Poetic Licence


Many years ago, when it was still permissible on British TV to advertise tobacco products, there was a series of diverting ads that suggested (as the cleverest always do) that in purchasing a certain brand of cheroot you would discover not just a smoke but the secret to true contentment. “Happiness,” intoned a mellow baritone voice to the accompaniment of Bach’s soothing music, “is a cigar called Hamlet”.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what happiness really is and where it can be found. Is it something we can buy if we have enough money? Does it miraculously appear when we get that new house, new car, new smartphone we’ve been longing for? Surely it’s possible that someone you adore can bring you happiness if only they will return your feelings?

I’m not so sure.

These past days have been desperately sad ones for many people in and around Grahamstown. I’m thinking specifically of those I know personally as friends. And when sadness and despair touch us so painfully it is easy to believe that happiness can no longer exist.

At the last Reddits Poetry event, I was delighted to welcome back someone who had been a regular at these evenings for some years but who hadn’t been able to attend recently. When she came in, smiling as she invariably was, my heart lifted: it was lovely to see Mary again. She brightened the place just by being there.

So when, less than two days later, we heard the awful news that Mary Humphreys had died suddenly and unexpectedly, it came as a real shock – not just to me but to the whole of this town, to which Mary contributed so generously and capably as Director of the Raphael Centre.

How does one find happiness here?

At her memorial service in the Rhodes Chapel I was asked to choose a poem to read for her, but I had no idea what it could be. Her family was there, including her father and her sister, and their sadness was absolute. Yet as each speaker recalled, so warmly and affectionately, Mary’s typical kindness, generosity and laughter, I’m glad the poem I selected was about happiness, for this is what Mary carried with her wherever she went.


So Much Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.


Naomi Shihab Nye

(from Being Alive, Bloodaxe Books, 2004)

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