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SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

The Pursuit of Happiness

by Molly Larson Cook

The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude.
I’d like to ask Voltaire exactly
what he meant by solitude
and busy, not to mention
that tricky devil, happiness.

I’m guessing he meant something
more than living alone, staying busy
as I cook for one,
clean old mail and paper cups
out of the car, or change
the sheets every week and throw
them into the washer along with socks and towels
and the shirt I wear for painting.

In earlier days, in my cottage in Maine,
the chop wood, carry water life appealed to me
and kept me busy in my happy solitude.
These days I have indoor plumbing
and no fireplace so what’s the point 
of chopping wood or carrying water?

Perhaps the solitude he had in mind
were times the poet’s writings
landed him in prison though I doubt
life in the Bastille was happy
even when it was busy.

Had he lived a little longer,
Voltaire might have found no solace
in his prison solitude
what with the constant clanging
of the guillotine
and the cheering of the crowds.

I’ll grant he might have found
some busy pleasure
making hand-tooled leather wallets,
work that even I’d prefer to
cleaning out the closets
though without the rats or chains.


—Honorable Mention, the Steve Kowit Poetry Prize 2017; first published in the San Diego Poetry Annual 2017-18 (Garden Oak Press, February 2018) and appears here with permissions from the publisher and the poet


Webmaster’s Note:

The epigraph is from a note written by Voltaire, as literary advisor, to King Frederick in August 1751 when they were both staying in Potsdam. See Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from his Correspondence (The Knickerbocker Press, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919), translated by S. G. Tallentyre:

“...What a devil of a profession! but it has its charms: and a busy solitude is, I think, the happiest life of all...” (XXXV: On Inspiration, pages 99-100).


SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

Molly Larson Cook

is an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright, and writing coach based in San Diego. She holds an M.A degree in English/Creative Writing and did graduate work in linguistics, theatre, and visual art in the Northwest, Maine, and Manhattan. She received the Dibner Fellowship for Fiction in Maine, and was a Fellow at the Fishtrap Writers Conference where she worked with poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Cook has taught writing and literature workshops and classes in universities on both coasts and privately with classes for adult writers at her Skylark Writing Studio on Whidbey Island, Washington. She blogs about jazz and art at: and

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury