Sam Walter Foss was NH Poet Laureate for the Common Man
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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Sam Walter Foss penned his first verses at Portsmouth High School here in NH. He went on to gain popular fame for his comic and philosophic writing. His poem "The House by the Side of the Road" was among the best loved in the nation. His fame has faded, but unlike many poets of his era – his works are still readable and relevant.
POEMS by Sam Foss and others
With two American poet laureates in a row coming from New Hampshire -- Donald Hall and now Charles Simic -- maybe something literary is literally alliterating in our water. Great poets blossom here, and none, for my money, was greater than Sam Walter Foss. He is known today, almost exclusively, for a bit of verse entitled "The House by the Side of the Road." The poem urges everyone to stop being cynical and scornful to their neighbors and "be a friend to man." It is sentimental, honest, proactive and optimistic – essential Foss -- but it is far from his best work. I know because I have a degree in English Literature, which is little more than a license to read books. I know, too, because Foss published five volumes of poetry, and I’ve read them all. This guy rocks.
Foss was more philosopher than poet. His moral compass was dead on. He carried a healthy distrust for authority. He had no patience for lazy, pretentious or quarrelsome people. A humanist of the highest order, Foss believed entirely in the goodness of "the average man" and wrote entirely for a popular audience that he hoped to inspire with his "homespun" verse. It was his dedication to popular topics and clear writing, one literary critic has suggested, that doomed Sam Walter Foss to obscurity. He refused to write with the "imagist obliqueness" employed by "major" poets of his era. In other words, when Foss wrote, you knew what he was saying.
The world, for Foss, was an incredibly fascinating comic opera. The more powerful and rich men became, he continually points out, the sillier men become. If he wrote about a boy "who was dumber than snowbirds in summer," the boy was likely to grow up to be president. Foss was fascinated by careless commuters who consistently showed up at the railroad station "jest in time to miss the train." His hero is often a humble farmer, artisan or shopkeeper who comes up against local power brokers. He doesn’t always win, but he does the best he can.
In "The Logic of the Gun," a farmer posts 200 signs banning hunting on his property, then spots a man carrying a rifle. The farmer points to the sign. "You may have the rights," the hunter says, "but I have got the gun." In another poem, Foss plays the part of a storeowner who tries to join the local church, because he knows that is the best way to attract customers. Unwilling to have him as a member, the church elders stall the merchant by telling him to go off and talk to God. But the merchant returns a few weeks later and tells the shocked elders that he has, indeed, talked to God about joining their church. What did the Lord say? – they ask. The shopkeeper repeats the conversation:
"I’m trying to git in," sez I, "to the church of Elder Ford,
An they won’t let me in at all." "Don’t worry," sez the Lord.
"You’re not the only one," sez He, "they’ve laid upon the shelf.
I’ve tried ten years without success to git in there myself,"
CONTINUE SAM WALTER FOSS
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