Talk of Happiness
Poems by Adam Penna
ISBN 978-0-9798707-5-0 / 0-9798707-5-5
Following on his first collection, Little Songs & Lyrics of Genji, in which Adam Penna declared that each poem was an attempt “to right myself each day,” the poet admits his new collection, Talk of Happiness, documents failure. The book, Penna says, “is ultimately dedicated to falling short”: the end of a marriage, an ill-conceived religious conversion, and the death of a close friend, are all explored in one of the most astonishing sonnet sequences by an American poet in the last fifty years. Arranged by seasons, the book can be read as a continuous narrative and meditation, or as separate glimpses of mourning and illumination. In its daring and compassion, Talk of Happiness approaches the work of Donne or Hopkins in its searching spirituality, while also questioning the use and ability of poetry—whether as reader or writer—to improve our lives, to make us happy. In the end, love and family and the close appreciation and observation of the natural world are what revivify, becoming a support for poetry rather than the other way around. “A word keeps coming back,” one poem says, “and what it is who knows.”
From the Author
Soon, very soon, the follow-up to Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji will be released by S4N Books. A lot has happened since I started writing these little songs almost ten years ago, when the aim, like I understand the aim of all mediation and prayer, was to right myself each day. The poems were an opportunity to listen, and, I hope, more than an account of a listening, they are also an opportunity for the reader to listen, too. Poetry, like this, shares DNA with mandalas, those Hindu and Buddhist symbols meant to represent the all of everything. As a book and as a practice, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji is successful, I think, because, even now, when I look back at those pages, I am pleased with and proud of the results. Of course, no poet can return to the state of mind which brought a book into existence. Neither is it desirable. Whatever state of mind brought Little Songs into the light was addressed and resolved the minute the final eye was dotted, the final tee crossed. So while Talk of Happiness begins where LS<G leaves off and the two books share a number of preoccupations, the hope of the books couldn’t be more different and so, too, then, the effects.
If LS<G is a monument to a certain kind of, albeit humble, success, the poems in Talk of Happiness document failure. Here I sought not to right myself each day, but rather to test whether poetry could alter my circumstances. I wanted to know if poetry could make me happy. When I read a number of these poems at a reading, shortly after their composition, a colleague asked during the question and answer portion, whether the experiment worked. Are you happier? she asked. I had to admit, no, it had not worked, I was not happier, and the room laughed, uncomfortably, I guess because of the ironies implicit and explicit in my answer. But, I added, the experience taught me to look at my circumstances with a certain equanimity. I suppose I had the stoics in mind, and, if I could conjure a particular image of the lesson, it would be the Wheel of Fortune. The safest place on that wheel is the hub. The poems, then, centered me, rather than righted me, is what I concluded then, though I doubt this conclusion now.
I wrote the bulk of these poems over the course of three years. Again, like with LS<G I dedicated myself to writing, at least, one poem a day, though frequently I wrote three or four or more a day, revising – sometimes radically – as I went along. The notebooks I kept during that time are filled with quickly scribbled compositions, abandoned drafts, and printouts taped into the pages. I even added to my process, the practice of recording my voice reading the poems, so I could listen to the poems and, thereby, determine which draft best represented the actual utterance as I’d conceived it. Over the course of one major snowstorm, I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 little songs. Not all of these have made it into the final manuscript. And certainly, many of the poems as poems were failures. Even in a book ultimately dedicated to falling short, the poems inside must achieve a certain level of success as poems.
The book is organized chronologically, like most of my books; however, there is one difference. While it may seem that the poems move, like we assume time does, in a linear fashion, actually the sequence is cyclical. Each section (there are four of them) is numbered I-IV and titled like so: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer. But within these sections, the poems are arranged by date of composition without any consideration for the year of composition. The effect or the argument, then, concerns the cyclical nature, not only of time but of moods and weathers. The book, therefore, can be read in any number of ways, that is, from first page to last, but also from the last section through the first and on. One might even dip in as one pleases. Or find the season you’re in, and intuit which poem best suggests the complement. The poems aren’t a calendar, but more like a series of landscapes and still-lives arranged to mirror what a window frames.
Like with most sonnet sequences, read them chronologically and a narrative emerges. With Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, you can perhaps just make out the silhouette of the story, not just of my spiritual coming into being, but also of my first marriage, several important losses, including the death of a good friend, mentor and fellow poet, and a hasty and ill-conceived conversion to Christianity (specifically, I became a member of the Episcopal Church). Perhaps it’s best to think of Talk of Happiness, if the narrative behind the poems concerns anyone at all, as the unraveling of what Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji attempted to knot. It is first and foremost, now that I read it with some distance, a documentation of my first marriage falling apart and the several storms, both literal and figurative, that seemed to come to destroy it. Secondly, the book is a document of my shifting perspective on the divinity and poetry’s place in all that. TOH, finally, is the story of all kinds of love failing, and my attempt to recover that love and, failing that, make some peace with the loss.
The last difference between TOH and LS<G is the absence of my erstwhile imaginary friend, Genji. It’s not that communications with Genji dried up. There are, indeed, two more cycles of Genji poems, “To an Imaginary Friend” and “Genji in Paradise,” but I thought it best to leave those for a future volume. Maybe I’ll call it All of Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji.
About the Author
Adam Penna lives in East Moriches, New York, and teaches at Suffolk County Community College. He is the author of Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, as well as the chapbooks The Love of a Sleeper and Small Fires, Little Flames. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Cider Press Review, The Basilica Review and Verse Daily. His is online at http://www.adampenna.com.