by Mike Chasar, Professor of English
Judging from the contents of his personal library, former Oregon Governor and U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (1922-2011) doesn’t appear to have had much time for poetry. Now displayed in sixteen locked cases in the “Hatfield Room” of the university library named in his honor, his personal library contains only fifteen or so books of poetry—not even a quarter of a shelf’s worth—most of which bear no evidence of having been read. They are no well-thumbed, well-worn volumes. Their spines are uncracked. Their margins are bare. They almost sigh with relief when you open them.
When Hatfield’s Senatorial papers were opened to the public on July 12, 2022, there was no reason to expect anything different. Correspondence and speeches? For sure. Floor statements, bill drafts, press clippings, and newspapers from his time on the Hill? Absolutely. Scrapbooks, sound recordings, and memorabilia? You betcha. When archivists discovered the poem “A Treasure” in and among these items, therefore, it came as something of a surprise. More surprising, though, was that archivists didn’t discover just one copy of “A Treasure” but a ream of three or four hundred copies of the poem reproduced on cardstock deliberately yellowed to look like an old document or perhaps a piece of parchment. It may not turn out to be the only poem in Hatfield’s papers—the process of cataloging them all is still ongoing—but it’s quite possibly the most important poem in his life.
“A Treasure” was written by Hatfield’s spouse Antoinette Marie Kuzmanich (her initials “AMK” follow the text in the manner of a byline), and a short preface ostensibly by Hatfield and set off from the poem by a common font that contrasts with the calligraphic font of the poem’s text explains, “Some years ago Antoinette shared this message with me and now I would like to share it with you” (figure 1 below). Here is the poem in full:
Friendships, like a chain of gold,
have many links
Each dependant on the other
Each necessary to the whole man
Some links are weak
Yet none the less desirable
Some links are small
They must not be overlooked
Those that are broken
May need repair
Thank God for those strong links,
Though not perfect, endure,
Because they are pure
And weather acid tests
These must be cherished
Their value is not determined
By size, or shape, or state
They are priceless when they are old.
For the typical English professor (me, for example), this does not look like a very good poem—or, at very least, it’s a confusing poem. The possible spelling error in the third line (“dependant” is the British not American way of spelling “dependent”) and … er … let’s call them the “inconsistencies” in the text’s punctuation are just the start of it. More confusingly, the poem frequently signals in one direction but goes in another. For example, the indented lines indicate that this will be a type of conventionally formatted ballad with a consistent meter and rhyme, but the poem doesn’t follow through with those promises: the indentations come in irregular intervals, the meter (if there was an attempt at meter) is irregular at best, and there are some instances of rhymes but no discernable rhyme scheme. Led by words like “gold” and “friendship,” as well as the overarching metaphor that compares friends to links in a gold chain, the poem situates itself in the language of well-meant sentimentality and cliché common to Hallmark greeting cards (listen to how “pure,” “perfect,” and “priceless” alliterate with each other and reinforce the verse’s greeting-card orientation). In contrast, the phrase “acid test” feels remarkably jarring and out of context, both conceptually and acoustically. From the perspective of the creative writing classroom, the resulting mix feels like something of a hot mess and not at all something one would advise reproducing by the ream to share with hundreds of people as the preface and copies suggest was the case.
I want to argue with that English professor, however. What if all of the text’s potentially objectionable features are in fact part of the poem’s point? If the poem’s metaphor focuses on the weak links, broken links, and imperfect links in friendship, then don’t the poem’s various imperfections back that up or put that message on display at the level of the text? In fact, if the “value” of a friendship, as the poem explains, “is not determined by size, or shape, or state” but by age, then perhaps the poem’s value shouldn’t be assessed in terms of size, shape, or state, either—including the inconsistencies, errors, and imperfections to which I’ve called attention. Indeed, if we approach “A Treasure” from this point of view, then its imperfections and weak links represent and express the imperfections of human friendship in a way that brings the poem’s “form” and “content” closer into alignment than a more “perfect” poem could do. Moreover, the document’s physical emphasis on age—the look of distressed paper, the font that looks a little like yesteryear’s handwriting, and the very fact that Antoinette gave Hatfield the poem “some years ago” and yet it finds itself in Hatfield’s hands again and again—feeds right into the value system that the poem does promote: poems, like friendships, “are priceless when they are old” no matter their imperfections.
That Hatfield would latch onto a poem for its ability to create social connections—here it not only “links” Mark to Antoinette, but promises that every reader who receives it might also be linked to that “chain of gold”—makes total sense when we look at the poetry in his personal library, where a fair number of Hatfield’s poetry books have been autographed or inscribed in ways that make the book’s exchange an act of social rather than literary relations. Ronald H. Bayes inscribes Dust and Desire to the Hatfields as a couple, “with best regards from an old friend.” (I, for one, can’t help hearing in “old friend” the “old” at the end of Antoinette’s poem.) This Precious Earth comes “compliments of Mrs. F.J. Landers,” and Aleutian Interval gets delivered “with the best wishes of his friend Harry J. Larsen” (again, back to the subject of friendship). When Maine’s Senator William S. Cohen sent along a copy Of Sons and Seasons, he did so for “an outstanding leader and legislator whose only standard has been the pursuit of excellence.” Even Hatfield’s tiny, 1920s-era, 3×4-inch copy of Walt Whitman’s Memories of President Lincoln, published by the Little Leather Library Corporation, ends with this spirt of connection:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
Doesn’t “Song of the Open Road” (first published in 1856) sound like Whitman is extending his hand of friendship across time to become one more link in the gold chain of “A Treasure” that is measured by age (“as long as we live”) and made increasingly valuable by virtue of its aging (“more precious than money”)? Improbably, perhaps, even the slight imperfection of the uncapitalized letter “w” at the beginning of the second question (“will you come travel?”) is part of how Whitman’s friendship “links” to Antoinette, which is part of how she links to Mark, which is how Mark links to every reader who takes the poem when extended.
There’s something charming about this act of giving out imperfect poems and using them to broker friendships, isn’t there? When I imagine how people communicate in Washington D.C., it’s certainly not via poetry. By legal brief, yes. Expert testimony, too. Maybe even dead drops in a public park or clandestine meetings at night in a parking garage. For that reason and more, the very idea of Hatfield going around pressing copies of “A Treasure” into the hands of senators, congressmen, lobbyists, aides, and perhaps even presidents is all the more appealing. In 1821, British poet Percy Shelley famously called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Hatfield—and Antoinette—could have told us a thing or two about it.
Mike Chasar is on the English faculty at WU and is the author of Poetry Unbound: Poems and New Media from the Magic Lantern to Instagram (2020) and Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (2012), both from Columbia University Press.