Happy, Happy Poetry

The Swing

Robert Louis Stevenson

HOW do you like to go up in a swing,

  Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing

  Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,

  Till I can see so wide,

Rivers and trees and cattle and all

  Over the countryside?

Till I look down on the garden green,

  Down on the roof so brown?

Up in the air I go flying again,

  Up in the air and down! —Happy, Happy Poetry (Introduction to Literary Study (Seton Hill University))

This is one of several happy poems I’ve assigned for tomorrow’s Intro to Literary Study class.

I’ve had students who expect all poetry to be like this — light and snappy and short, with only a single point to make. But happy people who live stable lives just aren’t very interesting, artistically. It’s the threatened, terrified, and dying people do things worth writing about (and reading about).

On the other hand, art covers the full range of human emotions — including cheerfulness. While cleverness in poetry will only get you so far, I think that angst-ridden poets who pour their heart, soul, blood, phlegm, and bile into their verses could learn a thing or two from these examples, which demonstrate the potential of poetry to delight.

Why? Well, in part, I want to make up for the depressing selection of poems I asked you to read last time. But budding poets can also learn from this example. If you know really well how poems can delight, then you can focus on creating delight in the reader, rather than simply expressing the feelings inside you.

If you create poems out of a need to express the innermost, deepest feelings that would otherwise go unexpressed, then you’ll end up with poems that mean quite a bit to you (because you mention a song that was important to you, the name of a person who invokes strong feelings, or a place that holds emotional significance for you), but leaves your readers scratching their heads.

In addition, once you’ve mastered delight, you can subvert your newfound talent to make poetry that totally creeps people out. (See Dr. Arnzen’s Gorelets.)