The Bigness of Small Poems – # 44 in a series – Joy, Not Meant To Be a Crumb

English poet Phillip Larkin (1922-1985). Photo credit: Fay Godwin 1970


What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

3 August, 1953

Philip Larkin, from Whitsun Weddings in Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Marvel Press and Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1988


Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given,
To others
Only heaven.

Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994


American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Throwing out handfuls of thanks, not crumbs, to my Island Five colleague and friend Terry Ann Carter for mentioning, in a Facebook post, the poem Days by the English poet Phillip Larkin. If I knew this poem at all I had forgotten it. But it tied in to so well with two poems I have been wanting to feature in a blog post for the past few weeks. This idea of joy or happiness. Do we give it enough room in our lives? Do we cultivate it? (To see my post from January 2018 that also featured Langston Hughes poem please click here.)

My questions above aren’t academic questions for me. I can feed worry and anxiety, dare I say, happily,without thought. But it feels a harder task to stay still enough to receive joy. And that it is a precious gift. And two great poetry anthologies keep me reminded of it. Dancing With Joy edited by Roger Housden published in 2007 by Harmony Books and joy 100 poems edited by Christian Wiman, published by Yale University Press in 2017.

Now for the third poem, by Mary Oliver which of all of these poems, most directs me what to do with joy! She declares: Joy is not made to be a crumb. And in that line, I hear the echo from Hughes’s poem of : Sometimes a crumb falls/ From the tables of joy.

Don’t Hesitate

If  you   suddenly  and   unexpectedly  feel  joy,
don’t   hesitate. Give in to it. There  are plenty
of  lives  and  whole  towns  destroyed  or  about
to  be. We   are  not wise,   and  not  very often
kind.   And     much    can   never  be  redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left.Perhaps this
is   its  way  of  fighting  back, that  sometimes
something  happens   better   than  all the riches
or  power  in  the  world. It  could  be anything,
but  very likely you  notice  it  in  the  instant
when  love   begins.  Anyway, that’s   often   the
case.   Anyway,   whatever  it is, don’t be afraid
of  its  plenty. Joy  is   not  made to be a crumb.

–Mary Oliver from Swan – Poems and Prose Poems, Beacon Press, 2010

American poet Mary Oliver (1936-2019)

What strikes me about these poems is the lack of sugar coating! Larkin reminds me that are days are meant to be happy but that strange little final stanza brings for me a slight whiff of death, hell and damnation! His challenge: to be happy in spite of the knowledge of our dying and our potential for pain and sickness.

Hughes poem feels the least hopeful and most challenging, its bleakness. But I do appreciate the grit of it. That there is not a lot of joy given in a life. And Sometimes crumbs…..And, only sometimes love. And the gasp, for me, from that last line. For some, no joy nor love here on earth. Only in a hoped-for heaven. This poem ups the ante. To me it says: you better be on the watch for love and joy and not disregard them. Some don’t get them. So, if you do, cherish them for as long as you can.

Oliver’s prose poem provides a coda for the poems by Larkin and Hughs. It’s clear: if joy comes, don’t hesitate to grab it. This poem stresses agency. Calls for wakefulness to joy. And reminds us: Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns ready to be destroyed or about to be.

Oliver’s poem echoes something of what the researcher, writer and professor, Brené Brown says about something she calls foreboding joy: an inability to appreciate the joy of the present moment for fear it will soon disappear. She cites the case of a man who bottled-up his joy with being with his wife because of fear she might die. Then she did. From cancer. Her point: if we try and numb out ourselves to lessen sadness in our life you numb out the joy. To be opened to joy you must be open to sadness. To cultivate joy you must accept its opposite.

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