Brand building through storytelling

Sharing happiness

On the other side of the continent, a friend was feeling despondent. I couldn’t bring her a little gold box of dark Belgian chocolate, or a spray of daffodils, or a vintage scarf to complement her favourite hat. She’s one of my virtual friends, a late-night e-mail confidante I may never meet face to face, so for all I know she doesn’t own a hat.

But I do know this: she’s a lover of books, and poetry in particular. So I thought of a wonderfully consoling poem she might not have discovered just yet. I found it online and sent her the link. To check her e-mail, my friend has to walk down a hill to the studio where she writes. I pictured her there after dark,  the screen aglow as she made the acquaintance of Jane Kenyon’s transcendent poem “Happiness.”

KENHALLI discovered Jane Kenyon while waiting for a haircut in one of those salons where the assistants look like extras for The Devil Wears Prada and lattes are served in demitasse cups. Flipping through the latest Vogue, I happened on a profile of Jane, as I’ve thought of her ever since. She’d been living on a farm in New Hampshire, my home state, with her husband and mentor, the poet Donald Hall. She tended her garden, walked her dog, went to church (and helped stuff the Christmas baskets for shut-ins). Her poems celebrated the everyday—ripe peaches, candlesticks on the dinner table—with a measured grace that reached beyond this world.

She had struggled all her life with depression, which she called “the mutilator of souls.” People can die in their prime of depression (just look at all the obituaries in which “suddenly” is code for suicide). Jane Kenyon died at 47 of leukemia. I put down the magazine missing her, this newly dead poet I had never known, and now never would except through the pages of a book.

Otherwise 2In a book store across from the salon, I found Jane’s last collection, Otherwise, just in time for a business trip to Vancouver. I couldn’t have made a more bracing choice. Jane’s voice whispered in my ear while I waited for my row to be called, for the stale coffee to be served, for the turbulence to pass. She created a better world than the one where I’d been trapped with my knees jammed against the seat ahead. Between the moment when the plane touched down with a shudder and the moment of blessed escape, I breathed in another poem. It took about two minutes, the first time through. How many other pleasures are so quick to absorb?

I’ve been steeped in poetry since childhood—reluctantly, at first. My mother used to quote great swaths of the English canon in front of my bewildered playmates, yet she couldn’t name the cast of I Love Lucy. Poetry made her peculiar, along with her disdain for broadloom and her “funny accent” (being Canadian, she thought the locals had the accent, and an unfortunate one at that).

I came to think of poets as fusty relics with no place in the modern age, and my grade eight English teacher reinforced this view. Mrs. Wilcox, a corseted matron who resembled Margaret Dumont playing straight woman to the Marx Brothers, taught that every poem was a puzzle in which a “deeper meaning” had been slyly embedded. Bad enough that poets were old-fashioned; they were also a band of sadists intent on torturing kids.

The notion of a poem as distilled experience, as a world to remember and revisit and be changed by, didn’t dawn on me until I learned from better teachers, one being life itself. I discovered there is no such thing as a new experience, only new perceptions of universal experiences. Sometimes a line of poetry will float to mind like a message. Which poem? I don’t have to know; I can Google the line and summon the entire piece, like a magician conjuring a bird from a single feather. And then, with a keystroke, I can pass it on to someone else.

I can’t think of any poem I’ve shared more often than Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness.” If Mrs. Wilcox were teaching this little marvel, she’d reduce it to a treacly platitude—clouds and silver linings, darkest hours and dawn. But the poem has a steeliness, a mystery, that defies literal translation. Here’s how it begins:

There’s just no accounting for happiness,

or the way it comes back like a prodigal

who comes back to the dust at your feet,

having squandered a fortune far away.

That’s the easy part. In the closing lines, happiness is coming to inanimate things, “to rain falling on the open sea,/to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.” Every time I read this poem—and I’ve read it hundreds of times—I stop to ponder that “weary” wineglass. Literally, it makes no sense, yet it’s absolutely right. The glass is giving to the next thirsty person an abundance that will not be contained, a life force that promises to outlast us all. I love the way this elegantly off-kilter image both echoes and enlarges the squandered fortune of the opening lines. The frustrating thing about happiness, that it spends itself and vanishes, is also what makes it so precious.

I’ve had an e-mail about “Happiness” from my virtual friend. “Thank you for the wonderful poem,” she said. “It encapsulates all my feelings.” Yesterday, I sent the poem to a grateful friend who has just had major surgery. Now I’m giving it to you. Pass it on. Because happiness should be spent, and shared.

From time to time, I’ll be sharing other favourite poems on this site. If you don’t care for poetry, I hope you’ll bear with me. (I promise not to channel Mrs. Wilcox.) And who knows, you just might change your mind.

Posted by Rona

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