Happiness on the Page

March in Minnesota means snow melts, roof lines drip, the soggy fallow garden edges begin to emerge, and happiness frequently finds its way into winter-weary hearts.

Now try making a poem out of that without sounding completely sappy.

When I was a grad student in the mid-1990s, I tried to write happy poems and they stunk. I hadn’t yet come to a good understanding of what else to include in my happy writing to make it palatable. One of my teachers, the St. Paul poet Deborah Keenan, told me that happiness is a hard thing to write about. She should know; she came out with a poetry collection entitled, Happiness (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1995), that demonstrated what she tried to teach me. There wasn’t anything sappy about it.

I worked hard on my attempt to capture happiness on the page, kept trying to honor that part of my life that filled me with joy. Lots of other things snuck into the work: my parents’ deaths, my daughter’s type 1 diabetes diagnosis, my ex-husband’s alcoholism. I didn’t want those things in there, necessarily, but discovered they were part of the package and did indeed belong. Bonus: they made things more interesting.

Fast forward to my current work as a poetry editor. I often think of Deborah Keenan as I read submissions from hopeful poets whose work hasn’t yet fully formed, whose attempts to illustrate their happiness (among other things) falls flat. I keep giving the same feedback over and over: dig deeper, find the specific image that demonstrates “X”, make me want to read this. Every time, I cringe just a little bit, wonder how the person who will receive my comments is going to feel, hope that they take whatever I and the other readers who saw the piece say and apply it to improving their poetry rather than feeling insulted. Sometimes there’s a thank you from someone who values the feedback. That makes me happy. And sometimes there’s a nasty note on the rejected author’s blog that blames my colleagues and me for not recognizing their talent. That makes me sad, but it doesn’t stop me from doing what I’ve agreed to do: give feedback that matters. Help writers find happiness. Produce work that isn’t sappy.

Happiness without sappiness on the page shows up eventually. You just have to work at it.

Happy Wednesday.

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4 comments

  1. I think we write what we have to write, regardless of the type of poet we want to be. Themes sneak in and set up camp in my work whether I want them there or not. I will never be a 'happy poem' poet, although I've tried too.

    I'm lucky enough to belong to a writer's group where we check our egos at the door and do in-depth, detailed critiques of our work. It's sometimes painful, but I wouldn't dream of sending my work out into the world without it being the best it can be, and saying what I want it to say. But it took me a while to get to where I enjoy the lengthy critiques and look forward the feedback, good and bad. I hope our editees get to that point, because that's when you start learning about yourself and your writing. 🙂

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