by Lisel Mueller
“Don’t cry, it’s only music,”
someone’s voice is saying.
“No one you love is dying.”
It’s only music. And it was only spring,
the world’s unreasoning body
run amok, like a saint’s, with glory,
that overwhelmed a young girl
into unreasoning sadness.
“Crazy,” she told herself,
“I should be dancing with happiness.”
But it happened again. It happens
when we make bottomless love—
there follows a bottomless sadness
which is not despair
but its nameless opposite.
It has nothing to do with the passing of time.
It’s not about loss. It’s about
two seemingly parallel lines
suddenly coming together
inside us, in some place
that is still wilderness.
Joy, joy, the sopranos sing,
reaching for the shimmering notes
while our eyes fill with tears.
Many years ago, exiting a movie theater after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, I walked down the street in a daze with my now-husband John and our friend Paul. What had we just seen? Did you understand it? we asked each other. Yeah, I understood it, Paul said. But I can’t explain it to you.
John and I thought that was funny and maybe a little untruthful. All these years later, after reading Lisel Mueller’s “Joy” and trying to articulate what’s happening in her poem, I now think Paul told one of the deepest truths there is about human experience and understanding.
Because, dear readers—I understand this poem, I do, in the core of my soul, I understand it. But I can’t explain it to you.
How is it that great art and immersion in nature can make us feel two things at once? An unreasoning sadness and dancing with happiness? This is familiar territory to me. The first time I saw Édouard Vuillard’s “The Album” and his five-panel screen “Place Vintimille” I started shaking and then tearing up. More recently, “West Side Story” left me a wreck, and not just because of the ending. Some of the dance scenes were so exuberant and gloriously choreographed, I was overwhelmed with feeling that came out as near-constant welling up. Most people have something—a musical piece, a view of a mountain or sunrise, an interaction with another person, a meal, a book, heck even a spreadsheet for some folks—that is so beautiful and perfect it moves them to tears.
Mueller calls this merge of emotions the nameless opposite of despair. It overtakes us, the poet says, not because we know the beauty we experience is fleeting. And not because we fear death. (That would fall under the Romantic notion of the Sublime, a theory of how great works and great beauty inspire a pleasurable terror). And if what we experience is just a feeling of, gee, so beautiful!, well, that’s nice, but pleasure without sadness is not what Mueller is getting at. (Here’s a great video explaining philosopher Edmund Burke’s differentiation between experiencing the Sublime and the Beautiful.)
Feelings are complicated. Better a poet than a philosopher to help us understand them. And better a poet than a poem elf to describe them.
What I will point out is one of the many intricacies of “Joy.” The two primary emotions, or, in the language of the poem, the two parallel lines—happiness and sadness—are near-rhymes. Closely connected, in other words. The same suffix shows up in a third word, the source of the other two: wilderness. All the near-rhymes in the poem, the repetitions, the poem’s construction with its two time periods and two points of view—bring us to a place of understanding even if we aren’t aware those devices are at work.
How’s that for a non-explanation? That’s why we need poetry. In a million words I couldn’t adequately get at what Mueller expresses.
One more thing: I’m headed to Washington, D.C. this weekend for a wedding, and it happens to coincide with cherry blossom season. I so rarely get to experience that fleeting bloom that I am already aquiver. When I walk below those exquisite pink canopies, I’ll be thinking of Mueller’s description of spring—
And it was only spring,
the world’s unreasoning body
run amok, like a saint’s, with glory
Final note (see how this poem has got to me, I can’t stop): I fell down a rabbit hole of looking for a soprano opera song with the word “Joy.” I didn’t find one in particular, but I listened to a lot of gorgeous arias. I’ll share two. Here’s Maria Callas singing Bach’s “Ave Maria.” Please listen! Just listen and fall into the music, lose yourself in her warm and soaring voice, and wonder at how a mere mortal wrote this music.
And here is Hyesang Park singing Puccini’s “Musetta’s Waltz.”
A biography of Liesel Mueller from a previous post:
Lisel Mueller (1924-2020) was born in Germany. Her parents were both teachers. After her father spoke out against the rise of Nazism, he was interrogated by the Gestapo, and eventually fled the country. Mueller, her mother and her sister followed a few years later when she was 15. The family settled in the Midwest.
Mueller graduated from University of Evansville, married, had two daughters, worked as a social worker and as a book reviewer for the Chicago Daily News. She took up writing poetry in her late twenties after her mother died and was not published until she was 41.
She taught at University of Chicago, Elmhurst and Goddard colleges, won several prizes including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She is the only German-born writer to ever win the Pulitzer.
She died in 2020 at age 96.