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Using Poetry to React to Historical Events and Causes

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

The nation mourns. [Poem]. Chas. Magnus, New York, c1865. //
The nation mourns. [Poem]. Chas. Magnus, New York, c1865. //
Just as news media outlets report on the happenings of the day and nonfiction authors research and reflect on events of their times, poets offer emotions and reflections on events and causes they feel strongly about.

Choose one or more of the poems suggested below or other poems that address events in history. Consider recording the poems to allow students to listen more than once. To foster collaboration, reach out to a theater teacher or drama club to find students who can record the poems. Provide students the text of the poems you have chosen. As part of the activity:

  • Encourage students to interact with each poem by listening and reading more than once.
  • Provide a model poem for which you have noted the use of poetic language and other poetic elements in reference to the event. Ask students to do the same with the poems under consideration.
  • Offer opportunities for discussion in small groups or via a quick-write.
  • Ask:
    • How does the speaker feel about the event or cause? What makes you say that?
    • What elements of a poem (i.e., language and structure) has the writer used to convey their thoughts?

To extend the lesson, ask students to think about an event or cause in their lifetimes, or one they have learned about in school or on their own that they feel warrants a poem. Students can begin their poetry-writing process by brainstorming words or phrases that reflect the feelings evoked when they consider the event or cause. Once students have written a poem about their chosen event, invite volunteers to read their poems to the class.


The Assassination of President Lincoln

Both Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and the anonymous lyrics to “The Nation Mourns,” published by Charles Magnus, are reactions to the death of Abraham Lincoln at the hand of John Wilkes Booth.

The Movement to End Child Labor in the United States

Many felt that using children for labor in the United States was wrong because children should be in school and jobs should be reserved for adults who did not have other employment. These two poems come from the Library of Congress’s National Child Labor Committee Collection:

The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in the United States

The fight for women’s right to vote in the United States is said to have begun at the Seneca Falls Convention in July of 1848. Women gained the right to vote across the nation with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. The poems below represent both pro and anti-suffrage attitudes:


The Attacks of September 11, 2001