With Joy

99 Poems
Roger Housden
This Housden has the gall to present us with a book of poems bravely called Dancing with Joy, thus implying that most poetry is traditionally morbid, woeful, lacking in sparkle, light, happiness and grace.

Well, he's probably right. When we go through the opera* of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Poe --- we find a gravity mixed with a heavy classicism that can turn quite drab. Take for instance that darling of our sophomore college years "Dover Beach," by oh-so-doleful Matthew Arnold:

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This is love poetry with a vengeance.

Housden has culled close to a hundred poems that he suggests reflect not the morbidity nor masochism of the world ... pain, and angst, and death ... but a frolic with the daisies, morning in the lovesack, evenings in the haystack. "Prove it," I thought, as I picked it up.

Well, he may have pulled it off. There are poetic good times aplenty here. We had never thought much of Billy Collins before this, he being a poet who even appears on that never-ending nostalgic romp A Prairie Home Companion. We've always sloughed him off as a lightweight. He well may be, but he's a dandy lightweight. Here is his poetic study of our favorite hidden-in-the-shadows 19th Century poet as nude: "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes."

    Later, I wrote in a notebook
    it was like riding a swan into the night,
    but, of course, I cannot tell you everything ---
    the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
    how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
    how there were sudden dashes
    whenever she spoke.

§     §     §

In our day, we had spent no little time in e. e. cumming's world love world. We got to know the mix of joy and terror with Wislawa Szymborska before she got The Prize --- hell, even before we could pronounce her name --- but we were unfamiliar with the merry bees in Tony Hoagland, the loving dogs of Stephen Dunn, and the cavorting bugs in Dorianne Laux (who swoon "as only bugs can.")

There are some imponderables here, though. Some of these joys are not so light and dancy. The 17th Century Countess Anne Finch, seems to find, in her search for God, much in the way of the "Abyss." Wordsworth may be "Surprised by Joy," but underneath is a love "deep buried in the silent tomb." Kim Addonizio may desire a "red dress ... flimsy and cheap ..." but tells us,

    I'll wear it like bones, like skin,
    it'll be the goddamned
    dress they bury me in.

Another criticism here is that one who elects to present excerpts from Milton, Dante, Keats, Wordsworth, Walt Whitman and Dante Alighieri is showing a certain gall (how would you cut Paradise Lost or The Divine Comedy?) Such edits are a judgment, perhaps, that no poet before the mid-19th Century knew how to dance endlessly with joy, much less how to shut up.

Too, there are in this collection the inevitable dullards, including that highly-overrated Pablo Neruda, the sour racist Ranier Maria Rilke, and the often sententious Wendell Berry. But the pleasures easily outnumber the stinkers, and may have mitigated our original distrust of Housden. We are not to forget that he was a man who presumed to publish Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime or Ten Poems to Change Your Life. He is, we concluded, not unlike the eighth century Chinese poet, Li Po,

    Naked I lie in the green forest of summer ....
    Too lazy to wave my white feathered fan.
    I hang my cap on a crag,
    And bare my head to the wind that comes
    Blowing through the pine trees.

*"Opera," according to my ancient, much-stained and beloved Webster's, is the plural of "opus." I used the word because it has more oomph than the also acceptable but laggard "opuses."

--- A. W. Allworthy
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