Inside the Notebook


It is typically easy to spot the writer on any given park bench. They sit lost in thought – looking either at the far tree line or into the pages of notebook as they scribble. A notebook is an invaluable device for a poet; most of us carry one. They serve as a place to record observations on the concrete world, capture stream-of-consciousness, or a delightful word, and the occasional salsa recipe.

Yesterday, in what began as a Google–search for “a poet’s notebook,” I happened upon several (now published) personal notebooks by famous writers, including a fascinating look inside Walt Whitman’s notebook. In this little book, Whitman began an on-going conversation with Abraham Lincoln, which later fueled inspiration for several famous poems, such as the venerated “WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOM’D.”

By these accounts, Whitman and Lincoln never spoke to one another in real life, yet when Lincoln appeared on the national stage, Whitman was intrigued. Maybe even obsessed.

Sometime during the late fall or winter of 1860-61, Walt Whitman began an imaginary conversation with Abraham Lincoln that would continue for decades to come, inspiring several of the most famous poems in American literature. The poet began his dialogue with the president-elect “as in a dream.” — ADAM GOODHEART

In reading through Whitman’s notebook, there are passages that reflect his thoughts on political and philosophical divisions that were splitting apart the nation. And personal observations like a journal entry in 1863 where the poet wrote of the “deep latent sadness” in the President’s face as he witnessed Lincoln riding past.

Also inside Whitman’s notebook, there is imagery of storms and it’s tossings of the ship of state, strongly suggestive of Whitman’s thoughts about Lincoln. Easy to see in these brief fragments a foreshadowing of Whitman’s much later depiction, “O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN,” of the martyred Lincoln as captain of a ship.

I found this a very curious companionship and subject matter for a poet’s notebook, as Adam Goodheart notes, “A poet’s job is to speak the truth; a politician’s is … well, not to.”

There is a different sort of reveal and depth of personal thought within the intimate pages of Whitman’s notebook. Unpolished, uncensored, and untethered observations; everything a writer can turn back to for inspiration.

This week, carry a notebook if you don’t already. And prepare for that day when readers want to see your half-formed thoughts in addition to your crafted writings.

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