prompt 207 History
I am large, I contain multitudes. -Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"
Welcome to the first We Write Poems weekly prompt of April! This month, I intend to take you all on a journey through themes — themes which inform the very craft of poetry in which we engage.
We have just begin National Poetry Month. Also, the first half of the year tends to celebrate history — February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month. This month, interestingly enough, is also Autism Awareness/Acceptance/Understanding Month in the United States. During these times, the histories of these groups (more recently autistic folks) is shared and celebrated.
I thought about these these ideas and these energies…and about history in general. History is more than just names, places, and dates: it is a part of who we are as individuals and it informs our writing. Sometimes, it is our cultural histories which leak into our work — and by culture I mean anything as broad as nationality, ethnicity, and religion or something as narrow as the culture of one’s family or social group. We may draw on historical events and people from other dates, times, places, and cultures and use these in our writing. Also, consider that poetry and history are natural partners, as the genesis of poetry as a form was a result of the need to transmit culture, stories, and history to future generations before the existence of the written word.
For an example of how this might play out in poetry, consider these lines from “O Black and Unknown Bards” by James Weldon Johnson:
Heart of what slave poured out such melody As "Steal away to Jesus"? On its strains His spirit must have nightly floated free, Though still about his hands he felt his chains. Who heard great "Jordan roll"? Whose starward eye Saw chariot "swing low"? And who was he That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh, "Nobody knows de trouble I see"?
Johnson considers the unknown singers before his time — unknown names and unknown faces, but their songs known and remaining.
Another example of how an event in the history in a smaller group — a family, a town, a village — might play out in a poem is in “Daredevil” by Sherman Alexie. In the poem, he speaks of an aunt who went blind after drinking antifreeze as a teenager. (Quoted from publication in Superstition Review at http://superstitionreview.asu.edu/issue3/poetry/shermanalexie)
She recognizes me with some other sense No matter how long I've been absent. I can silently appear on her front porch But she'll say my name as she opens the door.
And of course, there is always the option of fictionalizing history in poetry. Consider these lines from my poem, “Debutante Emily Looks for Buried Treasure“:
They lived on Seventeenth. The Negro steel mill workers, these new men recruited by ashen-coated promises of gold moved into these little one-story brick boxes with their families: and Helen’s was no different.
The poem uses real-life places and events: Seventeenth Avenue is in an area of the town in which I grew up. It was one of the streets on which the then-president of the local steel mill contracted builders to construct houses for his African-American employees in the early twentieth century; he did this because many of them were living in slum-like conditions. The town (albeit renamed) is real, the street is real, the steel mill is real, and the house is real, but Helen and her family are not.
So I ask you this week: what’s in your genes? What have you been inspired by, historically? What do you think, in a broader sense, about the idea of history? Would you like to fictionalize history? Meditate on this and write. I’m excited to see what you all come up with.