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.

 

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