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prompt 207 History

April 3, 2014
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:

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

Sherman Alexie

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.


    • April 6, 2014 2:36 pm

      You are amazing. And your words are amazing. Keep writing your history, and always make sure there is a crack, as Leonard Cohen put it, to let the light in.

  1. April 3, 2014 6:29 am

    I’m tempted to reply: there’s lies, damn lies and history! History seems to vary according to who’s writing it. I have just been writing a bit of family history for my sister’s 80th birthday party, so my mind is at least in gear for your prompt! Maybe tomorrow.

  2. April 3, 2014 7:01 am

    We create our own history everyday…
    and as the saying goes, laughter helps us live longer.
    I wrote this for another prompt… but if the shoe fits:

    • April 5, 2014 2:35 pm

      This is an embarrassing history for you. I hope it turns out OK in the end.

      • April 5, 2014 2:49 pm

        Best when we are able to laugh. Got and updated replacement. But not to updated. I’m not that tech savvy. But I will be more careful when I go out by the creek with my ‘new’ cell phone 🙂


    • April 6, 2014 2:41 pm

      I immediately thought of someone dropping a phone in the toilet…the more common accident I heard. But this is still funny. Thanks for putting a smile on my face.

  3. April 3, 2014 5:58 pm

    I love this prompt but my mind isn’t following… yet. I’m going to give it time to percolate – be back.

    • April 6, 2014 2:42 pm

      Either percolate, or age properly. Depends on whether you think more of wine or coffee.

  4. April 3, 2014 9:42 pm

    My effort too an unexpected turn away from history writ large and toward a more personal history. Ah well. 🙂

    • April 6, 2014 2:46 pm

      And I love that it got personal. History, be it just within us or bigger than us, is still part of us.

  5. April 4, 2014 4:50 am

    I may have to try this from a different slant, but here’s something for now

    • April 6, 2014 2:50 pm

      Even a lack of knowing history can produce a story. Or a poem. How our roots get lost in the dust. Nicely done, Barbara.

    • April 6, 2014 2:59 pm

      Nicely done. This reminded me a little of Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America” in theme and spirit.

    • April 6, 2014 3:31 pm

      Ah, history can be an ache in all of our bones, felt in our roots. Nicely done.

  6. James Brush permalink
    April 4, 2014 8:19 pm

    Since Lonesome Dove:

    This prompt really had me thinking.

    • April 6, 2014 3:41 pm

      I’m glad it got you thinking — that’s why I chose this, and the next three prompts. Keep on thinking. 🙂

  7. April 5, 2014 3:04 am

    Mine’s here:
    This prompt also conntects with PAD for today, who want a discovery poem – not yet written, but it could be a continuation of my Genes poem!

    • April 6, 2014 3:49 pm

      And a nice documentation of your discovery it was. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  8. April 5, 2014 4:56 pm

    Not exactly to prompt, but I needed to do this. Denise was a part of this community for a short time.


    • April 5, 2014 8:35 pm

      Thanks for sharing it, Elizabeth.

    • April 6, 2014 4:01 pm

      Yes, you needed to do this — I can tell in your words, that’s how the light got in.

  9. April 6, 2014 2:05 pm

    I finally made it in, y’all! Here’s my poem:


  10. April 6, 2014 5:21 pm

    Almost couldn’t write a thing so this thing surfaced here

    • April 7, 2014 11:54 am

      *chuckle* Ironic you say that it surfaced, given your water imagery. Nicely done.

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