Thanksgiving is such a celebrated holiday of gratitude that it might tempt Americans into thinking they had invented gratitude itself. But as a new book of poems published by Everyman’s Library makes clear, giving thanks is a universal impulse, though one we often neglect.
Hitting bookstores just in time for Thanksgiving, Poems of Gratitude assembles poetry from around the world and throughout the ages that’s inspired by gratitude.
There are plenty of American voices, to be sure. Mary Oliver, who frequently focuses on the natural world, weighs in with “The Summer Day,” which celebrates the ecstasy of exploring woods and field:
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through
which is what I’ve been doing all day.
Edward Hirsch expresses gratitude for his father, now long gone:
Give me back my father, walking the halls
Of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company
with sawdust clinging to his shoes.
But other poets in the collection hail from beyond the United States. Po Chu-I, an ancient Chinese poet, muses on the good fortune, while being ill, of getting a visit from a friend:
Tranquil talk was better than any medicine;
Gradually the feelings came back to my numbed heart.
The 17th-century Englishman John Milton writes about his blindness not merely as an obstacle, but an opportunity to lead a meaningful life, concluding his poem, “On Blindness,” with this famous line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
“Poems of Gratitude” reminds readers that all poetry, freezing the flux of life in a thoughtful moment, can itself be an exercise in gratitude – or at least make gratitude more possible.
In a poem called “Miracles” that’s included here, Walt Whitman suggests that the very texture of life is miraculous:
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
Such verse is a call to gratitude in this month of Thanksgiving – and every day of the year.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”