Thursday, April 20, 2017

Sara K Joiner: History in Verse

Part of a poem by Wilfred Owen, a soldier who fought in
and wrote poetry about the First World War.
April is one of my favorite months because it's National Poetry Month. I love poetry, but much to my chagrin, I am no poet. I cannot express myself as beautifully as poets, and that is something I continually practice.

We tend to think poetry is about nature or feelings. We tend to think that poetry should rhyme. However there are many poems about historic events that have delicious lines to say aloud (and which may or may not rhyme).

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.
from Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now aliven
Who remembers that famous day and year.
from Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she aid.
from Barbara Frietchie by John Greenleaf Whittier

There are also poems that were written during significant historic events--like these from World War I--that make you weep for the writer.

I have a rendezvous with Death
     At some disputed barricade
     When Spring comes round with rustling shade
And apple blossoms fill the air.
     I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
from I Have a Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seeger

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
     That mark our place; and in the sky
     The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
from In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae

There are even poems that seem to be written by history itself.

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo
Shovel them under and let me work—
                                  I am the grass; I cover all.
from Grass by Carl Sandburg

Poets often bring a new perspective to the familiar and a sense of awe to the extraordinary. In addition to the poems I've mentioned, there are books that are perfect for middle graders to see history through new eyes and to encourage them to engage with their history in a new way. Here are some:

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders - J. Patrick Lewis
Includes poems about Josh Gibson, Aung San Suu Kyi, Coretta Scott King, Mohandas Gandhi, Harvey Milk, Sylvia Mendez, Muhammad Yunus, and others.

A Wreath for Emmett Till - Marilyn Nelson
A powerful work about the lynching of a teen boy in Mississippi in the 1950s.

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life - Ashley Bryan
Using original slave auction and plantation documents, Bryan imagines the lives of enslaved individuals whose true hopes and dreams are lost to history.

America At War - Lee Bennett Hopkins, selector
Includes a variety of poems written during or about wars America fought from the Revolution to modern times.

Birmingham, 1963 - Carole Boston Weatherford
Using a fictional character, Weatherford explores the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes. She is also a public librarian.


  1. What a great idea--using poetry to help teach history!

  2. I do love poetry. I only wish I wrote it better!

  3. Love it - especially as you've used some of my favourites