Beautifully published books vanish in obscurity. Poets are lost all the time.
But what about the magic-poem phenomenon? It occurs unexpectedly and unpredictably. And when it does, publishers are bypassed completely.
So here’s a little test. Which world-famous poem was originally scribbled on a brown paper bag, the first poem the author had ever written?
Perhaps you do know. There was some publicity in 2004 when Mary Elizabeth Frye died at the age of 98. Frye is usually described as “a Baltimore housewife and florist”. In 1932 she was moved by the distress of a friend whose mother had just died. The friend was Jewish and in America. Her mother died in Germany. She couldn’t be there, she couldn’t even visit her grave.
This is what Mary Frye wrote to comfort her friend, using the nearest available scrap of paper. Though later circulated among friends, it was never officially ‘published’:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
At least, that’s the version printed in Frye’s obituary. There are others. There is even interesting controversy about whether she really wrote the poem. I like to think she did.
In any case, nobody can deny the popular appeal. It’s a remarkable piece of consolatory verse – and one of poetry’s enduring capacities is to console. Particularly interesting is the way it champions the identity of the individual spirit at the same time as blending the person, the ‘I’, into everything that exists.
Mary Elizabeth Frye didn’t need a publisher to make that poem famous. It got there all by itself, and that was before the internet. But now there’s the web, and some things travel even faster. A very different kind of poem, for example, is that silly one – the one about the ‘Spell Chequer’.
Have you read it? Probably. It’s widely disseminated in schools and colleges. Every now and again it pops up in a chain email or FaceBook ‘share’. It never has an author. It’s full of deliberate spelling errors – the kind no spell check software can identify because each word is correct in itself but incorrect in context. To drive this home, the byline reads “Sauce unknown”.
Actually the source is known. It was written by Mark Eckman in 1991, since when it has travelled the length and breadth of the globe, delighting and entertaining various people, especially teachers. Of course, it’s ‘just’ light verse, but it’s magic. It did that thing. It went viral all by itself.
In the railway station in Kirkcaldy in Fife, there’s a large poem on the wall, imprinted into a piece of marmoleum ('marmoleum' is a variation on 'linoleum', Kirkcaldy being the home of lino). ‘The Boy in the Train’ is one of my all-time favourites. It’s by Mary Campbell Smith, who doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. And yet that poem has certainly travelled! Brilliantly evocative, it recreates a small child’s journey at a time when the railway was mysterious and enchanting, most people didn’t possess motorcars and electric lights were still a novelty.
How did the poem get its deserved popularity in Scottish culture? It appeared in a school magazine. Mary Campbell Smith was not a pupil – she was the Head Teacher’s wife. Clearly she could turn her hand to a bit of verse (and probably many other things). People liked it. It was passed around, shared, handed on. It began to appear in anthologies.
Was Mary Campbell Smith known as a poet? No. Did she write more fabulous poems? If she did, nobody knows about them.
Some people, and I am one of them, hold that the highest accolade for any poet is to become Anon. By this I mean the identity of the poet is forgotten but the words live on. ‘Westron Wynde’ is the one I think about most often, especially when it’s raining. It was first found in print, as a song lyric in 1530. No-one knows precisely when it originated or who wrote it. But as long as there are people alive who speak English, surely this one will live?
Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!