Troubled Times and the Purpose of Writing

He was a rich kid who lived through his family’s loss of wealth. Later he’d write poetry that in the 1920s won him three Pulitzers.

Yes, poetry that has haunted me for decades.

E.A. Robinson was his name, and his family were Maine lumber barons until the Panic of 1893 crashed the American economy.

His poem, “Cassandra,” used Greek mythology—the wise prophet whom no one heeded—as a call to America, his America of the 19th century:

Because a few complacent years
Have made your peril of your pride,
Think you that you are to go on
Forever pampered and untried?

Robinson’s poem troubled me. I was a high schooler, after all, and a dentist’s daughter. My great challenge in life had been a move from San Jose, California to a small town in Michigan. I had been pampered—very. Our family had a tennis court and I had my horse. I was untried.

But Robinson knew better. He had lived through the shock waves of a decimated lifestyle. He then watched his brother, a medical doctor and family star, abuse drugs and spiral to ruin, before his second brother followed suit.

From such experiences he carved the haunting lines for “Cassandra” and his better known, “Richard Cory.” Why? Because Robinson lived the life of a schope.

The schope, explains writer Walter Wangerin, crossed battlefields in ancient Greece to record who lived, who died, who won, who lost. That was the job: naming what was. And that’s the task Robinson labored over, his commitment stalwart and beautiful. He grappled with his family’s ruin and made a valuable commodity, meaning.

When I confront today’s bewildering turmoil, I repeat the lines from this poet who knew, “Think you that you are to go on/Forever pampered and untried?” and watch and study the turmoil and then return to my work—my writing—to do what I must…meaning make.