The Vice of Verse

The opening of the amazing Lincoln exhibit at the Newberry Library approaches, and, of course I am accumulating books about our 16th president to put out for sale on those carts outside the A.C.McClurg bookstore. One tiny book which has drawn a great deal of attention from browsers who pass the pile is The Poems of Abraham Lincoln.  I don’t understand the surprise they feel: lots of otherwise respectable people have written poetry of one kind or another.

It’s a busy category, our Poetry section, filled with books signed by authors no one collects, each book replete with the passing thoughts, the deeply held beliefs, and the indiscretions of people who paused in the day’s occupation to make some words rattle together in verses vigorous and/or voluminous. Once, after the Book Fair, we sold all our leftover poetry to a poetry bookstore, whose owners whined, “But most of these are by people nobody ever heard of!” MOST books of poetry are by people nobody ever heard of. Oh, sure, this last year we had Jimmy Stewart’s book of poetry, and one by Jack Palance, too. But these, like Honest Abe’s, are exceptions to the rule.

Once there was a poet whose entire back stock of his own book came to us. His name was Leo Albert, and he set up his own press (Ellay) to print the book Prose and Poetry, a collection of works–primarily in verse–which he had refined over the years to express his deepest thoughts, most of which were rather gloomy. He spent 18 years on his epic “Sad Are the Sad”, and numerous poems in the collection were also revised and honed over a period of several years.

Did his writing ability match his effort? That is not a fair question to put to a mere blogger who has been informed by editors that his haiku drag in places. But here are three quatrains, one by Abraham Lincoln, one by Leo Albert (who, you will note, has the same initials as the 16th President, only backward), and one by yours truly. Each is an excerpt from a longer work, and each tends toward the pessimistic. (I like Lincoln’s poem on the bear hunt better, but it’s too cheerful to include here.) Pick out which is whose, why don’t you?

I range the field with pensive tread

And pace the hollow rooms,

And feel (companion of the dead)

I’m living in the tombs.

     But, no matter what is the outward show,

     Within their breasts all feel consciously below

     The deeply tormenting apprehensions

     Common to persons of all descriptions.

And, like the fly who makes such flights

And whose technique wants tact,

We think we’ve reached the golden heights

And then get soundly smacked.

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