Verse Journalism: The Poet as Witness
Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks proposed localizing the news of the day one clipping at a time. In Report from Part One, the first book of her two-volume autobiography, Brooks named her construct “verse journalism” and defined it as “poet as fly on the wall ... poet as all-seeing eye.” As she taught, poetry encourages a more robust investigation of news and events. With the benefit of poetic license, verse journalism provides poets the opportunity to explore a topic from the inside out. But unlike traditional journalism, this construct leaves room for emotion, creative imaginings, and nuanced opinion as students witness the world.
Verse journalism melds the literary forms of journalism and poetry to create an offspring distinct from both parents. There are at least four elements that distinguish verse journalism from traditional reporting:
- Poetic form gives students the opportunity to create an intimate relationship with a news item, to personalize it.
- Working in verse permits students to concentrate on particular aspects of a news item that they find compelling.
- Incorporating poetic license in a journalistic process allows students to express opinions and beliefs as well as chronicle events. Reportage becomes personal statements.
- The opinions function within the world of the poem, the poetic environment created, rather than simply offering a platform for dogma or mere documentation.
The potential to engage students in this mode of learning about current events, as well as history, is valuable from many standpoints and has cross-curricular applications. In the verse journalism construct, students explore how people, place, and geography inform identity and life experience. Certainly history and basic research are important aspects of verse journalism; the standard journalistic questions regarding a current event (who, what, when, where, why, and how) provide entrées into the process. Once students record responses to those questions, empathy becomes a vital element in creating the poem. Students must consider the actions and question motivation for the poem to be effective.
To help students gain an understanding of a news story or current event and build a level of empathy; to help students create a foundation for the development of critical-thinking strategies that may be applied to persuasive essays, debate, and other elements of English/language arts curriculum while strengthening students’ competency in English language arts. The target group for this exercise is high-school students, though a teacher might determine that it is appropriate for middle-school classes.
You'll need news periodicals, writing materials (paper, pens, pencils), dictionary, thesaurus. The lesson plan can provide a template for a single day of poetry writing or be expanded into a more comprehensive inquiry. The time length is adaptable, from a single forty-five-minute session through a five-day process. This exercise in verse journalism creates the opportunity for students to establish an intimate relationship with a news item, to personalize it. Working in verse permits students to concentrate on particular aspects of the current event they find compelling. Student opinions are welcomed in the verse journalism construct. The inclusion of student ideas and emotions about their chosen topics should inform word choice. A note of caution, however: advise students to avoid rant or dogma.
INITIATING THE DISCUSSION
Select a poem based on a news item (see suggestions below); discuss the event that prompted the poem and the ways in which the poem explores the event and articulates the author’s opinions. After reading the poem aloud, guide students in a line-by-line discussion of it. Ask them to identify the sensory elements at work in each line. Discuss how the poet reveals his or her own impressions of the circumstance. Allow time for students to select a news item and conduct research. This could include a library visit and/or homework. Engage the class in a discussion of the events they have chosen to investigate.
MOVING INTO THE WRITING COMPONENT
Next, direct students to create “blueprints” for their poems by writing responses to the following:
- Select a news item, either current or from your past, that made an indelible impression.
- List the who, what, when, where, why, and how. The responses to these questions should include a one- or two-sentence explanation of each topic.
- List all the possible emotions the people involved in your news story might feel.
- List all of the sights, sounds, and smells associated with your chosen topic.
- Make note of your opinions and/or feelings regarding this event.
- Permit your opinion to guide your narrative and word choice.
After the students have compiled their responses, return to the model poem shared earlier. This time, ask students to identify descriptive adjectives that will aid in describing the circumstance they have selected.
Next, engage students in a quick review of the following poetic devices:
As students create their first drafts, ask them to include at least one example of each device listed above somewhere in their poems. They may, for example, cull a sound from the blueprint and employ onomatopoeia to bring it to life, or they may give voice to a weapon to incorporate personification, et cetera. There is no line limit, but tell students that they must write at least twelve lines.
During the revision process, in addition to the standard tightening and tweaking, ask students to ponder other significant aspects of the news event they might have missed. Encourage them to think about sensory language, ideas, actions, setting, and points of view. Peer critique is a valuable element at this point of revision.
PUBLISHING AND PERFORMANCE
Schedule an in-class verse-journalism poetry reading, allowing time for sharing background information associated with the places and people who populate these works. These stories offer fodder for other poems and narrative writings. After the in-class reading, consider publishing the poems as a newspaper or an anthology.
If your instruction is part of a team-teaching effort with social studies, civics, or history teachers, this process can be adapted to any historical era. Additionally, this format can be used as a related unit of study for special celebrations or observances, such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and other observances of cultural and historical significance.
Examples to consider as models: Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock”; Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”; Oliver Rice, “Timely Enumerations Concerning Sri Lanka;” Patricia Smith, “Up on the Roof;” Brian Turner, “Ashbah.”
Quraysh Ali Lansana was born in Enid, Oklahoma and earned his MFA from New York University, where he was a Departmental Fellow. He is the author of the poetry collections A Gift from Greensboro (Penny Candy Books, 2016); mystic turf (2012), They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems (2004), and Southside Rain (2000); his...
Georgia A. Popoff is an educator and arts-in-education specialist. She has published three poetry collections, most recently Psalter: The Agnostic’s Book of Common Curiosities (Tiger Bark Press, 2015), and is coauthor of a book for teachers on poetry in K-12 classrooms. She serves as a senior editor of Comstock Review and a workshops coordinator...