by W.S. Merwin
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
I had a few more left so I left “Thanks” on another street—
Who doesn’t believe in gratitude? Every religion and most women’s magazines instruct us to grateful. It’s the key to happiness, we’re told over and over. I myself love to be grateful and raised my kiddos to believe it’s the thank-you note, not cleanliness, that’s next to godliness.
But there are limits, as we see in W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks.” Does it make sense, he seems to ask, dark though it is and even with nobody listening to run around saying thanks, thank you, thanks so much. We begin to look like idiots. Because the rote “thank you” can be as empty as “thoughts and prayers” if there’s no accompanying action. Against Merwin’s litany of terrible events— illness, violence, death, injustice, ecological disaster, aging and memory loss—saying “thanks” seems anemic if not downright silly.
Someone else might read the poem differently, perhaps as an injunction to stay grateful no matter what. But given Merwin’s activism, I can’t read it any other way.
I left the poem in downtown Detroit, the same day the city learned it had not been a finalist for the Amazon headquarters. Thanks a lot!
Here’s a bio of Merwin from an earlier post:
W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.
Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.
He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.