On Human Flourishing: A Poetry Anthology is a new and powerful resource for newcomer and scholar alike that, instead of branching off current discussions, actually broadens our conversations about both well-being and literature.
This anthology is a difficult one to fold into a short review. The study of poetry is and should be a complex and dynamic discussion. The study of well-being, likewise, should be deep and wide-ranging. This anthology elegantly gathers the seeds of those conversations together through its concise but fruitful introduction and well-appointed sections of poetry. In order to concentrate all this information in one place, the editors focus on the building blocks of the study of well-being and of poetry.
For this reason, additional resources are continually referenced and the editors are clear that this is not meant to be an entirely inclusive work. That said, what is included is and will continue to be useful for those interested in poetry, well-being or a bit of both. Like this anthology, this review will not be comprehensive, but I can assure you that newcomers to both conversations will find On Human Flourishing to be a useful guide, and scholars on these subjects will find new perspectives that will propel their own studies and patterns of thought.
The introduction is an important foundation for this anthology as it provides a lens through which to view the work. It serves not only as an introduction to the anthology, but also as an introduction to the study of well-being in literature (namely poetry) and the study of well-being as a research topic. D. J. Moores, one of the editors and the author of the introduction, crafts the anthology as a scholarly work, complete with notes, but does not shy away from his personal perspective (articulating, for example, his own understanding of how the study of well-being is organized, and creating one section in particular – love – not just based on established research, but also on his own perspective). It’s clear that Moores would like to inspire conversation and it is also clear that this is a conversation in which he and the other editors are actively engaged.
The information covered in the introduction, as well as the poetry, is crafted into sections that are by no means prescriptive, but they are a guide created by people who have been seriously discussing these issues for quite some time. As an example of how the introduction is sectioned, the study of well-being (or eudaimonia, “an ancient Greek term best translated as ‘flourishing’”) is explained by walking through six views from leading researchers in the field. These perspectives build on one another with prismatic effect. Ancient Greek concepts are cited in conversation with the most contemporary research, and while one view may present a broader context, another fleshes it out with a more detailed breakdown of “measureable elements” of well-being.
The poetry sections are referenced as “cycles” and they harmonize with Moores’ overview of well-being research and its intersection with literary perspectives. These cycles are meant to be understood as umbrellas and the conversations between the poems continually emphasize the complexity and network between themes and emotions. Moores writes that the poems were selected “only after considerable discussion and debate” and this is obvious as you read through the collection. Poetry enthusiasts are unlikely to find authors they’re unfamiliar with, but the way in which the poems are arranged puts them into a conversation that highlights the poems, and aspects of the poems, in new ways. In fact, poems I’ve read many times looked quite different when planted in this new landscape. Poets reappear across sections and are indexed in the back, so if you are exposed to new poets, you can easily engage with some of their other work (though not all poets have more than one poem represented). Poems range from the 17th to 20th century and each section is chronologically arranged by the poet’s birth year, which creates an interesting arc in and of itself. Most poems were originally written in English though some are translations (and Moores notes that many of the translations were written for this anthology).
Just as the study of human well-being does not ignore the hardships of life, the focus on well-being in poetry does not ignore the landscape of literature. The editors of this anthology turned to poetry because while “the literary canons plentifully offer poems about anguish, suffering, and despair… they also contain a treasure trove of verse about the good life, variously conceived. The global poetic tradition thus represents a rich source of wisdom on the subject of well-being.”
In the introduction, Moores outlines the interesting ways in which the co-editors of this anthology have challenged (and are challenging) the “negativity bias of the twentieth century” that propelled a more “suspicious” perspective in literary studies, generally referencing this new perspective as the “eudiamonic turn” in literature. This anthology, then, follows in that vein. Moores writes, “The present volume represents an intention to support such a turn in literary studies and also in other disciplines by demonstrating to scholars that the literature of well-being can be at once exquisitely beautiful and worthy of academic inquiry in its ability to illuminate the construct of Eudaimonia in ways not possible in other perspectives.”
I’ll end where Moores ends his introduction — reminding us not to oversimplify our understanding of the poems as they’re “not reducible to statement or theme” (and certainly they’re not all “fit for polite conversation”) or the concepts presented in the anthology, as they are not “a yellow smiley face against a blue sky. Well-being is not saccharine.”
The poems in this anthology do not cover all the far-reaching corners of these conversations, but what is included here is “a mirror of human potential.” On Human Flourishing is a valuable resource that would be at home in any literature or psychology classroom, and I look forward to the conversations this anthology will generate.
On Human Flourishing: A Poetry Anthology
McFarland, August 2015
Paperback, 308 pages