When "Heaven" appeared in the NYC subways, many admirers of the poem asked author Patrick Phillips for permission (not that they needed it) to highlight his poem in funerals and memorials. Several mailed programs that reprinted "Heaven." One father wanted permission to make t-shirts of “Heaven” for the third anniversary of his son’s suicide.
"It felt incredible to have people speaking back in that way," Phillips said at an Oct. 25 celebration of 25 years of Poetry in Motion. The program is a partnership between the Poetry Society of America and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts & Design.
Fans typically reached Phillips through his website to describe why the poem touched them. Several composers wanted permission to set “Heaven” to music. One woman carried a MetroCard with the poem on the back for a year; then retired it to her bulletin board at work once it expired.
Phillips always wrote back. His replies are tender and personal; the exchanges are moments of civility and connection. A few excerpts from the more than 25 that arrived directly in his inbox:
Ashley: Your poem "Heaven" is one of my most favorite ever. After the recent death of my mother, I find myself coming back to it again. It comforts me and brings out tears as well. I like the world you created in that poem very much.
Phillips sent condolences to her and her family for the loss. Ashley continued the conversation with a question: I was wondering if I might ask you the inspiration for that poem. If it's too personal I understand.
Patrick: Not too personal at all, Ashley. I wrote it around the time my wife's father died, too young, from really merciless prostate cancer. He was a dear friend of mine, and I was feeling very sad that my sons would never know their wonderful grandfather. Around that same time I was also reading a lot of Renaissance poets like George Herbert and Ben Jonson. I was moved by and envious of their faith in a heavenly reunion, and the poem was really my version of that... My imagining how beautiful it would be if we could all be together again somehow, with Ollie there with my sons... Not sick, not weak, but the way he used to be. The poem is just a dream in which "time avails not," as Whitman put it, and my grown sons somehow get to know my lost friend. And now I'm all teary on my commute home!
A rider whose kitty had recently been poisoned: what you said soothed my heart…
Patrick: I'm also so sorry to hear about what happened…, and can really sympathize, as our silver tabby Simba is curled up on the desk next to me even as I write this (as he is most days!). We both send condolences. All the best, P
Others were just appreciative of a moment of reflection during their commute.
Tom: I was on the C train today, jammed against the wall in front of the Poetry in Motion panel. I enjoyed the poem so much i scanned back up to find the author and was pleased to see your name attributed to it. I love the idea of Heaven to be our personal world of remembrance as well as the looping rhythm of the poem itself. I kept reading it in a continuous loop like a prayer or mantra and for a few minutes I was able to forget the handbag wedged in my lower back. Thank you for that.
Dear Mr. Patrick Phillips b. 1970: Just wanted to let you know that tonight I read your poem again on the Queens-bound A train. I love your poem because it is simple and written in plain English. It makes sense and it rhymes in perfect harmony. It is also very powerful. Thank you for creating this masterpiece that I enjoy ever so often when I get on THAT car on THAT Queens-bound A train on my way home after a long hard day of living in New York City.
"Heaven" is among 100 poems in a new anthology The Best of Poetry in Motion: Celebrating 25 Years on Subways and Buses. Published by W.W. Norton, the anthology is edited by PSA executive director, Alice Quinn. Phillips, Billy Collins, Aracelis Girmay, Major Jackson, Jim Moore, Paul Muldoon, Marilyn Nelson, Elise Paschen, Molly Peacock, Katha Pollitt and Kevin Young launched the anthology Oct. 25 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center at Lincoln Center.
More about Poetry in Motion from The Best American Poetry blog:
Jim Moore's Poetry in Motion surprise on Spring Street.
Happy 25th Birthday Poetry in Motion & video of "Grand Central" by Billy Collins
Catherine Woodard is the author of Opening the Mouth of the Dead, a story in poems recently published by lone goose press in two editions: paperback and limited-edition book art. She helped return Poetry in Motion to the New York City subways and is a vice president of the Poetry Society of America. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, anthologies and CNN online. A former journalist, Woodard chairs an advisory committee for the News Literacy Project.