A Happy Poem: A Few Words on James Wright’s “TODAY I WAS SO HAPPY…”

Look how happy James Wright looks on this horse (with Robert Bly holding the reins):
48. James Wright and Robert Bly

James Wright was one of the first poets I fell in love with, and as an early student of free verse, it was important for me to see and understand the power of his book, The Branch Will Not Break, which ushers in not just a new personal approach to poetry for Wright, but marks a significant shift away from American formal poetry towards a more expressive, organic free verse.

Often I have students who chime in and say that all the poems I show them are incredibly sad, and they ask for a happy poem.  They don’t like it when I try to tell them that sad poems are also happy.  Who cares about art that makes a negative experience transcend into beauty? Give us something happy! And so I usually bust this James Wright poem out whenever I get that complaint:

TODAY I WAS SO HAPPY, SO I MADE THIS POEM

by James Wright

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
Crying
This is what I wanted.

The title for the poem helps establish the mood because it gives us the occasion or the reason behind the poem’s–our speaker, our poet, is so happy he feels compelled to write this poem.  With so many poems stemming from a place of isolation and despair, so many poems that are elegies, or that highlight the depraved and grimy living conditions of American life, it’s rare to see a poem that so openly declares itself optimistic.  And so it’s a great example of a “happy” poem to show off.

More than that, it’s a tiny little poem that operates according to pretty basic free verse conventions.  We have a setting established in the opening lines, and we can from the speaker’s POV that we are somewhere in the country, observing nature.  The juxtaposition of the squirrel and the moon widens the scope of the speaker’s vision.  He moves from the small little scurrying animal to the cosmic, and though moons usually plague a lot of poetry, here the moon’s nuance, and seems to arrive with an epiphany: it is impossible to die.

Wait? How is it impossible to die? We all die.  We all know that we die, so what is Wright trying to say?  The way I read this epiphany is: because each moment of time is damn near infinite (is a mountain), time’s slack, it’s depth and dimension allow us to soak in each moment to such degree that death disappears from consciousness, gets jettisoned from the frontal lobe.

The poem ends with our speaker personifying the desires of the eagle, suggesting that the eagle is rejoicing, but also Wright seems to be dumping the speaker’s realizations and feelings onto the bird.  “This is what I wanted,” seems to be the speaker’s sentiment about the moment in nature, about the epiphany.  Wright’s able to do a lot of psychological work quickly, and without too much overly calculated steering.  I feel like I arrive at the epiphany in much the same way he did because of the telescoping, the camera angles.  It’s a beautiful and highly charged poem.  And if you can get beyond the central focus on death, you can see that it’s pretty damn happy.  Which is a feat in itself.

Taylor Collier
4/12/2016

1 Comment

  1. This is my favorite poem ever. I cried the first time I read it, and sometimes choke up when I attempt to read it to someone.
    Thank you for your thoughts on this tiny but powerful work of art.

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