Aw, man. I did not want to forward a chain request for a poem to twenty BCC’d friends. I have a readymade rant about all these chain things, these copy-this-message-and-send-to gimmicks that suck time and prove only that you are schmuck enough to fall for them. A friend used to send me cloyingly sweet and prayerful emails that, in a Jekyll and Hyde twist, carried threats of dire misfortune if I did not comply. Which struck me as emotional extortion but … worked. It took me years, years, to muster the courage to say no. Irish enough to ignore logic, I spent that entire weekend waiting for misfortune to rain down on me.
Still, it had been years since I waged that battle. And this little email just asked for a poem. Plus, the guy who forwarded it to me has been to hell and back, enduring every health crisis you can think of. And he sent me a bonus in advance: not only Robert Frost’s classic “The Road Not Taken” but a really great bit of commentary from The Paris Review explaining why it is “The Most Misunderstood Poem in America.”
A gift makes it hard to refuse a favor.
It was an interesting challenge to pick my twenty recipients. They had to be creative and quirky enough to take me up on this, patient enough to follow through. Oh, and they had to love poetry.
Which delivered me to the next task: picking a poem. Mine would go to the name above Bill’s on the list. But how do you know a stranger’s taste? Poetry reaches universality by being so uber-specific that it is easy to turn someone off at the outset. Finally, I chose a poem by a fellow St. Louisan, Naomi Shihab Nye, that begins,
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,/you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
Okay, it was perhaps a little dark for an email chain to a stranger. Maybe I need therapy more than I need poetry. When I reread the directions and saw that the project was meant to be uplifting, I hastily sent a second email, a bit of Walt Whitman as countermeasure.
I have no idea if either pleased the recipient—the poem was a note in a bottle, cast on an electronic ocean. I was, however, beginning to hear back from my victims, those unsuspecting souls to whom I had forwarded the email. Several responded that they would send a poem but did not want to forward the email. Some were shy about asking this of their friends, or they knew already that their friends would not respond, or they had read warnings about such internet schemes. I understood completely; all three reasons would have been part of my instinctive response, too.
But then there was Bash Ahmed, a soulful computer scientist who sent a poem he had written himself. He did not include a byline, and Bill never dreamed it was original; he assumed it was a published work. He responded, “Love it! What a great choice for me—I am generally unfamiliar with all but the most basic of grade school poems. If I could find more poems like this I would become a poetry reader. Thank you!”
I was so touched, I blanked for a minute on the rest of Bill’s message to Bash. He is not even a poetry reader? And here I was assuming this chain thing would be automatic consolation, because he must love poetry.
And here poetry was, consoling him anyway.
Another person I fingered to send a poem was BJay Schapiro, a songwriter in New York who exists in such a clear, bubbly stream of consciousness that his emails always leave me grinning. He sounded utterly delighted with the project, and he chose with great care, hoped Bill would like the poem, hoped his twenty friends would send me great poems, too.
Bill did like it. He also told me that another of my peeps, former St. Louis news anchor Karen Foss, had sent him a lovely poem about how, as travelers, we forge our own path and will never tread it again.
Bill emailed her back, first asking if she was the Karen Foss and saying how much he had enjoyed her work before he and his wife moved to Minnesota. Then he told her about his wife’s love of travel and their son’s trips to China and Italy, study in France, Brazilian girlfriend.
Karen replied, saying his kind words had been good to read: “A character in the new TV series Morning Show said it well, ‘Nobody ever re-watches the news.’” Then she wrote:
“This poem appealed to me because I grew up rootless, without knowing the facts of my family history and always felt that everyone else had ‘secret’ information that eluded me. I was awestruck when I learned of the silk maps soldiers carried in WWII in order to make their way to safety if they found themselves behind enemy lines. I wanted a map like that! When I read this poem I took comfort in the thought that we all have to find our own way; we all make our own path.”
I thought of all the strange territory Bill has had to travel in recent years, the hospital rooms and operating rooms.
I thought about kindness, and how you have to know sorrow first.
And how you also have to give up some time and take some goofy risks. With a poem, or a stranger, or both.