Illuminating Happiness (ENG 216), taught by Biespiel, uses poetry to consider human joy, meaning, and purpose

David Biespiel

David Biespiel

By Emily Willis, CLA Student Writer - December 1, 2023

Oregon State University Poet-in-Residence David Biespiel takes pride in his work, both writing—he’s published thirteen books of poetry, memoir, criticism, and fiction—and teaching students to deepen their reflections about the experiences of their lives through poetry and story. He teaches both undergraduate students and graduate students in the university’s MFA program in creative writing.

In Biespiel’s poetry workshops, students rave about how much improvement they make in their writing abilities. Comparing their first to their most recent poems over one quarter, students can see how much growth they’ve made. Biespiel has a unique way of teaching poetry and creates what he calls “studies” that are challenging, intriguing, and provocative. 

Biespiel also teaches literature, and his popular class, Illuminating Happiness (ENG 216), is an example of how he treats poetry at OSU.

Biespiel describes ENG 216 as an experience for students to ruminate about the meaning of life and to come to a fresh appreciation for activating the importance of belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling in their day-to-day lives. The goal of the course is for students to come away inspired with new awareness for the importance of nurturing the inner life.

“When asked to develop this course,” Biespiel explained, “I was interested in one of poetry’s most sacred themes, the search for the good life, including trying to lead students to ask questions about what happiness means and what achieving happiness would feel like. In other words, the students and I in this class are illuminating happiness, and also exploring illuminating happiness.”

Biespiel continued, “During week one of the course,students tend to grab only the low-hanging fruit of those concepts, which might go something like, ‘Happiness is something I hope to get when xyz happens in my life.’ Of, course, it doesn’t take long for us to unveil that that’s not how happiness works.”

Class discussions in ENG 216 are robust and unique. Combining these discussions with reading and writing poetry creates an inspiring classroom environment that welcomes all viewpoints and pursuits of happiness. By week ten of the class, students begin to reconsider the definition of happiness and, instead, situate themselves in accord with creating time for what matters to them, their values, and what gives them a sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning, as they learn higher quality ways to share the stories of themselves with others.

“In Illuminating Happiness,” Biespiel explained. “We engage what it is to feel human in a difficult, violent world, but also, in a beautiful, grace-filled world. The tension between those qualities is where poetry resides, as does the pursuit of happiness. What we do to understand happiness is exactly what we do to read poems. They are one and the same. And vice versa.”

Biespiel said the earliest roots for his thinking about linking the study of poetry with the study of happiness began many years ago, after he read Stumbling onto Happiness by psychologist Daniel Gilbert. What Biespiel took away from the book is that people often think that something, some xyz, will make us happy even though there is evidence to the contrary; that the problem we have with happiness, according to Gilbert, is that people think it begins outside of them, even beyond the context of our lives, when instead finding happiness starts by looking inwards.

Through reading poetry and through pursuing what grounds people in happiness, students of the class look past the old restrictions of outcomes and come to understand that what matters comes, not from outside (the outcomes), but from the inside, the inner life. 

“That’s why discussion in ENG 216 is paramount,” Biespiel said. "I feel that’s why students value it so much. When students look around the room and see forty other people also navigating this stressful and chaotic world, they begin to understand, ‘Oh, it’s not just me. We’re all lumbering through these questions; we’re all ascending and falling back and starting over; we’re all balancing these pressures all the time.’ Acknowledging our shared commitment to happiness is exactly the joy one gets in reading poems. That is, joy that taps the inner spirit, the illuminated spirit, of your inner life.”