In Memory of Ruth Stone, b. 1915, d. Nov 19, 2011

And honoring Robert Hass, former poet laureate, Library of Congress

“Gratitude is the moral memory of mankind.” Georg Simmel

Thanksgiving, Football, Pumpkins, Shopping, a Little Time Out! It is not so much being thankful for what makes us happy; being thankful is the root of happiness. Being thankful comes first, if we listen to our poets, and we should! Listen! W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks”, Marvin Bell, e.e. cummings, Rachel Hurt, Walt Whitman. . .

We’re ready for a Time Out, aren’t we, just finishing Thanksgiving, and I’m pondering how poetry is like a holiday, it’s a different pace and kind of activity, it slows us down from the ordinary pulse of life, when we read or write it, it stops the action, like the slo mo or freeze frame of a football play (I’ve been watching a lot of football lately), it puts the present moment into focus, it intensifies it, so that we focus on this one train of thought, this one consideration, this one kind of happening thought, like a mind event, and perhaps like a Yoga pose, it strengthens us, as we are holding the position, perhaps it’s a lot like strength training, a core workout, for the mind and spirit. And at the same time we travel during it, it moves us, not just emotionally, but takes us on a journey, begins us with a line, and our eyes and ears enter this experience; so that it happens to us, we are not just spectators. It becomes part of our way of thinking, the tradition of our being.


I was at a conference on the neuroscience of learning, brain-based learning, with about 700 educators from disciplines ranging from physics and math and computers to theater and psychology and history and sociology, the Lilly Conference on teaching and learning, as its Poet in Residence, and it struck me not only how many poems are actually about learning, and cause learning—and I read you some last week, including my poem on Zumba class, I’m shaking it I’m making it but the woman in the mirror doesn’t move at all, how hard we can be working, but it isn’t always apparent what’s going on inside, momentous effort . . . —

But also how poems are good for our minds. They work our left and right brains, firing up our centers for rhythm and computation and visual thinking and auditory and words, and most of all, they Occupy our minds fully, with sound and meaning. So in a way they are a time out, in a way they are the pause to ponder the movement that goes by so fast in a blur, and like football, if you’re like me you don’t even know where to look, to know what’s happening, you have to go back and see it over and over, from every angle, and you can look at the image, and it reveals what is too hurried to see in real time—how leaping bodies even for this one moment fly—

And when we have a national holiday, it makes us slow down as a whole people. In the past days I have been reflecting on poetry in our civic life, walking around Washington, D.C., how poets and poetry are at the heart of action, when we see our national life on pause: seeing it literally in the heart of movements such as the Occupy Movement, poems recited, poems in the library tent with its own section at Occupy Washington, poems engraved in the pavement at Freedom Square, on Pennsylvania Avenue, right across from the Willard Hotel where Emily Dickinson stayed when she visited her Congressman father, and just down the street, at the White House, poetry written and read. Poetry has nourished and sustained us with words that matter. It has changed the world. It is at the heart of the nation’s pulse. I have received word that colleague Robert Hass, UC Berkeley professor of poetry and former poet laureate of Library of Congress, alongside his wife, who was knocked down, and fellow poets roughed up, was beaten on the steps of Sproul Hall, UC Berkeley, where he and his wife had gone to see if they could help protect students:

One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest. . .

The next night the students put the tents back up. Students filled the plaza again with a festive atmosphere. And lots of signs. (The one from the English Department contingent read “Beat Poets, not beat poets.”) . . . On Thursday afternoon when I returned toward sundown to the steps to see how the students had responded, the air was full of balloons, helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical, occupying the air. [You can actually see these images, Poetry Slow Down, an imaginative action, flying and floating tents, making sky a habitat of hope for national conversation, and The New York Timesarticle concludes, Robert Hass is a professor of poetry and poetics at the University of California, Berkeley, and former poet laureate of the United States.

In an earlier poem he had written that he is amazed he has lived to a venerable old age, with miraculous escapes, for which he has gratitude to God . . . .

So today, let’s think of this saying, how gratitude does not come from being happy, but being happy comes from being grateful. Let’s explore the connection between gratitude and happiness through poetry. So we’re going for a mind workout, holding a Yogic pose of attention, into slow mo, the mind in flight, catching the image, holding onto it, with all these forces trying to wrest it from the conscious mind– and then what to do with the image, take it farther, farther down the field, and score, get us somewhere to cheer about . . .

And Ruth Stone—we honor her today—she was born in 1915, and just died at age 96 in Vermont—I knew her as a poet at Indiana University in the early 1970s. The Ruth Stone Poetry Prize was won last year by  Rochelle Hurt, “Third Surgery,” with all the pain and worry and fear invoking a spirit, perhaps a helpless spirit, perhaps a fierce, fiercely held spirit, of gratitude.

C. K. Chesterson said, I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.  ~ So let’s slow down, for poetry of gratitude, for wherever you are,you’re there—and that makes it human and heart and mind in flow. Thinking of Robert Hass and poets everywhere, of all time—it sounds as if it were written this week, but Merwin wrote this decades ago: “Thanks.”

W.S. Merwin, “Thanks”

So here is a question. Merwin is piling on images of things we think, of course, we are thankful for: but he’s also including hospitals and funerals, all the things you and I are worried about, and feel sorrow about, personal and national and global, immediate and historical wrongs and injustice and tragedies, to earth and each other. In his poem animals are dying, the forests are disappearing, there are beatings, there is the 1 percent who he says will never change, and nobody is listening, and yet, he includes us in this, we are saying thank you, as dark is coming down, we are saying thank you and waving dark though it is. So the question is what being thankful means, when, where, what, why, how, at what point we say thank you, given our suffering, our awareness of suffering—do we have to have blinders to say thank you, to have gratitude, do we turn a blind eye to wrong and sorrow? What quality of mind and of thinking go into gratitude?Listen, he says: asking us to open to what he has to say. Listen, with the night falling we are saying thank you, well, listen up, this is remarkable! So he describes us in mid-stream of our lives, maybe Dante’s dark wood in midlife, building up a sense of momentum of all of this, piled, layered in consciousness, for thanks for every darn thing. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. Does this make us idiots? Gratitude for dummies?

This accumulation by Merwin, of wounds to earth and humanity, things we endure that make for unhappiness, makes it moving and shocking then to hear, in spite of all this going wrong, “We go on saying thank you thank you. . . we are saying thank you. . . .faster and faster with nobody listening we are saying thank you we are saying thank you and waving dark though it is.” We say it even though it is Simon and  Garfunkle’s “people talking without listening,” and yet, we, WE, listen to the poet, who years after he wrote this was named Poet Laureate of the U.S. Library of Congress, formed out of Thomas Jefferson’s library, to advise Congress and our whole country. To say thank you, to express gratitude: this is an act of magnitude, of complexity, perhaps simplicity, of power of mind, of submission of mind, what is required to go on, or, a signal grace? And what does it mean that in our civic culture, a national holiday is given over to thanks. Yet thanksgiving goes on year round in poetry, this holiday of the mind, this bringing to our consciousness something intrinsic about our day, inextricable from our being. What is the connection between poetry, the taking time to write a poem and reflect on something about living, and thanks-giving?  Nietzsche says the essence of all art, all beauty, is gratitude.

More on the philosophy of poetry, football, and thanksgiving: Anne Porter, A List of Praises,

So in this case, we make a list of those things that come into consciousness. What if we each made such a list Poetry Slow Down, of the things for which we are grateful, if we take it down to the nano level, the smallest things . . .

Nothing is too small to notice and be grateful for (See “Dusting” by Marilyn Nelson, “Wild Gratitude” by Edward Hirsch.) We hear Rumi’s “What Was Told, That,” and Eleanor Lerman’s “Starfish.” We hear Charles Bernstein, Thank you for saying thank you and excerpts from Naomi Shihab Nye. We hear Hilarie Jones‘s “The Teacher,” and then poems of gratitude wisdom by poets in old age, Stanley Kunitz and Walt Whitman.

This hour, this moment: we don’t put it off any longer, we pay attention now; we say thanks; we have gratitude; it is all consciousness! And so, speaking of gratitude and saying thanks as a way of being, we discuss Mary Oliver’s way of gratitude through her poetry, telling us the questions that will open us to gratitude, and about her work as a “Messenger:” “My work is loving the world.”  I know that I read it to you often, but check out Gerald Stern’s “Grapefruit.” It is a great gratitude poem.

So we start with football as a way of being present in the moment, in slo mo, the pause, the freeze frame, a way of holiday, of taking time OUT, making time be known and lived; of paying attention; and gratitude, thanks-giving . . . and the poems expressing thanks, are a way of happiness. A poem is this moment, making the morning last, as our poet Paul Simon says. It seems, from e.e. cummings’ poem, beginning with i thank You God for most this amazing [day], and ending with, and now the ears of my ears are awake AND NOW the eyes of my eyes are open—or the other way, I always mix it up, my eyes of my eyes are awake and my ears of my ears are open—it is that giving thanks, thanks-giving, BEGINS the process, readying us, preparing us to receive the benefits of the day, by being awake and open, to what there is to see and hear, from inside out: because if it is the ears of our ears and the eyes of our eyes, it is the interior capacity we have to process our world, to take it in, to make of it something, as the poet, which means “maker” in Greek, the origin of the word, makes the poem: the poem, like the football game on a holiday weekend, devoted to slowing down, to give thanks, to enjoy our time and be conscious of it, of all that nourishes us, of all that we can find good. To say thanks in this way expresses the spirit and begins what I believe is our human duty of gratitude, of living purposely with joy and reverence and awe for the gift of consciousness of being alive on this earth, now, in this form.


To say thanks is to bring our moment to NOW, and like the football game, which is one extended metaphor, we stop and watch; and like a poem, it is organized into a beginning, middle, and end, divided up, like a sonnet, into quatrains, with a march and velocity and rhthym, and ebb and flow, tides of passion and striving and earnest effort. And I thought of a way that football and our thanksgiving holiday slow down poetry all go together in one metaphorical gaphlomb! We are thankful for the people who catch our passes even when our throw is not that accurate, the people who pass to us even if we don’t always catch it, the people who get it to us and let us run for the glory, the people who make that run for us, the people who have our back, and protect and block for us, and tackle and bring down obstacles in our path, and the people who give us advice, and cheer us on, and challenge us, and the people who teach us and ready us for the strength and endurance and resilience we need to be on this field, playing with all our hearts, the people who say to us, as Coach Eric Taylor says in Friday Night Lights which for me will never end, play always with the philosophy of clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. Buddha says we become what we think. Just thinking with gratitude—this consciousness–opens us to the poem that can be made of our lives, and the way it slows us down to see what is happening, what is there, to think metaphorically. Einstein is anticipated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, our own national philosopher of everyday genius, who says wisdom is expressing gratitude for the ordinary as extraordinary; so it is a feat of imagination, of artistry really, being grateful as creative thinking, expressing it as the heart of creativity which has become religion and philosophy and culture. We can read these poems as a way to open us, as e.e. cummings would say, to the gratitude of our gratitude. Dr. Masuru Emoto’s work with water crystals—did you see What the Bleep Do We Know? –He put the words love and thanks for us to see as we gaze on water and photograph the effects of these words. There is science on the power of words to affect our minds, on the power of words in how we see and think . . .


And as we begin a season of festivals of light and birth of civic and community cultures around the world, with thanksgiving, I am thinking of a phenomenon which is so wonderful in transforming what we might think of as our everyday quotidian lives . . . the Flash Mob, in which, we might be standing in line at the bank, or pulling our roll-ey at the airport, or crossing a city plaza, and so we’re not thinking of anything, just stressed, pressed for time, in a hurry, not happy, on your way to, not “there” yet, wherever you are, and something hap-pens: the person next to you bursts into song, or a dance step, or a line, and then someone else, who was acting and looking quite ordinary, invisible, you didn’t even notice, suddenly in this public space of no man’s land, is Shakespeare, Gershwin, Michael Jackson on the public mind, and the next thing you know, it’s a scene, literally, it’s a stage, and you’re on the stage, you’re part of it, it’s all around you, song and dance and poetry, and it’s contagious, people are putting down their suitcases and stopping, and watching, and then  joining in, and it’s a community celebration of the human imagination and capacity for joy, for rhythm and making something beautiful in the day, in our life . . . like how I think of our Poetry Slow Down, how you, in your busy day today, in the middle of everything, literally stop, make time for, slowing down, to listen to poetry. And like the Flash Mob, so exhilarating, transforming the moment into something so special and extraordinary, with expressive arts, we realize that this capacity in us to enjoy, to behold, to gaze and ponder and wonder and simply be happy, is there all the time.


(Details to be provided as clues)

And I saw the film Elf last night as part of network tv movie offering for the holiday, and it ends with someone singing a song in Central Park and people everywhere, in the park and watching the tv news, start joining in, making the moment last. So I am going to be bringing some Flash Mob action to the Central Coast of California, KRXA 540AM terrain, in the coming weeks, so be on the lookout for ordinary people quoting poetry in public places, I’ll be giving you some clues next week and on my website atBarbaraMossberg.com, and on Facebook, and on our show . . .


and I want to invite you also, if you are on this Coast, to come to my annual reading of Emily Dickinson’s poetry in celebration of her birthday, December 10, at the Cherry Center, Carmel’s theater since 1948, and I will be baking gingerbread from her recipe and using 19th century baking technology, and we’ll sing, and I’ll tell you more about it next week on our show as well, and I love doing this show, I started doing in wherever I was in the world, in 1976, 35 years ago! And it came from waking up on the day of her birthday, many years ago, and feeling this sense of such gratitude for her poetry. I would get up early and I would think about her poetry and the immensity of my gratitude for this in my life, her words, giving profound beauty and wisdom to how I see the world and my life. So on this day of concluding our show on thanksgiving, and concluding this civic holiday, I would like to end with lines from a poem for which I give thanks, and in so doing, open myself for happiness: I’ll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time.  These late November mornings have orange and pink ribbons in them: what a way to begin the day, with thanks for words that point our attention to the day’s promise, a gift-wrapped, ribbon festooned gift, and opening it, opening ourselves to it, is cause for happiness. Poetry Slow Down, thank you for your ears, joining me on this journey, thank you Producer Sara Hughes and KRXA 540AM, I am Professor Barbara Mossberg, and I have enjoyed slowing down with you. Thank you!

© Barbara Mossberg 2011