Dan Guillory intertwined history and poetry as he recited poems written from the perspective of Abraham Lincoln in Wednesday’s Caxton Club reading. Co-sponsored by Caxton Club and the Lincoln Studies Center, Professor of English Monica Berlin introduced Guillory in the year’s first Caxton Club reading with an anecdote from her son who told her that a “man with a big hat” had died.
Guillory, professor emeritus of English at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, was a native of New Orleans. He earned his PhD. in American Literature from Tulane University, was a Fulbright lecturer for the U.S. State Department. Earned awards and grants from the Academy of American Poets, The American Library Association, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has written a variety of books in poetry and prose, his latest, People and Places in the Land of Lincoln, is about to be published.
In between reading selections from The Lincoln Poems, Guillory would share a fact or provide commentary related to Abraham Lincoln, or recite the history, event, or person that incited a particular poem. Old Main—an inspiration for many on Knox’s campus and beyond—was an especially appropriate place for Guillory to read a poem about the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates as Old Main was the fifth and the only remaining site of those famous exchanges.
One of the most poignant poems Guillory read was about Lincoln thinking about the advent of photography and the prairie called “Picturing the Prairie.” According to Guillory, Lincoln was the most photographed politician of the second half of the 19th century with approximately 103 photographs. Guillory said Lincoln knew the importance of photography even in its infancy and knew his image would “stick with people.”
“One of my desires in writing this book was to reclaim Lincoln as the ‘prairie person’. We all, and I know most Americans, think of Lincoln in terms of four tremendously important and vibrant years – the 1861-1865 period—but Lincoln had a very full life before that,” Guillory said.
Guillory ended reading from his book The Lincoln Poems with three elegies called “Contents of My Pocket,” “Bullet in the Brain,” and “Alternate Ending.” “Alternate Ending,” the last poem in the book, started with the line, “No, it wasn’t supposed to end this way,” and continued as Lincoln contemplated from the grave a life after his presidency. It ended with Lincoln describing himself as the “Sentential of Oak Ridge, watching the comings and goings, savoring the passage of time…in that other world [he] once so happily inhabited.”