Robert Pinsky: Meet Abraham Lincoln, Poet

Roundup: Talking About History

[Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's latest book of poems is Gulf Music.]

The United States has had a head of state who was also a great writer. Only Marcus Aurelius can compete with Abraham Lincoln. Like many prose masters, Lincoln was a reader and writer of poetry. His poem "My Childhood-Home I See Again" combines polished but conventional passages in ballad meter with another element, powerfully imagined and turbulent. The poem is worth thinking about in relation to Abraham Lincoln's mind. It also raises interesting questions about poetry itself—the art's ability to compound the meanings of words with the force of bodily gestures.

Lincoln included "My Childhood-Home I See Again" in a letter, where he refers to it as "a little canto of what I call poetry." The more ordinary part of the poem (published by newspapers after the assassination and omitting the more unsettling original passages) begins by describing a return to Lincoln's childhood home in Indiana after 20 years away. These opening stanzas look back on the early years with an idealizing, though loss-conscious nostalgia, "as distant mountains please the eye." Then, hearing about how many in the old place have died, he feels he is "living in the tombs."...

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