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Poet Foss Spoke for the Common Man



The human comedy  

His witty rhymes still strike home. In “The Coming War” the narrator tries to warn his wife that World War I is approaching, but she wants him to take out the garbage instead. Foss rails against the unstoppable railroad as the tracks cut through a farmer’s fields, bringing both progress and corruption.  

In his poem “The Logic of the Gun,” a farmer posts 200 signs warning hunters to keep off his private property. Then he spots a hunter trespassing on his land. The farmer confronts the sportsman and points to the “No Hunting” signs. “You may have the rights,” the hunter says to the farmer, “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 religion is a good way to attract new customers. But the church elders try to block the storeowner by insisting that he first talk directly to God. The determined 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? – the elders ask incredulously. God understands my problem, the shop owner tells the elders. God said: “I’ve tried ten years without success to get in there myself.”  

A New Hampshire boy  

Sam_Walter_FossBorn in Candia in 1858, Foss moved with his family to Portsmouth when he was a young teen and attended the local high school. Then, like so many of his Industrial Age generation, Foss abandoned the family farm for the urban landscape. Foss, like many poets of his era, spent the rest of his days in the crowded city writing about country life.  But unlike the stiff, scholarly and romantic verse of poets like Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Foss remains funny, relevant, and poignant today.  

Like many comic poets, Sam Walter Foss came to poetry through journalism. After graduating from Brown University, he tried to run his own newspaper in Lynn, MA. When a freelance humor writer failed to turn in his column, Foss took a hand at writing comic pieces. His readers loved them. Foss later wrote for humor magazines, for The New York Sun, The Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor, and developed a large following. Four hundred of his poems appeared in five popular collections.   

But Foss never made enough money writing poetry to quit his day job. In 1898 he accepted the position as city librarian in Somerville, MA, one of the most densely populated cities in America. True to his philosophy, Foss used every method available to put books in the hands of average readers. He promoted the revolutionary practice of letting patrons take books directly off shelves, without the help of a librarian. He pioneered the use of travelling book collections in public schools, factories, prisons and nursing homes.  

During his tenure there, Somerville was among the most-trafficked libraries in the nation. Foss held the library position until his death of a liver ailment in 1911. He married the one love of his life, had two children, and died before he was able to write longer, more serious verse.  


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