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Poetry Broadsides: A Creative Way to Bring Poetry to the Public

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The following post was written by Danna Bell, an educational resource specialist at the Library of Congress. It is geared toward educators and originally appeared on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog.

Poem image, "The Congressional Library"
“The Congressional Library” by William Hyrd Hillyer

Have you seen posters or flyers around your neighborhood or a city you’ve visited? Even with social media access growing by the day, posters and flyers are often still used to spread the news. Since the advent of movable type, people have used posters—also known as broadsides—to get information out quickly.

The Library of Congress has a large collection of broadsides. Some of these have been made available as part of Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. The collection includes posters encouraging people to join the fight during the American Revolution and the Civil War. There are proclamations celebrating holidays or victories as well as advertisements for inventions such as the bicycle or the sewing machine.

But you can also find broadsides with poetry within this collection. A number of publishers printed broadsides as a way to highlight poets and their poetry. Some small presses such as the Unicorn Press and Laboratory Press of the Carnegie Institute of Technology used them as a way to share poetry outside of books. Sometimes the presses used elegant paper, beautiful lettering, and lovely artwork to highlight the poetry.

Look at the broadside for the poem “We Real Cool.” What kind of mood does the broadside evoke? Does the broadside give an idea of where the poem might take place?

Poem We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks
A broadside of “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Poem The Fall of Man
“The Fall of Man” by J.S. Wiestling

Compare it with “The Fall of Man.” Would the artwork used for “We Real Cool” work with this poem? Why or why not?

Explore some of the poetry broadsides. What characteristics make a poem a good choice for a broadside?

Encourage your students to create broadsides of their favorite poems. Ask them why they chose specific imagery or lettering for the poems.

The essays from the Broadsides and Printed Ephemera collections provide additional information on the history of broadsides.

How can you incorporate poetry broadsides into your classroom activities?

Learn more:

You can listen to Gwendolyn Brooks read her iconic poem, “We Real Cool,” in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Read more about the poem and Brooks’ recordings in this post on From the Catbird Seat.