‘Joy to the World? Yes, Please!’ by Mary Oishi

Let men their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

  -Isaac Watts, ‘Joy to the World’

It is impossible for me to read those lyrics without hearing them sung in four-part harmony in my head. I am instantly transported back to bitter cold Christmas Eves in a remote valley tucked in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania, where our little band of carolers from the Pilgrim Holiness Church would walk the streets, spreading ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ to coal miners’ families until we looped back to the tone deaf matriarch’s house who had a big pot of hot cocoa waiting.

Back then even the most conservative fundamentalist Christians where I grew up believed they did indeed offer the world a message of comfort and joy. They may have voted Republican every four years, but they weren’t really involved in politics. Besides working their jobs and in their gardens, they preserved food for winter, prayed for the sick, got together to make music or play games, and shared their abundance when somebody was lucky enough to bring down a 10-point buck in deer hunting season.

Other than for funerals, I haven’t been back to those mountains in many years. But now, through the internet’s compression of distance, I see those same people and their descendants posting the most hateful, twisted memes, like one with a picture of Trump’s border wall that boasts: ‘Heaven has a wall around it. Hell doesn’t. Think about it.’  Their message is the opposite of comfort and joy. It is hatred and anger and fear, judging exactly who is—and isn’t—worthy of goodwill. Sadly, their approved list is very short, with almost nobody but themselves on it.    

Despite the fact that their ancestors emigrated from Germany (mostly) and other parts of Eastern and Western Europe, someone has misled them to believe that whatever hell their lives have become is owing to immigrants arriving now. And the peace on earth they welcome these days is the apocalypse. That’s right. Get it over with.

Outside of such rural enclaves, near the towers of academia, between the abandoned concrete hills of professional offices, across the asphalt plains of insecure gig workers, appear huge and growing sinkholes of isolation and despair. Some of the youngest and best and brightest have managed to escape the virus, only to succumb to depression. All sorts of troubling plagues are on the rise, among them domestic abuse, addiction, and suicide. We are crying out for ‘tidings of comfort and joy.’ 

This is the time: this is the season when we artists must show up as angels, with a message heralding at least as much peace and goodwill as the angels in the Christmas story. This is not a call to religious conversion, far from it. But we are the ones who, with the beautiful flame burning in us, need to hold it up to remind everyone for whom it is threatening to go out, that we humans are worth saving. Yes, we call out injustices. Yes, we pen the anthems of struggle. But right now our precious humanity is sinking, sinking. We need to hold out hope. And extend mercy.

Poets, like angels, light the skies and blow the trumpets that pierce the gloom: Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness, Joy Harjo’s For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet, and so many more. Read. (Take it in). Write. (Send it out). This is the needed time. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy.

Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

About the contributor

Mary Oishi
Mary Oishi, Albuquerque Poet Laureate, is author of Spirit Birds They Told Me (West End Press, 2011) and co-author of Rock Paper Scissors (Swimming With Elephants Publications, 2018), finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award, and is published in translation in 12 Poetas: Antologia De Nuevos Poetas Estadounidense (La Herrata Feliz and MarEsCierto, 2017), a project of the Mexican Ministry of Culture. She hosts Wang Dang Doodle on KSFR-FM Santa Fe and ksfr.org.

Related Articles


Ann S. Epstein considers whether revisiting the past leaves us satisfied, disappointed or energized.

The unreliable narrator in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

Joseph Conrad’s 'Heart of Darkness' shows us how and why the death of the narrative form related by a reliable narrator was inevitable.

It’s hard to be a novice in your fifties

At fifty-four, I started a poetry course. A keen reader of poetry and novels, I hadn’t written a poem since secondary school.  A few ditties for family...

More Like This

It’s Personal by Moyra Donaldson

Award-winning poet, Moyra Donaldson speaks from the heart about the importance of poetry in our lives.

A Life In Poetry

I’ve had this thing called a creative urge as long as I can recall. I was too poor for piano lessons and my art work was never hung up at school.

Anne Pia – Translation…. an Act of Seduction

What makes for a good translation? What are the boundaries between translation and authoring? What skills should a translator possess? Beyond the mechanistic replacing...

‘Ezekiel’ by Eugene Yakubu

The village was gloomy when I got there. Its hand to its cheeks. Last time I was here my grandfather Bobai Lambaya was being buried. Now my brother.

Notes from the allotment

Coleridge drinks my coffee Accomplished poet and proud allotment-owner, Dominic Fisher discusses the relationship between poetry and nature with an unexpected visitor over a flask...