What Can Poetry and Song Teach You About History?

In honor of April, which is National Poetry Month, I’m exploring a variety of ways that people can use poetry to enrich their lives. This week I’m looking at poetry and it’s close cousin, music, as ways to add depth and texture to teaching history.

This line from poet William Carols Williams about where to find news has always intrigued me:

“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

I think the same could be said for getting our history from poems and songs, or at least using those arts to give us an alternate lens of past events that are often rendered in a  sterile listing of facts.  I’m not saying that you could actually teach history by using only poetry and songs, but you can add depth to events that are often given just a few paragraphs of explanation, if they are mentioned at all.

Brunswick Bay in Maine
Brunswick Bay in Maine

Poems offer us personal glimpses into the people who lived through events, such as wars, labor movements,  and fights for justice. By reading and reciting an author’s poems, we may begin to realize the felt-sense of that person’s experiences and begin to see more clearly how our lives and struggles are related to the author’s.

I think the other benefit of using poetry is that the abstract is made concrete by telling the story of a personal experience. For example, when history teachers want to talk about segregation and the impact that the Jim Crow system had on ordinary Black Americans, perhaps they could turn to Langston Hughes’s poem “Merry-Go-Round” for a compelling entry point that will engage students in a visceral experience.

Merry-Go-Round

Colored child at carnival

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus, we’re put in the back–
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

For more recent history of the senseless violence and continuing racism that Black Americans face, teachers could look to Lucille Clifton’s poem,  “jasper    texas   1998,” about James Byrd in Texas in 1998. You can find this poem in Lucille Clifton’s book Blessing the Boats.

Many teachers discuss the role in immigration in the United States’s history. But what are the reasons people leave their homelands and undertake a dangerous ocean voyage to come to a new country? Today’s immigrants are Syrian refugees and children fleeing from drug gangs in Central America. But for about 25% of the current American population, the story of Irish immigration is an important part of their personal story. But why did so many of the Irish people leave Ireland in the 1840s?

Evan Boland‘s poem “Quarantine” explores what life was like for many people during the winter of 1847 in Ireland.

In the worst hour of the worst season
    of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
     He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
     There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
      Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

And what about the role of songs in getting students engaged with history? One song that taught me something I had never heard of is “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. McCutcheon recounts the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce that happened during Christmas Eve in 1914 as German and British troops huddled in frozen trenches to celebrate Christmas in the midst of carnage.

The song raises a series of questions about why we fight wars and about the power of getting to know the “enemy” as a person. So often, once people on opposite sides of a battle begin to share their personal stories, they find they have much in common. And when they begin to think that both sides have families and friends who love them, they begin to lose the will to fight.

Here’s the song and a link to Joyeux Noel, the movie that was made a few years ago that explores the Christmas Truce of 1914 in greater detail. Imagine the questions that students might raise if they heard this song and watched the film.

 

Sarah Browning and Grace Cavalieri: Poetry Workshops Full of Heart

Sarah Browning
Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning is Co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation and Witness and the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, her first poetry collection. Sarah studied poetry with the masters–mostly by reading their work and exploring the techniques they used in her own work. Sarah, a big fan of the short poem (under 15 lines), led us in a workshop where we read work by Lucille Clifton and then wrote our own short poems riffing on the ideas of lamenting the loss of something dear in our lives or talking about the birth of something–longing, love, and careers were all favorites. As one who tends to work in narrative forms, I really enjoyed writing very short poems and found the condensed poems both challenging and powerful.  Sarah chose Lucille Clifton’s poem “the birth of language” as one of her models.

the birth of language

and adam rose
fearful in the garden
without words
for the grass
his fingers plucked
without a tongue
to name the taste
shimmering in his mouth
did they draw blood
the blades did it become
his early lunge
toward language
did his astonishment
surround him
did he shudder
did he whisper
eve

Mariposa Poets, 2015
Mariposa Poets, 2015

Grace Cavalieri, host of The Poet and the Poem, playwright,poet, and author of the memoir Life Upon the Wicked Stage, took us on a journey through life’s charged memories during the Mariposa Retreat. Grace worked with the theme of fathers in poetry and used Stanley Kunitz’s haunting poem “Self Portrait” as her entree into the past. She talked about the importance of psychological action in a poem and how both action and reaction create a spiral effect drawing the reader deeper into the poem’s world. Robert Lowell’s pome “Father’s Bedroom” reveals the deceased father’s character through the objects he has left behind–“…blue dots on the curtains, a blue kimono, Chinese sandals with plush blue straps.” So much can be gleaned about a person’s life from the objects they leave behind.

After we all read those powerful poems, Grace led us in a brief mediation which wound us back in time to an event or a memory we had about our fathers. All of us accessed potent memories and worked to use either objects or psychological action to explore those memories in a poem. For some, it was an emotional experience, and Grace seemed satisfied with that response and encouraged us to explore the feelings that surfaced. Her firm belief in the power of poetry to frame life’s experiences held all of us in a safe cocoon where we could write and share our work.

Here is “Self Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz

My mother never forgave my father for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time in a public park,
that spring I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out, though i could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave mustache and brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year I can still feel my cheek burning.

What memories are calling to you?  Try using either a short poem like Lucille Clifton or objects from the past to talk about one of your parents. Enjoy the challenge!