There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.
Jane Kenyon, “Happiness” from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org
Source: Poetry (February 1995).
Serendipity: Reflecting on Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness”
by Rebekah Choat
Serendipity is a beautiful thing. I bought a biography of Jane Kenyon in November, on a whim, having never heard of her before. The same week, Kelly mentioned her, and soon after gave us this poem to muse on. I usually encounter a poet the other way around: I read some of his or her work and then, if it resonates strongly enough with me, I set out to learn more about the person. But having a foundation of knowledge about Kenyon is helping me to read her poems with a deeper understanding than I otherwise would have this early in my experience with them.
Jane Kenyon suffered from bipolar disorder, experiencing long periods of what she called melancholy, punctuated by a few brief episodes of hypomania – bursts of extraordinarily high spirits and energy.
I live with a much more pedestrian form of depression, a dull, plodding shadow. With treatment I stay on an even keel most of the time. Still, I can identify with Kenyon’s implied base of a pervading, underlying sadness, one that is sometimes so powerful as to drag one down into sleep midafternoon…during the unmerciful hours.
I recognize, too, the unexplainable happiness that comes when least expected: the return of a hope that seemed lost forever, the stab of joy out of the blue penetrating the thickest clouds. There’s just no accounting for happiness. You can’t summon it at will; it refuses to show up when it should – on holiday mornings, at weddings and graduations. It doesn’t respond to invitations. It won’t be enticed. It is seemingly indiscriminate with the rest of the world, but it’s not coming to you; not then, not now, not ever. Then one day, long after you’ve accepted this fact, you sense something behind you as you’re pulling weeds, or you glance up from shaping a loaf of bread, and there it is in a child’s grubby hand or perched on the branch just outside the kitchen window.