Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



August 2007

"Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length."
Title of Poem by Robert Frost (1942)



Happiness Is a Finished Piece

Dear Reader,

Robert Frost understood the all-too brief pay-off when a poem or a painting feels finished. Why doesn't happiness last? And why is this true for both poetry and art making? That's what this month's journal will explore.

The poem feels resolved, and I am happy. It's a distinct and recognizable feeling. Maybe that same day, or a week later, the feeling doesn't return when I realize that there is a word that sits like a lump in a line, grabbing all the attention. Or the entire poem doesn't make sense anymore. Happiness (a.k.a. satisfaction) may have been warranted, but premature. I keep seeing the lump. Solution: get back to the poem.

Poems need time to settle. That soaring feeling I get when I have a successful draft will soon begin its descent, like a hot air balloon ride approaching its end. I accept this reality, but don't deny myself the pleasure (or delusion) that I have a decent poem. I need those endorphins.

Happiness could be rooted in the fact that I have found a subject I care about and a way into putting it on the page. That is cause for elation, because any writer knows the feeling of having spent hours on a poem that lays flat and doesn't even squirm. I jump for joy whenever I get a live one.

If that happiness returns when I read the poem at a poetry reading, or if I decide that it could withstand an editor's or judge's scrutiny, the poem will join that group of audience-worthy poems.

Having knocked myself out to the point of exhaustion or a case of hives, I sit and examine the piece. That feeling. What is it? Happiness? I sit a while longer. My husband gives me some feedback. Later that evening, I jump back into the studio to sneak a look, as if by surprising it, I will see its inner life.

Next, I move the painting into the bedroom so it will be the first thing I see when I wake up. Happiness may return in the morning, but I might also notice an area that needs work. The cup is less full than it was the night before. It's time to get the painting back into the studio. It may take months of waking up to a painting to have the courage to revise it because it has made me so happy and I can't forget or dismiss that.

Happiness comes when I realize that the painting will remain as it is. I like it enough not to drag it into the studio and paint over the entire thing. Even if I say good-bye to it, there is a kind of happiness in making the decision to destroy it: I am free from it. Its textures will supply an inner (or under) life to the painting that replaces it. I can begin again.

I keep a slide and photo record of every painting. Happiness comes next when I view the painting through the lens of my camera. The distance a camera places between me and my work makes me see the color, line and composition in a different way. The painting becomes all image. If what I see still makes me happy, then I can think about letting it be seen either on this website or in an exhibition or gallery. There's something about happiness that wants to be shared.

Next month, I will continue to explore the similarities and differences between making art and poetry. Please contact me if you would like to get in on the discussion: