Owen Lewis

Poets Writing History    

In i am accused of tending to the past (Quilting: Poems 1987-1990) Lucile Clifton writes,

                    a monstrous unnamed baby,

                    and i with my mother’s itch

                    took it to breast

                    and named it


History here is written with a capital “H”, on a line by itself, and with this line Clifton declares that her personal window on the social circumstances into which she was born, and from her other poems we assume racism to be part of it though she never explicitly states it here, must become part of recorded history. Likening history to a baby at the breast suggests that history is a living entity which, if nurtured, will grow; it is fed on mother’s milk. It is a twin to the child, who, if she grows up alongside “history”, will share its growing energy. In proclaiming the validity of personal experience, she challenges History to include what it has excluded.  As confederate monuments are toppled, there have been accusations that such acts amount to “rewriting history.” Yet history must always be rewritten, must become a more expansive and inclusive narrative, and poetry plays a vital role in this process. “When she is strong enough to travel/ on her own, beware, she will,” she writes.  Why “beware”?  A poet’s history will upset the accepted order. Poets generally do not see themselves as historians, yet what poets contribute to the recording of history may be as meaningful as what is recorded through accepted historical method.

    In all likelihood, The Battle of Balaclava, 1854, of the Crimean War, would not be remembered were it not for Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Generally a conservative poet, Tennyson’s poem widely appeared shortly after headlines of this battle. The poem publicizes the human sacrifice and military misjudgments, often lost in the official version of events. It is very much an anti-war poem, “Not though the soldier knew/ Someone had blundered.” And the lines that follow this in the first stanza, “Theirs not to make reply,/ Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die,” often used to rally troops, actually makes a case for the senselessness of war. The “poetic” version of history here memorializes the event.

In her poem Dien Bien Phu (from Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974) Adrienne Rich memorializes the battle of that name. What is remembered of Dien Bien Phu? It was the battle in 1954 which led France to withdraw its colonial control from Indochina. Yet she begins with a narrow focus:

A nurse on the battlefield

wounded herself, but working


                  that each man she touches

                  is a human grenade

She accomplishes an extraordinary invocation of the battle through the eyes of a nurse. It depicts trauma in the process of traumatizing. Beyond the strategies of the French and Vietnamese, beyond the political jockeying to negotiate, it lets us into the experience of this nurse–who might have been a medic, or a soldier, or someone just caught in the crossfire. And she catches the emotional crossfire–to be traumatized through helping, or to be traumatized through not helping. The format of the poem is scattered, almost like fragments of dissociation. It both present and invokes the trauma in process.  In much the same way, Wilfred Owens brings the experience of trench battles of WWI into cinematic vividness. Imagine a history course on Vietnam era that includes the Rich poem, or one on WWI that includes Owens. How can the history of a war be taught apart from the trauma it causes? The poetries of war that follow the war are among the best and most vivid documents of that trauma.

    In Asphodel, That Greeny Flower (Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and Other Love Poems) William Carlos Williams writes, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” In these lines he articulates one central role of poetry in the writing of history–to witness and to document lived experience that is not reflected in the news as reported, but also what is known subjectively and intuitively. Proper historians might well look to poetry as primary source material. Journalism that excludes the human, often repressed, story leads men to “die miserably every day.”

    Could this be any clearer than in Clifton’s poem jasper texas 1998? (Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000) She tells of a lynching of sorts, a Black man tied and dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck. She begins in a detached, emotionless description of the body as it comes apart yet continues to speak:

                            i am a man’s head hunched in the road.

                            i was chosen to speak by the members

                            of my body. the arm as it pulled away

                            pointed toward me, the hand opened once

                            and was gone.

    Almost with journalistic reserve she approaches and describes the scene. She then asks, her tone not wavering, “who is the human in this place,/ the thing that is dragged or the dragger?” The poem mounts in intensity, to anger, the cold accusation that his death will affect everyone, and almost in disgust he departs as the speaker declares, “. . . the dirt that covers us all./ i am done with this dust. i am done.” No news report could make this murder more real, and for anyone who reads this poem, this reporting becomes history, the history that shapes consciousness. How does history capture and convey the horrors of what it reports? There is no doubt that Lucille Clifton knows exactly how to write such history.

Ross Gay takes a very different technical approach in his poem to Eric Garner, “A Small Needful Fact” (from “Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.”) He begins by noting a little-known fact that Eric Garner, “. . .worked/ for some time for the Parks and Rec./ Horticultural Department.” Gay describes the work of horticulture, tentatively suggesting what Garner may have done, arriving at the conclusion that since plants make “easier for us to breath”, so too, by inference, will remembering Garner and taking action, prevent future deaths by willful choking. “Needful” is almost a neologism, causing the reader to become curious about these facts.  Do the facts need the reader, or the reader, the facts? It leaves the reader wondering what other facts need to be surfaced. The story of this particular history is not complete. The poet supplies a fact that historians might overlook. The small fact is the only “fact” in the poem, and what follows is conjecture, yet this single fact, never part of what was reported in the news, changes entirely how the history of Eric Garner will be written.

History is built up through “small, needful” facts. Perhaps historians might come to see such poetry of witnessing and reporting as a valid “primary source.” All public events do not get transcribed into history, yet these examples suggest that poets have a good sense of what will.

A second way in which poets write history is to “correct” the cannon of history. As previously stated, history is rewritten all the time as new information surfaces or old data becomes better understood.  Poets can and do play a role in this process. Layli Long Soldier in her book Whereas (2017) documents the tragedy of the “Dakota 38” in which thirty-eight members of the Dakota nation were hanged on December 26, 1862 after a speedy military trial in the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. She contrasts this date to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln just six days later, on January 1, 1863. The proximity of these dates is startling. How do we view Lincoln in this light? Long Soldier writes, “Whereas I could’ve but didn’t broach the subject of ‘genocide’ the absence of this term from the Apology and its rephrasing as ‘conflict’ for example;” Whereas she “could’ve but didn’t,” she does. And this compels us to re-examine the history of this epoch.

    Another example of a poet writing an unwritten chapter of history is Robert Hayden. In Middle Passage (Collected Poems, 1962) through a collage of voices, he portrays the experience of captured Africans in transit to slavery, the ship crew, and the slave rebellion aboard the Amistad. Like any historian, he documents the precise date, “‘10 April 1800—/ Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy.’”  In Runagate, Runagate (Collected Poems, 1962), using the same technique of multiple voices, the voice of a slave-owner, “If you see my Anna, likely young mulatto/ branded E on the right cheek, R on the left” (for Elizabeth Regina), and what a vivid and lasting this image.  Or that Harriet Tubman was herself a runaway slave, a “woman of earth, whipscarred,/ a summoning, a shining.”

And yet another example of a poet rendering a previous historical event is Ellen Bryant Voigt in Kyrie.  Written in 1995, perhaps in resonance with the growing AIDS epidemic, the book evokes the experience of 1918/19 Spanish influenza pandemic when twenty-five million people died world-wide. Evoking the experience of living through this period of time gives content to both desperation and the capacity to maintain hope. In one of the poems she writes, “How we survived: we locked the doors/and let nobody in. Each night we sang.”  In another poem she writes, “Who said the worst was past, who knew
such a thing? Someone writing history,/ someone looking down on us/ from the clouds.”

Someone writing history? In this case, the poet.

One final example of a poet completing an incomplete history is Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his poem Babi Yar (The Collected Poems 1952–1990). Yevtushenko had heard about the massacre which took place there, the largest single massacre of the Holocaust where, on October 29 and 30, the Nazis murdered over 35,000 men, women, and children. Incredulous that there was no monument, no official recognition of the murders, he visited the site in 1961, twenty years later, to discover truck after truck arriving to dump garbage there. His poem, set to music by Shostakovich, not only memorialized the event, but forced the Ukrainian government to officially recognize the tragedy and erect a monument. His poem memorializes as much the massacre as a government’s long refusal to acknowledge it.

A third way poets “write history” is history by allusion. They may place what otherwise may be a more subjective lyric in a broader context. In doing so, they suggest that events at large can and do have personal ramifications. More than that, since the historical event or period may be only suggested, they create curiosity about those events. For instance, in

“A Hymn to Childhood” Li-young Lee begins by asking “Childhood? Which Childhood,” and in the second stanza answers:

                The one presided over by armed men

in ill-fitting uniforms

strolling the streets and alleys,

while loudspeakers declared a new era,

and the house around you grew bigger,

the rooms farther apart, with more and more

people missing?

Is he referring to an event under Mao Zedong, affecting his father, and him only indirectly, or events in Indonesia where he was born but had to flee?  Or perhaps he is referring to both, and how a father’s childhood affects the sons, how history in certain ways, repeats. The readers may not know these things but knows that this is a hymn to childhoods that have been interrupted, and curiosity is sparked.

In another poem, “Immigrant Blues,” he makes a similar move:

                People have been trying to kill me since I was born,

a man tells his son, trying to explain

the wisdom of learning a second tongue.

It’s an old story from the previous century

about my father and me.

Again, we’re not informed within the poem of the specific historical events, and perhaps these are the same referenced above, but we how “history” affects and continues to affect the generations. The personal experience here is made more “historical” as he places the events “from the previous century.” While this may make it sound older than it is, it does establish the important relationship between a personal and a shared, or public, history.

Finally, there is a fourth way in which poets write history. In the poetic imagination, past, present, and even the future may merge, opening the larger question of how the past influences the present and future, and how we can understand the past through the elaboration of the present. This broadens the concept of what poets contribute to the writing of history and raises the important question how one lives with history and the place one gives it in one’s life.

Hilda Morley begins her poem The Dust Covers My Shoes (from Cloudless at First, 1988):

                        They demonstrate again Pinochet now,


                                           Among the people marching a mother

                        with her son aged twelve

                                                                 & the police arrest him

                        take him away,    a boy

                        aged twelve,

She then moves to, “In Ludlow, 1914, an elderly man/goes out to face the militia,” and at close range he is shot in the face.  She then moves to “I have seen the faces of the mothers/ in Vietnam, the children, the old men, the women/holding a dead child in her arms.” Hardly a catalogue of atrocities, they are atrocities in which Morley has participated, either proximally or more distantly. She links the tragedies of what was then the present-day dictatorship in Chile, Vietnam during the years of the American invasion two decades before, Poland in the Nazi era four decades before, linked through experience and through image. In each setting she sees “the faces”. This is the poetic mind–seeing, associating, exploring. Her technique, making use of line break, white-space, cesura, and indentations, captures the process of this kind of reflection. It leads her to be able to make historical statements, and the gravitas of looking across the decades in this way is frightening.

Towards the end of the poem she writes:

                        whatever song I sing

                                                              It is the butterfly

                        who cannot speak,

                                                          the breath of those not given time to

                        form their syllables

                        that cuts my breath

                                                          It is those voices

                        choked back that make my voice so heavy,

This poet who writes in 1984 about the present in which she then lives, writes with immediacy about the past two and four decades earlier, and seems to have addressed the future, our present day, as if invoking the choking deaths by police of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and so many others.

Many poets have shown us ways to re-examine the past and how the past reverberates in the present and into the future, how history is part of our lives whether we recognize it or not. The examples are numerous.

Seamus Heaney, across his books, is writing the history of Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century. In Ocean’s Love to Ireland (North, 1975) he writes, “Speaking broad Devonshire,/ Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree/ As Ireland is backed to England.” In a simple tercet he captures the political and often violent relationship of England and Ireland. This is little more than a footnote to the emotional, social, and political struggles Heaney depicts and invokes throughout his writing. The image of this rape encapsulates a fraught history.

Zbigniew Herbert, to cite another, a Polish resistance fighter in WWII, writes a history of post-war Poland. In a poem entitled “He Might Not Be Educable, or, a Lesson in Anachronism,or, Who’s on First?” (the title alone is a poem!), he writes, “How do you help a guy asking: / who’s on first?  Nobody knows what/ I’m talking about. Ask Stalin, Mao?/.    Eisenhower might know if,/ if anyone can remember the game”.  Is this a lesson in anachronism or a lesson of history?  Or perhaps that is a redundant question. The poet is asking us to remember these leaders, who presented themselves with the certainty of  “knowing who’s on first”,  yet the irony of that phrase as applied to these omnipotent rulers throws doubt on their omnipotence. And just as they, in all their power, might become anachronistic, so too do all such leaders fade–a lesson in history we’d do well to remember in the present when autocratic rulers around the world appear stronger and stronger.

Tracy K. Smith in her poem The Greatest Personal Privation (from Wade in the Water, 2018), speaks through a voice that is heard as both slave-owner and slave. She intends to write history and begins with a proper historical citation, “a letter from Mary Jones to Elizabeth Jones Maxwell regarding two of her slaves, 30 August 1849.”

In section 3, she writes:

                        In every probability

                        We may yet discover

                        The whole country

                        Will not come back

                        From the sale of parent

                        And child. So far

                        As I can see, the loss

                        Is great and increasing.

The voice addresses the experience of the slave-owner whom we know from other poems in the book is conflicted about slavery, but does not free his slaves, and at the same time looks to the present and sees the societal ramifications of, generations later, slavery. The ability of the poet to move with imagination across time allows her to tell a deeper story. It is not just the moment of violence of repression, but the powerful life of those moments across time, the experience of those moments living in the present, affecting the present, and perhaps determining the present.

A final example, in Americus Book I (2004), Lawrence Ferlinghetti sets out to write a social, sometimes political, history of his era. The book-length poem opens:

                        To summarize the past by theft and allusion

                        with a parasong a palimpsest

                        a manuscreed write over

                        a graph of consciousness at best

                        a consciousness of ‘felt life’

The stanza ends, “The maze and amaze of life”.  In the opening lines he lays out his “poetic-historical” method. It is the job of the poet to delve into the “maze” of life, and to invoke the “amaze”.  This final phrase, “felt life,” achieves its simplicity of direct meaning after a stanza of less direct words, “theft and allusion,” verging on neologisms, “parasong” or “manuscreed.”  History, for the poet, is the created representation of  “a consciousness of “felt life,” that is to say, a history not only in ideas but in subjective experience.

Poets can and do write history–whether through documenting their individual experiences of contemporary events, unearthing forgotten histories, referencing history in more subjective lyrics, or synthesizing history and exploring questions of impact and influence across time. Textbook history often veers from lived experience, from the “felt life”.  This is such a powerful pairing of words–the felt life. Here is the source of poetry. Here is where the role of the poet diverges from that of the historian. The poet reaches beyond the facts with dramatic impact and suggests a personal relationship with history tracing out the lived consequences of what has happened in the public world. And so, the history learned through poetry is genuine in its documentation and recording as a primary source, and broadly synthetic in its capacity to see the future in the past, and the past in the future. Poets stand with Lucille Clifton, “accused of tending to the past.” And poets challenge us to keep our histories complete. As Abraham Sutskever wrote on February 14, 1943 from the Vilna ghetto, this first stanza from his poem How (in Whitman, Ruth.  An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry: Selected and Translated by Ruth Whitman [Bilingual Edition]):

How and with what will you fill

your cup on the day of freedom?

In your joy are you willing to feel

yesterday’s dark screaming,

where skulls of days congeal

in a pit with no bottom, no floor?

Owen Lewis is the author of three collections of poetry, Field Light (Distinguished Favorite, 2020 NYCBigBookAward; 2021 “Must Read”, Mass Book Awards), Marriage Map and Sometimes Full of Daylight, and two chapbooks. best man was the recipient of the 2016 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize of the New England Poetry Club. Other prizes include: Second Prize 2018 Wigtown (Scotland) International Poetry Competition; Finalist, 2017 Pablo Neruda Award; and First prize, the 2016 International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, a commendation in 2020 The Troubador International Poetry Contest (UK). His poetry has appeared in Nimrod, Poetry Wales, The Mississippi Review, Southward, The Four Way Review and Stay Thirsty Poets. His essays have recently appeared in Intima and Presence. He is a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University where he teaches Narrative Medicine in the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics.