Ten Poems of Gratitude

One of the reasons I love poetry is because it brings me into more intimate contact with the world. It slows me down and asks me to give my attention to things that, in my constant, often self-inflicted busyness, I fail to notice. And it shepherds me into a deeper sense of gratitude and awe. It’s really easy for me to see the world’s ugliness—sin, suffering—and to be scared, angry, disgusted, horrified, or overwhelmed. My inclination is to see what’s wrong instead of what’s right. While poetry can perform many different functions, one of them is to attune us to the daily gifts and graces that come to us from, I believe, the hand of God.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are ten contemporary poems of gratitude that can be read online. A popular tradition for this holiday is, when gathered round the feasting table, to take turns sharing what you’re thankful for. The three most typical answers for adults are: my family, my health, my job. These are perfectly fine answers. But poets can show us what it feels like to be blessed with family, for example, and can teach us how to offer praise even when our health is declining or we’re unemployed. Moreover, poets help us expand our repertoire of thanksgivings, naming things with specificity: “the incense of butter on toast” (Siegel), “the honey-colored toes of mice” (Singleton), “two daughters and one cloud, an old oak / and a great love” (Wiman), the moon that “shakes a dress of light onto my body” (Silver) and “shuffl[es] its soft, blind slippers over the floor” (Hirshfield).

Lichtman, Susan_Orchard Bag and Bouquet
Susan Lichtman (American, 1952–), Orchard Bag and Bouquet, 2015. Oil on linen, 24 × 22 in.

(Related post: “A prayer of thanksgiving”)

I’ve listed the volume that each poem is published in—I’ve read all but the Browning one, and they’re all excellent. I hope this tiny sampling from the trove of contemporary poetry enlarges your thankfulness and inspires you to read more! Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

  1. “When the sun returns” by Sarah Browning, in Killing Summer (2017): Jesus said to consider the birds. Browning does. “it is hallelujah time, / the swallows tracing an arc / of praise just off our balcony, / the mountains snow-sparkling / in gratitude . . .”

  2. “A Song of Praises” by Robert Siegel (scroll to bottom of page), in Within This Tree of Bones (2013): In this very textural, sensory poem, a humdrum morning routine becomes a litany of more than two dozen in-the-moment gratitudes, for everything from warm washcloths to the snap of elastic to grapefruit flesh to a beautiful face at the breakfast table.

  3. “I Praise Unsalted Butter” by Sharron Singleton, in Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (2018): Another litany of thanksgivings for the mundane, like pearl buttons, babies’ fingernail parings, freckles, delphinium’s cobalt, unseen dendrites, the word “rhubarb,” and so on. In spite of great evil (the poet references the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph), there is still much to wonder at.

  4. “Fifty” by Christian Wiman, in Survival Is a Style (2020): “I never thought I’d live to the age of fifty, so my inclination these days is to praise,” says Wiman, who was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer in 2006 during his first year of marriage. “I wasn’t able to write about joy until I got sick. It wasn’t that sickness brought joy. It’s made me much more conscious of how much joy was in my life and gave me some impetus to articulate it.”

  5. “Morning” by Yahia Lababidi, in Barely There: Short Poems (2013): This six-liner celebrates the newness and invitation of each day. (For a bonus poem by the same author, see “Breath.”)

  6. “Psalm” by Marilyn Nelson, in The Fields of Praise (1997): Reflecting on the inherently dangerous act of driving, Nelson is thankful for (God’s) ongoing protection in the car. The poem ends with a classic line from the biblical book of Psalms.

  7. “How Rarely I Have Stopped to Thank the Steady Effort” by Jane Hirshfield (scroll down to fourth poem), in The Beauty: Poems (2015): I would have never thought to be thankful for walls that stand up! But yes, the basic architecture of my little suburban home is a marvel—how it all holds together. In a pause in conversation, the speaker of this poem ponders all that’s going on in the silence: tree bark absorbing the scent of crow feathers, honey dissolving into tea, DNA replicating. The poem then turns into an expansive reflection on all the invisible phenomena of bodies and lives, of emotions and desires that ebb and flow as their building blocks get rearranged.

  8. “A Handful of Berakhot” by Anya Krugovoy Silver, in The Ninety-Third Name of God (2010): Silver [previously] is one of the consummate poets of gratitude, particularly gratitude amid illness. She was pregnant with her first and only son, Noah, when she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2004. She died in 2018. Her body of work is characterized by a stubborn holding on to joy even as she wrestles honestly with God through many painful years of chemo and a mastectomy.
       Silver, a Christian, married a Jewish man, whose faith tradition inspired this poem. “In Judaism, a berakhah (pl. berakhot) is a formula of blessing or thanksgiving, recited in public or private, usually before the performance of a commandment, or the enjoyment of food or fragrance, and in praise on various occasions. The function of a berakhah is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessing” [source]. Silver’s nineteen custom berakhot are for such occasions as “buckling my son’s shoes,” “slipping my prosthetic breast into my bra,” “riding the ferris wheel,” and “going to the post office.”

  9. “Gratitude” by Anna Kamieńska, in Astonishments: Selected Poems (2007): “I was full of thanks / like a Sunday alms-box,” Kamieńska writes in this rapturous poem, which bursts with love for everyone and everything.

  10. [O Thou who by Thy touch give form] by Wendell Berry, in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (2013): A short prayer by one of today’s most popular writers, whose other vocation is farming.

Summer and fall conferences/retreats

Here is a list of upcoming arts conferences and retreats. I will be attending the CIVA conference next month as well as the DITA conference in September—if you’ll be at either, please let me know; I’d love to meet you!

All Things New (International Arts Festival)
Date: June 15, 2019
Location: Waterras Common Hall 3F, Tokyo, Japan
Cost: ¥2500 (about $22)
Presenters: Joshua Messick, Gerda Liebmann, Christopher Elmerick, Roger Lowther, and more
Organizer: Community Arts Tokyo (with additional sponsorship by Grace City Church Tokyo)
Description: “How can people in a city experience personal, social, and economic flourishing? What is the role of artists in making this world a better place? How can faith, work, and the arts come together for a holistic view of peace for the good of mankind? At this conference, we will hear from artists in the business world, the media world, and the plight of refugees from other countries. Their stories will give us a vision for how the arts point a way to new beginnings and bring goodness and hope into a broken world. Join us as we enter this world through speaker presentations, music performances, a short film, gallery exhibits, small group discussions, and more!” (Note: Presentations in Japanese will have simultaneous English translation over the wireless earphone system.)

Liebmann, Gerda_Salt of the Earth
At the “All Things New” festival next month, Thai artist Gerda Liebmann will be installing one of her “salt art” pieces.

The festival will include presentations/workshops/performances by

  • hammered dulcimer player Joshua Messick, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Japanese animated fantasy film Mary and the Witch’s Flower
  • visual artist Gerda Liebmann, on how art can foster relationship and connection
  • Christopher Elmerick, who founded and runs a cultural center in Berlin that promotes the free exchange of ideas through shared work- and performance spaces and more
  • Megumi Project, a group of women artisans who upcycle vintage kimonos into shawls, scarves, bags, journals, and other accessories
  • the Charis Chamber Players
  • organist Roger Lowther, on the physics of music

Roger Lowther is, with his wife Abi, the founder and director of Community Arts Tokyo, “a team of artists, professionals, and Japanese nationals assisting church planting through outreach, discipleship, worship, and disaster relief.” Their work is supported through Mission to the World, the international missions arm of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

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Are We There Yet?
Date: June 13–16, 2019
Location: Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
Cost: $350 for nonmembers; $300 for members
Presenters: Sedrick Huckaby, Letitia Huckaby, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Chris Larson, Rico Gatson, Nate Young, Linnéa Spransy, Cara Megan Lewis, Rev. Babette Chatman, Jamie Bennett, Joanna Taft, Kelly Chatman, Joyce Lee, Caroline Kent, Lyz Wendland, Betsy Carpenter, Amanda Hamilton, Catherine Prescott, Vito Aiuto, and others
Organizer: Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA)
Description: “If you’re anything like us, working in an age of high anxiety and disruption has been trying. At the same time, the art world has never seen more diversity, wealth, interconnection, and popular appreciation. Some experience our current creative conditions as a ‘joyful noise,’ others a ‘resounding gong.’ This makes art difficult yet at the same time crucial. With our hope rooted in the Lord, we can rejoice in the unfinished state of our work. There is still so much to be made!

Are We There Yet invites us to inhabit questions together: What are our shared pursuits? What practices and commitments can guide us in our work and collaboration? What would radical generosity do to the global art market? And how might we be participants in making ‘impossible things possible,’ as described by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist? With a commitment to hospitality, we will ask these questions and many more.”

Sedrick Huckaby
At Valley House Gallery in Dallas, Sedrick Huckaby stands in front of portraits he painted of his children, his wife Letitia, and himself. Sedrick and Letitia are two of the keynote speakers for CIVA’s 2019 Biennial Conference. Photo: Dane Walters/Kera News.

The conference will consist of plenary talks, panel discussions, and breakout sessions and will include a juried art show, late-night artist show & tells, optional day-ahead tours (art museums, city architecture, or sculpture garden) or workshops (printmaking or photography), a Liz Vice concert, and an ecumenical worship service.

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Visual Arts Retreat
Date: June 21–23, 2019
Location: Apple Hill Lodge, Moravian Falls, North Carolina, USA
Cost: $450 (includes lodging, food, and class materials)
Presenters: Allison Luce, Corey Frey, Ty Nathan Clark (via satellite), Stephen Roach, Thomas Torrey, Lauren Olinger
Organizer: The Breath & the Clay
Description: “Come get away for a weekend designed to inspire and deepen your understanding of visual art both as a spiritual practice and as an art form.”

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Vocation, Motherhood, and Artmaking
Date: July 25–28, 2019
Location: Laity Lodge, Leakey, Texas, USA
Cost: $495 (scholarships available)
Presenters: Andi Ashworth, W. David O. Taylor, Letitia Huckaby, Phaedra Taylor, Sandra McCracken, Ashley Cleveland
Organizer: Laity Lodge
Description: “This retreat is an invitation to explore the opportunities and challenges that are involved in the twin calling to motherhood and artmaking. It is open to mothers in all stations and circumstances of life, whether at the beginning of motherhood or in the fullest years of grandmothering, and to artists of all media, disciplines and contexts.” (Read more from David Taylor.)

Taylor, Phaedra_The Book of Games
Phaedra Taylor (American), The Book of Games: Oranges & Lemons, 2018. Encaustic on wood panel, 20 × 30 in.

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Kingdom Creatives Con
Date: August 3, 2019
Location: National Union Building, Washington, DC
Cost: $99
Presenters: Noah Elias, Othello Banaci, Rachel Petrillo, Anifa Mvuemba, John David Harris, Ryan Han, Andrew Hochradel
Organizer: Bemnet Yemesgen
Description: A conference “aimed at igniting inspiration, learning, and networking in the Christian creative community. . . . Attendees will enjoy workshops and talks by creatives from diverse backgrounds and industries. The conference is specifically tailored towards creatives who love Jesus Christ . . . graphic designers, illustrators, photographers, filmmakers, developers, animators, copywriters,” etc.

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New York City Arts Weekend
Date: August 9–10, 2019
Location: Various venues, New York, USA
Cost: $295 CAN
Presenters: Makoto Fujimura, Iwan Russell-Jones
Organizer: Regent College (host: Jeff Greenman)
Description: “Makoto Fujimura and Iwan Russell-Jones lead this exploration of Christian faith and the visual arts in New York City. Enjoy a fascinating tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and participate in shared meals, stimulating presentations, and challenging conversations. Develop a deeper understanding of how creativity finds its place in the new creation.”

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Creation and New Creation: Discerning the Future of Theology and the Arts
Date: September 5–8, 2019
Location: Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
Cost: $175 (student discounts available)
Presenters: Jeremy Begbie, Malcolm Guite, Christian Wiman, N. T. Wright, Natalie Carnes, Jennifer Craft, Carlos Colón, Steve Prince, Bruce Herman, Judith Wolfe, and others
Organizer: Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA)
Description: “At DITA10, we will celebrate past scholarship, reflect on today’s landscape, and imagine with tomorrow’s leaders.” The colloquium will include keynote lectures; workshops for church leaders and artists addressing the challenges of theology and the arts in the church and in our daily lives; panel discussions with artists and theologians; a concert by the New Caritas Orchestra; and a corporate worship service.

Herman, Bruce_Riven Tree
Bruce Herman (American, 1953–), Riven Tree, 2016. Oil on wood panels with gold, silver, and platinum leaf, 96 × 47 in. York Chapel, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. [see “making of” video] [see in situ photo]

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The Future of the Catholic Literary Tradition (Catholic Imagination Conference)
Date: September 19–21, 2019
Location: Loyola University Chicago, USA
Cost: $150
Presenters: Tobias Wolff, Alice McDermott, Paul Schrader, Dana Gioia, Paul Mariani, Richard Rodriguez, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, and others
Organizer: Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage
Description: “This international biennial conference, sponsored by Loyola’s Hank Center, features over 60 writers, poets, filmmakers, playwrights, journalists, editors, publishers, students, and critics who will explore a variety of questions surrounding the Catholic imagination in literature and the arts. What is the future of the Catholic literary tradition? What is the state of discourses in faith and Christian humanism in a world increasingly described as ‘Post’—postmodern, post-human, post-Christian, post-religious? How is Catholic thought and practice (or the absence of it) represented in literature, poetry, and cinema? If, as David Tracy observes, religion’s ‘closest cousin is not rigid logic, but art,’ what might literary art be trying to communicate to its ‘cousin’—and to us all—as we travel along the first decades of the 21st century?”

The call for papers is still open, until June 15. Also check out some of the special events being offered, which will include a theatrical performance of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge and an evening of poetry readings, live music, and a Chicago blues panel.

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Writer’s Retreat
Date: October 25–27, 2019
Location: Apple Hill Lodge, Moravian Falls, North Carolina, USA
Cost: $450 (includes lodging and food)
Presenters: TBA
Organizer: The Breath & the Clay
Description: “Come get away for a weekend designed to develop your writing both as a spiritual practice and as an art form.”

Apple Hill Lodge

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The Art of the Lost: Destruction, Reconstruction, and Change
Date: November 27–29, 2019
Location: Canterbury Cathedral, England
Cost: £175 for full conference (single-day tickets also available)
Presenters: Sandy Nairne, Simon Cane, James Clark, Ascensión Hernández Martínez, Emma J. Wells, and others
Organizer: Canterbury Cathedral
Description: “This conference will explore and appraise current and developing studies of how art changes, is reused or repurposed, disappears or is rediscovered. It will look at how and why art is defaced, destroyed or is lost within architectural settings, with a particular focus on art within the context of cathedrals, churches or other places of worship. It will consider changing ideologies, iconoclasm, war, fashion and symbolism. It will cover art from the 6th century to the modern day.”

Art of the Lost (Canterbury Cathedral)

More conferences

In addition to those I posted in March, here are a few more conferences of note. (Update, 5/4: I’ve added two more entries since the original publication of this post. Thanks, Chloë Reddaway and Talita Peters, for the tips!)

UPCOMING CONFERENCES

Title: “The Place of Sacred Art: Exploring the Interpretation of Sacred Art in Secular and Faith Contexts”
Date: May 9, 2017
Location: AV Room, Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England
Organizer: Canon Dr. Andrew Smith, director of interfaith relations for the bishop of Birmingham
Cost: £20
Speakers: David Cheetham, Catherine Ogle, Orit Azaz, Rebecca Bridgman, Peter Bradley
Description: This symposium will consider the ways in which people reinterpret sacred art when it is displayed in new contexts or alongside art from different faith traditions, and how displaying different types of art in sacred spaces transforms our understanding of the sacred and the artistic. Presentations address how cathedrals have negotiated being open to artists of different religious backgrounds and exhibiting work that challenges and questions, and how contemporary art can offer unexpected encounters with the sacred. Registration also includes a tour through the award-winning Faith in Birmingham Gallery by curator Rebecca Bridgman.

Title: “‘any-angled light’: Poetry and the Mission of Your Church”
Date: May 16–18, 2017
Location: Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
Organizer: Yale Institute of Sacred Music
Cost: $65 (registration ends May 8, noon ET!)
Keynote speakers: Mary Karr and Christian Wiman
Description: How does poetry equip the church to fulfill its mission of inviting others into God’s future? Drawing on spiritual verse spanning all eras from the biblical to the contemporary, this conference for church leaders and laypeople will (1) inspire the integration of poetry into a church’s congregational life and its public outreach and activism; (2) model the introduction of poetry and poetic sensibilities into worship; and (3) expose participants to diverse poetry and poetic forms. Besides plenary sessions with two of America’s finest poets, the conference includes workshops, musical worship, and a poetry slam.

Title: “Catholicism, Literature and the Arts: 1850–Present”
Date: July 5–7, 2017
Location: Durham University, Durham, England
Organizers: Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University and Ushaw College
Cost: £70 (discount rates for students, low-income, paper presenters)
Speakers: Eamon Duffy, Terry Eagleton, Paul Lakeland, Anna Lawson, Melanie McDonagh, HE Daniel Mulhall, Paul Anthony Murray
Description: The conference “will bring together leading scholars to address key questions in the study of Catholic art and writing, including the question of whether there is a distinctive tradition of ‘Catholic literature’. Among the main topics and themes of the conference are Catholic memoir and autobiography; Catholic fiction and poetry; Catholic readership; journalism; publishers and archives; and the visual arts. The conference will include film, music, and the visual arts, as well as literature,” and will consist of lectures, discussion groups, and workshops.

Title: “Canvas: A Conference on Theology and Creativity—Inscape, God, Art, and the Inner Life”
Date: August 11–12, 2017
Location: Imago Dei Community, Portland, Oregon
Organizers: Humble Beast and Western Seminary
Cost: $100
Speakers: TBA
Description: “The Canvas Conference humbly exists to inform all acts of human creativity and beauty with biblical, gospel-centered theology for the worship of the triune God. . . . We want to help build strong theological foundations for the artist and, likewise, to push Christians to pursue creative orthodoxy in their theological craft. We have found that without theology, creativity wanders from its original significance and purpose; while without creativity, theology often becomes cold, distant, and futile. In response, The Canvas Conference seeks to build bridges between the artist and the theologian by inviting God to take center stage in every human endeavor.”

Title: “Arts + Spirituality” (11th annual Verge Conference)
Date: September 28–29, 2017
Location: Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia
Organizer: School of the Arts, Media, and Culture, TWU
Cost: $199 (discount rates for presenters, students, seniors, and single-day attendees)
Keynote speaker: Cam Anderson, executive director, Christians in the Visual Arts
Description: Throughout human history and across cultures, the arts have been closely associated with spirituality and religious practice. This conference seeks to explore that connection. Paper submissions are welcome on any topic relating to the arts and spirituality, as are proposals for presentations in the form of performances. The deadline for submissions is May 31.

PAST CONFERENCE

There have been so many events organized around the topic of art and religion in the past year that it’s hard to keep up. Below is a “Study Day” that slipped by before I had the chance to promote it; I’m posting the info here so that you can see the kinds of conversations that are going on among religious studies scholars and museum professionals and can look for future opportunities to join in. (If you’re not in either field but are a museumgoer—and if you’re reading this blog, I imagine you are—a great way to get involved would be to give feedback to the museums you visit. Did their presentation of religion through art and artifact, and wall text, help you connect in a deeper way to your own faith tradition, or see others in a new light? Or did you feel it was offensive, unfair, or in some way else deficient, and if so, why?)

Title: “Encountering the Sacred in Museums”
Date: March 15, 2017
Cost: £35
Location: Stevenson Lecture Theatre, British Museum, London
Organizer: British Museum
Description: This day of discussions on the role museums play in caring for and presenting religious art and artifacts included the lectures “What Is Sacred?” by religious historian Karen Armstrong and “Beyond Belief: The Role of Museums in Interpreting Religion” by Rickie Burman, development manager of London’s National Gallery. In other sessions, visitor experiences at diverse venues were discussed: the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the British Museum during its “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe,” an exhibition shaped by consultation with community groups.

Treasures of Heaven (book cover)

Religion in Museums (book cover)

I found out about this event, and the first one above, through the Religion in Museums blog, maintained by Crispin Paine and Steph Berns. Paine is a founder-editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief and coeditor (with Gretchen Buggeln and  S. Brent Plate) of the recently published book Religion in Museums: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives (read the introduction here). Berns is a researcher in the fields of museum studies and the sociology of religion.