Enlightened tea

poem is on the green planter



by Thomas McGrath


How could I have come so far?

(And always on such dark trails?)

I must have traveled by the light

Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.



If I were skilled in the art of micrographia, I would copy this poem on vellum in the tiniest of scripts, with flourishes visible only by magnifying glass, and put it in a silver locket I would wear around my neck.  There’s an elegance and a goodness in “Poem” that I want to keep close and display as if they belonged to me.  The elegance comes from the poem’s brevity—a lifetime in four lines—and its symmetry.  The first two lines, seven syllables each, pose a question. The second question modifies the first, just as the answering phrase in the third line is modified by the phrase that follows.


The way McGrath chooses to measure his life speaks to his goodness. The poem begins mid-thought, as if McGrath is standing atop a hill he’s climbed, catching his breath and surveying his steps.  Musing over the dark trails he’s passed through, he could have asked any number of questions:  Why did I have to go through all that crap? or Why didn’t I get farther, do better? or How much farther do I have to go? Instead he marvels at his progress:


How could I have come so far?


His answer is rooted in humility.  As with the question, the nature of his answer is best seen by what it is not.  He could credit his own grit and determination.  Or he could credit the people who have cared for him, who have loved him.  Nothing wrong with either approach.  The latter can be a wonderful exercise in gratitude. But it can also turn into self-congratulation.  In dark moments of runaway hypochondria, from which I suffer occasionally, I imagine my funeral.  I think how sad everyone who loves me will be.  Mewling and licking my endearing qualities, I construct eulogies, tributes and photo boards to prove how loveworthy I am.


What grabs me is that McGrath looks towards those he has loved.  Counting the people he has loved rather than the people who have loved him increases exponentially the length of the human luminaria he describes:


I must have traveled by the light

Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.


Not only does a good and kindly heart love many more than a sour or self-centered one; a good and kindly heart can love just about anyone.  The decision to love transforms the beloved, or to use the image in “Poem,” lights a wick that sets them aglow.


The deep, abiding love for friends and family provides the brightest light. But our luminaria can also include the glancing love we feel for strangers or for those who may not notice us at all:  the grandmother I saw the other day in the rain cooing “wishy wishy woo” to her granddaughter in the grocery cart; novelist Penelope Fitzgerald and essayist Anne Fadimann; the slow-stepping woman in my neighborhood who walks her old greyhounds twice a day; the possibly autistic deli owner who tries very hard to converse with customers; giggly Miss Clement, my high school English teacher who crossed her arms on top of a bosom that fell below her waist; the tall and unbathed brother and sister who danced so joyfully at Saturday night ceilis in Baltimore long ago.  And so on.


Tea Time by missmandyjaneI left this poem outside my friend’s kitchen, a kitchen where I’ve spent many enlightened (pardon the pun) hours enjoying her company.  For the past twenty years we’ve had tea together on Fridays, sometimes weekly, sometimes less than that, and for the five years she moved to Colorado, alas, hardly at all.   Friday tea is our time to catch-up, confess, get advice, examine issues, spout off opinions and laugh of course.  When I arrive she has set the table with placemats, teaspoons, Lipton tea bags, mugs, a china tea pot and sugar bowl.  She’s good at those old-fashioned niceties, taking time with preparation and serving that have nothing to do with formality and everything to do with grace.  I hope the poem reminds her how much I love her and cherish her light on my path.


Thomas McGrath (1916-1990) knew something of dark trails.  At times homeless, jobless, and earning less fame than our current poet laureate, Philip Levine, has said he deserves, McGrath nonetheless seemed to be a kindly man his whole life.  He was born in North Dakota to an Irish Catholic family of farmers.  The Dustbowl and the Depression led to foreclosure of their farm.  His experiences growing up poor and riding the rails in the 30’s radicalized his politics.  He worked as a labor organizer and was a member of the American Communist Party.  He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford he couldn’t accept until after he served in the army in World War II.  Refusing to testify in the McCarthy hearings, he was fired from the state college where he taught and blackballed from writing for the film industry.  Thereafter he made a living as a secondary school teacher, freelance writer, welder and woodcutter, and eventually found his way back to university teaching.  His masterpiece, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, is an epic-length political and autobiographical poem.  He wrote the script for To Fly, an exhilarating movie I remember seeing at the Air and Space Museum.




  1. poemelf

    Hi Free Penny, I see we have similar ideas about poetry….that is, everyone deserves to have some poems! I’m amazed that you are able to distribute whole books of poetry. How do you fund the production?

    thanks for your comment!

  2. Trish Rawlings

    This little poem reminds me of a show I saw on TV tonight centering on children with something called Williams syndrome. These children are born with open arms, look slightly elfin, instantly and also indiscriminately want to bond with and be friends with literally anyone who smiles at them or extends a hand, although the friendships have a hard time developing. People with this syndrome sparkle with enthusiasm, openness, fearlessness.

    They showed a film of a non-Williams child responding to a therapist who pretends to injure herself: the child pulls back, shies away. But the Williams child instantly goes toward the therapist, attempts to comfort, pats his chest in a gesture of empathy with the pain he believes the therapist is feeling.

    The reporter kept referring to this as something that maybe we all should have a little of. Of course these children and the adults they become are challenged and can present complex problems for their caregivers, having to be taught boundaries and self-protection, etc.

    Still, it seems a good trade-off!

    The show made me think of this little poem and of poemelf’s mention of people she has seen and been touched by over the years, who probably had no idea she was seeing them, much less remembering details about what she saw. The Williams children touched me the same way. Unforgettable. Fascinating.


    1. poemelf

      Interesting that you bring this up. One of the examples of people who have “lit my path” (I ended up editing it out of the final post) was a man I knew all through my childhood named Johnny McNickle. Johnny was from a large family and had Down’s syndrome. We called him the “Mayor of Bethesda”–such was his presence around town. He hung out at the drugstore and always had a joke to tell. He went to every basketball game of his siblings–a great fan. He was such a loving person. A beautiful man. I was very sad to hear he died last year.

      Down’s is different than Williams, but I think people with either syndrome have a capacity to love that is beyond “normal.”

  3. Ceci Greco

    Poem Elf,
    This poem rang a bell with me. I knew I had heard it before and then I remembered that I had once it (though omitting the second line which I hadn’t seen) to thank a group of friends for a very special gift. Truly how could I have have come so far in life without those friends along the way. A most humbling thought as you said.

  4. Theodora

    When I first came across your blog almost exactly a year ago I must have spent a couple of hours going through all your posts since the start–I just loved it! This poem happened to be on my birthday, and it’s my favorite. For some reason I couldn’t comment back then, so I wanted to tell you now thank you, and that your interpretation makes me cry!

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