Short Essay: “Happy, Happy”

This essay was originally written for the Poetry Unites essay competition in 2021. The essay didn’t win, and it will probably never appear in a literary journal because . . . I don’t submit to them anymore. In the essay, I tried to answer the prompt: “write a two-page (or 600-word) piece about [your] favorite poem and about its importance in [your] lives.

Happy, Happy

Ryōkan’s “First days of spring— the sky” came into my life when I was about twenty years old, a college English major who had come to a love of literature through the Beats. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1980s, I loved books, as well as movies and music, which stood in stark contrast to the heavy emphasis for boys on sports and the outdoors. I was also raised Baptist in a humble, down-to-earth church. So to encounter these wild writers – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, and others – who equated literature with a search for meaning was revelatory for me. Those writers caused me look deeper, to go down poetry’s rabbit hole: from Snyder to Rexroth then Pound and on to the Asian poets they translated, who I’d never heard of in high school. 

But it was Ryōkan who interested me most, and I came to him through Stephen Mitchell’s Enlightened Heart anthology. Other Asian writers appear earlier in the pages, since they lived sooner, including Tu Fu (who always makes me think of Charles Wright and the dwarf orchard). Nearer the end of the book, Ryōkan, who lived from 1758 to 1831, was wedged between William Blake and Kobayashi Issa, and Mitchell included three of his poems. “First days of spring— the sky” is the first of the three.

The mid-’90s was not only the time period when I discovered the Beats, it was not a good time in my life: going to school full-time, working full-time, and living at home with my mother, with virtually everyone around me saying that being an English major was unwise. Most of my friends had left town for college, I stayed home out of financial necessity, and between work and school, had almost no free time for fun. Considering what most folks that age want from life, it’s fair to say that I was unhappy. And Ryōkan seemed like the happiest person I could imagine, mainly because he didn’t give a flip about the things most people value or expect.

The poem begins on a gorgeous spring day: blue sky, warm sun, the oncoming green. The speaker is walking into town to beg, then a group of children see him and insist that he play with them. He does, shamelessly. But people walk past him, jeering, asking, “Why do you act like such a fool?” Ryōkan writes,

I nod my head and don’t answer.
I could say something, but why? 

What matters, he then tells us, is what he is doing right now, though it is nothing anybody else would recognize as valuable. I was raised to understand that a “fool” is someone who knows something is wrongheaded but does it anyway. Ryōkan is not being a fool here. He is being happy, and that’s what passersby won’t abide. They’re too busy judging him, expressing their opposition, and focusing on their disapproval to be happy themselves. 

Do I think that Ryōkan was telling me to just go play with kids, then I’ll be happy? No. He was saying that people are so busy following the ways of the world to achieve happiness that most don’t even recognize happiness when they see it. When they do see it unaccompanied by the features they expect, they call it foolishness. But the poet knows better. That meant a lot to me as a twenty-year-old English major who was told regularly that a “more practical” pursuit would be better. 

Today, I’m a writer and writing teacher in the same city where people told me that I shouldn’t waste my time on literature. When I was younger, I used to get angry about it. Today, “I nod my head and don’t answer. / I could say something, but why?” 

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