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Thursday, June 17, 2004 07:51 pm

Lincoln the poet


There should be no question that Springfield is a poet's town. Since the days of the legendary Vachel Lindsay, the capital city has been replete with poets. Poetry readings thrill audiences at least twice monthly, and new chapbooks pop up more frequently than Section 8 housing, with any major new publication sending shock waves through the local literati. No less than the State Journal-Register last week announced recognition of the latest new Springfield poet: Abraham Lincoln. That's right, even with the presidency and all that, and more than 100 local business listings for the guy, Lincoln has decided to horn in on just a little more action.

The SJ-R report, prompted by a story in the current edition of The New Yorker, details the efforts of Richard Lawrence Miller, an independent researcher in Kansas City, Mo., to draw attention to the poem. Originally published anonymously in 1838 in the Sangamo Journal, with a short introduction by an anonymous author, the poem runs 20 lines and purports to be the last words of a suicide found "in a deep forest, on the Flat Branch of the Sangamon, sometime ago." The forlorn fellow envisions animals rending his carcass, considers Hell a vacation from his earthly torment, and calls the blade he aims to kill himself with "Sweet Steel!" as his last and only friend.

Since news of Miller's initial assertion of Lincoln authorship, excitement over the newly attributed Lincoln piece has reached global proportions. National Public Radio has broadcast a commentary on the poem, and news agencies from as far away as the United Kingdom have been inundating the administrators of local Lincoln historic sites for more hot gossip on the bold new talent. Well, sort of.

Laughs Kim Bauer, a historian with the Illinois State Historical Library, "It's amazing how this thing has taken on a life of its own." Bauer, who originally encouraged Miller to write about his finding for the newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, finds the "cause celeb" amusing.

"Even though Lindsay was obviously a much better poet than Lincoln, it's another case where Abe says, 'Pardon me, Vachel, while I take center stage again!'"

Official Illinois state historian Tom Schwartz also accepts Miller's theory as a possibility and even republished Miller's article. Schwartz believes Lincoln "wanted to write good poetry" and that his work shows "the intellectual curiosity that served him well as president" but also believes that readers must decide for themselves. Of course, the question on the minds of all practicing local poets is, is this Lincoln kid going to hog yet another avenue of fame?

Although many have weighed in supporting the authenticity of Miller's claim, one senior Lincoln scholar, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Donald, is withholding judgment for now. So, because Schwartz has encouraged discussion and debate over the "Lincoln the poet" controversy and noted that "going to the actual producers of poetry should give an interesting perspective," we've polled several local poets to gauge their reactions.

Though as congenial as ever, Springfield's longtime reigning poet and internationally celebrated author (and regular contributor to these pages) John Knoepfle cast some doubts on the Lincoln authorship of "The Suicide's Soliloquy." Knoepfle, who has authored several studies of various Sangamon poets, says that it is highly possible Lincoln wrote "The Suicide's Soliloquy" and suggests that "if he'd continued in his writing, he might have been an interesting frontier poet."

However, Knoepfle -- whose new book, Prayers Against Famine, was released just last month by Kansas City publisher BKNK-- thickens the plot somewhat by noting that the poem could have been by another noteworthy anonymous central Illinois poet of the era, the man simply known as H.

"H. was out of Jacksonville, published in the Sangamo Journal in the 1830s, and has a similar style," Knoepfle says.

One of Springfield's hardest-working poets, Dave Pitchford, president of Springfield's leading poetic syndicate, Poets and Writers Literary Forum (www.pwlf.com), considers the poem "well crafted" but swears he's seen it before, possibly in a collection edited byLee Gurga, internationally known haiku artist and former Illinois Times poetry editor.Pitchford -- who edits and publishes a variety of works, including Prism Quarterly, the University of Illinois at Springfield's Alchemist Review, his own recent release A Deck of Sonnets, and the forthcoming fantasy anthology Lords of Swords -- stands behind the young poet Lincoln. "I liked it, and I like the idea of Lincoln sitting down and thinking this out, trying to crawl into someone else's head. Of course, there is that typo," he says, noting the substitution of "my" for "me" in the 18th line. If Lincoln were alive today, Pitchford contends, he would have no trouble getting a slot in the bimonthly PWLF poetry open mics -- but, Pitchford adds with a grin, "Of course, I don't screen."

Although devotees of Springfield's official most famous poet, Lindsay, might claim they have no cause for concern that Lincoln is trying to horn in on Lindsay's turf, also noting the typo was wide-ranging longtime local literary figure and IT contributor Job Conger.

Despite that minor flaw and a certain "didactic tone in the mode of its day," Conger -- who recently published Vachel Lindsay: Strange Gold, a compendium of Lindsay poetry and essays, biographical sketches, and bibliographies on Lindsay -- says it is "a good poem written by a guy who obviously had a classical understanding of poetry and literature. For example, the second and third verses reflect allusions to Shakespeare," an observation Pitchford makes as well. As for the suggestion that Lincoln could usurp Lindsay's spot as Springfield's most illustriouspoet, Conger considers the suggestion "a crock. In town lore, Vachel will always play a necessary second fiddle to a man who became president, but it actually works well for Lindsay that we think of Lincoln as a poet."

Nor is Jenny Battle, curator of the Vachel Lindsay House Historical Site, worried.

"I don't think Mr. Vachel Lindsay would be at all upset with Lincoln's current poetic popularity," she says. "Lindsay was, as you know, a great admirer of Lincoln." As for her own opinion, Battle says she doesn't "pretend to be a literary analyst, so I don't know if it scans well, but it is very interesting."

Another contemporary Springfield poet, Dan Blackston -- who has published in the prestigious Harpstrings, the Mid America Review, andthe Hiram Poetry Review and is collaborating with Pitchford on Lords of Swords -- concurs on the piece's strengths but sees it from a slightly different angle: "I think it is a really fine poem in the vernacular of the time and must've been a great cathartic experience that used narrative and popular formalistic styles to conceal or shield what was actually a confessional poem."

In addition to the morbid topic, "The Suicide's Soliloquy" features heaving bosoms, yelling devils, and "blood in showers!" A bit salty for its day, it contains four "hells" and a "damn" (thereby satisfying the minimum profanity requirement for a contemporary rap song), although, as Pitchford is quick to note, the words "are used as descriptors, not epithets." When asked to comment on the overt sentimentality and over-the-top theatricality of the piece, Conger admits, "Lincoln has other poetry to judge by."

To judge Lincoln's other poetic works for yourself, get a copy of The Poems of Abraham Lincoln for $9.95 at Tinsley Dry Goods, which is part of the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices and operated by the Old State Capitol Foundation. The book, published by Applewood Books of Bedford, Mass., runs 28 pages and contains three poems.

Mikel Weisser, a former Springfield poet and frequent Illinois Times contributor, is in town promoting his new book, Verb*I*Age,

and gardening for a Montessori school.


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