Immersed as I have been in the humble, candid, beautifully written memoirs and letters of the great Civil War generals Grant and Sherman, it would be odd indeed if this old poem of mine did not come to mind. And then there is the biographical, historical masterwork by Carl Sandburg, the six-volume Abraham Lincoln, given us in two parts: the two-volume Prairie Years, and the four-volume War Years. Sandburg, born in Illinois in 1878, is, in my grateful estimation, one of the towering literary geniuses of the twentieth century.
The Day I Photographed Lincoln
I asked him
if there was a quiet place
where we might be free.
He said, No. That is not to be.
Then he looked down at his boots.
Like the leather of his face,
they were scuffed beyond repair
and undermined by creases.
A century later he said,
Would you like a cup of tea?
I thanked him and said I would,
then we gazed out at the rain.
It has been like this for days now,
the president explained.
Sometimes I think it will never stop.
And lately I see the dead,
lying here, and here, and here,
and there, down below.
I could see them too,
the unmarried boys, the bearded men,
but when I tried to find them with the lens,
I saw nothing but the wind.
Tell me. Do you read poetry?
His question took me by surprise.
I am now firmly convinced, said he,
only verse can save the people.
I have also learned,
at an unforgivable cost,
that its absence marks
the beginning of our grief.
As he confided his belief,
the dead men came to their feet.
One by one, to better hear his words,
they gathered at the window.
It was then, without knowing,
that the great man posed.
Songs and Letters, April 4, 2005
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Categories: Songs and Letters