So I am puttering away on my latest serious trifle, detailing the 10 Unexpected Benefits to the Pandemic. Sunday morning a literary friend (teacher, novelist) sends me the following poem below, attributed (not by him) to one Kathleen O’Mara from 1869 and forwarded to him by his daughter. How extraordinary I thought, and so apt. I guessed from its thematic focus it must have been a post-U.S. Civil War poem, fitting today like a glove.
Thanks to my own literary training, I did find the diction suspiciously modern and the form(lessness) not at all Victorian. We’re talking 20th C free verse, leaning towards iambic pentameter blank verse—that is, without rhyme. My Sunday email also informed me the poem had been reprinted during the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic (an internet mime).
Neither is the case, as it turns out. Travesty averted, that is, false authorship attribution!
Let’s be clear: what’s below is not a distinguished poetic masterpiece. It presents overly simple language and syntax (vs. complex poetry), its tone would be considered naive, and overall it strikes me as rather optimistic, even Pollyanish folk art. I am an optimist, but I don’t yet see the coronavirus as healing the world. Not yet. This effort would not be taught in an introductory poetry class.
Yet the message rings true to what people are being forced to do by staying home and doing what distracted, over-scheduled moderns avoid doing at all costs: dwell for an extended time in our own isolated company. Even I am known to take my pocket radio to keep me company on my daily, sometimes solitary walks. Separate from the question of source, at times well-meaning “message poetry” catches a moment, in the process touching many a heart string. Bravo for that!
Still puzzled, my research mind went to work, and I did track down a Kathleen O’Meara (not O’Mara), a Victorian journalist, biographer and novelist (who moved to France). Wikipedia summarized what sounds like quite a fascinating life:
“Kathleen O’Meara (1839 – 10 November 1888), was an Irish-French Catholic writer and biographer during the late Victorian era. She was the Paris correspondent of The Tablet, a leading British Catholic magazine. Irish Monthly also published many of her serialized and biographical works. O’ Meara also wrote works of fiction where she explored a variety of topics from women’s suffrage to eastern European revolutions.”
Then I reread the poem, with the context nothing here says anything about her writing poetry, let alone the famous “And the people stayed home.” Indeed, this prolific Kathleen was not ever acknowledged for poetry.
My analysis of style persuaded me the following phrases and concepts could not have appeared in any 1869 poem (even one by the great, colloquial, stay-at-home Emily Dickinson):
1) “and exercised” (as physical practices to stay fit—a modern notion) or 2) “learned new ways of being” (not just modern, but very contemporary diction) or 3) “met their shadows” (too Jungian 20th C). So, neither the form, nor the diction seemed like 1869. And then I googled and found an Oprah Magazine interview that clarified all. The following verse turns out to be a recent poem written by a Kitty O’Meara, a former teacher and chaplain (no surprise there) from Wisconsin, popularized by Deepak Chopra and already with a global footprint.
“OprahMag.com got answers, catching up with O’Meara (virtually, of course) from her home outside of Madison, WI, which she shares with her five rescue dogs and her “dear one,” her nickname for her husband, Phillip. A former teacher and chaplain, O’Meara is now retired. Kitty O’Meara is the poet laureate of the pandemic. Her untitled prose poem, which begins with the line, “And the people stayed home,” has been shared countless times, on countless backgrounds, with countless fonts, since its first posting. It was most widely popularized by Deepak Chopra, and has since been shared by everyone from Bella Hadid to radio stations in Australia. The poem has become shorthand for a silver-linings perspective during the coronavirus outbreak—the hope that something good can come out of this collective state of “together, apart.”
Here is a touching reading, presumably by O’Meara herself (but I can’t confirm that). In any case here’s the written poem whose visual appearance I modified for clarity and focus. Apologies to Ms. O’Meara if my breaks are not consistent with her wishes (alas, the internet is full of different graphics ).
And the people stayed home
And the people stayed home.
And read books, and listened, and rested,
and exercised, and made art, and played games,
and learned new ways of being, and were still.
And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently. And the people healed.
And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways,
the earth began to heal. And when the danger passed,
and the people joined together again,
they grieved their losses, and made new choices,
and dreamed new images,
and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed.