When I was a college student majoring in English literature, it was
customary to ask English majors: "Well. And what do you intend to do
The customary answer was law school. The idea, see, was that a lawyer might benefit in a fiduciary (sic) way, from having a way with words. Studying poetry was tolerable if you were bent on making words your weapon.
Me, I liked the sound of the poetry, and more than that, the truth in it. Good poems seemed to say important things, memorably, briefly, precisely. "Emotion recollected in tranquility," in Wordsworth's famous phrase, and by emotion I think he meant life, distilled; and by tranquility I think he meant reflection. Life distilled upon reflection. "All our knowledge is, ourselves to know," as Alexander Pope put it, in a poem.
Poetry--at least the way it was studied in backwater colleges a dozen years ago--is rather out of fashion now. I suppose it always has been.
Still, the odd, antique notion that poets deliver large and universal truths in small and disciplined containers has never really left me. In fact, it has been refreshed recently as I realized that certain awful, perplexing events of the front pages had already been experienced, and understood; reflected on and precisely expressed; by long-dead poets.
Vincent Foster, Jr. was a handsome, slender, prosperous lawyer; a friend of the president of the United States. He was a high-ranking official in the White House; smart, accomplished--near perfect, it seemed. His apparent suicide flummoxed and unsettled us more ordinary folks. How could someone so marvelous kill himself? I was turning this mystery over in my head when, quite suddenly, I realized that I knew Foster's story already.
The poet was Edward (sic, Edwin) Arlington Robinson:
Thousands of lines of newspaper type have been spent on Vincent Foster's tragic death. I don't think any one of us put it any clearer.
And this was one of the Washington Post reporters who was supposed to be
looking into what happened, one of the sets of eyes and ears of the
public, as it were. Instead, he gave us this. So I was immediately
moved to write him a letter, which I hand delivered to The Post
Dear Mr. Von Drehle:
I share with you your lament over the decline of the study of poetry in our nation's institutions of higher learning, even in the "backwater colleges" such as the one you attended a short while ago. I recently penned a little four liner which, for want of a better title I called, generically, "Literary Allusion," and then I tried it out on a wide sampling of friends and acquaintances. Graduates of Harvard, Princeton, California at Berkeley, and Georgetown, all holders of advanced degrees, failed to recognize the reference. The one thing they have in common is that they are under forty years of age. Virtually every educated person over forty recognized it instantly. It goes as follows:
As an English major, albeit obviously one under forty, you no doubt recognize the reference to "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats, and from your article I gather that you would appreciate the mode of expression. Poetry does have a power and a seductiveness that goes far beyond the best prose. When "Country Joe" McDonald wrote, "Well it's one, two, three what are we fighting for? Don't ask me I don't give a damn, next stop is Vietnam," he probably did more to undermine the U.S. war effort than all the learned essays in all the nation's newspapers and magazines. Poetry, however, should not be used as a substitute for rational thought, and it is not, by virtue of its supposed closer affinity to truth, admissible as evidence in a court of law, and I think we should be grateful for that.
Actually, you didn't have to inform your readers that you are a college graduate of the 80s. Your defensiveness about your "impractical" major had already given you away. When Vince Foster and I were students at the "backwater college" of Davidson, we simply didn't think that way. The idealism of the era had been very well captured in the inaugural address of our young president. But then, not quite three months into Vince's freshman year, John Kennedy was shot to death, and this country has not been quite the same since.
Because I am a product of the same era, and the same education, and, dare we say it, the same moral and religious guidance as Vince Foster, I think I might have somewhat better insight into his mysterious demise than the poet, Edward (sic) Arlington Robinson, whom you quote so approvingly. A Davidson man (many years would pass before it went coed), we were told, was special. We had the strictest honor code in the country. Two years of English, two years of ROTC, and TWO YEARS OF RELIGION were required. We were also required to attend church on Sunday and three college-wide assemblies a week. The assemblies often had a moral or religious theme. An old-fashioned sense of honor, of responsibility, and of probity was inculcated into us. One was not to cope with adversity by feeling sorry for oneself. Vince, I believe, majored in psychology, but the department was very small, and the creed of feel-good self-actualization was yet as foreign to us as were the jungles of Southeast Asia.
If I may telescope time a little bit, I can see Vince Foster departing Davidson for Washington like A. E. Housman's Shropshire lad leaving home for London:
Vince Foster had a wife and three children. He was just getting started in a job in which he could do a great deal of good for his country. He was advising the president on personal and legal (that is to say LAW ENFORCEMENT) matters. To conclude without any persuasive evidence that he quailed before these responsibilities to the point of dying by his own hand seriously dishonors his memory according to the code that was impressed upon me and my cohorts.
Even the psychologists would agree, I believe, that the natural and normal reaction of a true friend to the mysterious death of a stalwart comrade would be to suspect that he was the victim of foul play. One hardly shows proper concern for the feelings of the widow and other survivors by leaping, with unseemly haste, to the conclusion that Vince Foster did himself in over things that, from all we have been told, look like trivia.
Until at least one bit of evidence has been revealed that is clearly and persuasively inconsistent with murder--as opposed to the bushels that seem inconsistent with suicide--you may forgive me if I prefer to believe that Vince Foster died heroically, not ignominiously. Is it not entirely conceivable, even likely, from the evidence that is before us and from what we know of his character, as opposed to his state of mind, that he was killed over an issue of principle or over a law enforcement matter? As far as the state of mind is concerned, just as with the pivotal question of the ownership of the gun, there is no witness who compares to the wife, and we are told that no one from the police was able to talk with her FOR EIGHT DAYS! (sic, it was nine)
But you have told one and all that you know Vince Foster's story already because of a poem that impressed you. Might I suggest that you replace it with one that, at this point, seems more apropos and one that keeps Vince Foster's sterling reputation intact:
Since I wrote that letter we have learned a lot more about the Foster case, and I have learned a lot more about what's going on around us, prompting two more related poems:
Now, let us sing of the smooth Richard Cory,
This quaint little tale has been put to ill use
The message the public is supposed to receive
You know what bothers me most of all
I have not shared these last two poems with Mr. Von Drehle. Should I?
David Martin, March 9, 1998
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