April 15, Lincoln’s Yahrzeit

Today, a friend reminded me, is Abraham Lincoln’s yahrzeit. Being a gentile, I didn’t know this word, but knew what she meant. It’s the day commemorating the anniversary of his death. Although I’m told that a yahrzeit is is mostly observed for one’s parents, Lincoln is a father of sorts to all of us Americans, so it fits.

I think of this every year, in fact, whenever I see or smell a lilac, on account of the Whitman poem that taught me to love poetry, the one that starts:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

There will be a lot more about poetry, and not just screenwriting and story-telling, here soon, and this was the poem that first got me, especially the later verses written just weeks after Lincoln was shot, verses like this one:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

His cadence and his open-endedness (I’m sparing you those verses; the whole poem is online here.) became standard, what American poetry is, but this poem, free-wheeling as it is, is bound together with such purpose, it’s what my friend Sean Sutherland co-founder of the Verbal Supply Company, likes to call a complete poetic thought, without being too bound to a single metaphor.

This poem gave me a habit, when faced with loss and impending loss, to look at the grander scale, without cheapening the depth of mourning. “In the scheme of things,” I’ll think, “I should be happy.”


It looks like it’s been a few years since Greg Trupiano of the Walt Whitman Project gave a walking tour, but I’m sure other literary tours of Brooklyn Heights and downtown hit some of Whitman’s sites, but no matter. Every year we have a yahrzeit for one of our fathers every time we see a lilac, like this young one poised to bloom (for the first time) in my dooryard:


I came home one night last week and immediately wikipedia-ed (that’s a verb by now, right?) the eminent abolitionist and U.S. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, making a beeline for his personal life. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know where I was, in a theater watching the Spielberg film “Lincoln.” Watching a $65 Million Hollywood movie written by literary heavyweight such as Tony Kushner, not to mention its cast, isn’t a pleasure we get very often.

The critics are saying that they nailed it, and they’re more or less right. Even the Village Voice and its circuit of weekly papers, whose critics live to be snarky about Hollywood, especially anything uplifting and affirmative about America, had to roll over and give it up for this movie.

Kushner says that he wrote a 500-page first draft (!), and that Spielberg unexpectedly chose the first 100 pages, the part about the fight for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, as the direction they were going with subsequent rewrites. It’s a credit to Kushner that the difficult juggling of congressional factions and timing of votes to coincide with events on the battlefield and possible peace offerings stays relatively clear throughout, and that the foggy moral choices Lincoln was forced to make stay front and center.

The political thriller of the early fall, “Argo,” courageously told a story of intrigue and action in which the goal was to not fire one’s gun, and “Lincoln” tells a story of a war-time president whose goal is to get a very profoundly moral amendment through the House of Representatives, whose factions oppose it on very different grounds, and not always entirely evil grounds. The timing of both films is incredibly canny. “Argo,” whose makers could not have known about the attack in Benghazi, spoke to liberals’ anxiety about whether Obama’s reelection would go down in flames Jimmy Carter-style. If I were a Mitt Romney partisan, I’d have wondered why we were watching THIS story and not the botched rescue mission that happened in April, 1980.

Likewise, “Lincoln” is the Obama Democrats are hoping for right now: a former Illinois senator, just recently reelected as president, with his loyal, more seasoned former New York senator/secretary of state at his side, with the U.S. Senate’s support in hand, twisting arms, bribing, and breaking rules to get the House of Representatives, which has just enough racists to keep the republic from making leaps forward, to bend to his political will and pass some visionary legislation. It’s such propaganda even I would be turned off, and I’m a supporter, if it weren’t so damn beautiful.

Denouement Number One. To keep in perspective about what these films really say about the zeitgeist, Both “Argo” and “Lincoln” together have not yet sold as much as “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” just sold in its first week.

Denouement Number Two. One critic said Spielberg is “known for his multiple denouements,” which is just about the kindest way of saying what I feel about most studio films: The last forty minutes could have easily been cut to twenty minutes, and we would left the theater feeling the impact of the resolution much more deeply. “Lincoln” exceeded my expectations so often, that when his butler watches him walk alone down the long hallway of the Whitehouse, on his way to his carriage to Ford’s theater, it felt like the end, and I nearly cheered. Go Kushner! You’ve whupped Spielberg in line! Alas, there were ten more minutes.