Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Poems about Gratefulness

In honor of my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, I present contrasting poems on the theme of gratefulness.

Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday for years. As much as I love Christmas, Thanksgiving seems to be one of the last relatively non-commercial holidays left. The weather is usually perfect in Southern California in November. The food is spectacular if done right. (And my family has always done it right. We make the stuffing from scratch, and keep the turkey moist.)

Most of all, the holiday is about gratefulness. It is one thing to give gifts and say thanks. It is another to be grateful for the things that money cannot buy. For another year of life, love, and friendship. For the blessings that we have that we tend to take for granted.

The first poem is by George Herbert.


Thou that hast giv’n so much to me,
Give one thing more, a gratefull heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
                                             By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And sayes, If he in this be crost,
All thou hast giv’n him heretofore
                                             Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
                                             To save.

Perpetuall knockings at thy doore,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
                                             And comes.

This notwithstanding, thou wentst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay, thou hast made a sigh and grone
                                             Thy joyes.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, then grones can make;
But that these countrey-aires thy love
                                             Did take.

Wherefore I crie, and crie again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankfull heart obtain
                                             Of thee:

Not thankfull, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare dayes:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
                                             Thy praise.

While Herbert often uses unusual poetic patterns for visual effect, his  form here is simple. Three lines of iambic tetrameter, followed by a two syllable final line in each stanza. The rhyme scheme is ABAB.

Herbert’s idea, however, is truly profound. Our very asking for gratefulness is in itself a form of ungratefulness. Not content to simply BE grateful, we have to ask for it. We soon forget our blessings. And yet, it is in this very weakness that are redeemed. We were not loved because we would love back, but loved in the midst of our selfish unloveableness.

I think Herbert also understands that gratefulness isn’t so much a specific action or state of mind as a state of being. It must be an innate part of us, not something we add to ourselves.

Emily Dickinson, my first poetic love, also grasped this truth. I couldn’t choose between two particular poems, so I decided to use both.
POEM 655 (circa 1862) 

Without this— there is nought—
All other Riches be
As is the Twitter of a Bird—
Heard opposite the Sea—

I could not care— to gain
A lesser than the Whole—
For did not this include themself—
As Seams— include the Ball?

I wished a way might be
My Heart to subdivide—
'Twould magnify— the Gratitude—
And not reduce— the Gold—

POEM 989 (circa 1865)

Gratitude— is not the mention
Of a Tenderness,
But it's still appreciation
Out of Plumb of Speech.

When the Sea return no Answer
By the Line and Lead
Prove it there's no Sea, or rather
A remoter Bed?

Dickinson uses the sea as a metaphor in both of these poems, but in a different way. In the first, the passing reference gives way to a second image: that of the ball as the essential (gratitude) encompassed by everything else, rather than the other way around. I think Dickinson is particularly effective in this poem by leaving the key word, gratitude, until the next-to-the-last line. Thus, we glimpse the casing: everything else, before we glimpse the center of the point, gratitude. This short poem also uses a simple, classic form. Three feet per line, with a roughly ABCB form.

The second poem also uses a four line stanza, but uses tetrameter in the first and third lines, with a feminine ending, and trimeter in the second and fourth. Like Herbert, she uses an ABAB rhyme in this poem. Like Herbert, she notes that gratitude is not just words. In fact, words and gratitude do not even run parallel; and gratitude, to her, is the most real and deep when it makes no express answer.

One of the things I love about poetry is that it speaks beyond the explicit. The meaning is to be felt and understood first, rather than understood first, and then felt. A good writer could have written these ideas out in plain and clear prose, but it would have lost the true impact.

Gratefulness itself, like a poem, cannot be separated into pieces. It must be an integral part of us - a state of being, not just an accessory to our usual outfit, an attitude we assume when it suits us. 

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