holmesI found it interesting as I began doing research for this article, that the majority of poems are not happy ones. I noted several references to the absence of ‘happy’ poems from contemporary poets and writers. For instance, writer Tracy Brimhall recently told the story of a reading in which she had participated. Afterwards, a woman approached her and asked if she ever wrote happy poems. Another of the participants of the reading was standing nearby and responded by saying that happy poems were boring poems. Brimhall added that poetry was best used for coping with problems, not with happiness. Brimhall goes on to say that a recent interviewer had pondered if she lived in a cave and wore a burlap sack in response to the sad and dismal tones of the poet’s writings. Brimhall, who teaches at Western Michigan University, defends her position on ‘happy’ poems by stating that happiness is merely a moment in time, whereas pain is something long standing.

Brimhall’s statement is curious. Happiness is just a moment in time? That seems an odd statement, as I know several people who appear to be happy on an almost constant basis. If anything, for these people, happiness is long standing and pain is but a moment in time. Perhaps this discussion needs to define exactly what happiness is. One of the first definitions indicates that happiness is a state of mind which is often characterized as having a range of feelings from mere contentment to absolute joy. Although the ‘absolute joy’ may be more of a momentary thing, the notion of being content with life indicates a much longer term state — something ‘long standing’.

Rather than dwell on Brimhall’s views on happiness, I thought it would be better to find some examples of poems which met the definition noted above. For instance, the noted poetess Emily Dickinson, seems to be expressing intense joy as she writes Going to Him! Happy Letter! Tell Him–. In these expressive 24 lines, Dickinson tells of a letter being written to a man, presumably a love interest. The poem is not about the contents of the letter, but of the manner in which the letter was written.

Going to Him! Happy Letter! Tell Him–
by Emily Dickinson

Another poet who hails from the same area of Massachusetts as does Dickinson, writes about being content. If being content is a form of happiness, then this poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes stands in stark contrast to Brimhall’s ‘momentary’ happiness. In Contentment, Holmes describes how a rather simple life, without too many adornments or excesses, can be quite fulfilling and produce peace and happiness.

Contentment (excerpt)
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Perhaps Brimhall should review some of these well known and respected poets to see what their definitions of happiness are. I’m not saying that she needs to write happy poems, but perhaps she can be more appreciative of their message and purpose. There is more to writing about being happy than silly school-girl giddiness.