Flashbacks December 2008

Obama's Poetic Predecessor

Both Lincoln and Obama dabbled in poetry as young adults. Herewith, a consideration of a poem by Lincoln that appeared in The Atlantic.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Mark Twain’s mordant epigram seems to ring truer than ever in these trying times, and not just because the gory meltdown on Wall Street has gotten everyone talking as if the Great Depression might turn out to be déjà vu all over again. Consider the more uplifting phenomenon of our preternaturally unflappable president-elect appealing to the better angels of our natures by invoking the aura of Abraham Lincoln early and often. Asked in his first post-election press conference whom he’s been reading to prepare to take office, Obama replied, without skipping a beat: Lincoln. Prodded in subsequent sit-down interviews about which of his predecessors were most on his mind, Obama has responded on cue: Lincoln. And even if he were inclined to play down his Lincoln fixation, the Beltway punditocracy wouldn’t hear of it: the harmonic convergences between a pair of lanky lawyers from Illinois renowned for unmatched eloquence on the stump are not to be denied, and you’d have to be completely tone-deaf to what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” to be unmoved by the poetic justice of country’s first African-American president channeling the spirit of the iconic chief executive who signed into law the Emancipation Proclamation.

Let it also be noted that in this case poetic justice isn’t just a shopworn trope. Both Lincoln and Obama actually dabbled in poetry back when they were, to borrow one of Obama’s rare mixed metaphors, still “green behind the ears.” This is perhaps a more revealing character trait in a postmodern solon than it was for a public servant in a day and age when Longfellow’s epic poems were runaway bestsellers. Now, in the heyday of the 24/7 news cycle, it’s no surprise that a biographical nugget like this about Obama has come to light. Early in the Democratic primary campaign, two poems Obama published in Occidental College’s undergraduate literary journal were duly unearthed and bruited about by the press. Someone even had the bright idea of asking Yale literary potentate Harold Bloom to weigh in on their merits. Bloom pronounced them not half-bad, opining that as a college student, Obama’s poetry already showed far more promise than the bardic effusions of politicos like former Defense Secretary William Cohen (“who keep publishing terrible poetry”) and former President Jimmy Carter (“in my judgment literally the worst poet in the United States”).

Here at The Atlantic we do not anticipate publishing any verse by President Obama, old or new, but readers who can’t get enough of history’s rhyming ways might find it diverting to have a look at a poem by one Abe Lincoln that our editorial forefathers saw fit to print fourscore and a handful of years ago. As summarized in the February 1925 headnote by New York newsman Charles T. White, “The Bear Hunt” only came to light long after Lincoln’s life, surviving as a single fair copy that remained in private hands for many years, before it was acquired by the financier J. P. Morgan early in the last century and archived in the Morgan Library’s extensive collection of Lincoln papers. The date of composition is uncertain, and it was most likely tossed off as a lark for an old Springfield friend fairly early in Lincoln’s political career, with no view toward literary posterity.

Even so, the poem more than holds its own as something more than a dusty antiquarian curio, and not merely for the reason that virtually any scrap of writing from Lincoln’s hand now veritably crackles with historical import. When it came to turning a nimble stanza, the old railsplitter was no slouch. Shot through with salty frontier humor and earthy vernacular gusto, Lincoln’s rollicking ballad makes for lively reading from start to finish, and while the relish it takes in blood-sport carnage might be a bit pungent for modern tastes, it’s hard to fault the poem’s chops: the very least to be said about his backwoods verse-yarn is that it briskly goes about its business with nary a dull moment or false step. Is Lincoln’s “original ballad never before printed” a poem for the ages, now more than ever? Maybe not, but like Barack Obama’s novice poetry, it gives us enough of a glimpse into the statesman’s native verve and savvy as a wordsmith to be glad that it was spared from the dust-bin of history.

THE BEAR HUNT, by Abraham Lincoln
A wild bear chase didst never see?
             Then hast thou lived in vain—
Thy richest bump of glorious glee
             Lies desert in they brain.
Continue reading "The Bear Hunt"
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David Barber is The Atlantic's poetry editor.

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