Raymond Chandler, it is said, was once dining in a Hollywood restaurant when he was spotted by J. Edgar Hoover, who was at the time the directer of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI directer was a fan of detective fiction and sent the writer a request to share a table and talk.
Raymond Chandler–again, reputedly, as I have no definitive source for the story–sent back a message via the maî·tre d’, “Please tell Mr. J. Edgar Hoover to go to Hell.”
I like that story because it illustrates two principles that I endeavor to incorporate into my daily life. The secondary one is that enmity is no excuse for incivility, you will notice that the note says “Please” and affords Hoover the honorific.
The more important one is that speaking truth to power is, perhaps, the only legitimate use of such a potent weapon as the truth. Hoover was, at the time, one of the most powerful men in the US. He didn’t invent the concept of biographic leverage–that honor probably goes to V. I. Lenin–but he applied good old American ingenuity and perfected it. As Richard Nixon once remarked, “That bastard has a file on everybody.”
And yet, Raymond Chandler, a self-described failed romantic poet, a man who made his living in a business that lived and died at the whim of the public prints, had the chutzpa to tell him to go to Hell. That’s balls. That’s balls to the walls.
Shelly tells us that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I submit to you that maybe one of the reasons that the world is going down in a hellbound handbasket is that we legislators have been falling down on the job.
We don’t hold a monopoly on the truth–mathematicians do truth for a living and physicists are known to stumble across it from time to time–but we can do what they can’t; “tell the truth and make it rhyme” in the words of The Pirates Of The Mississippi.
Take a look out your window. That lady creeping out to her mailbox in her housecoat with a yipping dog guarding her heels, that guy who doesn’t realize that his pen is bleeding ink all over his Arrow shirt, the girls giggling behind their hands because they think they invented sex, the kids in the sandlot who are struggling to avoid noticing that will never be the next Albert Pujols–they need us.
They need us because we can do what they cannot. We’ve been sold a lie, that what we do is a luxury, something that the rich get to buy, like fresh strawberries or dancing girls. And so we dance for those who pay the piper.
That’s not right. Henry II killed Thomas Becket, but that didn’t make him right, it just made him better at murder. What skill would you rather be adept at; murder, or telling the truth?
I’m not going to try to tell you what is right, either you know that in your heart or you’re not a poet, you’re just throwing words at the wall and seeing which ones stick. To the genuine poets, the jesters in God’s bloody carnival, I have one question.
Is what you write worth dying for?
If it isn’t, don’t quit your day job. This is no business for amateurs.