Deep Dive into Short Forms: Historical Poetry

by Brenda Joyce Patterson
published in Reading

My next few articles will act as a deep dive into specific short form works. We’ll examine a piece from each short form and dive deep into its inner workings to find the path to success in our own short form pieces.

Last month at the Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference, I rediscovered mystery and revelation in familiar territory—poetry. All thanks to my instructor, multi-disciplinary artist and poet Frank X Walker. He introduced his verse love—historical poetry—by querying us about an iconic bit of history: George Washington and his teeth. We talked about what we “knew” and what was true historically. Which led to an ingenious writing prompt and what I consider the most powerful writing I’ve done this year. But first, what is historical poetry?

Historical Poetry: Making the Invisible Visible

Historical poetry is a subgenre of poetry incorporating history and historical with verse. Often associated with persona poems, the genre generally uses a first-person voice separate from the author and is narrative in tone. It can vary in length from a single poem to a series of linked thematic or persona poems to one book-length poem.

Poets Marilyn Nelson, Campbell McGrath, and Frank X Walker provide excellent contemporary examples of historical poetry. In her Newbery Award-winning book, Carver: A Life in Poems, Nelson helps readers see a fuller picture of George Washington Carver than just the man who discovered 300 uses for the peanut.

Interestingly enough, the Corps of Discovery or The Lewis and Clark Expedition provided the little-known heroes of books by both McGrath and Walker. McGrath’s book-length poetic narrative, Shannon, centers around 18-year-old George Shannon and the 16 days he went missing from the expedition. Walker penned two books about York, Clark’s personal slave: Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York and When Winter Comes: The Ascension of York. In both, through persona poems, York tells the story of the infamous Lewis & Clark expedition and his personal journey—inner and outer.

Using historical poetry, specifically persona poems, these poets blend history and art to illuminate the lives and humanity of these figures. They make the invisible visible.

All the Truth

After talking about the artifacts—two sets of Washington’s false teeth—that remain and what history recorded, Walker invited us to write about Washington and his teeth but from a different or unusual perspective. By doing so, we were pushed to experience history in a new way. Pushed, in Emily Dickinson’s words, to “[t]ell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Walker is no stranger to the idea of writing from an unusual perspective. One poem, “One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead” from his book, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, has a most remarkable narrator, the bullet that killed Medgar Evers. In the poem, he captures the best of persona and historical poetry.

Let’s Read:

“ […] Before I rocketed through

the smoking barrel hidden in the honeysuckle,

before I tore through a man’s back and shattered

his family and a window glass, before I bounced

off a refrigerator and a coffeepot, before I landed

at my destined point in history, next to a watermelon.”

Here the “I” is a fully-formed persona, dispassionately recounting its journey from gun to its landing spot “next to a watermelon”. The litany of each station along its flight distances readers from the act of violence. It also is an effective rendering to highlight the monstrosity of what is happening before us.

“ […] praying

that he not miss, then sending me to deliver a message,

as if the woman screaming in the dark or the children

at her feet could ever believe that bullets could hate.”

The poem’s events are grounded in fact—the bullet’s trajectory, the shooter’s racial hatred. Yet, Walker’s use of the bullet as narrator underlines, without histrionics, the evil hatred works. The bullet, this “I” persona, is not taken in by the clandestine nature of the shooter’s act. Nor does it assign that same gullibility to Myrlie Evers and the children: “as if the woman…the children….could ever believe that bullets could hate.” It knows, as we readers know, that hatred resides in the shooter.

Walker’s ingenuity of view and investigation into fact inspired us workshop members. Some wrote of Washington’s teeth from the POV of a blacksmithing tool preparing to extract a slave’s teeth or an enslaved parent of a young child whose teeth were taken. I wrote of the imagined glee of George Washington’s stomach at the promise of a new set of dentures:

New Teeth for The Father of His Country: The First Stomach Rejoices

“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire” – Ledger notation by Lund Washington (cousin and estate manager of George Washington), Mount Vernon plantation, Account Book dated May 1784.

I rumble much satisfaction
at welcoming my new mouth
yes    yes a gleeful day
indeed this is a day
of rejoicing    think of it
glorious hunks of sustenance
steaks   the roundedness
of cow   marinating tallow
of lamb   that tender gamy
taste of wilderness
carrots    ah yes, carrots   
much longed for and necessary
I am not just for wallowing
in blood     earth too has flesh
the lofty meats of armed giants
Mississippi nuts   walnuts chestnuts  
I bother not for the where of it
these teeth   tools for my enjoyment 
or the how they come to me    anyone 
so easily dispossessed of the wealth
of these ivoried treasures
affirm I am the better owner 
I care only for the filling
of my emptiness   enough  
I say   of the mush of babes 
and the infirm     I care only
for the meats soon to be mine
right and proper spoils 
for commander-in-chief

Fact of the Matter

Writing historical poetry is not just slipping a few ‘facts’ in a poem. It actually begins with research and fact-checking. If you’re unsure about what research and fact-checking entails, I recommend you visit your local library. You can make an appointment for a library tour with a reference librarian. They can tailor their tour to cover the subject/time period your poem will cover. They can also help you develop research strategies to make your search more efficient and help you avoid fake or false facts. Historical/genealogical groups and libraries are also excellent places to visit for reputable historical information.

If you’re a more DIY-type of person or are short on time, start with the International Fact-Checking Day website. It provides information and research techniques to discern real facts from fake. While the site’s aim is to help users avoid fake political news, it includes an online course to develop basic fact-checking skills and info on critical thinking.

If historical poetry is new to you, I suggest reading the following books and websites for technique, craft and enjoyment:

Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.

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