Poetry: Reinventing the Past, Rehearsing the Future

By Linda Christensen

Before I started writing this article, I asked students in my Contemporary Literature and Society class why teachers should teach poetry. The quotes used throughout the article are a result of that conversation.

Poetry can teach students to empathize with those who have struggled for equality and justice — from the Abolitionists to the striking miners in Pittston to the student who sits next to them in English. Through poetry students can learn to care about the people who have lived at the bottom and who have worked for something better. They can also give voice to people who don’t get on the pages of textbooks. By reinventing history through poetry they can participate in the past, and by doing so, learn more about both the larger society and their own lives. As poetry erases the distance of years and allows students to blow life into the dry skeleton of facts, hopefully, they will draw inspiration from the lives of the dead and the living to work for change in their own lives.

Mira, a senior, says, “Poetry made history come to life. When we wrote after Hearts and Minds, I was there. I was a soldier. I identified with what was going on. I felt their feelings. I got more involved. This wasn’t just history. This was life. Poetry helped me examine why the war happened because I got inside the people who witnessed it.”

Rachel, a student in the Literature in American History block class I co-teach with Bill Bigelow, wrote the following poem during a unit on Vietnam. In this piece Rachel merges with a pilot from the documentary film Hearts and Minds.

I Flew The Plane

Flying high over
the patchquilt
of an unknown country
leaving exploding shells
behind me.

I never saw their blood.
I never heard their screams.
I never felt their pain.

Flying low over
burning huts
torched by green men
with metal heads
and machine arms,
leaving corpses
in bomb craters
that I,
the technician,
I never saw their blood.
I never heard their screams.
I never felt their pain

I only flew the plane.

Rachel uses the poem to solve a puzzle. How can men produce the bloodshed she’s witnessed in the film? How can they talk about people as targets? How can they become immune to the suffering their planes leave behind? In her poem “I Flew a Plane,” she tries to understand the emotional distance the pilot creates between himself and his victims: People become machines — “metal heads” and “machine arms.” If the pilot denies their humanity, then he can’t feel the pain of their deaths. He is the “technician” who “only flew the plane.” War becomes a video game, and he’s a champion player.

Instead of becoming the pilot, Keely writes to the pilot — telling him what he missed after he dropped the bombs:

…You didn’t smell the flesh,
Caught in a barbed wire,
Torn like an old rag,
Soft brown skin heated to black…
You didn’t taste the blood,
Mixed with dirt and rice,
Staining the walls of the huts
Splashed on the faces of young girls…

Keely sees the devastation the soldier left behind, but she wants to forgive him. She feels the enormity of his guilt and understands how hard these deaths would be to live with. She ends her poem:

You must have missed those things.
If you hadn’t you would have turned back,
Picking up every shell you dropped,
And putting a bandage on every scrape you caused.

Margo’s confusion over the war pours into the present as she tries to understand a co-worker who is a veteran:

If I touched what was left
of your fingers
would they split open
and gush images to me?
Would I see the dead
of Vietnam —
thanks to you?
Would I see the heroin and
alcohol you found
your comfort in?
If I watched long enough
would I see what I
didn’t know before —
A gentle man
always kind,
instead of this rough exterior
always pushing me away?
Louie, I don’t want you
to be a murderer
because I haven’t known
you long enough to
let that slide.

Margo uses her poem to explore questions she has about Louie. Was he a “gentleman/ always kind [before the war]/ instead of this rough exterior/ always pushing me away?” Was the heroin and alcohol an escape from the deeds he committed in Vietnam? She wants to know more, but she’s afraid to learn too much because she’s not sure she could “let [murder] slide.”

The poems are not a substitute for information. Students need to investigate why the war happened. The emotional intensity students invest in these poems would be impossible without that knowledge. In addition to reading numerous first person accounts and historical documents chronicling the involvement of France and the United States, they participate in a role play Bill created, taking the parts of Viet Minh cadre and French government officials. They also read Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country, selected poems from Usef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau and Vietnamese poetry from the anthology Of Quiet Courage. Students’ anger and angst are fueled with knowledge.

After Rachel, Keely, Margo and classmates read their poems, we discuss reasons for the anger, the guilt, the withdrawal, the “rough exterior” of the soldiers. The poems become prompts to explore the lives we invent. Why was it necessary for soldiers to dehumanize the enemy? What happened to the Vets after they returned home? Margo is reluctant to let Louie “slide.” Was this a common reaction when soldiers came back from the war? How did these men and women learn to live normal lives again after their experiences?

Still, poetry is not social analysis. Students’ poems won’t help them figure out why Truman and Eisenhower sided with the French against the Viet Minh or why the United States created South Vietnam and backed one petty tyrant after another. However, the poetry will draw students into the pathos of Vietnam by depicting the human consequences of those decisions. And by humanizing the war, students may care enough to join our investigation into its causes.

Or they may not. What makes this experience intense and good also raises problems. Through their poems students live with their characters. They are emotionally attached to the soldiers or the peasants they create. They can be reluctant to leave the arena of feelings and move into the world of analysis. That’s the seduction of poetry. When Bill and I begin edging towards the kinds of questions I’ve liste above, students may groan, “Can’t we just write? Do we have to talk about it?” The poetry works. Sometimes too well.

Literature is not just “made up.” Like history, literature provides an account of the life and times of its characters. Writing poetry about the lives of fictional characters helps students read that social text. In addition, poetry melts students’ understanding into a “raw core of feeling” as Sonia, a senior in my contemporary Literature and Society class says. “Poetry closes the distance between me and the book. It personalizes the connections.”

After reading The Color Purple, students choose one of the characters and write a poem from that character’s point of view. (We use Ann Sexton’s “Love Song” as a prompt; it begins, “I was/ the girl of the chain letter,/ the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes…”) Don writes from Celie’s voice:

I am Celie.
I am the cold hard black floor
everyone walked on.
People have stained me and laughed
but I stayed solid under them
and did not squeak.
I am the floor now
but once you go downstairs
I become the ceiling.

After he reads his poem, the class discusses it. His poem opens the analysis of Celie. Instead of simply imposing our questions on the class, Bill and I raise our concerns in the context of the students’ insights. How is Celie like the floor? Why is she stained? What does that mean? What events caused that? In what ways did she stay solid? How does Don’s vision change at the end? Why? What brought about the change? The ending is hopeful — not only about Celie, but about life. It suggests that people can change. What circumstances are necessary for change to occur? Don’s metaphor gives us a shorthand to discuss Celie.

Many female students also explore Celie’s character through a list of details either from her life or from language “stolen” from Alice Walker. Stephanie remembers Celie as the “‘sure is ugly’ child/ who was given away/ with a cow” and “put under a man.” Ednie says she was “Sold to marriage/ Sold to life/ Sold to love/ Sold like agates to children/ Sold to a man.” Gina writes that she was “unsightly trash/ tossed to the side of the room… The girl whose life held no worth.”

The language these young women use is threaded with the words of commerce — “given,” “sold,” “worth” which provides an opening for Bill and I to lead the class in a discussion of women as commodities. In this transaction women without beauty are “trash” who must be “given away”. The poems become a lens which we can focus on how women are valued, not only in The Color Purple, but in our society. Sometimes the poems are masks for the students’ questions about their own worth or value as women.

While most students write from Celie’s, Harpo’s, Sofia’s or Shug’s lives, a few, like Omar, take on the Olinka people:


The Olinka people were a West African tribe in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. The Olinka, like indigenous tribes throughout the world, were pushed off their land for the sake of profit.

I was the roofleaf plant you killed,
replaced with rubber.
I was the village you plowed over,
replaced with asphalt.
I was the quiet you destroyed,
replaced with bulldozers.
I was the children playing in the sun,
chased away, replaced with apathetic workers.
I was the land stolen, for which you gave nothing,
replaced with nothing.
I was the Olinka people.

Omar makes links with the Native American unit we studied earlier in the year. When we ask students to write these poems, we say, “Find your passion. Twist and manipulate the assignment until you can find something you care about.” Assignments written only for the teacher are bland and uninspiring. Omar takes us at our word. He is less interested in the dynamics between the men and women in the novel than he is in the fate of the Olinka. During class discussion, a poem like Omar’s allows us to recall the Cherokee Trail of Tears and to link the colonial justifications of the British in Africa with Andrew Jackson’s similarly racist attitudes towards Native Americans.

The discussions that follow student poetry are simply more engaging than those in which Bill and I hold all the questions and answers. What struck them, what moved them in the novel is focused and concentrated into a poem — the heart of their interaction with the book. Class discussion peers into this heart and reads it. Students are more involved because they had a hand in shaping the content of the discourse.

Not every aspect of the novel will be revealed in the poetry, perhaps not every character will be written about. But Bill and I can weave in important points that escape the students’ lines and discuss missing characters in the context of those who are present. Mr. _, for example, is rarely if ever, written about. This omission alone gives us an opportunity to raise a number of questions.

Getting students to write poetry is not enough. They must learn to extend their metaphors, to articulate the flash of insights they found in their poems. The poem can serve as a rough draft for the essay. When a student poem provides the core of the essay, the outline is completed. They’ve found their “passion” and translate it into another form. “The essay just grows out of the poem,” Sonia says. “I just fill in the blanks.” Don can use his floor/ ceiling metaphor as a framework to describe Celie’s change. Ednie and Stephanie can write about the objectification of women. Omar can use his poem as a trajectory to pursue a comparison of the treatment of the Olinka and Native American tribes.

Again, this all sounds tidier than what happens in daily life in the classroom. Yes, some days are textbook examples. But students don’t want to use all of their poems as entry points for essays. To extend the analysis implicit in every poem would be deadly. I try to read the class so I know when kids are engaged and when I’ve pushed too far.

Just as poetry helped students imagine the pain and struggles of the Vietnamese and the characters in The Color Purple, it can also provide an opening for us, students and teachers, to investigate our own lives. Through the writing and sharing of poetry, we can probe our wounds and try to discover their roots, we can share our pain and learn that like the characters in history and literature, we don’t have to suffer or struggle alone. With luck, we can develop an interest in the analysis of our own lives: What gives us joy? What are our common problems — divorce, loneliness, loss, drug and alcohol abuse, shame — and how can we confront them? How can we help each other confront them?

Mira tells me that poetry helped her “get rid of pain. It got things out. Helped me deal with my problems. My poem, ‘Her Wedding Day,’ where I talk about my mother getting remarried, I’ve been dealing with since I was five. I worked through that pain when I wrote the piece. Learning to write poetry is not about technique, it’s about wrestling with your life.” In class, we wrestle together — and try to build a collective text that both heals and illuminates. Class read-arounds are filled with students coming to terms with their parents’ divorces. In the poem, “Saying Goodbye” Katy addresses her father:

My mama washed
your clothes for twenty-one
years and now you want me
to show you how to operate
that washing machine hidden behind
the basement stairs show you
as if her hands weren’t good
enough her elbow grease
not greasy enough her sweat
not clean enough show you
as if forty-eight isn’t too old to start

My mama washed your clothes
for twenty-one years
and now you fold your own or bribe
your good son Matt with a trip
to Powell’s or flowers for his Rachel
as if a gray beard signaled you
to learn to take care
of yourself as if you would do without
her as if you meant to say goodbye
with a spin cycle and a box full
of powdered detergent

Katy’s voice crackles with anger. Her father learning to operate the washing machine, a duty her mother performed for twenty-one years, provokes Katy’s wrath. This is not about unlearning sex roles, this is about leaving. When Katy shares, others will add their stories, “Yeah, when my dad left…” or “Catch this, the dude…” The pain students nurture privately is shared. They learn: They are not alone. The characters differ. The leaving differs. The pain remains common ground.

The dance of acceptance and rejection is repeated throughout school. Students practice feeling okay about themselves without buying designer jeans, they discover how it feels to fit under someone’s shoulder, to get a part in a school play and lose a best friend on the same day. In the following poem, “I Need to Belong”, Bobby adopts the persona of a gang member.

Yeah, I sell drugs
and I know it’s wrong.
yeah, I’m a gang member,
but I need to belong.
I had a little of mother
and of father I had none,
so my only family
is my gang and my gun.
Why work at Burger King
or Sea Galley
when selling drugs,
I can make five time that salary?
See, I want what you got
money, clothes, a fancy car
even if that means
I have to go behind bars.
My life is harsh
and my heart is cold,
but to survive this game I’ve got to be
I know
I could die any day.
But I ain’t afraid of death anyway.
‘Cause the way I see it
I died a long time ago.

Through Bobby’s poem, we can discuss why young people are turning to the Crips or Bloods. Instead of wringing our hands, we begin to build a social analysis for their growth: What conditions exist that push kids into gangs? Bobby’s poem provides evidence for our talk: Why work at Sea Galley? What other options do students have? Who is working in their neighborhood? Who has money? Who drives fancy cars and wears the latest brand of tennis shoes? Who doesn’t? How is a person’s value measured in our society?

School life is often alienating. Students sit in rows, they’re told not to talk to the people around them. In the five minutes between classes, they don’t have time to be “real” or to find out much about each other. When the bell rings, Students are usually asked to put their lives aside and get to work. Writing and sharing their own lives legitimates their feelings. Their interactions with each other are part of the content of the course. Nicole, a senior, says, “When I hear Mira or Rachel read, I think, ‘Hey, they have the same feelings I do. Even though the were brought up differently, even though they’re Asian and white and I’m black, we’ve experienced some of the same things. They teach me about humanity.’”

And through the writing and sharing of their lives, students practice for the future. Students’ histories are the texts we study. This “text,” together with the methodology: sitting in a circle, students and teachers both sharing, students calling on and questioning each other, all of us analyzing our lives to dig for the origin of our pain and solidarity, kids discovering they can learn from each other. From their own histories as well as from the teacher — all of this helps rehearse students to become more active and critical participants in their world. They learn to expect more — a voice in shaping a discussion and the curriculum more generally, a dialogue about their grades, an opportunity to read and study about people like themselves, purposeful work in a community of learners.

They begin to sense that they don’t have to accept life as it presents itself. Some learn to object to the inequities they find in school — and in the world. Katy, for example, attended a well known and distinguished private college after she graduated from Jefferson High School. She continually challenged her professors: Where were the women writers? Where were the African-American writers? The Asian-American writers? Where were the assignments to write about important issues in their lives? Finally, disgusted with the school’s lack of responsiveness, she left that school. Last I hear she was organizing a student boycott of a multiple-choice exam in a literature class.

Of course, it is overly simplifying the complex weaving of literature, history, social analysis, writing and classroom discourse to state that poetry alone allows Katy or her peers to resist the society they find themselves in. But poetry is one of the strands in the weaving — an effective one.

Linda Christensen teaches at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon. She recently received US West’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award.


Works Cited:

Bigelow, William. 1988. “Role-playing the Origins of U.S. Involvement.” Social Education. 52.1: 55-57.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. 1988. Dien Cai Dau. Middletown, CONN: Wesleyan University Press.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. 1985. In Country. New York: Harper & Row.

Of Quiet Courage. 1974. ed. Jaqui Chagnon and Don Luce. Washington D.C.: Indochina Mobile Education Project.

Sexton, Anne. 1981. “Love Song.” The Complete Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 115-116.

Bert Schneider & Peter Davis. 1975. Hearts and Minds. Rainbow Pictures.

Shor, Ira. 1990. “Liberation Education: An Interview with Ira Shor.” Language Arts, Vol. 67, no. 4, April, 1990.