By Dan Clendenin

Christian Wiman, editor, Joy:100 Poems (New Haven: Yale, 2017), 188pp.

You don’t have to look far in our day for good reasons to despair. Government corruption and incompetence. Corporate malfeasance. Gun violence, opioid epidemics, systemic racism. The mindlessness and vulgarity of television. Powerful technological means like gene editing or Big Data with precious few ethical ends to constrain them. A third of American children who do not graduate from high school. And a world in which half the population lives on pennies a day.

This book of poetry offers a counter-intuitive piece of advice: don’t go there. Don’t take the bait. However low the sociological trends and opinion polls sink, don’t yield to the spirit of despair. Rather, and despite all that we know and experience, choose the most radical act of cultural defiance — the subversive act of genuine joy. Joy, these poets affirm, isn’t just possible. It’s an essential aspect of being truly and fully human.

Joy is more like an epiphany than an intellectual effort or a psychological emotion. It is often mediated through an experience in nature, like the smell of summer rain, the beauty of a flower, or the pounding waves of the ocean surf. Joy comes to us in the sacred ordinary, like working in the garden or enjoying a long run. It’s different than mere pleasure or happiness. Joy is a sort of provocation or longing that nothing can satisfy, a stab or ache that points us to the transcendent.

In my own favorite poem from this collection, joy is even a duty or obligation. Consider “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert:

We must risk joy! And we do so without any sense of false-consciousness, or even (especially?!) of false conscientiousness. In Christian parlance, the English mystic Juliana of Norwich (1342–1416) put it this way: “The greatest honor we can give almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”

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