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.

Roundup: Lent devotionals, Joseph Shabalala, dancing with dust, kids’ songs and doodles

Lent begins next week, and as usual, I’ll be sharing visual art, music, poetry, and other media throughout the season that I hope will be a quiet support to your spiritual walk. If you are giving up social media for Lent but want to be kept aware of new Art & Theology posts, sign up to receive the posts by email by clicking the “Subscribe” button—on the right sidebar if you’re on a desktop, or at the bottom of this post if you’re on your phone. (Note that the sidebar/footer is not visible from the homepage; you have to click through into a post to see it.)

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Lent devotionals 2020

NEW LENT DEVOTIONALS: I’ve become aware of two new poetry devotionals for Lent published this year.

My Sour-Sweet Days: George Herbert and the Journey of the Soul by Mark Oakley: “George Herbert is one of the great 17th century poet-priests. His poems embrace every shade of the spiritual life, from love and closeness, to anger and despair, to reconciliation and hope. And his work is always rich with audacious playfulness: he seems to take God on, knowing God will win, as if he’s having an argument with a faithful friend he knows is not going to leave. In much of theology and spirituality, God is a critical spectator to human lives, but for Herbert, his sense of relationship with God is primarily of a friendship that can never be broken. These are some of the themes Mark Oakley explores in this book. He offers a poem for every day in Lent, with a two-page commentary on each of the forty included.”

Wendell Berry and the Sabbath Poetry of Lent by SALT Project: “In this Lenten devotional, biblical texts and simple, accessible practices walk hand-in-hand with Wendell Berry’s poetic vision of sabbath and the natural world. All you’ll need is your favorite Bible and Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. Week by week, we’ll walk through the woods together toward Easter morning, keeping sabbath as we go—with Wendell Berry as our guide.” Sold as a professionally designed, downloadable PDF with printing and folding instructions.
I really enjoyed SALT Project’s Lent devotional from last year, built around the poetry of Mary Oliver, so I bought this new one and gave it a breeze-through so I could recommend it here prior to Lent; I look forward to spending more time with it throughout the season. Devotions are provided for Ash Wednesday; the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent; Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Each one includes an instruction to read a Bible passage and a Wendell Berry poem, a short meditation that draws the two together, an additional reading of two more related Berry poems, a candle lighting and one-sentence prayer (on the themes of silence, trust, delight, care, insight, resurrection, joy, love, sorrow), a few recommended practices for the week, and personal questions to ponder and discuss with a friend, if desired.
I especially appreciate the “Practices” section, which includes ideas like: make a list of your favorite little delights (“the sunlight’s slant in the late afternoon, your dog’s ears, the steam rising from your coffee—no delight is too slight!”) and read it aloud with family or friends over a meal; take a neighborhood walk and count how many shades of green you see; ignore a household chore for an entire day each week.

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DANCE VIDEO: “Seas of Crimson”: In this music video for one of the pieces on Bethel Music’s album Without Words: Synesthesia, Jessica Lind of the Oregon Ballet Theatre dances with dust that by the composition’s end turns to vibrant color. A metaphor for the Lenten journey, perhaps? [HT: A Sacramental Life]

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OBITUARY: Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo Founder, Dies at 78: From the New York Times obituary by Jon Pareles:

Joseph Shabalala, the gentle-voiced South African songwriter whose choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought Zulu music to listeners worldwide, died on [February 11] in a hospital in Pretoria. He was 78. . . . Mr. Shabalala began leading choral groups at the end of the 1950s. By the early ’70s his Ladysmith Black Mambazo — in Zulu, “the black ax of Ladysmith,” a town in KwaZulu-Natal Province — had become one of South Africa’s most popular groups, singing about love, Zulu folklore, rural childhood memories, moral admonitions and Christian faith. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s collaborations with Paul Simon on his 1986 album “Graceland,” on the tracks “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” introduced South African choral music to an international pop audience.

Joseph Shabalala

Shabalala was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church of God of Prophecy, having become a Christian in 1976. He said he hopes his music shows people “how to be good to God, how to praise God, how to respect, how to forgive each other . . .”

Below is a video of Shabalala with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing one of his songs, “King of Kings,” live in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2000. Written during apartheid, it is a prayer for peace in South Africa and the rest of the world. It was first released on the 1987 album Shaka Zulu. [Listen on Spotify]

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KIDS’ SONGS: I’m not a mom, but I often enjoy listening to “children’s music,” as there’s so much of quality out there these days. Here are two songs released this year in that too-restrictively-titled genre (because hey, there’s much for grown-ups to love here too!), along with animated music videos.

“Glad You’re Here” by Justin Roberts: This new single by “the Judy Blume of kiddie rock” (New York Times) is for a new or soon-to-be-born baby. So fun, warm, and adorable! (Note: The video was produced by the same company that brought you the Wendell Berry devotional mentioned above.)

“Dinosaurs in Love” by Fenn Rosenthal, feat. Tom Rosenthal: This sad-sweet song about two dinosaurs eating cucumbers and having parties and then, well, you’ll have to listen . . . was written by three-year-old Fenn Rosenthal from London (with some help on the tune from her dad, Tom). At the end of January Tom Rosenthal, who is himself a singer-songwriter, posted a recording of Fenn singing this one-minute creation of hers on Twitter, and it went viral. Now the song is streaming on Spotify and is up on iTunes, Amazon, and other e-tailer websites, with all proceeds benefitting wildlife charities. It was also picked up by directorial team Hannah Jacobs, Katy Wang, and Anna Ginsburg, who created a music video using 2D frame-by-frame animation. [HT: Colossal]

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DRAWING CONTEST: “Doodle for Google,” for K–12 artists: Google Doodles are those special drawings, sometimes animated, that embellish Google’s logo on the website’s homepage from time to time. For the twelfth consecutive year, that highly visible space is up for grabs to one young artist in the US through the tech company’s “Doodle for Google” competition, open to ages K–12. This year the theme is “How do you show kindness?” In addition to having their work featured on Google’s landing page for an entire day, the winner will receive a $30,000 college scholarship, and the winner’s school will be awarded a $50,000 technology package. The deadline for submissions is March 13, 2020, at 11 p.m. ET. [HT: Hyperallergic]

A eulogy for Pop-Pop

The light he was returns
Unto the Light that is.
—Wendell Berry

My grandpa, Richard Joseph Hartz, passed away on May 22 at age ninety-two. A cradle-to-tomb resident of Mercer County, New Jersey, he was a simple man who loved his Lord, his family and friends, and his work. He was faithful, caring, contented, ingenuous, and conservative in every sense of the word. Clocks, cars, and Phillies baseball were among his hobbies. He got thrills from things like cereal box prizes (his favorite was a plastic spoon that lights up—he said, facetiously, that it helps him find his mouth), Dollar Tree purchases (“Can you believe this only cost a dollar?”), and fish sandwiches from Burger King (I don’t think I ever saw him so excited as when he unwrapped a BK gift card for his ninetieth birthday).

Rick Hartz

Pop-Pop’s Bible never gathered dust; he read it every morning, along with Our Daily Bread. His constancy in this regard is something my dad inherited. It is because of Pop-Pop’s (and Mom-Mom’s) religious faith, which they lived and breathed and passed on to their kids, that I am a Christian. It is the greatest treasure I have ever received.

The highlight of Pop-Pop’s week was always Saturday-morning breakfast with the ROMEOs (“Retired Old Men Eating Out”)—a moniker bestowed affectionately by his sister Theresa to describe him and his group of cronies. In flat cap and cardigan, he’d be dressed to go. Scrambled eggs and coffee was his custom, and a plate of sausage split with his brother-in-law Don.

Pop-Pop’s most distinctive, and most beloved, trait was his joke telling. His jokes were mainly of the Reader’s Digest variety—that is, clean and corny. After making sure he had our attention, he’d start in, wide eyed and serious, all the way up to the punchline, when he’d break down chuckling. His repertoire wasn’t too large, so during any one visit, we’d hear the same joke at least twice, and then again the next time we saw him. But we’d always laugh as if it were brand-new to our ears.

Some staples:

If a bear was chasing you and up ahead there was a tree on one side and a church on the other, would you run up the tree or into the church?

Response: I don’t know—into the church?

With a bear (bare) behind?

[When we’re eating corn] We’re having a chicken dinner!

I went to the doctor’s, and he gave me a prescription for smart pills. When I saw the bill, I couldn’t believe it. “$100!” I said. “These aren’t worth that much!”

The doctor replied, “See, you’re smarter already.”

If we were to shrink your head to the size of your brain, you could wear a peanut shell for a Panama hat.

One time he floored us all with a real grade A insult at my younger brother’s expense. We were posing for a photo, and Rob, clowning around, bent over and stuck his head between his legs. Pop-Pop, camera in hand, retorted, “You’ll have to smile, Robbie, so that I know which end’s your face.” Ooo, burn!   Continue reading “A eulogy for Pop-Pop”