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Ross Gay

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Ross Gay is a contemporary American poet, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, published in 2015, is his third full-length book of poetry. “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” is the penultimate poem in this award-winning collection. In the poem, Gay uses multiple images that appear in other poems throughout the collection to create a collage-like effect, which sums up the collection. However, the poem can also be read on its own without this knowledge. Written in a free-form style, without a specific meter and rhyme, the poem is noted for its changes in language, especially how it moves from more elevated diction to the colloquial and slang. Besides the commonality of Gay’s signature style, this poem is also indicative of Gay’s subject matter of joy. For Gay this means addressing how to grapple with the mixture of tragedy and exaltation that makes up daily life. Although many have used this poem as evidence that Gay is a “happy” writer, Gay himself pointed out to interviewer David Naimon that “[w]hen I’m talking about joy […] I’m talking about some kind of feeling that emerges when we are trying to hold each other’s sorrow, and trying to be with each other in the midst of, in the face of, etc., of the fact of our pain, and the fact of our sorrow, and the fact of our very imminent deaths” (See: Further Reading & Resources). Gay identifies the poem as a personal meditation and has noted its epic qualities.

Poet Biography

Ross Gay was born on August 1, 1974, in Youngstown, Ohio. However, the family moved to Levittown, Pennsylvania, a suburb north of Philadelphia. Gay lived in an apartment complex near a wood and described himself as a “melancholic kid,” who was “also really pumped about the other side of melancholy.” (See: Further Reading & Resources).

Throughout his youth, Gay played basketball and football, and eventually attended Lafayette College on a football scholarship. An English and honors art graduate, Gay earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1996. He went on to study poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, receiving a Master of Fine Arts in 1998. Gay then earned a doctorate in English from Temple University in 2006. Shortly afterward, in 2007, he received his teaching position job at Indiana University and moved to Bloomington, Indiana.

His debut book of poetry, Against Which (2006), explores many of the themes that remain prevalent in his subsequent work. Gay uses lyrical images to discuss the pull of living despite death using an autobiographical voice that also engages the world at large. Noted for his simultaneous explorations of love and melancholy while using musical language, Against Which was lauded by critics. His second book, Bringing the Shovel Down (2011) received similar praise.

Gay is also widely known for his dedication to gardening, an interest that makes its way into his poetry. This can be seen in the 2014 poetry chapbook, Lace and Pyrite: Letters of Two Gardens, which Gay wrote with American poet and essayist, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. That same year, Gay also collaborated on another poetry chapbook entitled River with Richard Wehrenberg, Jr., a poet and artist also living in Bloomington.

Nature, love, and loss are all prominent subjects in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Gay’s third full-length collection. Published in 2015, it met with both critical and commercial success and went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kinglsey Tufts Poetry Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award. After the success of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Gay turned to nonfiction, writing a series of lyrical micro-essays. The Book of Delights was published in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller.

Gay has continued his interest in sports, has coached basketball, and is one of the founding editors of the online sports magazine, Some Call It Ballin’. His book Be Holding (2020) is a book-length lyrical poem on Julius “Dr. J.” Erving and his performance in the 1980 National Basketball Association finals. This book was a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award.

Poem Text

Gay, Ross. “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” 2015. Poetry Foundation.


“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” begins with a bird appearing in a dream bearing a message for the poet to shout his thankfulness to the world. He describes his hard work in shoveling manure to fertilize fruit trees, but this “orchard” (Line 40) is ultimately enjoyed by the youngest of children in his community. Having a hand in providing this environment makes him want “to stay alive forever” (Line 57). As the poem continues, his “gratitude” (Line 23) extends to includes those almost taken from him, those who have died, those who struggle, and those who also work hard. He then notes the beauty of nature and its capacity for rebirth, mourning the “bees” (Line 88) who died in their hive and glorifying the “honey” (Line 96) they produced and offering some to the “dear reader” (Line 104) as a reward for “staying” (Line 105) to listen. He speaks of a beloved, who understands his sorrow but notes her foible in adding “elephants” (Line 117) to something he’d written. He uses this, though, as a jumping off point to think again about the beauty of nature. This in turn reminds him of the way humans show kindness and triumph as they age. He praises those who do small kindnesses or who love him as his lover does. He again thanks the reader for listening and offers a “bowl of blackberries” (Line 171). He mentions the offerings of others, including those who are not living, and gives praise to the ghost of a dead friend who comforts the “lost and scared” (Line 185), a man who stayed up all night saving his “peach tree[s]” (Line 190) and the “ancestors” (Lines 195-211) who paved the way for the joy he now experiences. A long litany of what grows on earth (Lines 223-232) enhances that joy and creates the intensity of feeling he expresses through metaphors about the “heart” (Lines 233-249). Imagining his father coming back from the dead in a dream makes the poet sing. He thanks again about what grows in the “garden” (256) and again thanks the reader, who is now a “dear friend” (Line 264) and patient listener. When he lets us know “Soon it will be over” (Line 269) he means the poem but also his earthly journey. A “child in his dream” (Line 270) tells him “it’s much worse than we think, / and sooner ” (Line 273-274). This, he insists, is why he feels it necessary to “[love] / what every second goes away” (Lines 278-279) with “unabashed gratitude.”