Maurice Manning interviewed by Amanda Newell

Maurice Manning interviewed by Amanda Newell
June 23, 2019 Newell Amanda

Maurice Manning: Railsplitter


I had the pleasure of speaking to Maurice Manning about his forthcoming collection, Railsplitter: Reflections on the Art of Poetry Composed in the Posthumous Voice of Honest Abe Lincoln, former Pres., U.S. (Copper Canyon, October 2019).


AN: I am interested, first of all, in the title of Railsplitter, subtitled, “Reflections on the Art of Poetry Composed in the Posthumous Voice of Honest Abe Lincoln, former Pres., U.S.”  Early in his campaign for presidency, Lincoln was nicknamed “The Railsplitter,” which was, of course, a nod to the kind of physical labor he was known for in his youth and a way of appealing to the common folk by reminding them of his own connection to the land.


To my mind, Railsplitter embodies both the physical and the abstract. Can you speak a little about this, and how you view the title as a way of framing our experience of the poems?


MM: You’re opening question is a great one.  Here’s my effort at a response.


In responding to queries from my editors and copy editors at Copper Canyon, the matter of the title came up. Should this book be called Rail Splitter or Rail-splitter, versions of the word that various style manuals prefer. In the end—as all along in my work on this book—I decided to keep the single word formation, Railsplitter. This is indeed a version of the word that appeared in some of Lincoln’s campaign material.


But I also like that the object (rail) is fused to the action (splitter). It suggests a kind of double-meaning or doubled effect, and poetry in general makes use of familiar tools that have a doubling or multiplying effect (such as imagery, simile, and metaphor).


To my thinking, “railsplitter” is also an unintentionally ironic term to apply to Lincoln, who as we know put preserving the Union ahead of all else. In other words, the action of splitting rails out of a log is divisive, even though Lincoln’s political actions were focused on maintaining the Union. So, perhaps the title is an effort to introduce dramatic irony to the reader from the start. Over and over in my reading of Lincoln, his life, and his moment in American history, I stumbled on one ironic fact after another.


Many poems in the book, I think, highlight some of this irony. The great and humbling surprise to me was to realize I did not have to create any of this irony. It’s already there, a feature of our national history. And I imagine that the ironies of our national history were everywhere evident to the real Lincoln.


One of his personal challenges must have been to learn how to live through the ironies that have shaped our country. I do hope the title brings together the physical and the abstract.  That seems to be what irony does—it presents us with a reality that cannot be separated from its abstract shadow.


AN: Indeed! The poems, I think, are very aware of this irony, as well—the ways in which reality, as you say, can’t be separated “from its abstract shadow.” For example, in “The Smell of Open Ground in Spring,” Lincoln writes the following:


When metaphor and truth become the same,

when the distance is erased between the fact

and the figure representing it, one seeks,

blindly, perhaps, another metaphor.


I love that we can say that—”Lincoln writes.” I find that it prepares us tonally, for what follows, and of course, it contains so many wonderful contradictions. Its claim to be written in “the Posthumous voice of Honest Abe Lincoln,” seems delightfully preposterous on its face because of the very impossibility of it: it can’t be the voice of “Honest Abe” speaking to us in his afterlife—and yet, why not? As the closing lines of “The Smell of Open Ground in Spring” remind us:


While irony may wrap itself around

a poem, the true poem in the end

escapes the shroud.  It’s the art of resurrection.


Can you tell me a little more about the function of the subtitle and the work it does?


Also, what was it like inhabiting Lincoln’s voice—or rather, having his voice inhabit you? And while you’re at it, can you talk about the tension between the tragic and the comic that is everywhere present throughout Railsplitter?


MM: As for the subtitle, I think it’s just a framing device in terms of its function. Early in the process, I realized it would be more interesting dramatically to summon Lincoln’s voice, as opposed to my own. It seemed more feasible and more imaginatively liberating to occupy Lincoln’s perspective, rather than write about him. I wanted to give him a wide range of thought, and a variety of topics to contemplate, and yet to draw that range together under the broad category of poetry.


Previous poets—Whitman, Melville, Vachel Lindsay, Stephen Vincent Benet, Edgar Lee Masters, and Edwin Arlington Robinson—have written about Lincoln. I didn’t want to repeat what has already been done. I also wanted an extended work, as opposed to a single poem. Given that Lincoln loved poetry and theater and that he even tried his hand at writing a few poems, and that his various letters include references to particular poems and to passages from Shakespeare, I hope I found an angle into the larger material.


It was also helpful that I live near the little farm where Lincoln was born. My family history goes back to the same historical era and the same landscape the Lincoln family settled in the mid- 1780s.  Much of that history has always seemed alive to me, not stuck in the irretrievable past.


For example, I initially used “John Brown’s Baby Has a Cold Upon Its Chest,” with the neutral pronoun, because that’s how my father sang the song to me many years ago. Dad was born in 1932 and remarkably recalled seeing ancient Civil War veterans in a local Veteran’s Day parade, or maybe it was a Memorial Day parade. That my father was acquainted with Civil War veterans in his early years has been a poignant recognition for me, a reminder that our most terrible war is not really locked away in the dusty past.

Apparently, the tune began as The Battle Hymn in its most patriotic version. Then, soon into the Civil War, worn-out Union soldiers began singing a version they called “John Brown’s Body Lies a Moldering in the Ground,” perhaps a cynical adaptation prompted by the miseries of the war. Then came the later version, most cynical or farcical of all, “John Brown’s Baby Has a Cold Upon Its Chest.” At least that’s how Dad heard it many years after the war. He had not heard the middle version, interestingly, but the middle version is where Stephen Vincent Benet got the title for his 1928 epic poem about the war, John Brown’s Body. Five or six years ago I sat down and read that 380-page poem and it blew me away. Yes, it’s a bit dated by our standards, but I still loved it. The book won The Pulitzer Prize and was a national best seller—something unheard of for poetry today.


A final note on history and poetry. Stephen Vincent Benet’s father and grandfather were career military men, and as I recall both West Point graduates. His grandfather fought in the Civil War. Both father and grandfather are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington was originally the plantation of Robert E. Lee’s wife, confiscated by the Union during the war to bury Union dead. It’s likely that old Walt Whitman walked those grounds. As did Lincoln—though he is buried in Springfield, IL.


In broad terms, I think that American history is our true national poetry, because it’s so complicated and ambiguous. I wanted my version of Lincoln to offer such a perspective, perhaps a perspective he could only have by being removed from history. That said, I loved learning that Lincoln’s first encounters with poetry (through the likes of Robert Burns and old ballads) would have been rather humble, even primitive.


The same is true for his first exposure to theater.  I expect he first saw plays performed by traveling shows—something like a carnival, or the scene in Huckleberry Finn where the two backwoods actors botch together several speeches from Shakespeare.


It’s been my pleasure to imagine that Lincoln became “literary” through such comical and backward beginnings, and yet he took it seriously and knew it would eventually lead to a more sophisticated reality. In reading so many of Lincoln’s letters and speeches, I got a sense of his rhythm, the prosody of his thought, so to speak. I could also see how often he employed metaphors, allusions, and imagery in his correspondence. That reveals both the content and the character of his mind.  From this experience I learned that poetry—especially poetry that utilizes conventional meter and form—may be a way to interpret, or at least to grasp the fog of American history, even a short period of it.


At some point in the immersive process of writing the book I stopped inhabiting Lincoln and instead let him inhabit me. This happened surprisingly quickly, after just a few poems. I can’t quite explain that, but I’m certainly glad for it. And I learned something from Lincoln, many things in fact. Despite all of the personal grief of his life, let alone the national tragedy he had to shoulder, he retained a sharp sense of humor. His kind of humor is dramatic. He found humor in even the darkest circumstances, certainly as a means to alleviate the tragedy of war and a nation tearing itself apart.


AN: So often in Railsplitter, I find that the “prosody of [Lincoln’s] thought” mirrors the natural rhythms of the land, which is why, I suspect, his voice feels so very present to me all the time. In “Transcendentalism,” for example, the first sentence sweeps (dare I say, “flows”?) across three couplets:


One of the things the actor’s bullet failed

to do is interrupt the rhythm


of thought, the flow of the mind as it moves around

an encumbrance or wears it down, as water


patiently tames a rock and may, in time,

pass through it freely.


Here, it seems to me that the flow of Lincoln’s thought—the syntax and rhythm of it—becomes virtually indistinguishable from the flow of the landscape. Mind and body are unified in such a way that Lincoln is the land, and vice versa. Perhaps this is part of what you mean when you say history has always been alive for you in the landscape and not just stuck in the “irretrievable past.”


Can you elaborate on your own relationship between language and landscape, and how that relationship has shaped you as poet?


MM: “Transcendentalism” is composed in what I call 5/4 couplets, that is, the first line has five beats and the second has four. For many years now, I’ve written most of my poems in loose tetrameter, not always iambic, but in the ballpark of four-beat blank verse.


That four-beat phrase is the natural rhythm of the spoken language I hear where I live, and it’s common to the speech I’ve heard all of my life.  It’s also a common beat for folk and traditional music, so it feels like a rhythm that’s intuitive and in the blood. Working this way requires me to compose the poem line by line and asks me to trust that the line eventually will lead to a coherent sentence.


It also lets me listen to the poem as it goes and to feel it in the body before I stop to think about it. I hope it’s not just my own experience, but I think when we are at our most serene and calm moments there is a quiet and steady rhythm to our thoughts. When things are really going well, perhaps one simply enjoys the rhythm of thought and the rhythm of observation, and the need to claim meaning drifts away. We’re in tune and in time with the natural world and it’s a comfort.


To connect the human phrase of language to the landscape where the language is rooted is something I have tried to do. In walking through our woods and over the hills I can feel the geography shaping my thoughts, in terms of rhythm as well as content. Even the streams seem to flow with a similar rhythm. And the breeze lifts the branches of trees and they dance in what seems to be a similar rhythm. Much of this comes from listening and paying attention to the flow of the world that goes along at its own pace. I think I’m trying to find a rhythm in the world that’s always there and isn’t subject to the human rush or anxiety.


In Railsplitter I wanted the poems to be metrically diverse and also have an integrated feel, to suggest that Lincoln’s contemplation of many things may follow various rhythms, but also have a unified effect. Perhaps I tried to imagine a symphony of his thoughts, coupled with the landscape where those thoughts might have occurred.


I suppose the result is my imagination of his thoughts with my own bodily experience of geography and phrase woven into the mix. I have also realized the value of silence. It’s around us all the time. We require silence—or at least pause—to clarify the meaning of speech and music and also poetry. I expect Lincoln knew more of silence in his time than we can imagine.


Learning to let silence and pause become a vital feature of poetic composition has been a task I have savored, and I think I gave it more conscious thought with this book than most of the work I’ve done previously. This is also a “lesson” to take away from Railsplitter, and just one of the many wonders of the privilege of writing poetry. I learned many things from this particular book that I can now take to other work.


AN: I have just a few more questions. The first has to do with a moment in “John Brown’s Baby Has a Cold Upon His Chest” where Lincoln addresses the reader after meditating on the moral failings of American law and the ways in which “the law/enters the books to serve deceit”:


You in the 20th century

may like to know how all of this works.

I cannot see your time.

I’m only permitted

to see a few years beyond

my own, and the actor cut it short.”


Earlier, I mentioned how present Lincoln feels to me throughout, but especially here, when he addresses the 20th century reader—but curiously, not the 21st—since he can only see so far into the future. It still feels like an indictment—which I think it is. Could you elaborate on the “timeliness” of Railsplitter—on the movement of time within the book and the ways in which Lincoln moves within it and beyond it? And I would also be interested to hear how you perceive Railsplitter in the context of this particular moment in American history.


MM: During the time I was working on Railsplitter, I was also immersed in re-reading Robert Penn Warren.  Here is the last sentence of Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men: “But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time” (661). That’s quite a sentence, one that is suddenly larger than the apparent scope of the novel.  Elsewhere in his poetry, especially in his long poem, Audubon: A Vision, Warren is concerned with Time. I suppose it is Time in a cosmic sense, Time that encompasses the flow of human experience beyond a specific historical moment.  Our specific moments of history eventually fold into the broader current of Time. Warren is claiming we have a responsibility to that sense of Time. I agree, though I confess I’m still wrangling with exactly what that might mean.


There is something to be said for any sort of work whose value outlives the writer or the life of the person who made the original effort. I think of this possibility when I read and re-read poets who have been gone for years but whose work is still fresh and illuminating. I also think of planting trees, knowing that when I plant a sapling on our farm it will hopefully thrive long after I’m gone. It’s a very long view, one that disappears into the imagined future. Yet I think we must imagine that far-off future and acknowledge the practical responsibilities we have to it. I think that is close to what Warren is claiming.


Such a perspective is also one I imagine Lincoln must have had. He knew he was involved in history that would long after matter to Time. In my rendering of Lincoln, I enjoyed imagining him as a witness to Time, not simply his own history, and, therefore, I like to think he is present for us in our own moment.


I also think our country has such a profound history. Our beginning is still recent enough that we can see it. Our past haunts our present, and nothing we do will get us out of that predicament. That strikes me as a moral reality. Our history is also, in my view, a constant shadow in American poetry. Sometimes that shadow sits lightly, sometimes it sits more gravely, but it is always there and always an invitation to those of us seeking the long view in verse.


I have no idea if Railsplitter will be received as “timely.” It may well be dismissed as quaint! I did not write the book as a response to our present moment, though I realize some readers may encounter it that way. I wrote the book as a study of Lincoln and the poetry of his thought, and the deeply poetic nature of his life.


I also enjoyed giving him elaborate thoughts about poetry, hoping to imply poetry is not simply an art or entertainment, but a necessary feature of our social discourse. That said, I could not help but notice eerie parallels between Lincoln’s time and our own. I resisted making any direct connections, however, not wanting to compose a jeremiad. And yet some connections seemed undeniable, and also out of my hands. There were many occasions working on this book when I realized I simply needed to let Lincoln speak and think and ponder, and I had to get out of the way.


AN: One last question—what are you currently reading?


I have been re-reading the poetry of W.S. Merwin in my own little tribute to him. I’ve also been reading The Founding of English Metre by John Thompson. This is a book Alan Shapiro gave me a few years ago and I’m just now sitting down with it. Slowly, I’m trying to think about the relationship between poetic meter and Time. It’s a baffling prospect but perhaps something is there. I always find there is more and more to learn, one of the privileges I am humbled to enjoy.




The Smell of Open Ground in Spring


My brother’s grave unmarked, my mother’s, too,

and later my sister’s, and, finally, my father’s.

All of them namelessly entered the ground.

The facts of human history, the sign that’s known

because it’s missing, how innumerable

existences have come and gone and gone

to dust, and the eye of time refuses to blink.

Someone digging a hole and singing and crying,

then someone loved is dropped in the ground and buried.

No wonder believing in the afterlife

and walking down a street of gold appeals.

What is the point of being alive in the world?

What is the point of watching your mother die?

Or the point of going to her bedside

knowing the knowledge of death had set like the sun

in her mind, and she whispered, be a good son.

When metaphor and truth become the same,

when the distance is erased between the fact

and the figure representing it, one seeks,

blindly perhaps, another metaphor.

Behind a horse and a plow I opened the ground

in three states, sometimes reading a book

as I went.  Once in the middle of Pilgrim’s Progress

I realized the furrows in the field

could just as well be verses on the page,

and the point of being alive fell down on me,

and the smell of open ground brought me to tears.

While irony may wrap itself around

a poem, the true poem in the end

escapes the shroud. It’s the art of resurrection.


A Brief Refutation of the Rumor That I Allowed

Willie and Tad to Relieve Themselves

in my Up-Turned Hat on a Sunday Morning

at the Office While Their Mother was Attending Religious Services


I will allow a tall hat

can be put to purposes other than

the polite covering of the head.

And the record shows I carried papers

in mine—important papers, too—

and for dramatic effect I’d pull

them out in court, bewildering

my opponents.  But that was practical.

The documents intended to prove

my claim were sheltered from the weather

and less likely to be lost.

And having words I’d taken care

to write proximate to the head

from which they sprang permitted me

to ponder them, to keep them, so

to speak, in the nest a little longer,

before they flew into the room

to batter against the smudged windows

of a prairie court house, amid

the clangs of the punctuating spittoon.

It was a commonplace to fill

my hat with oats and feed my horse

when I was riding on the circuit.

And the rooming-houses where I lodged

had few accommodations, so

the hat was handy as a basin

if a morning ablution were required.

On this occasion, however, the hat

was mere amusement for the boys

who set it on the office floor

and pitched pennies into it,

stepping farther back each round,

as I was reading on the couch.

Their mother was indeed at church.

The weather was profoundly cold

and the privy regrettably distant

from the office, so, boys being boys,

with a famously permissive father,

I agreed to let them use my boot.


John Brown’s Baby Has a Cold Upon His Chest

If the actor hadn’t shot me, I might

have lived, like Whitman and Melville, for most

of my century, the first


American-born and not from a state


that had ever been a colony,

the new America, settled

ahead of law and reason

by those who believed

sincerely in the promise, whose


design implied the promise, and those

who took it for granted, or took it for

themselves, driven by greed

or necessity,

to move the west much father west.


Up to the war I can tell you this:

the slave-owners wished to extend

a colonial system using

American law

to back it and cover up the sin.


Now if that doesn’t sound familiar

then I’m not dead Old Honest Abe.

Getting a law on the books

means future debate

will be confined to the law alone


and exclude the truth, or dare I say,

the moral barb the law is intended

to blunt or cover up,

and so the law

enters the books to serve deceit.


You in the 20th century

may like to know how all of this works.

I cannot see your time.

I’m only permitted

to see a few years beyond


my own, and the actor cut it short.

Curious, too, Whitman and Melville

separately described

John Brown

as a meteor, a metaphor


to herald the war, but here the art

is also deceiving, for the skies

of 1859

and 60

were known for meteoric events—


the gleaming, shooting stars were real—

and all the poet had to do

to find the metaphor

was read the news

or lazily look up in the sky.


Another way to think of this

is to imagine poetry

was simply in the air—

as John Brown

would be, suspended by a rope.


And by the way, the actor was there

to see him hang, disguised in the blue

of a U.S. uniform,

to watch the old man drop and kick,


a greater reality, perhaps,

than the actor was used to, the same actor

who with his brother commissioned

the bronze statue

of Shakespeare in Central Park,


for all to see, the Bard himself,

presented by men who played his parts

on stage and were

regaled as men of great refinement.


But I always took refinement lightly,

and that left room for comedy,

a genre, you should know,

the actor thought

was beneath his station and talent, though


after murdering me in the second act

of one he leapt to the stage and broke

his leg, a play within

the play, that produced,

in my final moment of hearing, laughter.


The great tragedian reduced

to play a rude mechanical,

who blunders his Latin line,

hopping across

the interrupted stage to exit.


But the war invited comedy,

why, ladies and gentlemen would picnic

on a hill above a battle

to watch the slaughter,

and dab their mouths with handkerchiefs.


It also welcomed song, at first

austere—the strident Battle Hymn,

whose truth goes marching on,

so soon becoming,

John Brown’s body lies


a-mouldering in the grave, and later,

the farcical, John Brown’s baby

has a cold upon its chest.

The melody

was easily adaptable.


And the busy photographers lugging

their boxes of glass plates to the field,

sometimes posing the dead

in genuine bathos,

to show the public what they were missing—


young men, poetically arranged,

who moments before had been singing, reciting

light verse or prayers

under their breath,

when the shadow of death directed the art


of dying should commence at once,

and only the dead were unified.



One of the things the actor’s bullet failed

to do is interrupt the rhythm


of thought, the flow of the mind as it moves around

an encumbrance or wears it down, as water


patiently tames a rock and may, in time,

pass through it freely.  Contemplation


is all there is of the afterlife, the mind

continues steadily, not seeking


decision or destination, unable to rest

and yet at ease, because the thought


is always lulling back and forth, as a boat

gently rocking, following the rhythm


of the world.  Raindrops dripping off

the eave are keeping eternal time.


The capacity of the mind is oceanic,

it laps and swells and subsides.  The sun


flares out of it and then extinguishes

itself in the dark waters of thought,


the divine ditty of the universe,

the endless inner pitter-patter.


Here is a short film from two British filmmakers on Mr. Manning –

Maurice Manning’s most recent book of poems is One Man’s Dark (Copper Canyon, 2017).

Amanda Newell’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baltimore Review, The Cimarron Review, Gargoyle, Rattle, Scoundrel Time and elsewhere. The recipient of scholarships or fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Frost Place, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She also holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson’s program for writers.