Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy
while each leaf thrusts into the universe of air
and the light green haze of April rises like smoke
sweet in the nostril. Let the mind fill the hemisphere
of day while the sun beats a million white wings.
Let each yellow and red bud in the dew
blaze forth with a hundred suns while night
picks up her gauze and vanishes over the hills.
Let the rabbit’s eye shine while he drums the turf
summoning his brethren;
the squirrels spiral down, their tails like clouds,
to clatter among the woodsy rubble;
and the shrew shriek and hide herself under the root.
The cat stretches by the window and cries at the door;
the dog yawns, then yelps at the rising sun
that will run all day till it drops in the west.
The mattress creaks as the man rises to fix breakfast,
his back telling him he is—ah!—alive
while the neighbor’s car snorts and gulps air
in an ascending whine.
Children feel their way through cool porcelain bathrooms,
teenagers dream a world of shimmering electric presences
and clothes rise from the dresser to glide across the skin,
the belt firmly encircles the waist
and the tie mounts to prop the chin.
Yet, staring back from the bathroom mirror are
the ghost of the office, the boss’s purposeful smile,
fog of the night’s dream, the nattering conscience,
the gluttonous mortgage, the skin in love with gravity,
and the razor’s unkind cut—awareness of
what is done and undone—the thousand engines of destruction
the cerebral cortex draws across its synapses
toward the fragile sanctum of the present moment.
Let each ghost wither and vanish in sunlight,
crisp to the nothing it is,
while a joyful procession dances along
the myriad lightning pathways of the mind.
Tree and house are clear in this moment
when light is given shape and each thing pauses,
itself—before the frame blurs, the attention fails
and we fall into one or another distraction:
the horrors and banalities of the news, the half-typed letter,
the mysteries of long division, the tumbled tower of blocks,
regret’s heavy shadow or the usual obsession.
Lord, in the bright vehicle of this moment,
descend to us and spread your golden tent
that we might keep sweet breakfast together, your beard dripping
honey as we ascend the dayspring of your eyes
into an emptiness that is present, solid and real.
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).
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.
“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 . . .”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.