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April 28, 2021

Lesson Plan: Poetry as a window into modern history

Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo. Photo taken June 6, 2019 by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

 

For a google doc version of this lesson, click here.

Poems address profound human connections and illuminate history. April is National Poetry Month for history teachers, too. History deals with the whole of human experience, and there are some very good reasons to include poetry in a history assignment.

Directions: Read these poems, learn some background about the poet and answer the discussion questions. Poems reproduced here for educational purposes only.

1. Phillis Wheatley was the second woman (after Anne Bradstreet) and first African American to publish a book of poems in the colonies in 1773. Her most well-known poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” appears to be directed at the Great Awakening audience, reminding them of Christianity’s message of inclusion. 

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784)

Phillis Wheatley was one of the best-known poets in the second half of the 18th century. She was an enslaved person for much of her life. Wheatley was beloved by American colonists and traveled to England where she was heralded by the aristocracy all while still being enslaved by the prominent Boston businessman John Wheatley. Shortly after her book was published in 1773, Wheatley was emancipated. She died at just 31 years old a decade later.

 

On Being Brought from Africa to America

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Questions:

  • Where does Wheatley address slavery and colonialism in the poem? What is her tone? What do you think she wants people to know about being an enslaved person?
  • Why do you think Wheatley uses the word Christians to address American colonists?

2. A great poem reveals the era in which it was written, sometimes with scalding intensity. No other primary source shows what happened to the soul of Europe after World War I with the power of Yeats.

William Butler Yeats 1865–1939 

William Butler Yeats ( June 13, 1865 – January 28, 1939) was an Anglo-Irish poet and playwright who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. He also served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State in his later years. He was a founder of the “Irish Literary Revival.” 

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Questions:

  • Who are the best who “lack all conviction” in the Europe of the 1920s? Who are the worst who are “full of passionate intensity?”
  • Who is the “rough beast” who “slouches toward Bethlehem” to be born? Why Bethlehem?

3. As the rise of fascists like Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain ushered in the second World War, Yeats’ prophecies were realized in just a decade. One of the great poets who wrote about the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) was Cesar Vallejo.

Cesar Vallejo (1892–1938)

César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza (1892–1938) was a Peruvian poet, journalist and jailed activist. He was born and raised in a remote village in the Andes; both his grandfathers were priests and both grandmothers were indigenous Peruvians. Vallejo envisioned the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) as a fight between good (the Loyalists) and evil (the Fascists under Franco).

Mass

At the end of the battle, the combatant dead, a man
approached him
and said to him: ‘Don’t die; I love you so much!’
but the corpse, alas!, kept on dying.

Two more came up to him and repeated:
‘Don’t leave us! Be brave! Come back to life!’
but the corpse, alas!, kept on dying.

Twenty, a hundred, a thousand, five hundred thousand
appeared,
crying out: ‘So much love, and no power against death!’
but the corpse, alas!, kept on dying.

Millions of individuals surrounded him
with a common plea: ‘Don’t leave us brother!’
but the corpse, alas!, kept on dying.

Then all the inhabitants of the earth
surrounded him; the corpse looked at them sadly, deeply moved;
he got up slowly
embraced the first man; started to walk…

To hear “Mass” spoken in the original Spanish, click here.

Questions:

  • Who were the corpses who kept on dying in the period between the two world wars?
  • The one corpse who got up, embraced the first man, and started to walk could be a pacifist. The anti-war movement after the slaughter of World War I was very strong. What did the Covenant of the League of Nations say about war?

4. Following World War II, although the U.S. had recovered from the long Depression, many still lived in poverty, a problem that persists in the U.S. into today (including the many affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19). 

Philip Levine (January 10, 1928 – February 14, 2015) was an American poet who wrote about the working class poor in his home town of Detroit. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.

 

You Can Have It

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors’ appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers’ licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it. 

Questions:

  • Levine’s brother and he are “only one man.” Who else is part of this brotherhood?
  • The poem’s bitterness is partly directed toward the explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and Henry Ford. What are their “distant purposes”?

 

5. Gwendolyn  Brooks (1917 – 2000) was the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. She wrote about the everyday experiences of African Americans and especially of women. This poem, which sounds as though it could have been written in today’s pandemic recovery, was composed years before.

 

The Crazy Woman

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I’ll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I’ll wait until November.
That is the time for me.
I’ll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
“That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May.”

Questions:

  • Why would November rather than May be an appropriate time for those who struggle in life?
  • In 2021, why could it be too soon to sing a May song that “should be gay”?

 

6. Joy Harjo (1951– ), U.S. poet laureate, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Harjo told the PBS NewsHour at the time she was named the first Native American poet laureate in history: “Some of us are astronauts. Some of us are really good at fixing cars…But we’re human beings. And some of us write poetry … it makes a doorway of hope.”

Watch Joy Harjo reciting her poem ‘Running’:

Questions:

  • How does Harjo remind the reader of the cruel colonial past and the treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government?
  • What is the significance of the poem’s closing: “I was anything but history, I was the wind”?
  • How might those looking to decentralize colonial viewpoints in our teaching of American history turn to Native American poets like Harjo for guidance?

 

Additional Resources:

For matching up poetry and events in history, teachers can use the volume Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness by Carolyn Forché. It contains hundreds of poems organized in these chapters:

  • The Armenian Genocide
  • World War I
  • Revolution and Repression in the Soviet Union
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • World War II
  • The Holocaust
  • War and Dictatorship in the Mediterranean
  • The Indo-Pakistani Wars
  • War in the Middle East
  • Repression and Revolution in Latin America
  • The Struggle for Civil Rights in the United States
  • War in Korea and Vietnam
  • Repression in Africa and the Struggle Against Apartheid
  • Revolution and the Struggle for Democracy in China

Syd Golston is a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. She has served as a history teacher, school administrator, and curriculum writer for many decades. She is the author of Changing Woman of the Apache, Death Penalty, Studies in Arizona History, and other publications and articles.

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