Poetry is an effective medium for telling history, especially when it contains strong sensory images. While poetry is a genre of literature, it is my conviction that, like drama, it does not come alive until it is read aloud. It is my intention, when reading and studying poems, to have the students read them aloud. Two short poems come to mind that tell private histories. One is
Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden which extols a father's sacrifice for his family when he rose early every Sunday morning, "put his clothes on in the blueblack cold," and stoked the fire so the house would be warm for his family when they rose. The narrator, who is now an adult, realizes the love that went into those Sunday mornings and becomes aware of his own guilt at how
he, as a boy, treated his father who not only stoked the fire but also polished his shoes. The final stanza exposes the narrator experiencing an epiphany, signaling his own insight as a grown man.
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices? ( 10 - 14 )
While I Slept
by Robert Francis is also about awareness that comes with growing up and perhaps with the loss of his parent. The narrator describes the private history of his mother creeping softly into his cold bedroom to pull a blanket around his shoulders while he sleeps peacefully, and years later, he laments that now she sleeps permanently under the quiet rain, while he sleeps fitfully, waking and sleeping and waking and sleeping. His lament ends with this stanza:
Now she sleeps, sleeps under quiet rain
While nights grow warm or nights grow colder
And I wake and sleep and wake again
While she sleeps. ( 9 - 13 )
In another poem that tells a private history about a father,
Without Title, For My Father Who Lived Without Ceremony
by Diane Glancy, the narrator uses poignant images to describe her father who was part-Cherokee, but who had moved from the land and the life he loved to work in town in a meat-packing plant, where his spirit is barely surviving. The dichotomy of moving from the land where Native American men proved their prowess by hunting buffalo, to a meat-packing plant where animals are corralled in stockyards and their carcasses hung on conveyor belts for processing, seems too much for her father, she observes. The final lines of the poem reiterate this:
I remember the silence of his lost power,
The red buffalo painted on his chest.
Oh, I couldn't see it
But it was there, and in the nights I heard
his buffalo grunts like a snore. ( 18 - 22 )
The preceding poems about fathers and mothers all express a degree of regret, as does the poem
by Margaret Walker in which the narrator extols her grandmothers, in sensory images as strong and powerful as the grandmothers themselves:
My grandmothers were strong.
They followed plows and bent to toil.
They moved through fields sowing seed.
They touched earth and grain grew. ( 1 - 4 )
But then, in the final provocative line, the narrator wonders, " Why am I not as they?"
When the students interview the senior citizens at the Stetson Library on Dixwell Avenue to learn
private survival stories, it will be interesting to ask them how they view
grandmothers and how these women view
as grandmothers. (See the subtitle
Through Art, Students Narrate . . .
Another outstanding and dramatic survival story full of powerful images is the poem
Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)
by Nikki Giovanni, in which the narrator, representing
woman the mother of all humankind
, celebrates her god-like qualities and women's gifts to the world. It begins:
I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad ( 1 - 6 )
Not all survival stories are as upbeat as
. Dwight Okita, in his poem titled
In Response to Executive Order 9066: ALL AMERICANS OF JAPANESE DESCENT MUST REPORT TO RELOCATION CENTERS
, a fourteen year-old American girl of Japanese descent who has packed a few things to go to an internment camp, does not understand why,
, her best friend Denise, a white girl, will have nothing to do with her and, in fact, accuses her of trying to start a war. While thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were shuffled off to internment camps, it was the
experience of individuals and of children as well, like this one.
I saw Denise today in Geography class.
She was sitting on the other side of the room.
"You're trying to start a war," she said, "Giving secrets away
to the Enemy, Why can't you keep your big mouth shut?" ( 16 - 20 )
Students will listen to excerpts from Cornell West's CD
Sketches of My Culture
, a composite of poetry, gospel, blues, jazz, and rap, narrating the survival of black people from the days of slave ships to the present. One such excerpt on this CD is titled "3 M's," in which the lyrics celebrate the contributions of Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X to the Civil Rights Movement. These tracks might inspire students to write a rap or lyrics or a poem of their own about survival.
Cornell West's piece, "3 M's" could also be expanded to a specific event in history narrated by Jacob Lawrence in his graphic painting
Confrontation at the Bridge
, commemorating the attempted crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during the Civil Rights Movement when peaceful marchers on their way to Montgomery were met by armed state troopers with billy clubs and vicious dogs. Students could study the composition of Lawrence's painting and watch the video
Eyes on the Prize
that documents this attempted crossing, followed by a successful crossing of the bridge.