With each passing year that I worked as a history teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, I became more convinced of the importance of bringing historical perspective to bear on any effort to understand a troubled world. Alas, I also became more uncertain about the possibilities of wringing the truth from history, at least from traditional historical sources alone. On the one hand there are ostensibly objective textbook accounts that provide useful chronology but seem less concerned with truth than with not offending. Then there are conflicting academic accounts, extensively footnoted and marshaling sources on behalf of dramatically different interpretations. What's a history student to do? What is the meaning of Industrialization anyway? Of the Progressive Era or the 20's? Of the Great Depression or WWII?
There is no way to eliminate the central challenge of historical study: figuring out what happened and why. But it occurred to me, after reading a wonderful poem about William Jennings Bryan by Vachel Lindsay, that poetry, such an unapologetically subjective source, could contribute a great deal to the discovery of historical "Truth" (or, more likely, one of its many jigsaw pieces). By communicating the emotions, the intensities, the passions, and personal perspectives that surround great events and personalities, poems can express a a lot about how people saw, understood, and experienced history. History has a chronology, but it also has a mood, a spirit, and texture. In this sense, art has something to tell historians, and the poem may complement or even supersede the tome.
While I have always included the reading of a few poems in my course, I had never required students to write their own poems about the material they were studying. I began to wonder if such assignments might serve not only as a prism for refracting their own understanding and interpretation of the past, but also bring them into a closer emotional connection with the material they were studying. Perhaps a deeper personal involvement would also generate greater sympathy and insight.
But could I ask students to write poems on demand, and would the poems produced be any good, aesthetically, that is? I decided to give the assignment to myself first. With the help of the FELS (Fund for Educators of Lincoln-Sudbury), a local foundation which provides grant support to L-S teachers with interesting ideas, I spent the summer of 2004 visiting forgotten historical sites and writing poems about them. I had written poetry before, but never under deadline pressure. The results were sufficiently encouraging for me to decide to make poetry-writing a part of my 20th Century American History course this year.
Following this introduction, the reader will find poems on a variety of topics. Each poetry assignment was prompted by a photograph I showed the class. Students would then be given only a few days to write the poems and one opportunity to revise their work, based on comments I made.
I had no idea what to expect, and I was stunned by the results. Students wrote beautiful and powerful poems, which hopefully did carry them more deeply into the subject matter and which definitely carried me more deeply into their particular feelings and perceptions. Not every poem was a prize winner, but there was a lot of wonderful writing. Poetry demands concision, economy, discipline, sensibility, openness, voice, rhythm, among other things. The words written may be few, but the challenge is large.
Writing poems will not replace essays and research papers in the study of history. But I believe this book by the sophomores in my 2004-2005 "20th Century" class helps make the case for poetry-writing in history classes. It may be that the search for historical truth will be most fruitful only when the carefully objective and the openly subjective are joined.
And now the poems. Get ready to be moved as you look at our nation's history though the eyes of my students.
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S