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Poets, Actors Celebrate Lincoln's Poetic Side


The February 12 bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth is about four months away. Events have already begun taking place across the United States to honor the 16th president, who led the nation during its bloody, four-year civil war [1861-1865]. One of the most recent, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, celebrated Lincoln's poetic side last month [Sept 22] in Washington. VOA's Susan Logue was in the audience for Rise Up and Hear, an evening of readings by some of America's leading poets and actors.

Not all of the readings were strictly poetry. Academy Award-nominee Joan Allen had the honor of reading a speech that Lincoln delivered in November 1863 at the site of the bloodiest battle of the U.S. civil war. The Gettysburg Address has been memorized by generations of American schoolchildren.

"It's such an important historical speech, one of Lincoln's most important and most remembered, so I was hoping I'd get a chance to do it," Allen told me before the event. "It's written in prose and this is an evening of poetry, but it really is poetic prose."

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, who hosted the evening of poetry readings, says, "of all the American presidents, [Lincoln] is the one whose language is most poetic and resonant."

"Everybody notices the cadences and rhythms and the way the consonants and vowels make something similar to music," notes former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky.


Lincoln the poet

Lincoln did write poems as well. Pinsky read one at the evening's event that was written by Lincoln in 1846, 15 years before he became president, titled "My Childhood Home I See Again."

Pinsky says Lincoln was not a great poet, but he was a "competent one." He does, however, believe Lincoln was a great writer and credits a love of poetry for that skill. "Every great prose writer that I can think of loved poetry - wrote it and read it."

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, a poet himself, says Lincoln's love for poetry was something widely shared by Americans in the mid-19th century. "Americans were very much in love with poetry and it was a public medium in a way that it really isn't any more."


Lincoln inspires generations of poets

It was natural, Gioia says, for poets to respond when Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, just days after the American civil war ended.

Walt Whitman, considered among the most influential of American poets, wrote many poems about Lincoln. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" was his favorite.

Academy Award-nominee Sam Waterston read the poem for the Washington audience. He is best known today for his portrayal of Jack McCoy in the dramatic TV series "Law and Order." But Waterston has often portrayed Lincoln.

"He is such a fascinating figure," Waterston says, "such a great mind, such an unbelievably gifted speaker. I really defy anybody to not be drawn in."

Many have been drawn in by Lincoln's unique character, says NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, and poets have been no exception, not only those who lived during Lincoln's time, like Whitman, but those of later generations like Carl Sandburg.

In addition to poems about Lincoln, Sandburg wrote a six-volume prose biography of the president. The first two volumes, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, published in 1926, provided Sandburg with his first financial success. The four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

"Sandburg thought of Lincoln as his hero," Gioia says. "He looked to Lincoln as his model of the democratic America that he admired."

He wasn't alone. "There is no question as to what American president was most inspirational to poets -- that has been and has always been Abraham Lincoln," Gioia says. "Born in a log cabin in Kentucky, backwoods lawyer who rises to the Presidency of the United States, who leads us during our most destructive war, who frees the slaves and is killed by an assassin's bullet. His life is the very stuff of poetry."

Lincoln's life and his legacy will be the subject of several symposia, exhibits and other events that will continue beyond his February 12 birthday, throughout the bicentennial year.

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