On Happiness, Love, and License


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I’m sad. I just learned that my own country didn’t score very high on the annual Happiness Index. I’m thinking of moving to Denmark. What does a poet do when he or she gets sad like I am?
— Justin L. , Kansas City, Missouri

I’m a little sad, too, and right now I’m drinking chai from a teacup made in Uzbekistan. I like this cup, deep blue with white swirls that represent the cotton plant (ok oltin as it is called in Uzbek, “White Gold”). And I like chai, sharing a semantic kinship with the Uzbek word for tea, choy, its vapors steadily tugging at my heart with a longing nostalgia. I’m not drinking chai because it’s delicious — well, not entirely. I’m not drinking it because I like it and hope that it will uplift my mood. I’m drinking chai in my Uzbek cup that’s decorated with the plant responsible for desiccating the Aral Sea precisely because…well, it makes me sadder.

Like Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” when a poet gets sad, she “flings (her) soul/ Upon the growing gloom.” Poets embrace sadness, as Joseph Brodsky advises, because “when you hurt, you know at least that you haven’t been deceived.” Sadness is an honest emotion, and when it arrives, it usually has a good reason for doing so. The world too often is too cruel, and when we ache, we know what it means to be human.

Excluding cases that require clinical intervention, most poets like sadness, or appreciate it on some level, sometimes seeking to enhance or compliment it. Maybe we had a rotten day at work and on the way home it starts raining (we’re on foot and we don’t have an umbrella). Rather than waiting under an awning for the rain to pass (which it does quickly), we decide to walk through it and get soaked, and we may possibly be wearing our new white blouse with puffy tapered sleeves that, once wet, look perfectly hopeless, deflated, dejected — yes, the perfect metaphor for ourselves. Or maybe we’re sad one day, and for lunch we order yellow mustard on our sandwich. We hate yellow mustard. So now we’re sad and eating something that inevitably deepens the crease on our brow.

Be sad, Justin L. Read sad poems (maybe Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” or J.W. Marshall’s “Sadness Therapy”) and be sadder.


Is there a poem that talks about long-lasting love that I can give to someone? Thanks.
— KS, Arlington, Massachusetts

Well, KS, the answer to your question is a sonnet, whose form suits the theme of love like brown on a ripe banana. Shakespeare’s love sonnets are great, but for something a little more contemporary, I would pick up a copy Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Collected Sonnets. One that you may find suitable for your needs goes:

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
…There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, — so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him ere!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

“Long-lasting” is a relative term, so I don’t know quite the duration of your particular love, but the good thing about Millay’s Collected Sonnets is that you can find a sonnet for nearly every love affair in your life:  your first true love (“I might be driven to sell your love for peace/  Or trade the memory of this night for food./ It well may be. I do not think I would”), the summer fling (“I know I am but summer to your heart”), the codependent relationship that lasts too long (“Nor skilled in sports nor beautiful was he/ Who had come into her life when anybody/ Would have been welcome”), the one-night-stand (“I find this frenzy insufficient reason/ For conversation when we meet again”).

And, KS, if you have a change of heart, you can give someone a poem that deliberately refutes the existence of everlasting love. I’m thinking of one in particular, a sonnenizio, a poem invented by Kim Addonizio (although she credits it to Vanni Fucci, already punished as a thief in Dante’s seventh chasm of hell). A sonnenizio is a 14-line poem, stealing its first line from another sonnet and then repeating one word from the first line in each successive line. Here’s some lines from KA’s “Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton”: “…Hold me/ like that again, unbutton my shirt, part of you/ wants to, I can tell, I’m touching that part and it says/ yes, the ardent partisan, let it win you over,/ it’s hopeless, come, we’ll kiss and part forever.” Give someone that if you want to go out with a bang.


Do I need a poetic license in order to be a real poet? If so, how and where can I get one? Thank you.
— Linda M., Bloomington, Indiana

That’s a good question.

I almost would stop at that in the hopes that my reticence would be meaningful, but instead I want to tell you a little story.

Once a colleague and I painted our naked bodies and threw ourselves against a “Wall of Expression.” It was during the aftermath of 9/11, when the University of Arizona erected an expansive white board on the mall so that students could express themselves. Like many, my colleague and I wanted to express the shock of 9/11, but we didn’t know how to with words alone, so one night at 2 a.m. we took off our clothes, painted our bodies with red and green paint, and threw ourselves against a wall in utter sadness, disbelief, and speechlessness. We were never hunted down and punished because we felt, as perhaps did the appropriate authorities, that we had poetic license: We had the right to get naked, we had the right to paint our bodies, we had the right to scribble another classmate’s epigram next to our spattered silhouettes: “I cannot believe in you,/ however I will continue/ compulsively counting.”

Shakespeare’s clown, Touchstone, from As You Like It, says to his Audrey, “Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical…for thou swearest to me thou art honest: now, if thou wert a poet, I might have some hope thou didst feign.” Oh Touchstone, you fool!  Lying, or twisting words, or disregarding the proprieties of academia, or in other words, poetic license, doesn’t come from the gods — it comes from the inside, when one asks herself:  Do I have the right to make a statement?

So yes, I do think you need a poetic license to be a poet. To get one, simply go to your ego and ask. • 25 August 2008