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Poet Foss Spoke for the Common Man

sam_Foss_medalHISTORY MATTERS  

A divided America needs another Sam Walter Foss, the poet with the common touch. Born in Candia, NH and educated in Portsmouth, Foss’s reputation today hangs largely on a single poem entitled “The House by the Side of the Road.” The poet urges everyone to stop their cynical, partisan bickering and become good neighbors.  “Let me live in a house by the side of the road,” Foss says, “and be a friend to man.”  (Continued below) 


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It is a simple, sentimental, optimistic work that has been reproduced on tea towels, printed in greeting cards, and framed in homes countless thousands of times. But it is far from his best poem. I know because I tracked down all five out-of-print volumes of poetry by Sam Walter Foss – and read them all. My goal, come hell or high water, is to resurrect the best works of our native poet, because we need him now more than ever.  

The fundamental Foss   

Sam_Foss_House_PoemSam Foss was as much philosopher as 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 talking about.

          Foss railed against crooked politicians, immoral clergymen, deceptive newspaper reporters, abusive bosses, bigoted institutions, oppressive governments, and uninspired teachers. Here he makes fun of the rigid school curriculum:          

    There was a man – a mighty man – 
     Who wrote a mighty grammar, 
    To be beaten into children’s heads, 
     And knocked in with a hammer.  

The world, for Foss, was a fascinating comic opera. The richer and more powerful men grew, he pointed out, the sillier they became. If he wrote about a boy “who was dumber than snowbirds in summer,” that boy was likely to grow up to be president – or at least the mayor. Foss was fascinated by careless commuters who consistently showed up at the railroad station “just in time to miss the train.”  His hero was often a humble farmer, artisan or shopkeeper who came up against local power brokers. The common man doesn’t always win, Foss knew, but he does the best he can.  

Foss showed his compassion for the homeless, the immigrant and the jobless. “All Nature is sick from her heels to her hair,” he wrote, “When a feller is out of a job.” (That message cost President Obama the House of Representatives in last week’s Republican election upset.) The common man, Foss said, must overcome mediocrity and conformity, rise up from the crowd, and take a leadership role. Unfortunately, Foss points out, the average man inevitably becomes corrupt and drunk with wealth and power. That is the human comedy Foss loved to write about.  


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