Dear Dr. Poetry

Cover art for Happy Life by David Budbill

Happy Life
by David Budbill
Copper Canyon Press, August 2011
122 pages

[Editor’s note: “Dear Dr. Poetry,” a new column by Shannon Wagner, will appear regularly on this blog.]


Dear Dr. Poetry

When I sold my VW van to buy my first suit for a job at Mega Corp, my aura began browning at the edges, deepening with every board meeting until my inner child was covered in a slop resembling the Woodstockian mud in which he was conceived. I don’t know how I lost sight of my ideals. Is it too late to return to my alternative lifestyle and find happiness?


Too Old to Feel Uptight
You were wise to come to me, TOFU. With this, as with all things, the answer lies in poetry. For you specifically, I suggest David Budbill’s latest poetry collection, Happy Life, whose opening poem begins with a quote from the classical Chinese poet, Chia Tao: “I can’t help feeling for you— / leaving your office work / only to meet each time / the dying day.

I can’t help feeling for you, either, TOFU. Nor can Budbill:

I’ve spent most of my life
pissing and moaning about
never having any money,
not being known, never
getting any honors, not
getting to travel.
And yet,
for more than forty years
my days have been my own.

It takes a long time for some people
to realize how lucky they are.

In impeccably clear and accessible language: he ruminates on the satisfaction he gets from flowing with life’s natural rhythms and living within his means—not only economically, but also artistically and spiritually. Drawing inspiration from Taoists and ancient Chinese poets, his poems are largely narrative and frequently call into question the demands of contemporary life. Nothing in them seems extraneous—there aren’t any metaphors—and you get the sense that he knows what really matters, like self-sufficiency and a proportional sense of value. I get the impression, TOFU, that you no longer have these qualities in harmonious balance, perhaps relying too much on your electric toothbrush or microwave. No wonder your aura isn’t a healthy periwinkle or moss green!

Budbill would recommend manual labor to put life back into perspective, but I recommend simply reading his book, which contains several poems on chopping wood that make you feel, in the most satisfying way, that you’ve truly done a job that matters in your daily life. In “Out in the Woods,” he says,

The only time I’m really free is when I’m out in the woods
cutting firewood, stacking brush, clearing trails.
Just the chain saw, the dog, and me.
Heave and groan, sweat and ache.
Work until I can’t stand it anymore.

Pausing with his dog to stretch out and take a nap on the ground, he thinks, “Ah, this would be the time and place and way / to die”—not because the moment is particularly memorable or remarkable, but because he’s completely at peace with himself.

So, to answer you, TOFU—no, it’s not too late to return to the time you were last happy, because it wasn’t the VW van that made you happy. It was the feeling that each day was your own.