else to be grateful for (maybe both). If the last line doesn’t quite do it here, either, that, too, seems a little beside the point—or not enough point, I guess. Not after that exquisitely broken, percussive collection of fragments in which you can almost feel the way a body encounters itself in awareness of another, both lifting up and pressing down, “Pushing inside her / with both hands holding myself / up. My weight. Her grabbing and saying, / “God.” “Fuck.”
Gay’s poem has sex (pun intended, I guess), too. At first, as in “Praise House,” he seems to be with a specific partner, the other half of the “we,” before explicitly turning back to the reader:
The room in my mind with the blinds drawn
where we nearly injure each other
crawling into the shawl of the other’s body.
Thank you say it plain:
fuck each other dumb.
One of the obvious differences between a poem and a social occasion is what it sanctions. In writing, we can tell strangers things that would likely be too intimate for an in-person encounter. But Gay pushes past that sanction as he returns to the reader, mocking his own excitement in a metaphor that should be out of bounds:
And you, again, you, for the true kindness
it has been for you to remain awake
with me like this, nodding time to time
and making that noise which I take to mean
yes, or, I understand, or, please go on
but not too long, or, why are you spitting
so much, or, easy Tiger
hands to yourself. I am excitable.
I am sorry. I am grateful.
I just want us to be friends now, forever.
Take this bowl of blackberries from the garden.
The sun has made them warm.
I picked them just for you. I promise
I will try to stay on my side of the couch.
I admit to struggling with that stanza. As a big, furry, overweight, straight guy who doesn’t really have to worry about advances from men or women, I don’t feel threatened or diminished, but at the same time, I’m aware that when a poem addresses me it’s asking me to stand in the same place as any other potential “you” who might pick it up, and I feel in some way accountable for the space I share with them. If Ross Gay and I were hanging out and were friends and he made a joke like this, it probably wouldn’t bother me. In that context, it would, I think, be clear that neither of us thought it was ever OK to touch someone who doesn’t want to be touched, that merely “trying” to stay away is absurd, but here, reading this poem, I don’t feel entirely, or exclusively, myself, and I’m not sure how to react—I’m not sure what to feel, how the someone else I might be standing with might feel.
* * * *
My mother’s seizures—specifically
that I don’t have them.
That I can answer Ross’ call
or not because we live Harmonious
and are always talking somehow.
Tapestries with their gluttony of deer.
As in “Catalog,” the praise reaches out to the harm not done, the suffering not felt. It also encompasses the person not there—which happens to be Gay himself. To state the obvious, real people matter to the things we write and read, and the audience of a poem is usually only partly real, aspired to, uncertain, an extrapolation from the people we’ve actually met and the things they like and value and are moved by, whether we’ve met those other real people in person or on other pages, other screens. We “are always talking somehow,” Calvocoressi writes, and the poem itself is evidence of that, even as it does not address him or anyone.
I write, in part, because it’s only like conversation. You get to slow down and think it through, try again, look it up, try to get it right. You get to wait until you have something to say and think about how someone else might respond to it. You get to try to find some place where the various audiences of the different people whose opinions matter to you might overlap and aim for that narrow eye in the Venn diagram they unwittingly compose. Or, I do. And some others do too, but not all of them are you, and not all of you are them. But it still gets us back to real people at some point. And it still matters, to the value of the poem and to the potential of the language and to the meaning of life itself, how we think about and act toward them. And sometimes it just matters immensely—matters, among other things, to our ability to step away from them long enough to write—that we know that they are still dependably there.
Is joy in a poem really that different from joy somewhere else? Joy is spontaneous, of course, and poems, for the most part, are not. And a joyful poem has more work to do to prove itself proper to the mutilated world—poems being somewhat unreal, they have to earn their way into the world in a way that people do not. But poems are real, too, and they’re answerable to reality; they exist because people need or want them—want to make them and sometimes want to read them, too. And in their reality, which is part of their achievement—their having become, like Pinocchio, real—they also become instructive, a lesson about the way things might work. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both the poems I’m writing about in this section exhibit their greatest power before they conclude. Joy doesn’t really add up. It is, by definition, exceptional. It is a ripeness, the fruit almost more full than its skin can allow: I am bursting with joy, we say. It’s sometimes a bit of a mess.
The biggest difference, I think, is that the joy in a poem must be shared to exist. Joy, unlike many of the things that can attract us to others, can be an individual experience. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; kindness must be put into action; humor intends to make someone laugh. But joy, unlike poems, needs no audience. And so a joyful poem—a successful one, at least—is likely to be more generous, more social, more invested in others, than the experience of joy itself. And that generosity, paradoxically, seems to point us, at least in our present tense, away from sharing anything that costs a lot. “Tapestries,” Calvocoressi writes, “with their gluttony of deer.” They are among the only expensive things in either poem, but it’s a public expense. We go to see them in public spaces these days. And how public both poems seem. How eager to make us—to make “us”—at home.
* * * *
But poems are also, to state something else obvious, for show. Their most social gestures are often their least spontaneous—as with Gay offering all of us a seat on the couch. And so to talk about a social virtue in a poem is not to talk about its rhetoric as virtuous but rather to ask how it makes the things we value in other spaces available in this act and object of sequential privacies—privacies made valuable in part by the knowledge that each other might exist.
In its postures, Paisley Rekdal’s “Happiness” is most often proudly ungenerous. Its opening lines move quickly from defensive to defiant, invoking her readers in a taunt:
I have been taught never to brag but now
I cannot help it: I keep
a beautiful garden, all abundance,
indiscriminate, pulling itself
from the stubborn earth: does it offend you
to watch me working in it,
touching my hands to the greening tips or
tearing the yellow stalks back, so wild
the living and the dead both
snap off in my hands?
I’m pretty thin skinned. If someone in real life asked me “does it offend you” I’d be, at best uncomfortable. But here it thrills me, because I’m the speaker at least as much as I am the person being spoken to, because I am, here, a little bit unreal. From the initial protestation of helplessness (Gay’s poem starts that way, too) it grows powerful, apparently free from what either neighbor or reader might think. “Does it offend you?” she asks, and then gives us line after line of detailed description, making sure we see as clearly as possible that which might offend. It’s almost lewd.
Rekdal calls the poem “Happiness” in part, I suspect, because “happy” has baggage. To be happy, etymologically, is to be fortunate, in a way that her neighbors—one with “stuttering / fingers,” the other a “broken / love”—at least for now are not. She seems to want us to notice that she’s behaving badly, just as she does at the outset when she tells us she knows better than to brag—then brags.
The second time she asks the question, we’re no longer against her. “Does it offend them,” she asks this time, meaning the neighbors who come to her seeking solace. And in doing so, it becomes more personal. The “you” that was maybe us was generic. Now she’s talking about specific people and their individualized despair. She’s talking about the need she turns away. You could make a case that this poem is a warning about self-absorption, about the ways we indulge ourselves. Consider the poem’s extraordinary final lines:
I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops
around the sparrows as they fight.
It lives alongside their misery.
It glows each evening with a violent light.
“Here is your pity” sounds brutal. It’s the kind of line that, when someone says it in a movie, means something is hitting someone in the face. And “violent light” is every bit as worrying as it is enticing—somehow it makes me think of the gorgeous sunsets air pollution smears across the sky. But the line before it makes it hard for me to imagine this poem is something as small as a warning: “It lives alongside their misery.” That, of course, is what neighbors do: They live alongside. I think the poem is trying to embrace that, to be honest about that, to foreground the violence of our ardent embrace of the world—“so wild / the living and the dead both / snap off in my hands”; “silent as a point of bone”; “like a stream of kerosene being lit”—as well as the ways we can grow blind to others in it—and the ways that our fear of such blindness can niggle, inflect, distract: “is it / indiscriminate?” she asks, referring to her garden but clearly meaning more than that, as well. Meaning abundance. Bounty. Something a lot like joy.
The speaker is defensive, but not enough to stop. The poem is a rationalization, but it rests its case on beauty, and the poem’s beauty makes it hard for me to withhold my assent. At one moment she protests, “It is such a small thing / to be proud of, a garden.” I love the way the antecedent of “it” comes in belatedly, as if she were trying to slip it in under the cover of plainness. It’s a very different version of the smallness that runs through “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” and “Praise House,” where smallness is integral to the experience, where it’s one of the sources of joy—that it doesn’t take too much. Here it plays as an excuse, one she repeats again soon thereafter, more literally, after a different excuse that feels instead too large (“Should I, too, not be loved?”): “It is only a little time, a little space.”
“Happiness” isn’t joyful. The tone of the poem slides from stately to restrained, holding back the boundlessness of joy and the encroach of despair, which also blooms. Densities of sound pile up against its caution—life: insistent and astonishing, rampant, indiscriminate, bounteous. But I do feel joy reading it. Its dark vitality, the same dark vitality the speaker tries to restrain, fills me. And it does so, to a large extent, on the same ground on which (in which) “Catalog” and “Praise House” do. “Happiness,” though, is far more performative than either of those. That’s not to say that Gay and Calvocoressi aren’t performing, too; it’s just that their performances seem to line up with them, embodying in the characters of Ross and Gabrielle a bearing on life that the actual Ross and Gaby, somewhere on the other side of the poems and time, seem to have meant.
In “Happiness,” on the other hand, I don’t feel safe in assuming that the speaker is a version of Rekdal. The poem’s intelligence seems to move at a different angle than the speaker’s, and that gap, combined with the poem’s own achievement of reality, makes the speaker’s role more habitable. The paradoxical combination of reality and unreality—the sense that I am not displacing a real person, Rekdal, by stepping into the speaker’s role—proves permissive. I can touch the world, in its terrible, abundant beauty, and I can walk away, having felt myself full of such perilous vitality, having done no actual harm.
And this, too, is part of the social life of art—its enabling of others. It’s odd, how uniformly negative that word’s connotations are for us. Whatever is enabled is, by implication, destructive, as in our entrenched vocabulary of the families of addicts. But it’s worth noting the obvious—that there are things art cannot do. That a poem only touches us metaphorically; that even as it moves me my body goes nowhere; that it destroys nothing more than a piece of paper; that it creates, in reality, only itself. Sometimes, I think, we talk about poetry as if that weren’t the case, and our imagination of what a poem can ethically accomplish narrows as a result.
The virtue of a poem may be, in some cases, that it gives us a chance to do or feel what elsewhere we shouldn’t. But even then, poems are part of the same social existence whose rules it manifests at odd angles. Anyone on social media must see, on a regular basis, the ability of poems to wound. And so part of these performances becomes, as well, their audible awareness of their potential audiences: the ways they allow us to enter these alternate worlds in confidence that we are not endorsing harm and will not be subject to the kinds of harm that we regard as unjust. That’s not always a good thing, by any means, and we don’t always handle it well. But it’s part of the way poems move through a world in which poetry is—thank god—almost never the most important thing, and where a poem’s ability to incorporate the things that matter more (life, death, love, injustice, joy, the mutilation of the world) is the very source of its value.
* * * *
Alan Shapiro’s “Gratitude for Nothing” responds, like “Praise House,” to “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” though it seems, at first, to be turning “Catalog” on its head. Its title’s a play on the sarcastic phrase “Thanks for nothing,” and its opening stanza lands in bitter sarcasm, too:
Thank you, I don’t know
who, or what,
I can know
once was spit from
for no reason
but to be
to nothing so that
nothing could feel
I should probably note that Alan (he was my first mentor and remains an important friend, and he let me publish the poem in At Length) is friends with Gaby and Ross Gay, and that he appears, though he isn’t named, in “Catalog.” He was the “61-year-old” on the aforementioned “cockeyed court”
on which in a half-court 3 v 3 we oldheads
made of some runny-nosed kids
a shambles, and the 61-year-old
after flipping a reverse lay-up off a back door cut
from my no-look pass to seal the game
ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the gods
and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar
grinning across his chest
That, for anyone who knows Alan, is a pretty good example of the route (at least in his social life) he takes toward joy. He’s a brilliant and relentless comic of despair, one for whom the sources of despair, in giving occasions for humor, become sources of social vitality—sources, even, of joy. And so it turns out, soon enough, that Shapiro’s not kidding about “Gratitude” here—or, at least, not entirely. The gratitude is also real.
For Shapiro to praise the mutilated world, it’s not so much a question of managing awareness of the ways in which we are complicit in its mutilation—and the mutilation of others—as it is of standing inside the scale of cosmic indifference to all joy and all suffering (an indifference that is for some a source of even more suffering), one that excuses any joy we can wring from it but is no more an excuse than the smallness Calvocoressi and Gay shelter under in their own generous joyousness. It also turns out to be a source of joy itself—the very vastness of the universe a gift, however darkly and disastrously given.
The poem moves headlong and wobbly from the cosmic as far down as the microbial, as far down as the individual, the personal, the interpersonal, “this last, this / best love.” And the poem grows joyful, the deep pleasure of writing, of being in motion, in language, agile and alert, even in view of his pending oblivion, even as it encompasses the paltriness of its own means and motivations:
for so little.
For the shifty
ever busy solace
behind the tortured
logic that would link
loss to beauty,
nectar to sorest need,
the clever ruses
to make of so little
larger than it is.
That “truly” is hard to pin down, maybe a little sarcastic, maybe an example of the tricks we try to play on each other and ourselves to make life in the shadow of extinction bearable. But like most of those tricks, also sincere in that way. It’s the first moment in the poem when I sense an awareness of audience—outside, that is, the implication of audience in the poem’s restless work to give pleasure. Until that point, rhetorically, Shapiro has claimed his audience to be a nothingness so unknowable that he can’t even figure out how to address it. By the end of the first stanza above, that ruse has proved so impossible that he briefly gives up on it, referring to whatever the nothingness is as “it,” not “you.” But the show goes on, and we remain audience, not potential interlocutors, at most part of the “we” in which he speaks for us since he’s speaking of universals at that point.
“Truly,” though, feels like a negotiation of sorts, an encounter with something caring enough to believe or disbelieve what he says. It’s still part of the show, of course—the whole poem is a master performance—but it’s enough of a wobble to remind me that this poem, like “Happiness,” is in part about and thoroughly indebted to our social lives but does not aspire to encounter us, the potential readers, as social beings, and will not entangle itself in the decorums that “Catalog” and “Praise House” engage.
Less social, more of a show with the familiar fourth wall in place, “Gratitude for Nothing,” like “Happiness,” feels in some ways more like a single ongoing speech. It’s not a catalog, not really—or if it is, it amounts to a pretty short catalog and a rather long poem. Its sources of joy feel increasingly singular, and personal—and finally astonishingly private, so that one of its pleasures is its refusal of social conventions. When Shapiro gets to sex, it feels more illicit than Calvocoressi’s sex scene does. The lover’s body is more on display, though still covered—maybe because it’s covered—and her desire has moved out of the bedroom and into a public space, where it is less sanctioned and more secretive for being at risk of being seen:
at the opening,
in the hall
with people milling
all around her,
cup of wine
in one hand, how she
my eye so I alone
would see her slyly
slip her free hand
down her pants
and out and
across her nose
to breathe in
her own bouquet,
in herself so
in my seeing it
Those two simultaneous pleasures, the “animal” converted into something social (but scandalously so, privately so) and yet maintaining its “animal” nature, too. How different it would be to have stood in the gallery and noticed it going on, not so much because seeing is different than hearing but because here, in the poem, it’s being shared—the privacy of it made public and yet staying private, too, because a poem keeps its posture even as it heads into the world.
Joy is an oddly binary emotion. You’re never a little bit joyful, and it’s hard to imagine feeling a partial joy, one that didn’t touch whatever else you’re feeling or seeing. All is joy, or nothing is—which means that joy, like art, deceives. Or, if not deceives, then like art it stands oddly inside and outside the world at once, utterly contingent on experience that is itself contingent, if the work of art becomes real, on the means by which experience is converted—on art. It’s absolute and imprecise—untrue and actual.
Shapiro presses the poem into what seems most fundamental, most real—our ultimate, eventual, unreality, our massive, boundless nonexistence, which is our only real contact with infinity. And the joy of the poem overwhelms that, too, in much the same way Dickinson described the brain as being “wider that the Sky.” At times—early and late—nothingness becomes a kind of fuel for the poem, as in his earlier poem “Joy” the worst of it, evaded, even if only for a moment, turns into vitality, the herd of antelopes running from the lion
swerving as one,
their leaping strides now
the fear subsides—
after the fear and
for nothing but
the joy of running,
it could be
any one of them
from its fallen
mother or father,
sister or brother,
across the wide
under a bright sun
into fresher grass.
In that poem, as in “Gratitude for Nothing,” Shapiro lands on a reminder of the underlying darkness, but it also feels to me like the poem is still running even then, and that running is still joyous, whatever started it and wherever it leads. The description of nothingness at the end of “Gratitude” is full, still spilling over, still delighted in turning over its own figures, still, even in its final lines, inflected with the dark humor that makes even the most alienating knowledge into something with social power:
Which means, I think,
it’s you I’m picturing,
you I’m longing for
and running from,
blind giver and dumb taker,
my stone deaf end
and origin, whom
hears me pretend
to thank for being
(I don’t know how)
the dangled carrot
tempting me forward
into nothing and the stick
nothing beats me with.
He’s pretending, he says, both pretending that nothingness can hear him and pretending to be grateful for the nothing that, in reality, doesn’t hear. While it’s tempting to play with the idea that if he’s only pretending that nothing can hear then he is, Polyphemus-like, actually saying that something can, that feels like a stretch. I’m more convinced that pretending is its own potential source of reality. It’s what allows the social life of the poem here to come into being, not because it hides the reality of our larger, eternal irrelevance from each other, but because it allows us to sing and be sung to, to make nothing into something, not so much ex nihilo as in its participation in the ongoingness of language, joking, beauty (and, of course, despair) here in a place where making something is a source of joy, and where being in the audience for that made thing is a source of joy, a chance to marvel at all that humans—people like us, we can almost feel, though most of us could never make something like this—can do, even as what we’re doing is telling each other that we can’t do enough.
The social life of poetry is strange. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden wrote. And then, less famously, but more interesting, he went on:
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
That poetry will presumably go on outliving us for a very long time doesn’t give me much solace, but these lines, claiming that they will, do. “A way of happening, a mouth.” Also, an occupation of the present tense, even if it is occupied by a series of images that already feel flecked with nostalgia. Joy is an anti-utopian force, even if it allows us to imagine a better world, because it brings us so wholly into the moment of its being, because it lives so heartily here in the mutilated world. So, too, for Shapiro’s poem, where the mind’s delight outruns its materials, even as those materials—that overriding immateriality—is the very surface on which it runs.
I am writing this essay right now in my front yard. My wife is inside grading. You, if you exist, are, as you read this, somewhere else, at some other time, some other “right now.” I do not, at the moment, feel joy. I am not, for the most part, a joyful person. But at times, in writing this, I have felt something close to joy, that seamlessness in which the ideas, in coming together, have conjured you, whoever you might be. In reading all of these poems, too, I have felt something like that, myself strangely real, running so fluently in time that time ceases to matter—the burden of my being now a gift, an ease in which the weight of the world registers fully in its being so easy to lift. In “Gratitude for Nothing,” I can feel Shapiro feeling that, the long present tense of writing the poem becoming a single moment in the world, of the world, but also absolved for the time of our insufficiency in it.
One of the deepest gifts of our social life is the way in which we are able to confer that kind of reality on each other, the ways in which the currents of our sharing make “the real me,” as Calvocoressi puts it, someone we can meet in meeting someone else. It isn’t true that poetry changes nothing—that poems change nothing—even in the sense that Auden meant; human history has plenty of examples of poems becoming a significant political force. But poems are also a way of living fully in this world, the one we wish were better, even of living more fully inside that wish. To do that work, they must be credible; a poem as pure escapism cannot, at least for me, provide a means of escape. “Earth’s the right place for love,” wrote Frost. “I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” It’s also the right place for joy. And in speaking persuasively enough, ecstatically enough, of the mutilated world, of its amazements, of our being here, poems, like people, might conjure us. They might make us real.