Of Poetry and Chain Letters

poetryI made a mistake. I see that now. I very clearly should have known better.

And, in truth, I did know better. And said as much. It’s just that, also, I hoped.

The email came from a deeply thoughtful, intelligent friend. One sensitive to the many challenges we all face in life: the busy-ness, the pressures, the to-do lists. She is a mother and a college professor–in English, of all things. She, of all people, knows what it is to burn the candle at both ends, or to burn the midnight oil, at the very least. Occasionally word of this comes through her Facebook posts: the papers to grade, the piles of assignments to wade through.

She Knows Busy.

And yet she had sent the email. And my first thought was: I don’t have time for this. And my second thought was: I know my friends don’t have time for me to invite them to this. And my third thought was: Poetry. And my fourth: she sent it, and she knows.

What was it, you may ask? Well. Perhaps you’ve seen one of them yourselves. They are terrible things, really. Chain letters. Remember those? Perhaps you were a recipient of one or two back in elementary school: “invitations” penciled on notebook paper with scads of addresses attached and, at the end, a bold and horrifying warning about what it would mean if you were to fail to participate, if you were to be the one to not respond, if you were to cause it–after its year-long or three-years-long or decades-long progression–to come to a terrible demise.

Remember those?

I hated those. They filled me with pressure and dread. I tried to respond as demanded: making lists of potential recipients, beginning the painstaking copies. Then ultimately I stashed them at the back of my desk with the best of intentions, sentencing them to neglect until Well Beyond their “due date.”

They always came with a due date.

But this, from my college-professor friend, was different. First of all, it was an email, so it would be electronic: quick cut-and-paste, hit “send.”

And second: Poetry.

That’s what this was about, folks. It was an email chain-letter, to be sure, but all you had to do was invite some friends and then send One Poem to One Person. And then, the message promised, you would get for your efforts up to fifteen poems arriving in your inbox.

I don’t know about you, but what comes in my inbox is not poetry. Not ever. Not really ever.


And what, I reasoned, would be better to balance the noise and obligation and –let’s face it–burden of ones inbox than a Poem? In the midst of calendar items and office memos and the general, insistent flotsam of Modern Life, who couldn’t use the occasional poem?

I thought carefully about this. I had to consider whom to include. Poetry isn’t for everyone, after all. And that is okay–but I wouldn’t want to send such a thing in their direction. Moreover, I positively knew that there were some poetry-lovers who were Truly Too Entirely Busy to be included in this enterprise. To send such a thing their way would only be a sad reminder that their busy-ness forced them to miss out on beauty.

But there were others, I reasoned, who could manage it and who could–and this was What Mattered, really–appreciate and love and even want to receive a poem. There were some out there–friends of mine–who who might want or even crave such a thing. Souls who appreciate the rushing stillness that comes of confrontation with beauty. Who would welcome a good poem in an inbox.

To that end, I wrote a somewhat apologetic overture to the cut-and-paste text of the chain e-mail. I sent this to my carefully selected group of friends. I dug out a favorite (favorite) poem (Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”) and sent it to the person named on my email.

And I hoped.


I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if, as it would appear, the college-professor-friend who sent it to me had no other takers, and if that would be what prevented my receiving anything. I’m not even sure how it was supposed to work.

did hear back from several friends on the matter. Two of them–bless them–were interested participants, but as the enterprise never (apparently) went beyond me, I am guessing they, too, have Nothing But Noise in their inboxes. One friend honestly and sweetly replied that she simply doesn’t have time.

I understand this.

And two friends explained that this isn’t the sort of thing they participate in, to which I replied–but only inwardly–“me either.”

I couldn’t say it outright, because it obviously wasn’t true. I had participated. Foolishly. I don’t have time for this in the twenty-first century and I, with my numerous commitments, obligations, deadlines, should have known better. And not only do I know this about myself, but I had foolishly gone on to invite others to do this with me when, at best, such a thing is only a tease and, at worst, a gadfly.

I made a mistake.

But there was a gift that came of it, albeit undeserved. After all, I had participated in bringing unwelcome clutter to the already crowded inboxes of several friends.

Yet those two friends who kindly explained that they would not be participating went ahead and sent me (each) a poem. And so, in the end, for my efforts, I got two.

Undeserved beauty, I think, but beauty nonetheless.

Here’s one:

“Next Time”

by William Stafford


Next time what I’d do is look at

the earth before saying anything. I’d stop

just before going into a house

and be an emperor for a minute

and listen better to the wind

    or to the air being still.


When anyone talked to me, whether

blame or praise or just passing time,

I’d watch the face, how the mouth

had to work, and see any strain, any

sight of what lifted the voice.


and for all, I’d know more–the earth

bracing itself and soaring, the air

finding every leaf and feather over

forest and water, and for every person

the body glowing inside the clothes

       like a light.







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