Poetry Foundation November 2007

I. The pencil had a life of its own
A few years ago Burrell Webb, a retired landscape artist living in Oregon, discovered that a poem he wrote and never copyrighted had become one of the most widely circulated verses in the English language. He says he composed the lines in 1958, after leaving the navy and being dumped by his girlfriend. “I was stressed, distressed, and single,” he says. “When I received those divine words, I broke up the lines and made a kind of poem out of it.” The finished product, which he published anonymously in a local newspaper—he felt it was God’s work, not his—tells the story of a man who has a dream that he and God are walking along the beach. When the man asks why sometimes there is one set of footprints and other times there are two, the Lord says he has been carrying him through his struggles.

Forty years later, Webb was alarmed when his son informed him that the poem was on napkins, calendars, posters, gift cards, and teacups. Usually “Footprints” was signed “Author Unknown,” but other times the credit was given to Mary Stevenson, Margaret Fishback Powers, or Carolyn Joyce Carty, who have all registered copyrights for the poem. (Registration does not require proof of originality.) The three versions differ mostly in tense, word order, and line breaks. With no way to prove that the work was actually his, Webb paid $400 to take a polygraph test. Now he routinely sends the results (“No deception indicated”) to those who question his claim.

Although several people have suggested to Webb, as consolation, that God gave the idea to multiple authors in order to more efficiently spread His Word, Webb is unsettled by the idea that “the Lord would be the author of confusion.” However the verse came into being, its message has reached all over the world. “Footprints” is the kind of poem we all seem to know without remembering when or where we first saw it. We’ve read it dozens of times, never paying attention. The verse is dislocated from context, so familiar and predictable that the boundary between writing and reading seems to disappear.

Yet the authors who claim to have composed "Footprints" have memories of the precise moment when they dreamed up these lines. Mary Stevenson, a former showgirl and nurse, said she composed the verse in 1936, following the death of her mother and brother. According to Gail Giorgio's 1995 biography Footprints in the Sand: The Life Story of Mary Stevenson, Author of the Immortal Poem, Stevenson was inspired by a cat's footprints in the snow and scrawled out twenty lines, as if the "pencil had a life of its own." She was so pleased with her work that she handed out the poem heedlessly, jotting it down for anyone she met without thinking to sign her name. (Early in the book her father tells her, “Poetry’s nice to read, but essentially it’s just rambling words on a piece of paper.”)

Powers, a Baptist children's evangelist, was more savvy about licensing the verse—she sold it to HarperCollins Canada in 1993—and she describes “Footprints” as the culmination of a life of religious devotion. In her memoir, Footprints: The True Story behind the Poem That Inspired Millions, she enthusiastically recounts all the tragedies she endured while never losing her belief in the Lord. In the course of 100 pages, she gets struck by lightning, develops spinal meningitis, gets hit by a truck, and has a near-death experience with a bumblebee. Her daughter gets crushed by a motorcycle and later slips down a 68-foot waterfall while her husband, watching, has a heart attack. In the hospital room a nurse pulls out “a little piece I have here in my pocket” and recites “Footprints” to ease the family’s pain. When she casually mentions what a shame it is that no one knows the poem’s author, Powers’ husband croaks from his bed, “It’s my wife.”

Far from dead, Powers currently travels around the world giving sermons about the power of faith. She has licensed the poem to nearly 30 companies, including Hallmark Cards and Lenox Gifts. Her lawyer, John A. Hughes, a self-described atheist, won’t say how much Powers has earned from her publications, except to guess that “Footprints” might be the “best-remunerated poem in history.” When pressed, he compares its success to that of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He has written more than 100 companies, requesting that they replace “Author Unknown” with his client’s name. “I am completely satisfied factually that Margaret is telling the truth,” he says. He acknowledges that “Footprints” is not entirely consistent with Powers’ other poems, which are composed of rhyming couplets, but he’s confident it’s within her range. (To prove that “Footprints” couldn’t be written by Stevenson, he contemplated hiring Donald Foster, the forensic literary analyst who studied the letters of the Unabomber.)

"Footprints" is far less of a stylistic aberration for Powers than it is for Mary Stevenson, who wrote sporadically, or Carolyn Joyce Carty, who struggles with punctuation and spelling. Carty is the most hostile of the contenders and she frequently issues error-ridden cease-and-desist letters to those who post the poem online. (She signs her e-mails “World Renowned Poet.”)

Carty wrote “Footprints” in 1963, when she was six. She says she based the idea on a poem written by her great-great-aunt, a Sunday school teacher. More than 20 years later, she copyrighted the verse as part of an 11-page document of stream-of-consciousness prose (“the gift, who are you, where have you come from, where are you going! I am a writers inkhorn that stands beside the sea”), which concluded with the text of “Footprints.” She declined to be interviewed but characterized her writing style in an e-mail: “I like common denominators in subjects, I always look for the common bond when trying to create a universal message.”

In describing her literary taste, Carty also articulates the intangible draw of “Footprints.” The poem reads as if it were written by consensus. Light, peppy, and moderately Christian, “Footprints” succinctly dramatizes an idea that will never be original: When we think we’re alone, we’re not. God is here. The footprints metaphor is so ubiquitous that perhaps the authors absorbed the message at some point without realizing it, then later sat down and wrote it out again, seeking to appeal to the largest number of people.

The rest of the piece here.