Feb. 21, 2005: MY CHILDHOOD HOME I SEE AGAIN (Abraham Lincoln with comments by Robert Pinsky)

‘ing Robert Pinsky. Leave it to f’ing Robert Pinsky, knowhamsayin’? So
last week I was walking down Massachussetts Avenue (commonly called "Mass
Ave," but that sounds too much like an ecclesiastical term for me to use
comfortably) when who did I see walking towards me but Robert Pinsky.
Well, I didn’t stop him there on the street for fear it would turn out
like Diane Wakoski’s experience with Love from last week’s poem.

But today, I’m sitting here at work thinking of a fitting poem,
so on a whim I typed "pinsky poem president" into Google and found a trove
of the poems he’d read as a frequent guest on the News Hour with Jim
Lehrer (in his capacity as US Poet Laureate, of course, and we’ll also
recall that he is a Pulitzer Prize winner and professor at B.U.).

This selection is cool because it’s Pinsky commentating on a poem written
by Abraham Lincoln. His interruptions are SLIGHTLY distracting, but I
think it’s definitely worth a full read-through. There’s not all that much
unique about the poem itself–it seems to tread a familiar path from the
Wordsworthian to the Dickinsonian–but those who know me personally will
delight to find that our dead president wrote about me, and in fact
diagnosed me correctly.

Have a great day off (maybe) and a good week,

Matthew

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

ROBERT PINSKY, Poet Laureate: Part of Abraham Lincoln’s greatness is that
he was a great writer–pretty unusual in a head of state. He was a great
prose writer, but he also did sometimes write poetry. This poem, "My
Childhood Home I See Again," is in a way on a characteristic Washington
subject; it’s a poem of nostalgia for Lincoln’s home in Illinois. Halfway
through, the poem becomes more complicated than that. Here’s how it
begins:

MY CHILDHOOD HOME I SEE AGAIN

My childhood home I see again, And gladden with the view;
And still, as memories crowd my brain, There’s sadness in it, too.
O Memory! thou midway world–Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost In dreamy shadows rise,
And freed from all That’s gross or vile, Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle All bathed in liquid light.

ROBERT PINSKY: He recalls:

The friends I left that parting day, How changed as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray, And half of all are dead.

hear the lone survivors tell How nought from death could save
Till every sound appears a knell, And every spot a grave.

I range the fields with pensive tread, And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companions of the dead) I’m living in the tombs.

ROBERT PINSKY: That much of the poem was published in newspapers after
Lincoln’s assassination, and that much of the poem is a touching,
conventional poem of nostalgia and elegy. Another reason that Lincoln is
great in our imagination is that he was an enigmatic and gloomy man. And
there’s more of the poem. After recalling the dead, he recalls a boy who
became insane. The poem continues:

And here’s an object more of dread Than ought the grave contains–
A human form with reason fled, While wretched life remains.

Poor Matthew! One of genius bright, A fortune-favored child–
Now locked forever, in mental night, A haggard mad-man wild.

ROBERT PINSKY: He recalls hearing the singing of the mad child:

And when at length, tho’ drear and long, Time smoothed your fiercer woes,
How plaintively your mournful song Upon the still night rose.

I’ve heard it often, as if I dreamed, Far distant, sweet, and lone–
The funeral dirge, it ever seemed Of reason dead and gone.

ROBERT PINSKY: The poem concludes:

And now away to seek some scene less painful Than the last,
With less of horror mingled in the present And the past,
The very spot where grew the bread That formed my bones, I see,
How strange, old field, on thee to tread and feel I’m part of thee.

ROBERT PINSKY: To end on the words, "I’m part of thee" is to make us feel
a strange empathy toward the man who died in darkness.

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