Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #2: i thank you god

I sometimes wonder why the second poem I recite by heart each day to myself is a praise poem. To God, no less!

I don’t believe in God. I wouldn’t say I’m an atheist necessarily – who knows what’s out there. But if you were asking me to bet my “soul” (!) on a Patriarchal God or his woolly-bearded and blazing-eyed son, Jesus, plus all the other fine theological malarkey that makes up our religious creeds, I’d probably stick to my experiential and pragmatic understanding of theology. Which states that this life, the one right here and now, is probably all we get. One living, breathing, word-filled period of consciousness, and then naught.

And yet, I think it’s good to have praise poems in one’s personal poetry liturgy. Because praise is linked to gratitude, and once we forget how to be grateful for the simple act of being, thinking, and experiencing the world, we’re dead. Not dead-dead, more like living-dead,  zombified with all that entails. I often have zombie moments, especially at the beginning of the day. Sometimes not just as part of the day, but the whole day itself seems to come with this living-dead quality to it.

Our go-to label for these states is “depression”, which doesn’t fully delineate the different forms of living-dead-dom as far I’m concerned. A less clinical, but perhaps more apt word might be something like “the blahs” or why-botherness. Today I’m experiencing some of that bleary, blahey why-botherness. And yet, here I am once again, sitting down to write some praise for a poem that is all about praising the world and being alive for one day more in it, regardless. Fancy that!

And here is Cumming’s poem in full with all its weird punctuation and wonky syntax – the most galling being, in my eyes, no spaces after semi-colons. Like, WTF Edward Estlin Cummings! Or if you prefer: wtf, ee!

Cummings supposedly suggested to his publisher that certain editions have his name written in lowercase as a sign of humility, or to showcase his avant-garde stylings, even though he always signed his name using Caps. Like many impromptu quirks, it seems to have stuck.

God, as you will see in the poem below is the only thing to gets some Caps. Fair enough.  Even this atheist-agnostic feels a bit weird about writing god in lowercase, so imagine the pressure cummings, son of a Unitarian minister would have felt in lowercasing God to god.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


So here’s the thing about gratitude. We all know what an essential ingredient it is in our lives, and hundreds of pieces of research in the last few decades categorically confirm that a life-orientation towards gratitude leads to greater well-being. But we don’t like to be told to be grateful. We don’t like it when we’re kids and our parents might haul out some guilt-inducing version of “but children in Africa/Syria/Cambodia are starving to death you ungrateful little shit”, in order to get us to eat our peas. Nor as adults when someone posts those twinkly, primary-coloured gratitude memes on our social media platforms. Yes, I know full-well that “gratitude changes everything” Smiley Watercolour Quote, but I want to get to that realisation experientially, and on my own, rather than through your gentle, but still preachy admonishments.

The only problem with this aspiration (I’ll do gratitude when I see fit to do it) is that our minds don’t do gratitude when they probably need it most. Yes, we might feel the occasional warm glow of blessings being counted when in a settled, and contemplative state. But during the full-throttle surge and scramble of our lives, what our minds seem to do best (because they do this 24/7) is of course judge, analyse, problem-solve and plan. None of these mindstates have any place for gratitude.

So the only way I know to get my judging, analysing, problem-solving brain to take a few moments each day to be grateful is to stick a gratitude poem into my poetry liturgy and recite the damn thing whether I feel like doing it, or not.

And here’s the funny thing. It works. Which is to say: I might be walking down the road in some kind of disgrunted zombie state, feeling the very opposite of grateful: dissatisfied, self-focused, inattentive and just generally out to lunch (yer basic Autopilot Human Being), and BOOM, as soon as my lips start making those praise-sounds, some phrase or other will touch my heart. And when this happen, for a moment, but maybe a significant moment, I will be jettisoned out of my trance of unworthiness or blahness, of zombietude back into the perfectly OK (and quite grateful) state of being consciously alive here and now.

A certain cognitive dissonance can help with this too. Reciting these words on an island that is often grey and cold, the “blue true dream of sky” is frequently, and even hilariously a dream. But this doesn’t seem to matter. Perhaps because it reminds me that there always is a blue true sky behind the clouds? And in being reminded of this, I perhaps get another reminder that my emotional weather is also transitory if I’ll only allow myself to let it pass across the screen of my consciousness and not get hooked by whatever moodstate I’ve woken up to?

All I know, is that this poem delivers all the benefits of a grateful mind, as long as I don’t give my default ungrateful mind the option as to whether it wants to recite it or not. Paradoxically simple, you might say, as all good self-administered or other-assisted therapy often is.