On Delight, Despair and…Musical Chairs


Two things happened this week which made me pause amid the busy-ness of every day life (painting a bedroom, reorganizing the linen cupboard.)  The first was my grandson’s birthday. He is  seven wonderful years old – a whirlwind, a dreamer,a talker  – and his imagination never stops. He’s learning to play the piano and recently performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the one-handed  version on piano) by heart in front of a live audience of adoring parents and grandparents at a pizza parlor in Eugene, Oregon. We’ll have a little family party in Seattle for him this weekend when he comes up with his parents, and we have two presents this time around that he’ll get with the usual books and art supplies and stickers – one is a Superman robot with helicopter blades attached to his head (he flies up and down – not forward, not backward, apparently – and spins via remote control – not fancy, but fancy enough for a seven-year-old) and another is the same thing only the figure is Batman. Great stuff, if I do say so. I mean, who wouldn’t want helicopter blades that could make them levitate? Of such imaginings, delight is made.

The second thing that happened was a posting on Facebook by my good friend Leda Schubert that quoted Tomi Ungerer (“A talent without despair is hardly useful”) and asked for comments. I replied that I might revise that to read, “hardly interesting,” believing as I do that quite a lot of fascinating art comes from melancholy, dissatisfaction, darkness (think Maurice Sendak.) Within hours, a different person replied by saying, “Sorry but, blah blah blah. What is your comment? I am not interested in talent or despair.

Not interested in talent? Not interested in despair? Whoa. That threw me for a loop.  You can be interested in happiness, that’s fine with me – who isn’t? But to the exclusion of sorrow? And why not interested in talent? I suspect that the comment was not meant to be as flip as it sounded.

I also suspect sometimes that I have a dark edge that bumps up against the sweet world of children’s books and their authors –  a very kind and happy bunch of people, I’ve learned. I like their influence on me, and I thank them for keeping me slightly more balanced than I used to be when I was just writing poetry for adults (no shortage of despair in some of that.) But I do wonder from time to time about the energy it takes to approach the world “without a cry, without a prayer, / with no betrayal of despair” as Tennessee Williams put it. It exhausts me, the idea of trying to do that. Is that what the commenter on Leda’s post meant when he said he’s “not interested in despair.” Maybe he thinks it’s exhausting, and doesn’t want to go there. Or does he just not want anyone to mention it? Or was he just kidding, and I missed the humor of it?

Seems to me that not being interested in sorrow would eliminate about 51% (maybe more – 99%? –  let’s just say a great deal) of all the music, visual art, dance, film, theater and literature that is produced out of discomfort, melancholy, grief, or any of  the million small heartaches that move us to create – a longing for home, a dream gone up in smoke, missing someone, running out of hope. Those things happen in life, and to express disinterest feels very odd to me. “All you have to do,” I replied again on Leda’s Facebook page, “is listen to a sad fiddle tune or a good Rhythm and Blues song to know how interesting despair can be and how intricately it is linked to creativity.”

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's "Children's Games."

Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s  “Children’s Games.”

The intersection of the Happy Birthday moment and the Not Interested in Talent or Despair moment came yesterday when I read a poem  by Josephine Jacobsen, a Canadian poet whose work I’m looking into for one of my Undersung essays over at Numero Cinq. She wrote the following poem about children playing musical chairs at a birthday party. It has delight, it has sorrow – neither one eclipses the other. The two together deepen each other, don’t they?

Seems to me that the lesson to remember is this, so basic that it’s got to be true:  Don’t worry about those two crayons in the Crayola box – Delight and Despair. Use them liberally. Both – light and dark – make your work interesting.

Hope you all enjoy Jacobsen’s poem as I did – the terza rima form seems perfect for something that looks at a children’s game. It has a nursery rhyme feel to it, but packs a punch.  I bet both melancholy and delight played a role in her writing it.  We see the children running, we hear their eager cries, we worry about that dark slope, and we know that “somewhere hidden” there is “the shape of bliss.”

The Birthday Party  by Josephine Jacobsen

The sounds are the sea, breaking out of sight,
and down the green slope the children’s voices
that celebrate the fact of being eight.

One too few chairs are for desperate forces:
when the music hushes, the children drop
into their arms, except for one caught by choices.

In a circle gallops the shrinking crop
to leave a single sitter in hubris
when the adult finger tells them: stop.

There is a treasure, somewhere easy to miss.
In the blooms? by the pineapple-palms’ bark?
somewhere, hidden, the shape of bliss.

Onto the pitted sand comes highwater mark.
Waves older than eight begin a retreat;
they will come, the children gone, the slope dark.

One of the gifts was a year, complete.
There will be others: those not eight
will come to be eight, bar a dire defeat.

On the green grass there is a delicate
change; there is a change in the sun
though certainly it is not truly late,

and still caught up in the scary fun,
like a muddle of flowers blown around.
For treasure, for triumph, the children run

and the wind carries the steady pound,
and salty weight that falls, and dies,
and falls. The wind carries the sound

of the children’s light high clear cries.


By the way, today is Poetry Friday.  Head over to Violet Nesdoly’s blog to see her round-up of what people around the KidLitOSphere have posted.

And by the way again, if you didn’t have time to check out the link to Ode to Joy above, take time to do it now. It’s the Flash Mob in Spain version – all delight. ———————————————————–

13 responses to “On Delight, Despair and…Musical Chairs

  1. Thank you, Julie, for acknowledging the dark and the light as playmates.

  2. Not to be interested in talent or despair? To ignore “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”? That would mean that you can’t, on the other side, truly appreciate Wordworth’s crowd of golden daffodils beside the lake. Light only makes sense because of the existence of dark. Thank you for reminding me to play musical chairs with both Hamlet and Wordsworth on poetry Friday.

    • Amanda, it’s been nice reading your comments recently, and I’ve gone over to re-read your writing about stepping off the treadmill. Particularly loved reading about your Oaxaca travels – Oh, my – it has put me in the mood to go back down TOMORROW! I loved Oaxaca when Nando and I went last November (and the Oaxaquenos certainly know how to embrace both sorrow and delight!) and your descriptions are so vivid and true to what can be seen and experienced there. Thanks for that.

  3. You can’t have light without dark. Excellent post. Enjoyed the poem and all your musings. Happy Birthday to your grandson. Oh, to be seven again. . . 🙂

  4. Julie Paschkis

    You are right to point out that you need both – and that it is silly to say that one has to choose. Sometimes in the fine art world it seems that joy or humor or work for children invites a smile of condescension. Fascinating art can come from delight as well as from despair, and from all admixtures of the two.

  5. I loved this poem and especially the terza rima! Very nicely done. Perhaps the ‘blah, blah, blah’ person is in denial. I think there are a lot of people who insist that everything is good all of the time and try to put a happy spin on things. An “It’s all good!” type of mentality and they refuse to see the dark. Maybe?

    • BJ, I’ve been assured by my friend Leda that the fellow making the comments is a sweetheart. So maybe just a bad day, or maybe the comment just came off as a little flip but wasn’t meant to be? I’m going to cut him some slack, and I’m glad he sparked my post.

  6. Well I for one am happy that the non-despair curmudgeon made those remarks. Your fur rubbed against the grain and the resultant thoughts about happiness and despair are well put. A world with only happiness, delight, and laughter would, I think, soon seem an exceedingly boring and shallow place.

    And you must be a grandma who knows her 7-yr-old very well. I know a 6-yr-old boy who would swoon over such a gift. Good choice!

  7. The poem makes me want to read more by Josephine Jacobsen.
    I think one of the tricky bits about Facebook is that you can make remarks to your friends, who understand you and know that you are really a sweetheart, which will be misunderstood by anyone who doesn’t know you. Hmm, is that an example of dark mixing with light?

    • So true, Tabatha – I’ve made my share of wisecracks over on Facebook! I hope you do read more of Josephine Jacobsen – her work is excellent.

  8. Even children are a mixture of light and dark. This poem captures that perfectly.

  9. Mary Lee, have you seen the movie about Tomi Ungerer called “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough”? Maurice Sendak talks a little about the light and dark in children, as does Tomi. Interesting movie, a little unsettling, but a fine close look at a complicated artist.

  10. Maybe I’m reading into the FB comment, but I think his boredom with despair and talent is a reference to the stereotype of the artist as a tortured, misunderstood, but deeply talented soul. I think there’s a little truth to both sides, because as much as artists are “normal people”, they are also highly receptive to the pain and joy in themselves and others – the magic in each that reminds a person what it’s like to be alive. Artists have to be sensitive to these things in order to absorb and process their influences in a unique way that they can show the world through their art. But I think that sometimes artists make themselves a martyr to the sorrow, or get swallowed up by it in a destructive way, which leads to an end to the entire creative process in the form of creativity-stopping addiction, depression, even suicide. I do think happiness is interesting, but I must admit I love the bittersweet blade the severs the light from the dark and serves to heighten each. It’s only human.

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