At the Common Table: Poems for Thanksgiving
In the poem "The Pumpkin" by 19th century poet John Greenleaf Whittier, the tradition of Thanksgiving is described as a time of remembrance and return, a celebration of abundance, both of sustenance and of love, at a family gathering. The poet depicts the scene sensually, packing each line with the fruits of a healthy harvest and the warmth of a kitchen sweet from baking. By the end of the poem, the words achieve an almost too-full splendor:
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow...
Having lived on a farm his entire life, Whittier offers his reader the plentiful harvest as a symbol of a productive year, evoking the historical origin of Thanksgiving as the meal held in 1621 by the Wampanoag together with the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts; the harvest festival was a shared tradition of both cultures, and the account of a peaceful celebration between the two groups is still the basis for the holiday today. While some of the elements of the story are myths that were consciously exaggerated in the 1890s and early 1900s in the hopes of forging a national identity in the aftermath of the Civil War, the core message of acceptance and commonality still remains for many celebrants.
In "The Thanksgivings," a traditional Iroquois prayer translated by the 19th century political advocate Harriet Maxwell Converse, the first white woman to be named a Chief of the Iroquois Confederacy, the spirit of that first meal lives on in the oral tradition: "We give Him thanks for our supporters, who had charge of our harvest. / We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can still be heard."
Of course, the holiday is also a reminder of the displacement of Native Americans from their lands, which they bore a deep connection to for both spirit and for sustenance. Joseph Bruchac, a contemporary poet and storyteller of traditional Iroquois tales, tells of his own homecoming in the poem, "Prayer":
This morning I ask only
the blessing of the crayfish,
the beautitude of the birds;
to wear the skin of the bear
in my songs;
to work like a man with my hands.
Because it is a uniquely American holiday, Thanksgiving offers a chance to not only remember, but to reflect on history, and examine what it means to be American. Since 1970, a group of Native Americans and their supporters have held a controversial National Day of Mourning at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, in protest of the holiday and the inaccurate history they believe it represents. In Robert Creeley's patriotic "America," the poet evokes the desire to speak honestly about the nation's history. He makes a command to the land itself, addressing America directly: "Give back the people you took." The poem is brief, but effective, concluding: "Give back / what we are, these people you made, us, and nowhere but you to be."
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Thanksgiving's purpose has evolved several times since the initial harvest festivals. In 1777, George Washington proclaimed a "thanksgiving" in honor of the American defeat of the British at Saratoga. For generations, Thanksgiving was not an annual holiday but a sporadic celebration marking years of prosperity, and it wasn't until Abraham Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving Day on the final Thursday of November that the U.S. celebrated the holiday with much regularity. In 1939, Thanksgiving was again manipulated for social and political purposes when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in hopes that an earlier Thanksgiving would increase spending during The Great Depression, declared that Thanksgiving would be a week earlier, allowing for more shopping time before the winter holidays.
Because of the evolving meanings and patriotic intentions of Thanksgiving, Americans are left without a singular narrative to attach to the holiday, and may be discomforted by its historical origins as well as distracted by the emphasis on football games and day-after shopping. For this reason, many poets are cynical and solitary when writing about what this time of togetherness. In A. R. Ammons's poem "Called into Play," the speaker begins:
Fall fell: so that's it for the leaf poetry;
some flurries have whitened the edges of the roads
and lawns: time for that, the snow stuff: &
turkeys and old St. Nick: where am I going to
find something to write about I haven't already
The poem goes on to describe an effort to dig for meaning "where the surface has lost its semblance," and even goes on to say "this week seems to have been crafted in hell." Another poem by Anthony Hecht offers a similar position on the season. In "The Transparent Man," a lengthy dramatic monologue is given from the point of view of a lonely and "failing" woman with leukemia who feels "in the way":
It's mainly because of Thanksgiving. All these mothers
And wives and husbands gaze at me soulfully
And feel they should break up their box of chocolates
For a donation, or hand me a chunk of fruitcake.
What they don't understand and never guess
Is that it's better for me without a family;
It's a great blessing. Though I mean no harm.
The speaker describes her illness ("a sort of blizzard in the bloodstream, / A deep, severe, unseasonable winter, / Burying everything") and tells her visitor, "I care about fewer things; I'm more selective." The effect is akin to actually visiting someone with no family during the holidays. The speaker is defensive, but transparently so, insightful and a little provocative, but above all thankful for the company: "I hope that you won't think me plain ungrateful," she says. "I take it very kindly that you came / And sat here and let me rattle on this way."
Other poets share a cynical view of the holidays, but are surprised by the power of a homecoming to move one into a place of sincere feeling. In Bruce Weigl's poem "Home," the speaker describes his landscape of origin as a mystical terrain of rebirth, calling him continuously from elsewhere:
I didn't know I was grateful
for such late-autumn
Weigl's spare, cascading lines offer images of simultaneous security and bafflement at one's return as well as solidarity in the calm of a stripped field. The poem speaks directly to those hesitant to admit they need their parents or home to be part of their identity, and becomes, in its way, a lyrical statement about gratitude and estrangement.
Of all of the qualities of Thanksgiving, the power to draw people together is among its most sustaining. Whether strangers sharing a meal or scattered relatives gathering together, spiritually minded and secular Americans alike have come to rely upon Thanksgiving and its lasting message of peace and togetherness. No longer a holiday set aside for the prosperous, it has instead been transformed into a celebration of community.
Not because of victories
but for the common sunshine,
the largess of the spring.
Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.
A selection of poems appropriate to Thankgiving:
"The Thanksgivings by Harriet Maxwell Converse
We who are here present thank the Great Spirit...
"The Pumpkin by John Greenleaf Whittier
Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun...
"Te Deum by Charles Reznikoff
Not because of victories...
"Signs of the Times" by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Air a-gittin' cool an' coolah...
"The Culture of Glass" by Thylias Moss
Columbo's eye, Peter Falk's indivisible...
"Seven Years" by Daisy Fried
These cold days when the insane sky’s clear...
"Thanksgiving Letter from Harry" by Carl Dennis
I guess I have to begin by admitting...
"Grace for a Child" by Robert Herrick
Here, a little child I stand...
"He who binds himself to joy" by William Blake
He who binds to himself a joy...
"Little Prayer in November" by Lee Rudolph
That I am alive, I thank...
"The Harvest Moon" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes...
From "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus" by Denise Levertov
Praise the wet snow...
"The Transparent Man by Anthony Hecht
I'm mighty glad to see you, Mrs. Curtis...
"The New-England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day" by Lydia Maria Child
Over the river, and through the wood...