Amanda Palmer Reads “Happiness” by Jane Kenyon
By Maria Popova
There are few things in life more inconstant and more elusive, both in the fist of language and in the open palm of experience, than happiness. Philosophers have tried to locate and loosen the greatest barriers to it. Artists have come into this world “born to serve happiness.” Scientists have set out to discover its elemental components. And yet for all our directions of concerted pursuit, happiness remains mostly a visitation — a strange miracle that seems to come and go with a will of its own. “Those who prefer their principles over their happiness,” Albert Camus wrote in contemplating our self-imposed prisons, “they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.”
How to welcome the visitation of happiness on its own miraculous terms, liberated from our conditioned and conditional expectations, is what poet Jane Kenyon (May 23, 1947–April 22, 1995) — a woman of immense wisdom on what it takes to nourish a creative life — explores in an astounding poem posthumously published in The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place (public library).
I asked the wonderful Amanda Palmer to lend her voice to Kenyon’s masterpiece in a complement to her earlier reading of Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression. Please enjoy.
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.
Complement with Willa Cather’s soulful definition of happiness and Mary Oliver’s ode to the art of finding magic in life’s unremarkable moments, then revisit Amanda’s stirring readings of “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska.
Amanda’s work, like my own, is made possible by patronage — join me in supporting her work so that she may go on bringing beautiful things into this world.
Published November 20, 2017