New Year, New Verse, New You?

Sabbath Day Thoughts

On this New Year’s Day, I invite us to celebrate the birth of Christ and ponder his calling for our lives with some of my favorite poems of this season.

Susan Elizabeth Howe is a poet, playwright, and editor. Her poems have a keen attention to ordinary details that hint toward sacred truths.  Her favorite themes explore women’s lives and the natural world through the lens of faith.  Susan says, “Imagination . . . can be part of and lead to spiritual growth, and imagination is the natural province of the poet.” This poem was inspired by the promise found in a fortune cookie, “Your luck is about to change.”

“Your Luck Is About to Change”                                                       Susan Elizabeth Howe

(A fortune cookie)

Ominous inscrutable Chinese news

to get just before Christmas,

considering my reasonable health,

marriage spicy as moo-goo-gai-pan,

career running like a not-too-old Chevrolet.

Not bad, considering what can go wrong:

the bony finger of Uncle Sam

might point out my husband,

my own national guard,

and set him in Afghanistan;

my boss could take a personal interest;

the pain in my left knee could spread to my right.

Still, as the old year tips into the new,

I insist on the infant hope, gooing and kicking

his legs in the air. I won’t give in

to the dark, the sub-zero weather, the fog,

or even the neighbors’ Nativity.

Their four-year-old has arranged

his whole legion of dinosaurs

so they, too, worship the child,

joining the cow and sheep. Or else,

ultimate mortals, they’ve come to eat

ox and camel, Mary and Joseph,

then savor the newborn babe.

In Poetry, December 2002, p. 153.


Langston Hughes was an innovator of jazz poetry and one of the foremost poets of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a descendant of the elite, politically active Langston family, free people of color who worked for the abolitionist cause and helped lead the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858. Hughes wrote from an early age, moving to New York City as a teen to attend Columbia University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, short stories, essays, and non-fiction. From 1942 to 1962, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. In 1960, the NAACP presented Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. As you read, “Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight in New York,” attend to his use of the word “almost” and consider what Hughes might be saying.

“Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight in New York”                            Langston Hughes

The Christmas trees are almost all sold
And the ones that are left go cheap
The children almost all over town
Have almost gone to sleep.

The skyscraper lights on Christmas Eve
Have almost all gone out
There’s very little traffic
Almost no one about.

Our town’s almost as quiet
As Bethlehem must have been
Before a sudden angel chorus
Sang PEACE ON EARTH
GOOD WILL TO MEN!

Our old Statue of Liberty
Looks down almost with a smile
As the Island of Manhattan
Awaits the morning of the Child.

In Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Press, 1994.


Ann Weems was a gifted and prolific Presbyterian poet with seven books and collections of poems written for use in worship. Ann was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and was married to a Presbyterian minister.  She served as an elder with her local church.  Ann believed that writing was “a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer in which one can imagine what might be and in the writing help it become true.” She was sometimes referred to as the Presbyterian Poet Laureate.

“Boxed”                                                                                              Ann Weems

I must admit to a certain guilt

about stuffing the Holy Family into a box

in the aftermath of Christmas.

It’s frankly a time of personal triumph when,

each Advent’s eve, I free them (and the others)

from a year’s imprisonment

boxed in the dark of our basement.

Out they come, one by one,

struggling through the straw,

last year’s tinsel still clinging to their robes.

Nevertheless, they appear, ready to take their place again

in the light of another Christmas.

The Child is first

because he’s the one I’m most reluctant to box.

Attached forever to his cradle, he emerges,

apparently unscathed from the time spent upside down

to avoid the crush of the lid.

His mother, dressed eternally in blue,

still gazes adoringly,

in spite of the fact that

her features are somewhat smudged.

Joseph has stood for eleven months,

holding valiantly what’s left of his staff,

broken twenty Christmases ago

by a child who hugged a little too tightly.

The Wise Ones still travel,

though not quite so elegantly,

the standing camel having lost its back leg

and the sitting camel having lost one ear.

However, gifts intact they are ready to move.

The shepherds, walking or kneeling,

sometimes confused with Joseph

(who wears the same dull brown),

tumble forth, followed by three sheep

in very bad repair.

There they are again,

not a grand set surely,

but one the children (and now the grandchildren)

can touch and move about to reenact that silent night.

When the others return,

we will wind the music box on the back of the stable

and light the Advent candles

and go once more to Bethlehem.

And this year, when it’s time to pack the figures away,

we’ll be more careful that the Peace and Goodwill 

are not also boxed for another year!

In Kneeling in Bethlehem. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1980, p. 87.


The Rev. Dr. J. Barrie Shepherd is a retired Presbyterian minister, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church of New York City.  Shepherd has fifteen books of poetry and has published over 600 poems and articles in publications both sacred and secular. He has preached and lectured at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, and other universities, colleges and seminaries. In 2000, while I was serving Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, Rev. Shepherd joined us for a special 3-hour-long Good Friday service that featured his poetry. As you read “Forest Snowfall” listen for his description of the Kingdom of God, which dwells within the world, there for us to see and serve, if only we have the courage.

“Forest Snowfall”                                                                               J. Barrie Shepherd

(Before sunrise)

It is as if the light that is to come
had taken on a flake-like form and substance
laid itself, in silhouette, along, against,
the windward part
of every naked trunk and branch.
The ground below lies cloaked,
each blade of grass or bracken
with its glistening garment,
so that, even at the darkest hour last night,
a luminescence shone as if reflected
from whatever burns within.

Might the bright, promised realm
lie here and now revealed,
its last impediment
my faltering fear to enter in?

In The Christian Century, Dec. 19, 2019. Accessed online at christiancentury.org.


Joyce Rupp is well-known for her work as a writer, international retreat leader, and conference speaker. She is the author of twenty-eight bestselling books on spirituality. A member of the religious order known as the Servites or Servants of Mary since the age of nineteen, Joyce received the U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church in 2004.  She has played a significant role as a “midwife” for women’s spirituality. In 2007, I attended “Writing from the Soul,” a writer’s workshop with Joyce in Chicago.

“A Christmas Blessing” (responsive)                                                 Joyce Rupp

May there be harmony in all your relationships. May sharp words, envious thoughts, and hostile feelings be dissolved.

May you give and receive love generously. May this love echo in your heart like the joy of church bells on a clear December day.

May each person who comes into your life be greeted as another Christ. May the honor given the Babe of Bethlehem be that which you extend to every guest who enters your presence.

May the hope of this sacred season settle in your soul. May it be a foundation of courage for you when times of distress occupy your inner land.

May the wonder and awe that fills the eyes of children be awakened within you. May it lead you to renewed awareness and appreciation of whatever you too easily take for granted.

May the bonds of love for one another be strengthened as you gather around the table of festivity and nourishment.

May you daily open the gift of your life and be grateful for the hidden treasures it contains.

May the coming year be one of good health for you. May you have energy and vitality. May you care well for your body, mind, and spirit.

May you keep your eye on the Star within you and trust this Luminescent Presence to guide and direct you each day.

May you go often to the Bethlehem of your heart and visit the One who offers you peace. May you bring this peace into our world.

In Out of the Ordinary, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2000, p. 36.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was regarded as the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry. He was the fourth of twelve children. His brilliant but mercurial father, George Clayton Tennyson, was a country clergyman, who struggled with addiction to alcohol and opium; his mother was the daughter of a vicar.  Plagued by poverty, Alfred never graduated from Cambridge University. Despite hardship, he persisted in his efforts as a poet. In 1850, Queen Victoria appointed Alfred Poet Laureate, a distinction that he held until his death in 1892. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. “Ring Out Wild Bells” expresses the fervent hope for a better year-to-come and our ability to shape the year with the choice for truth, right, and love.

“Ring Out, Wild Bells”                                                                       Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light;

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more,

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

In In Memoriam. London: Edward Moxson, 1850.

May we go forth into the New Year to “Ring in the love of truth and right, ring in the common love of good.”


Psalm 148

1 Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels;
    praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon;
    praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
    and you waters above the skies.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for at his command they were created,
and he established them for ever and ever—
    he issued a decree that will never pass away.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
11 kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
12 young men and women,
    old men and children.

13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
14 And he has raised up for his people a horn,
    the praise of all his faithful servants,
    of Israel, the people close to his heart.

Praise the Lord.


Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

December Moon

Poem for a Tuesday — “December Moon” by May Sarton

Before going to bed
After a fall of snow
I look out on the field
Shining there in the moonlight
So calm, untouched and white
Snow silence fills my head
After I leave the window.

Hours later near dawn
When I look down again
The whole landscape has changed
The perfect surface gone
Criss-crossed and written on
Where the wild creatures ranged
While the moon rose and shone.

Why did my dog not bark?
Why did I hear no sound
There on the snow-locked ground
In the tumultuous dark?

How much can come, how much can go
When the December moon is bright,
What worlds of play we’ll never know
Sleeping away the cold white night
After a fall of snow.

in Good Poems, New York: Penguin Books, 2002, p. 306.


Born in Belgium, May Sarton emigrated with her family to the United States as a small child at the outbreak of the First World War. Her father, a science historian, taught at Harvard. Sarton returned to Europe as a young adult and traveled in literary circles, meeting Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Julian and Juliette Huxley. Her extensive body of work, which included poetry, novels, journals, and essays, was controversial for the time, exploring themes of feminism and sexuality. Linda Barrett Osborne, critic for the Washington Post Book World, once noted that “in whatever May Sarton writes one can hear the human heart pulsing just below the surface.”


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Testimony

Poem for a Tuesday — “Testimony” by Jane Flanders

This is how death

came to the old tree:

in a cold bolt, a single

thrust from a cloud,

in a tearing away of bark

and limbs, a piercing

of much that was necessary.

We had no choice then

but to cut it down–a pine

of great height, that knew much

about weather and small life.

It had been here longer

than any of us. And now

there is a hole in the sky.

In Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991. P. 126.


Jane Flanders was a poet, musician, and gardener. A three-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize, Flanders was the author of three volumes of poetry at the time of her death from cancer in 2001. Not long afterward, her husband Steve discovered more than 700 of her uncollected, unpublished poems, a number of which were subsequently published in three posthumous volumes. Reviewer Andrew Hudgins wrote that “Flanders constantly probes the commonplace, seeking what message it has to reveal about the infinite or to discover in what way a particular moment contains the eternal” (Hudson Review).


Photo by Tanya Gorelova on Pexels.com

The Sacred

Poem for a Tuesday — “The Sacred” by Stephen Dunn

After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

in Songs for the Open Road. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999, p. 12.


Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Dunn once said he was an unlikely poet. The first in his family to earn a college degree, he attended school on a basketball scholarship, worked writing copy for Nabisco, and quit it all to travel to Spain and pen a failed novel. He found his calling as a writer when his purpose shifted from prose to poetry. The author of twenty-one collections of poetry, Dunn was hailed for his ability to explore the complexity of life by attending to the mundane. Rita Dove once wrote that Dunn was “a poet who time and again achieves that most difficult magic of the ordinary. He can take you by the hand and lead you along a street you may have passed through every day without much notice, and suddenly, at this new angle, the ordinary reveals in itself all the splendor and terror of existence.” He served as a distinguished professor of creative writing at Richard Stockton College before his death in 2021.


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The Dogs in Dutch Paintings

Poem for a Tuesday — “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings” by David Graham

How shall I not love them, snoozing

right through the Annunciation?  They inhabit

the outskirts of every importance, sprawl

dead center in each oblivious household.

They’re digging at fleas or snapping at scraps,

dozing with noble abandon while a boy

bells their tails.  Often they present their rumps

in the foreground of some martyrdom.

What Christ could lean so unconcernedly

against a table leg, the feast above continuing?

Could the Virgin in her joy match this grace

as a hound sagely ponders an upturned turtle?

No scholar at his huge book will capture

my eye so well as the skinny haunches,

the frazzled tails and serene optimism

of the least of these mutts, curled

in the corners of the world’s dazzlement.

— in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005, p. 160.


David Graham is a teacher, writer, and poet. For twenty-eight years, he taught English literature and writing for Ripon College in Wisconsin. He was selected to serve as Resident Poet, as well as faculty member, at The Frost Place, a nonprofit educational center for poetry and the arts based at Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire. Retired now, Graham lives on the southern edge of the Adirondack Park in Glens Falls, New York. He writes a monthly column, “Poetic License,” on poetry and poets for Verse-Virtual, an online community journal of poetry. He has written nine books of poetry. The most recent The Honey of Earth is available now from Terrapin Books.


“The Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan Vam Eyck, 1434.

To a Milkweed

Poem for a Thursday — “To a Milkweed” by Deborah Digges

Teach me to love what I’ve made and judgment

in that love.

Teach me your arrogance.

With each five-petaled horned flower teach me

how much blossoming matters

along roadsides, dry-

beds, these fields no longer cleared.

Teach me such patience at each turning, how

to live on nothing but will, its milky

juices, poison

to the others, though when its stem is broken,

bleeds. Teach me to

need the future,

and the past, that Indian summer.

Let me be tricked into believing

that by what moves in me I might be saved,

and hold to this. Hold

onto this until there’s wind enough.

in Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, p. 159.


Deborah Digges grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, the sixth of ten children. Her poetry explores themes of family, nature, gender roles, and the complexities of being human. She taught for a number of years at Tuft’s University outside Boston. Digges authored four acclaimed volumes of poetry, including Vesper Sparrows (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize for a best first book of poetry. Her death by suicide in 2009 at the age of 59 deprived the world of a gifted voice. John Michaud of The New Yorker wrote, “She was the kind of writer whose work went deep into the lives of her readers.”


Image source https://www.britannica.com/plant/common-milkweed

Before Dark

Poem for a Tuesday — “Before Dark” by Wendell Berry

“From the porch at dusk I watched

a kingfisher wild in flight

he could only have made for joy.

He came down the river, splashing

against the water’s dimming face

like a skipped rock, passing

on down out of sight. And still

I could hear the splashes

farther and farther away

as it grew darker. He came back

the same way, dusky as his shadow,

sudden beyond the willows.

The splashes went on out of hearing.

It was dark then. Somewhere

the night had accommodated him

—at the place he was headed for

or where, led by his delight,

he came.”

In Collected Poems: 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. P. 63.


Wendell Berry is a farmer, author, and poet. For more than forty years, he has sustainably worked the land in eastern Kentucky that his ancestors first settled in the early 19th century. His writing embodies a deep reverence for the land and its wild creatures. He believes that we must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. Berry was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2010 and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Books Critics Circle in 2016.


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To the Dust of the Road

Poem for a Tuesday — W.S. Merwin

“And in the morning you are up again
with the way leading through you for a while
longer if the wind is motionless when
the cars reach where the asphalt ends a mile
or so below the main road and the wave
you rise into is different every time
and you are one with it until you have
made your way up to the top of your climb
and brightened in that moment of that day
and then you turn as when you rose before
in fire or wind from the ends of the earth
to pause here and you seem to drift away
on into nothing to lie down once more
until another breath brings you to birth”

in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005. P. 8.


W.S. Merwin

William Stanley Merwin was the son of a Presbyterian Minister. His first foray into poetry came as a boy: writing and illustrating hymns for his father, almost as soon as he could hold a pencil. Strongly rooted in classical studies, his translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and the Middle English epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were heralded for their “graceful, accessible language,” and his Selected Translations won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Merwin was a staunch pacifist and proponent of deep ecology. In 1976, he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism and remained there for the rest of his life, buying an old pineapple plantation and carefully restoring the native habitat. One of the most highly decorated poets in American literature, Merwin was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and served twice as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1999-2000 and 2010-2011.


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Blue Morning Glory

Poem for a Tuesday — “Blue Morning Glory” by Anne Pitkin

“Voracious, yes. But when you see it,
shy blue flowers blaring like trumpets in spite of themselves,
center star shaped and yellow; when it startles you,
early in the morning, all over a white picket fence, say,
in Massachusetts, you might think ‘triumphal,’ ‘prodigal,’
‘awake.’

Of course you don’t want it in your rose garden
among all the pruned, the decorous bushes. You don’t want it
in the vegetables, for it will romp through the tomatoes,
beans and peas, will leave no room on the ground, or even
in the air, for the leafy lettuces and cabbages soberly
queueing up in their furrows. It will hog all the sky it can get
knowing as it does what enormous thirst is satisfied by blue.

Father Michael says Follow the God of abundance
Says we hurry from the moment’s wealth
for fear it will be taken. Think of this:

the morning glory has been blossoming for so long
without permission that in some gardens it is no longer censored.
What does that tell you? See how it opens its tender throats
to a world that can sting it, how, without apology for its excess,
it blooms and blooms, though even yet
it seems surprised.”

in Cries of the Spirit Within, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, pp. 33-34.


Poet Anne Pitkin was born and raised in Clarksville, TN. Her poetry collections include Yellow and Winter Arguments. Her newest volume But Still, Music will be published by Pleasure Boat Studio in September. Pitkin’s work explores nature, family, and the tensions of growing up in the Jim Crow South. With regard to her craft, Pitkin has said, “I cannot say just when or why I started writing poetry. I read a lot of it during and after college, and I responded, I guess, by trying to write it, initially piqued by the tensions between words” (from Rattle #27, summer 2007).


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Theophany

Poem for a Tuesday — “Theophany” by Joann White

“Theophany”

My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts. — Isaiah 6:5c

You lay hidden all day, capped

by low-slung cloud and wrapped in

mist.  Standing stones, carved with cups

and rings, pointed your way, surrounded

by the worship of lesser gods,

piled high by pilgrims, gravity, and

druids. Near Uam Tom a Mhor-fir,

we looked for you in the

old ways, but no fae-folk

made merry for your pleasure, only

a chorus of snowmelt played the

melody of lengthening days. No whirlwind,

fire, or earthquake heralded your presence,

and so, with thoughts turned to

rest, we walked into the quotidian.

Sheep in woolen tutus balanced on

graceful black legs. Bò Ghàidhealach with

nose ring and rakish fringe marked

our passage. Then, as the spring

sun slanted low above Kinnloch Rannoch,

the veil lifted. Tugged by your

hand upon our heartstrings, we turned

to see Schiehallion’s bare granite slabs

gleaming with glory, the Lord God

seated on a high and lofty

throne, and so, like grounded seraphim,

we pulled out our cameras to

capture what cannot be caught and

sang the doxology of the wanderer,

Holy, holy, holy Lord! Would you

take a look at that!


This is the fourth and final poem in a series that I wrote in response to Kore-ada Hirokazu’s stunning film after life. It explores the memory that I might choose to live in for eternity, a day of rough hill walking through the heart of Scotland and over the shoulder of Schiehallion. This poem responds to the question, “When did you feel closest to God?”