A poet explores when poems go viral

When was the last time you remember a poem going viral? This week, despite ongoing reports of “poetry being dead” for the last fifteen years, Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” has been shared generously and thousands of times over on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, as well as the story being picked up in the Guardian, Slate, The Daily Dot, and The Oregonian.

I decided to follow path backwards to figure out how this poem ended up being passed on throughout the world. Here’s what I found.

On June 15, Waxwing Magazine, an online literary journal, published its current issue, which included three of Maggie Smith’s poems. On June 16, a musician/writer, Shira (@Shhhiraaa) says she saw Smith’s poem shared on poet Tarfia Faizullah’s Facebook page, so Shira went to Waxwing Magazine, snapped a screenshot of “Good Bones” and shared it. Shira’s Twitter account has 1481 followers and many people retweeted the poem to their followers. Several hours later Shira’s original tweet found its way into writer Caitlin Moran’s (@caitlinmoran with 570,000 followers) and musician Charlotte Church’s (@charlottechurch with 471,000 followers) Twitter feeds and they both retweeted “Good Bones.” From that point on, the poem took on a life of its own, being shared across the internet on various platform (and as of this writing, the poem is still being shared).

It’s like that Faberge Shampoo commercial in the 80s (I told two friends and they told two friends, and so on and so on and so on…). Since that early tweet by Shira, Maggie Smith’s poem has been retweeted over 1400 times, not to mention shared and retweeted several thousand times by other individuals and shared liberally on Facebook. After all the sharing on that first day, the UK’s Guardian picked up the story, giving it an even larger audience.

A few things need to be in order for something to go viral: the first is content. Maggie Smith’s poem is outstanding. It’s from a mother’s point of view trying to “sell the world” to her children as a beautiful place. Anyone reading the news lately knows, the world does not feel like a beautiful place these days. It feels painful and violent, and here in this world are the parents with their children so innocent of what is going on.

But a good poem is not enough to be passed around — I have read many outstanding poems that never were shared. This brings in the second need for a poem to go viral — timing. Right now, many of us are at a loss of words for the recent tragic events in Orlando and the world. When someone steps up with the words we wish we had thought of ourselves, we share them. “Good Bones” is both accessible and powerful to people who read poetry and people who don’t. It has a smart title with strong juxtaposition which offers a little edge with bones and says what we are looking for in the world: good. The poem in all instances crosses that border which sometimes leaves non-poetry readers on the sidelines not understanding why a poem is praised. With “Good Bones” we are all onboard the “I get it!” train.

The last time I remember another poem going viral was immediately after the Paris bombings. It was Warsan Shire’s poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” though it was not her entire poem, just these lines:

Later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt? It answered

Again, tragic news story, viral words.

Poems do not usually go viral. For every one poem that goes viral, there are thousands and thousands that only reaches a few dozen readers. I have in my head, a short list of poems I remember seeing pop up on social media and a handful of poems that have been shared as generously as Maggie Smith’s poem.

After Ferguson and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Danez Smith’s “alternate names for black boys” (originally published by Poetry Magazine) was shared on social media and a few years before that Patricia Lockwood’s poem, “Rape Joke” was published in The Awl on July 25, 2013 and immediately went viral. While Lockwood’s poem wasn’t shared in response to a tragic or terrible news story, it spoke to millions of women who have experienced rape or sexual assault.

The first poem I remember being passed around fifteen years ago, was a stanza from W.H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939”:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Before there were social media outlets, that poem arrived in my email box from a friend (a non-reader of poetry even) after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. It was probably the first time in the online world I saw people reaching for poetry during a time of strife, anxiety, and fear. It was a time when I saw the healing elements of poetry at work, seeing friends send out words to help mend our country and each other.

So what does all this say about poems that go viral? Do poems only just go viral after tragic events?

Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes humorous poems make their way through—for a few years, Billy Collin’s “The Lanyard” kept making its way into my inbox around Mother’s Day. More recently, I’ve learned Fatimah Asghar, “Pluto Shits On The Universe” (again, originally published in Poetry Magazine) entertained its way around the Facebook solar system (sometimes with the poetry slam video of Asghar reciting the poem).

But frequently, it does seem that poetry is something we turn to when we are in pain. Staring into our computer screens after a tragedy, we ask ourselves: What can I say? And poems answer.

We turn to poetry to heal us, to share what we’re feeling, to connect us with others and to something that feels larger than us. We turn to poetry when we’re frightened and unsure how the story is going to turn out. We turn to poetry because someone else has felt as lost, as hurt, or as confused as we feel. We turn to poetry to remind ourselves we are not alone, and when we see it—a poem with the words we were looking for—we nod our heads: Yes, I feel that way too.