Tag Archives: poetry

Poetry in ENG 132

Prior to reading Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” we’re looking at some examples of poetry that may be unexpected. Like we turned literature on it’s head, so to speak, by reading a graphic novel, we’re going to cover poetry through a performative lens. I am not concerned here with celebrating the mystery of language or the special skill “required” to understand poetry, but rather the very practical, personally applicable function(s) of poetry in our everyday lives. Poetry is everywhere, in song lyrics, in advertising, in novels, in our minds, but poetry is also met with extreme resistance. We’ll discuss some of the reasons why. I hope to break down these barriers by turning our attention toward slam poetry; while these poems cover material that may be difficult to talk about, by bearing witness to these performances we can perhaps know more than we might otherwise have if we had read these stories in a traditional, paragraph-oriented text to be read in a quiet room, alone.

Prof. Lonsdale’s ENG 132 Poetry Playlist I’ve enabled the option that allows people to add videos to this playlist; if there are poems you want to see included that I can show students in future semesters, please contribute!

“Allowables” by Nikki Giovanni

“The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches” by Audre Lorde (more Audre Lorde here)

“St. Roach” by Muriel Rukeyser (listen to recordings of her work here)

“Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes

“not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith

“humanity I love you” by ee cummings, read by Amanda Palmer

I’ll leave you with these words, from the podcast On Being, an essay by Audre Lorde on the necessity of poetry for women:

For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They lie in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. They are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare.

If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core-the fountain-of our power, our womanness; we have give up the future of our worlds.

For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7 AM, after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth; while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.

from “Sister Outsider: essays and speeches” page 36. Published by Crossing Press, 1985.


Reading Protests

How do we “read” protests? Museums are collecting signs from the Women’s March on Washington as well as those from sister events all over the world, Facebook’s live video feature brings the chanting to your own device allowing you to watch from anywhere, news stations report on these events with headlines like this one from the Detroit Free Press: “Thousands gather at DTW, around Michigan to protest Voldemort’s* ban.” Our textbook, Everyone’s An Author, includes photos from a student-led protest against low wages paid to campus workers (7) and of a Black Lives Matter protest with a caption that reads “Protestors use posters, raised fists, and more to communicate their positions” (6). Here are my own photos from yesterday’s protest at DTW and two from the Women’s March on Lansing:

Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees.Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees.My daughter at the protest at DTW catching snowflakes on her tongue.One protest sign reads Protesters standing outside in the snow at DTW holding signs offering support to immigrants and refugees. One sign reads
My friend Laura and I holding our signs at the protest. Mine says
A woman dressed up as a vagina at the Women's March. Her costume is pink and made of a feather boa, gemstones, and fabric. She is wearing a black Afro on her head and is holding a sign that reads Signs from the Women's March on Lansing. One reads
Yesterday, this image was circulating on Facebook:


I shared it. Because I do not yet have tenure, which means that I lack the protection that some of my colleagues who have fulfilled their duties to earn tenure can fall back on, I have to be especially judicious in what I choose to share in the classroom and how. Unfortunately, I can’t come in and say “fuck Trump.”*** Fortunately, I teach writing, and part of writing is reading, which means we can talk about how to read these events – the artifacts, the rhetoric, the process of organizing, the role that communication and new media plays in mobilizing individuals and communities, the grounds on which they form and what they respond to, and that allows us a platform to explore and critique the messages we are fed, and the opportunities we have to participate.**

In ENG 131, I’m working on revising our song analysis assignment to include a greater variety of media and to emphasize the people responsible for creating that media; in other words, who was that person, what did they do, and why was it effective? I want to bring protests into our work because they are rich for rhetorical analysis: how do people decide what to put on signs? Which signs are most effective (which signs make it into photographs? Which signs are most memorable? Do signs have an impact on elected officials? Who are the signs for?)? What makes a well-organized protest, rally, or other similar event? How do people choose to make their values and beliefs visible? Who has access to these events? Who participates? How are these events written about in the news? Does it differ depending on the news source and their bias or relationship to the event itself and/or its sponsors? 

In ENG 132, we’re going to read Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” which was originally meant to be performed as a radio documentary. This unit is framed in two ways: one, as an example of the second use of literature we’re talking about (knowledge), and two, as a means of reading critically, making connections, and establishing context. For the workers in BOTD, silicosis literally took their voices away. Because they were black in 1930’s America, they had little authority in court, and their representatives were all white men. Students will have an assignment in two parts: an annotated section of the poem that branches outward to illustrate context, and a transmediation that pairs the poem with another text, song, work of art, or film and puts them in conversation. We’ll talk about witness, a term used here to refer to our obligation as individuals and as communities to respond (Rukeyser would say that poetry demands a “total response”) when we encounter predjudice or discrimination, acts of violence or hate crimes, and/or systemic issues that oppress a group of people – something that we encounter in real time now thanks to new media and how quickly footage circulates. What kind of response is owed? What does it look like? Is clicking “like” or “share” sufficient? What action is appropriate? What is sufficient? What do you do when you feel powerless? How do you learn more?

Texts are not the only media we read. We read video, we read action, we read advertisements, we read music. Reading, as we’ve discussed pretty extensively in ENG 131, is a rhetorical act. It is purposeful, it varies depending on genre and use, and it is an active process that now more than ever requires you to dig in and around and beyond the initial document. I’m looking forward to working on these assignments this semester; I’ve done them before (or variations of them), but I think the current social and political climate in our country will make for an interesting next few months. That feels like a gross understatement, actually, but I’m being smart here and also trying to keep my head above water. 

*I installed the Chrome extension called Trump To Voldemort because I can’t bring myself to use his name. My daughter calls him Turd, I’ve heard people use “45,” and “President Electoral,” but I just…I’m not there. Voldemort gives me some hope, because I know from the Harry Potter series that good triumphs over evil, and that there is power even among divided houses (Gryffindor couldn’t have won the Battle of Hogwarts without Slytherin!).

**In the middle of writing this, my next-door office neighbor met with his Honors student; they are working on a project that provides a historical overview of protest music, and I’ve jumped on board. So excited to see what comes out of it! All the playlists! I loaned her my copy of Of Poetry and Protest, it’s a book I picked up last semester that I have yet to sit down and read all the way through. 

***I also want to reiterate here that I am not in the business of pushing anybody toward any political platform. All views get space so long as those views a) do not oppress or attack anyone, and b) can be backed up with evidence. This is a big part of what we do in composition courses. We talk about argument. We analyze texts. We evaluate evidence and learn to be media literate. We also LISTEN to one another (we covered this on Day 2 of ENG 131) before making judgments. We do not treat argument as war. We make sure to practice inclusive, intentional position-taking, including positions of resistance. Language can be violent. I am not in the business of violence. I am, however, in the business of teaching young people to step up when needed, step back when it’s someone else’s turn, and most importantly, to challenge and critique the systems that we participate in. On that note, I probably shouldn’t say “fuck Trump,” but we’re talking about the meme, here. Also, Pioneers Press makes good stuff. 

Upcoming Events

I want to draw your attention to two events that you may be interested in attending:

On Monday, January 16, 2017, poet Claudia Rankine will be speaking at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium. Here’s a link to the Facebook event page. The event is free and tickets are not needed; however, it may be crowded so you may want to arrive early and plan for parking (which is not free in downtown Ann Arbor).

On April 4, 2017, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will be speaking at the University of Detroit-Mercy. Tickets for this event are $10 (free to U of D students and faculty). Here is a link to the event website. 

Contextualizing BotD, Part 3

Our second class on BotD covered a few shorter sections: Mearl Blankenship, Absalom, The Disease,  George Robinson: Blues. We also read The Doctors. To accompany these sections, two excerpts from a book on the Hawk’s Nest Disaster were provided, one of these is George Robinson’s statement to the court, and the the other is a short interview with the daughter-in-law of Dr. Harless, who treated many of the men who contracted silicosis before he was terminated by Union Carbide. These sections provide further human contact with the incident; in other words, we’re not just getting Rukeyser’s thoughts on what she observed here, but actual statements from the people who lived there, who worked in the tunnel, and in the case of Absalom, we hear from the mother of three boys, the youngest of whom (at age 18) asked that his body be used for research.

In these last sections (Arthur Peyton, Alloy, The Disease: After Effects, The Bill, and The Book of the Dead), we hear more about the court proceedings, and the relationship between water, power, corporations, and people. We are presented with law, with the consequences of a labor disaster carefully curated by a corporation, and a return to The Road in the last section (notice the repeating lines).

I’d like to investigate a few of the names mentioned in the poem, and you may choose to pursue any of these names further for your annotations: Dr. Hayhurst, Dr. Harless, Cecil Jones (and his family), Mr. Marcantonio, Dr. Goldwater, Mr. Griswold.

A newspaper announcement found via a Google search. Note Marcantonio’s accusation.

In the last post, we saw a letter from Nancy Naumberg to Muriel Rukeyser, offering suggestions for what would become BotD. Here is a photograph she took of shacks along the railroad tracks in Vanetta, a community/coal town along the Gauley River. For perspective, here are some images from Google Maps:

This map depicts Gauley Bridge, where the Hawk’s Nest tunnel was dug, Kanawha Falls below that, Alloy to the west, and the New River traveling southeast. The river heading north is Gauley River.

This map depicts Gauley Bridge, where the Hawk’s Nest tunnel was dug, Kanawha Falls below that (mentioned in “West Virginia”), Alloy to the west (“Alloy” is a section of BotD), and the New River traveling southeast. The river heading north is Gauley River.
Nancy Naumberg’s photograph is of a town in Vanetta. As you can see, Vanetta is just north of Gauley Bridge. Alloy, another town mentioned (we didn’t read that section) is to the west. Note the Gauley River National Recreation Area to the northeast, and Summersville above that. Summersville is where the gravesite and memorial is located, and where many of the bodies were taken and buried in unmarked graves prior to being moved to the memorial cemetery.
This map shows the Gauley River traveling through the GRNRA, and to the north is Summersville. That small circle right before the road crosses the river is where the memorial is located.
While people flock to the area now for white water rafting, hiking, and rock climbing, the towns along Gauley River and New River were once coal-mining towns. In fact, you can hike the Kaymoor Trail (if you can handle the stairs) and head down into the mine where you’ll see the processing plant, coke ovens, and town site.

A few major themes we should address (in groups!) in regard to BotD now that we’ve read through the poem in its entirety (mostly):

  • Citizen journalism and authority: who has the authority to speak on an issue? Where does authority come from? Rukeyser was certainly no expert (by certain standards), and yet her work ensured that Union Carbide would be exposed for years to come, despite their efforts (and successes) in minimizing the incident. How do we see citizen journalism at play today? What obligation (if any) do citizens have in witnessing, documenting, and circulating information about events? Are their words just as valid as “experts?” Is there a place for both? Can you think of any examples?
  • Here’s another essay on the same subject. What do you make of this? Were the doctors victims of corruption (in other words, were they victims much like the men who died?), or were they willing participants in the problem? Why? On a similar note, you may recognize the saying, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. What obligation did the doctors have to the workers? To the company? What barriers did they experience to being on the side of the solution? 
  • How does this connect to our own obligation as individual readers, or viewers, of documentation like BotD or the news we encounter on our televisions and social media accounts? What does it take to be part of the solution? What obligation do we have once we have witnessed an event? What barriers do we experience to taking action and/or creating change?


Next time we meet, we’ll be discussing annotations. Here’s what you should be doing before then: think about the sections we read in class, or consider reading the sections we skipped. Look for areas that were especially interesting, moving, or even confusing. Look for places where you needed more information as a reader, and places that stirred a memory of something else (another text, an event, a personal connection) over places that required interpretation. You’ll need to choose one section of the poem that you can annotate. I will show you an example of an annotated poem, and you’ll have time to begin searching for information with my support.

Contextualizing BotD, Part 2

In our first class covering Rukeyser’s BotD, we talked about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster, we looked at photographs of the river, dam, and tunnel, and we saw the small roadside cemetery that houses just 41 of the bodies of the miners who died because of silicosis.

We read “The Road,” which I think is about Rukeyser’s drive out to West Virginia from New York, as she describes the sights one might see while leaving the city through the suburbs and entering the backcountry, not terribly far away, and yet an entirely different world. Note her mention of the suburbs, the six-lane highway, the spa, and the tee. She seems to be alluding to wealth and comfort (“Gay blank faces wishing to add history to ballrooms, tradition to the first tee”). Note as well her reference to ownership: “These roads will take you into your own country.” Whose country? Do the people living in major cities and the surrounding suburbs, those with white collar jobs, know what she refers to as the “deep country?” Have they ever visited? Maybe for vacation?

We also looked at “West Virginia,” Rukeyser’s poetic backstory for the state; necessary to situate the Hawk’s Nest incident as part of a larger story. “Statement: Philippa Allen” is our first shift into Rukeyser’s use of documents in this poem; this is an actual record from the “Investigation Relating to Health Conditions of Workers Employed in the Construction and Maintenance of Public Utilities,” a 1936 Report of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor. Reading it out loud helps to distinguish between Miss Allen’s statements and the questions asked by the committee. Following this section is Gauley Bridge; remember, this is the city where the disaster takes place, and in this section Rukeyser explicitly reminds us that “These people live here.” In this section, she repeats the word glass often, and it is worth noting that silica (you may recognize silica gel packets from a shoe box!) is a component of fused quartz, or glass.

To supplement our next sections of BotD, here’s some more information:

I found a letter from Nancy Naumberg, Rukeyser’s photographer friend. The text is copied below:

April 6, 1937
Dear Muriel,

I wanted to give you a few of my personal reactions to Gauley Bridge, and also to suggest a general outline. First, following your first two sentences, I would suggest describing the disease, and its symptoms. Then, telling the story of Viv. Miller as we drove to view the tunnel, about which I had heard so much. Through his story, the background of the tragedy. In other words, as in the story I told Eliz. do it chronologically, only this time getting in the facts as much as possible.

Stress, through the stories of Blankenship, Milleretc. [sic] the necessity of a thorough investigation in order to indict the Co., its lawyers and doctors and undertaker, how the company cheated these menout [sic] of their lives, and the miserable conditions under which they now live; stress the relief situation, the inadequacy of it, how far they have to go to get it, how the silicosis men are put on the heaviest kind of work relief with the tunnel bosses in charge and how many of them are too sick to work, how when Jones and Robinson testified, they were taken off work relief, and only put back on because of Congressional pressure.

Stress the importance of silica rock — use Robinson’s testimony for silica dust stories, show how we heard that the men working there have been bought offby [sic] the Co. Show how the tunnel itself is a splendid thing to look at, but a terrible thing to contemplate. Show how a similar condition must not be repeated, how there must be adequate precautions taken in industry, how adequate compensation lawsmust [sic] be enacted, how the whole thing is a terrible indictment of capitalism.

Are you going to the modern museum showing tomorrow nite?

If you want me to help you write this with you in the morning, let me know.

Nancy [Naumberg]

[letter to Rukeyser from Nancy Naumberg, who accompanied the poet to Gauley Bridge; in the Muriel Rukeyser papers, Library of Congress]

I also mentioned the lack of available materials on the Hawk’s Nest incident; here’s a link that lists both books and newspaper articles that were published. Availability of these documents is iffy, but the West Virginia Archives and History Library does have them, so if I’m ever out that way again (which I hope to be), maybe I’ll get to see them. Rukeyser’s papers are part of a special collection in the Library of Congress, another place I’d love to visit. The finding aid can be located here. For those of you who are unfamiliar (probably most of you!), a finding aid is a document that identifies the papers that are part of the collection; these can include letters, notebooks, and other unpublished works. There are also letters collected at the New York Public library.

Moving into the next four sections of the poem, we’ll focus on documentation of silicosis by way of a brief 2010 journal article from Environmental Health Insights, and a source that addresses the living situations of the miners, employment conditions, and the compensation mentioned on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster sign in the previous post.

And lastly, outside the NYPL, on Library Way, are plaques by a number of writers, including Rukeyser. This quote is from “The Speed of Darkness.”

Time comes into it.
Say it.         Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

This photograph is from the Muriel Rukeyser Wikipedia page.

Contextualizing Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead”

In ENG 132, we’re reading Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” a documentary poem about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster (also known as the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster) in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Below is Part 1 of 3, providing context for the historical event and commentary on the use of poetry to ensure its legacy.

When I first encountered Muriel Rukeyser’s work, I was an undergraduate student in my last semester, which is when English majors at EMU take the senior seminar. Elisabeth Däumer, my professor, brought us “St. Roach” to read and discuss. Another one of Rukeyser’s poems we looked at was “Ballad of Orange and Grape.” I have always loved poetry, especially poetry that subverts expectations. I like confessional poets, like Sylvia Plath who defies the lines that determine what is appropriate for good company, and I like rebel poets, like Sherman Alexie who uses sarcasm and satire to expose Indian stereotypes and the systems that keep these stereotypes alive. I like Claudia Rankine, who writes about everyday encounters with racism. And I like Muriel Rukeyser, who not only wrote poems, but wrote what is essentially a manifesto on the resistance to poetry, the fear of poetry, and the need for poetry in a time of crisis (which is, if you look at American history, nearly all the time).

Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” or BotD from here on out, was originally meant to be a radio play. It documents the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster that occurred in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Poems like BotD are considered documentary poetry. In 1936, Rukeyser, at 22 years old, traveled with a photographer friend, Nancy Naumberg to West Virginia to witness and document the deaths of miners from silicosis, a disease that was not yet recognized nor fully understood (or perhaps it was, and great efforts were made to downplay the consequences because silica was considered a valuable commodity at that time).

Rukeyser’s first collection of poetry, Theory of Flight, was published just one year prior, in 1935. BotD appeared in U.S. 1 in 1938. From the introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, she was…

…beyond her time – and seems, at the edge of the twenty-first century, to have grasped resources we are only now beginning to reach for: connections between history and the body, memory and politics, sexuality and public space, poetry and physical science, and much else. She spoke as a poet, first and foremost; but she spoke also as a thinking activist, biographer, traveler, explorer of her country’s psychic geography (xi).

In addition to BotD, other poems by Rukeyser written in similar style (long poems, poems that document) include “Waterlily Fire” about the fire that destroyed Monet’s Waterlily series at the Museum of Modern Art in 1958, and “Willard Gibbs,” part of a suite of poems called “Lives” that profiled five Americans; Gibbs was a scientist who worked on applications of thermodynamics. Her work extends beyond the page as well; Doctor Atomic is an opera about the test of the first atomic bomb that incorporates some of Rukeyser’s work from The Speed of Darkness. 

For our first reading of BotD, I want to frame it with some photos from a trip I took to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, last summer. After reading Rukeyser’s poem, I wanted to see for myself the places she wrote about, and I wanted to see the gravesite and memorial after reading about the concept of witness in Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. I felt compelled to go witness for myself, I suppose, to not just read and move on but to go and pay my respects.

A sign on Endless Wall Trail, where I hiked to see the New River, the tunnel, and the dam.
New River, from Diamond Point Overlook
The dam, and Hawk’s Nest Tunnel entrance to the right.
A sign documenting the tunnel disaster. This sign estimates the death toll at 476 but most records estimate in the 700’s and possibly more. 
This sign is off the freeway near Summerville and easy to miss, but I caught it out of the corner of my eye while driving by, and we turned around to go back. I wonder if it’s hardly visible on purpose?
Monument at the Hawk’s Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site
Small wooden crosses decorate the ground at the memorial. This is called Whippoorwill Cemetery, and according to this article, there are 41 black bodies buried here.