When she sat down at her computer one morning this spring, Kitty O'Meara didn't intend to write an iconic poem, a children's book or an opera. But in roughly 20 minutes, she did all three.
It all began rather innocently on Friday, March 13. "I sat down in my living room with a cup of tea next to me, my Chromebook on my lap and typed a Facebook post," O'Meara said by phone from her home outside Madison, Wis. "It was no big deal."
Oh, but it was. Very quickly O'Meara's 113-word prose poem became a communal beacon of hope, attracting the attention of Oprah and opera and thousands more. O'Meara, a former teacher and hospital chaplain, has lost count of how many times her post has been shared. "A kabillion zillion?" she jokes. "Seriously, I have no idea."
The poem, which begins with the line "and the people stayed home," is a gentle, hopeful look back on life in quarantine. It portrays lockdown as a patient, introspective time when people read and danced and "listened more deeply." It even dares to imagine a happy ending:
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.
O'Meara, 65, describes the work as something that simply "emerged from my subconscious." She felt compelled to share with people she knew online. To O'Meara, who eschews Instagram ("too tedious") and Twitter ("it has shown to me what it can do and I don't care to engage in that"), that meant a "tightly controlled" Facebook friend circle of about 85 people.
The Internet had other plans. By lunchtime on March 13, O'Meara began hearing from friends, asking for permission to repost. By the end of the day the piece was being passed from one friend to another and another - and on and on.
Within days, O'Meara's soulful musings had reached the outer orbits of celebrity: Deepak Chopra, Lindsay Lohan, Bella Hadid. By the end of June, Renée Fleming was singing "And the People Stayed Home" on YouTube in a composition by John Corigliano. (A few weeks earlier, Jane Seymour, bedecked in a white hat and matching sweater, read the poem as members of the Texas Ballet Theater performed an interpretive dance.)
Over the past nine months, the work has been translated into more than 20 languages and been put to music, recited as prayer and made into short films. The poem has inspired boho guitar, Muzak and synth-heavy ballad interpretations; on YouTube you can find people around the world just reading it into their computers. At least one teacher has used it as a Zoom school lesson, and advertisers have (unsuccessfully) pursued it as a slogan.
Last month the work was published as a children's book, with an animated version narrated by Kate Winslet. (The book is in its fourth printing.) The work also appears in "Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America's Poets Respond to the Pandemic," an anthology curated by Alice Quinn, former New Yorker poetry editor and former executive editor of the Poetry Society of America, alongside works by Ada Limón, Julia Alvarez, Billy Collins and other luminaries.
Like many others, Quinn stumbled upon the poem by accident. Her partner, an architect, had received the work in an email chain passed among colleagues. That the poem was being "shared by people who don't regularly read poetry," struck Quinn as important. "It demonstrates the need for poetry at these moments."
"Voices rise at certain times and soar," she added, pointing to works that emerged in response to 9/11, such as Adam Zagajewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" and Vijay Seshadri's "The Disappearances." To not include O'Meara's work among the published authors in the anthology, Quinn says, "would have been a glaring omission."
Oprah magazine went further, calling O'Meara "the poet laureate of the pandemic." Ever humble, O'Meara was tickled by the accolade: "It was hyperbolic and generous and very kind. I don't think it's affected my sense of self or my importance in the literary world."
Before March, O'Meara's place in the literary world was pretty much limited to her blog, The Daily Round: Living From the Spirit Level, in which she expounds on home life and the natural world and shares photos of her five dogs, three cats and other animals that frolic in her expansive yard. And there's poetry: "In the waiting, as we wait again, time resurrects the chance/to pattern finer instincts, evolving variation/in how we meet the world," she wrote in October.
Now O'Meara finds herself staving off not just friend requests but also a tumult of inquiries from people wanting to riff on "And the People Stayed Home." She now has a copyright. O'Meara has also signed with Tra Publishing for another children's book and is working on two novels and more poems.
Although "And the People Stayed Home" addresses those who did, O'Meara is sensitive to those who did not. Of course, there are those who could not stay home, she points out - "essential workers or those who had to leave home for work in order to survive" - but those who didn't stay home by choice are another story.
"It's easier to say, 'Nah, I'll eat a candy bar and go to the bar,' " she says. "And we miss people. I miss hugging my friends." O'Meara yearns especially for family members who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
As for those who deny the reality of the coronavirus, O'Meara is characteristically generous. For many, she says, the "excuses were perhaps political, but their rage, and denial, and fear seemed more about deep sadness regarding their loss of control, and all the other pain and grief they've been carrying around." For them, she suggests, "it felt freeing, I suppose, and perhaps offered a defiant satisfaction to be out unmasked and daring the virus to prove itself."
Her response, though not a poem, is nonetheless poetic: "I cannot judge any of those who chose not to stay home and have had to scrutinize the anger I feel towards them. But their choices and my responses have been my teachers, too, as I try to see their hidden or apparent pain, fear, loneliness, suffering, and meet it with compassion."