We should share Lincoln's love for poetry

It isn’t just a decorative cultural fixture. It’s a wellspring of revelation.

President Obama, an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, would do well to remember one aspect of Lincoln's character that's gotten little mention in the 16th president's bicentennial year:

Lincoln, resourceful in politics and resolute in war, was also a great enthusiast of poetry. The lessons Lincoln learned from poetry are still available to Obama and, indeed, to us all.

This comes to mind with the arrival of April, designated for several years now as National Poetry Month. The assumption that we need a month of awareness-raising for poetry suggests just how marginal poetry has become in contemporary national life. Poetry rarely makes it on the bestseller list, can be hard to find in bookstores, and no longer creates celebrities on the order of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Robert Frost. Few people seem to care about poetry very much anymore.

But for Lincoln, poetry was not just a quaint diversion; it was a guiding light of his intellectual and political life.

Lincoln read widely in all sorts of genres, including history, biography, and the law. But Lincoln also read a great deal of poetry, and he was fond of repeating bits of it to his friends, author Adam Gopnik tells readers of his new book, "Angels and Ages," a short study of Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

As a boy of about 11, long before he crafted his Cooper Union speech or the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln honed his writing skills by penning doggerel. He continued writing poetry as a young man, and though his subsequent verse wasn't exactly memorable, it had "a certain surprising sadness and a feel for the power of monosyllables that would later help him in his speechmaking," Mr. Gopnik adds.

But poetry seemed more than a mere muse for Lincoln's presidential rhetoric. In the poetry of Shakespearean tragedy, he found insights into the folly of unchecked power and the cruelty of war – critical insights for a commander-in-chief attempting to temper justice with mercy.

Carl Sandburg, a popular poet who was also an acclaimed Lincoln biographer, once described ideal poetry as the "synthesis between hyacinths and biscuits." Sandburg's point was that good poems reconcile the ethereal with the concrete, using beautiful language to inspire practical wisdom. Seen in this way, poetry isn't just a decorative cultural fixture, but a wellspring of revelation.

That's why poetry should still matter to today's presidents and generals, bankers and plumbers, teachers and dentists, sailors and soldiers – to all of us who stand to gain from seeing the familiar with fresh eyes.

Abraham Lincoln, were he still alive, would surely agree.

Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate. He is also the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."

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