Dear Tom Paine,
I admit I’m impressed that your chapbook sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I wonder at how your writing appealed to so many people across the social class spectrum. The success of Common Sense is credited to the force of its imagery, which, situated within simple, direct language that was buffered with biblical allusion, sucked readers into your corner while rendering any other corner so wrong and wretched a place anyone would be a fool to be caught dead in it.
Your corner is furnished with questions such as this one: “How impious is the title of sacred majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling to dust?”
And declarations such as this one: “Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.”
Even your enemies had pretty nice things to say about you. John Adams, for example, who hated your guts, believed that your “utopian conviction” and “brilliant pen” made you the “most dangerous man in America.” Who’s the most dangerous man in America today? Hard to say, but I doubt it’s a writer, whoever it is. Today there is no one like you who wields the same influence, and I think that is why many people say that poetry can’t matter. This letter is about poetry. And the future of our country.
It’s not that more people would want to read poetry if more poets used imagery like yours or used simple, direct language. Plenty already do. Besides, your own writing has been described (by a prominent Paine scholar) as “disjointed, even rambling, amounting to a stream of observations on political events or statements by others … which [you] interpreted to [your] own advantage, often disregarding the original speaker’s intentions.” Hmmm. I often find myself doing the same in poetry. But I try to resist interpreting solely to my own advantage—otherwise I learn nothing, and then what’s the point, except for convincing myself that I’m right?
I know that being right is important to you, Tom. That makes you more of a politician than a poet. Maybe you’d disagree, but look: you convinced people of democracy without using the word “democracy” even once in Common Sense—not because you mastered the show-don’t-tell principle of the creative writing workshop, but because “democracy” was a dirty word back then, sort of like “socialism” today—no one would buy it. And, let’s face it, you didn’t believe in any of that Christian nonsense you were spewing. You were pandering. You compromised on truth.
You also used to brag that you didn’t read very much. How true can that be? I mean, come on. Maybe a little John Locke? Or Crèvecœur? Your thinking began somewhere. Your sound came from somewhere. And you believed in dialogue, in the social. You preached it. Yet you wanted to be heard more than you wanted to hear. In that, you may be essentially American. 300 million people now live in the United States, so I doubt what I can say accurately about a country of this size. We are too many to be one, too many for nationalism of any kind to make sense. I’ll say that I live in a society in which people are dying to be heard. Sometimes I wonder who is dying to listen. I write in order to be heard, in order to matter. We 300 million are a society that aches for society, perhaps without truly seeking it. At best, the U.S. consists of various almost-societies; at worst, a collection of crumbling worms seeking to crown themselves.
Would my time be better spent trying further to trace how we have come to be so, or shutting up for hours and hours, days and days and, before saying another word, letting myself become full of sounds and sounds until, finally, singing it all back and seeing what I’m made of?