Transcript of Lincoln Inspires Poem for 16th President

February 12, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Poet and journalist Cynthia Zarin often writes poems inspired by news articles. In 1989, she came across a story about a handwritten transcript found in a shoebox. It recorded a case in which then-lawyer Abraham Lincoln successfully defended a man on trial for murder. The article inspired her to write "Of Lincoln."


CYNTHIA ZARIN, poet: My name is Cynthia Zarin. I’m a poet and a journalist, and I teach at Yale.

In the 1980s, I often wrote poems inspired by newspaper articles. One day in 1989, I came across a story about a hundred-page hand-written transcript which had been found in what was described as “a mouse-chewed shoebox.” The transcript recorded a case in which Abraham Lincoln successfully defended a young man, Peachy Quinn Harrison, who was on trial for murder of a man called Greek Crafton.

I was struck that so much has been said and written about Lincoln but we do not know what his own voice sounded like. And here was the first record we had of his colloquial speech.

When I wrote “Of Lincoln,” I was thinking about the power of the voices that have shaped our nation.

'Of Lincoln'

Of Lincoln we know next to

nothing, when we consider we have not

heard his voice. No turning black wheel

holds it, no radio wave nor

electronic bird's wing carries

it. We know his oceanic beard, his

unrelieved profile, imagine

a certain habit of tenderness

born from disarming passion, but

he is not fixed in the cocked heart

which is our listening ear. Gunshots

blossom from tin moments, moss

grows on the cave painting

hieroglyph, fluency begrimed is hatred's

lullaby, but the last trumpet note

blown in the sanctuary

is held by the hand that cups

it. "The mind is the standard of

the man," said Dr. King, and we can

hear him saying it. The

standard demands that we reckon

the equation of feathers and bricks

and find both tons the same

though we know otherwise,

the blueprint of our monuments

calls for wooden wheels rocketing

over paving stones but this year,

pausing, we can learn

from the contents of a mouse-

chewed shoebox found in a Springfield

attic that Lincoln asked, defending, "Did

Greek hit him first?" and

that he himself staged a fight

for the benefit of the jury. If

sound is blazoned particles and matter

is moving, then this

paper wrested from the Shades

vibrates with a voice loud with field

smoke and pine song from its sojourn at

the stove pipe. And we

imagine what it might have said to

us, and hear the body like a feather

falling, and hear the sound a light

thing owns when it hits.