Historical Poetry: Memorial

Historical Poetry: Memorial
Weathered grave markers at Christ Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In this peaceful cemetery lies the remains of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and other well know people both in their time and in ours. Here, too, there are markers where time and the elements have rendered unreadable.
By: Daniel Derasaugh

Here; a crafted stone once stood.
Now weathered and leaning.
Beneath which rests an anonymous life.
How it began, how it was lived;
Now as mysterious as the craftsman,

And how it ended?
Dissolved into the abyss of time.

When looking at old grave markers where the inscriptions have been worn away by time and the elements, it is natural to be curious about who is buried beneath it. Perhaps, too, it is natural to easily dismiss these people as not likely having any historical significance. Yet, they were important enough at least to someone who saw it fit to ensure the location of their burial was marked. We can not simply dismiss them. Their life, whatever it may have been, did have some impact on history. In some way, no matter how small, everyone who has lived has contributed to where we are today.

I wrote Memorial a few months before my trip to the Northeast, but it was not until this trip that I found a perfect location to take a photo for the featured image. Christ Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has many markers that fit the theme of “Memorial”, so this provided the appropriate subjects. The hardest part was trying to decide on which photo was better. I wanted to choose one that honors the poem’s theme, carries a mixed sense of wonder, mystery, and a hint of sadness, along with maintaining a respectful nature.

Benjamin Franklin, the most famous and well known resident at Christ Church Burial Ground, along with Benjamin Rush; another signer of the Declaration of Independence among other significant achievements. Franklin attended  services at the church as well, and his pew is a draw for tourists. While the Benjamins are two of the most famous people buried here, there are others of historical significance. I think will further explore this burial ground in a later post.

The point here is to wonder and lament for the unknowns. Not just weathered markers in Christ Church Burial Ground, but everywhere. My inspiration for “Memorial” came from seeing multiple markets in several cemeteries that have weathered to the point of just being a stone jutting from the ground with surfaces worn away, or the carvings of words so faint they are illegible.

These markers are also a way to put time into perspective with our lives, or our lives into perspective with time. They are reminders that sometimes, despite our best efforts not to be forgotten, time eventually forces the issue.





Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War Part 2

Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War Part 2
A medal designed by Karl Goetz to commemorate the Battle of Verdun; a terrible battle fought from February to December in 1916 in which over 300,000 soldiers were killed and hundreds of thousands more wounded. This battle had as many losses as most wars saw in their entirety up to this point in history and it was still not the worst of the First World War. Death personified is shown whisking away a woman; an accurate and disturbing testament to the war that was supposed to end all wars.

For the last few months I have been gripped with a fascination of the First World War. It was one of the last topics in United States history I taught at the end of this past school year. As I have said before, I want to try to create an emotional connection to the war to help make learning about it matter. I hope I have, in some small way at least, achieved that with “Death Dances Across the World”.

"Death Dances Across the World"
By: Daniel Derasaugh

Within dark clouds and flashing light,
moving behind such a veil; a ghastly sight.
Tearing ground with every swipe.
Her gleaming scythe gathers from every type.

She looms over all,
as millions die and nations fall.
A towering wraith with a shroud of soot.
Broken bodies wail under foot.

She harvests, she gathers,
the ground breaks and taters.
Still millions more are sent.
Have not enough souls been spent?

Death dances across the world.
Incinerating peace and the last of hope.
Bursts of light from mortar shells,
reveal her form, the horror tells.

On November 11th her blade grows dull.
Blunted from many a reaped soul.  
Of this, the first of two great harvests ends,
as souls to heaven or hell the reaper sends.

“Death Dances Across the World” is my attempt to sum up the level of destruction and loss of life as a result of The First World War, while at the same time acknowledging in the last stanza that such a horrific global conflict would not be the last.

Personification of Death

I used the personification of death as a way to connect to the period. Death is not an unusual image used in relation to the First World War, or any event that causes such massive loss of life.

Obverse of the British Recreated Version of Karl Goetz’s Lusitania Medal.

Goetz’s Verdun medal, shown in the featured image, and his Lusitania medal shown to the right, are just two of many examples that show death personified. It is this morbid theme that I am attempting to carry on with this poem.

The Goetz medal; the one shown here, is a British recreation that was produced as a propaganda piece to show the brutality of the German U-Boat attacks against civilian ships. Goetz’s original was made as a German propaganda piece to show disregard of the warnings of using passenger ships to transport arms and supplies to the Allied Power nations. The ticket salesman on the right side who is selling civilian passengers their tickets to the ship is shown to be a skeleton.

Using death as a character also carries another purpose. As fantastical as it is to imagine a monstrous skeletal figure hidden in the smoke of burning cities and battlefields walking across the land to reap the lives of soldiers and civilians, it is also not pleasant. It is supposed to be unsettling, but interesting as well.

Poetry as a Lure

The base purpose is to help readers visualize the consequences of the war and to build interest in the period and hopefully study it deeper. Perhaps using the creative avenue of poetry can help spark that interest. Some people do not need this, but others may. “Death Dances Across the World” and the two poems from  Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War are written to be lures to build interest. They are not something to study, but to be read before asking: “Do you/I want to know more?”

If we wish to the learn from the consequences of previous generations; good or bad, making it matter is key.  But we can not do any of that unless we know and understand the past.

I hope this helps.

Ruins of Vaux, France in 1918





Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War

Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War
A graveyard of sorts stands where a lush forest once grew. Broken and burnt trunks of trees stand as markers with smoke rising in the background. Haze, or more smoke, drift among the markers. Soldiers walk in the foreground with experiences detained as memories in their minds; experiences we could never fully understand, nor would we wish to. Yet we should seek to empathize with them as much as we can, to not just learn about history, but connect deeply with it, to understand the consequences of the past to help us prevent such tragedies from occurring again.

Emotion and visualization are the best tools we can use to connect to a historical period or event. In my second post I included a quote by David McCullough, which I will include again because it works so well here:

History is about people. History is human… You have to get to know the people. You have to get inside their lives.

-David McCullough

The purpose of the following two poems is to inspire an emotional connection to the tragedy of the First World War. These are poems that describe a basic overview of the war itself, nothing specific about a person or event, so they do not go as deep as other poems about similar topics have, but it is a start for me, anyway.

The Great War
By: Daniel Derasaugh
A false calm hides resting chaos.
While forces build their strength.
Ignorant of their new power;
such destructive might.

Pressure mounts, peace strains.
Then a spark; a tiny yet terrible flash.
The vortex forms and rapidly death begins its spiral.
Churning and cranking.

Slowly, flesh is drawn to the grinder.
Faces and futures.
Torn and tattered.
Crimson to bone, bone to powder.

Only Echoes remain…

Marching British soldiers, 1917.
Field of Battle
By: Daniel Derasaugh
It is silent now.
The earth is still, the air is calm
the last echoing moan has now ceased.
Succumbed, and silenced;

Yet hours before,
Beneath a dark sky cloaked in clouds,
the ground rumbled with deep concussions.
Far away thunder and nearby blasts
cracked the air.

Doom, not weather.
Death, not rain.
The Earth lay torn and burning.
Rifles sang out their chorus,
Munitions burst with atmospheric flashes,
like lightening upon the horizon.

Death stood tall,
casting a cloaking shadow upon her spoils.
Trenches and the destroyed road to Bapaume.

The understanding that people experienced and endured periods we study is essential to making it matter. It allows us to connect to what ordinarily we can only know through a photo, or perhaps a video or written/verbal first hand accounts.

French soldiers in the ruins of a cathedral during the Second Battle of the Marne, 1918.

We have to tap into the emotions of those who experienced what we are studying, and to do that we have to tap into our own emotions in order to empathize as much as we can. We can never really match their experiences, but we should try to make our understanding as profound as we can.

The further the event was in the past, the more guesswork it becomes, but we can make educated guesses. The real goal is to seek that connection; make it matter, then get into the content and facts of the subject area.

Historical Poetry: Pottery Fragment

Historical Poetry: Pottery Fragment
Above is a structural foundation that is found in front of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. As with the pottery fragment the poem below is about, these two creations can be a conduit to the past. Someone who lived long ago skillfully crafted these with their hands. Ponder it some. An artifact held in the hand and looked upon by the holder as more than just an old item with or without historical significance can open up a new way of thinking about history. With a little background knowledge and some creativity, the artifact can come alive and a discussion develop. Below is the result of my first attempt at such a practice: A conversation with history written in poetic form.

Israel Pottery Fragment
By Daniel Derasaugh

Beneath the sands,
covered and lost;
you rested alone.
without worth.

Small, square, copper-toned piece;         
Whose sure hands crafted you?
What purpose did you hold?
Who relied upon you?
And how did it end?

“Pulled up and fashioned from the Earth.
Water for a lone potter’s widow, then,
a young family with a little girl.
A trip to the Jordan,
and a careless step.”

How long was the wait?
“Two millennia? Two days?”
Was there relief to be found?
To be held with purpose, prized?
“No, there was nothing. A numbness.”

You should now know,
There is new worth in you.
Appreciated and valued by One,
Cherished by Another

“I feel now. I know.”

The Actual Pottery Fragment

Pottery Piece 1
Front view of the pottery fragment which is the subject of the poem.

It really is just a small piece of broken pottery, isn’t it? Seemingly insignificant in its importance. There are, after all, an untold number of these fragments. However, it was part of someone’s daily life at one point, or several points, in time.

The two poetic devices prominently used for this poem are personification and point-of-view. Personification is used to allow the conversation by giving the fragment the ability to listen and respond to the questions asked from a realistically imagined point-of-view. Content knowledge is important, but the degree can be variable depending on whether you are just trying to look at inanimate objects in a difference way, or promote your own or others interest in a historical topic.

In truth, I have no way of knowing if anything in the poem actually pertains to this fragment. But this is where schema and imagination work together to create logical meaning where none may exist at first.It is logical to assume this was a vessel for carrying water, and since it was found by the Jordan River, it probably somehow met its demise there.

Pottery Piece 2
Side view of pottery fragment.

Mixing a bit of creativity with history can help make it come alive for those who are not too fascinated with the topic. Doing so allows for something like this fragment to have some kind of importance that can be grasped, making a seemingly worthless piece of clay far more significant. However, remember that whatever is conjured up in the mind, no matter how backed by content knowledge, cannot be taken as historical fact.


Historical Cemeteries

Historical Cemeteries

For me, Texas Historical Markers inspire a great deal of awe and excitement. They do not have to mark a significant moment in history to catch my interest. Sometimes the mundane, little known events and locations can be just as fascinating as the more significant, well-known ones. History has occurred everywhere, and the smallest moments recorded are often the ones that provide the most significant connections to the past. They are stories of regular people’s lives; the kind of people we can more easily relate to.

David McCullough has said:

History is about people. History is human… You have to get to know the people. You have to get inside their lives.

So, when I stumble upon a state historical marker I get excited, but that thrill is heightened when the marker is there to mark an old cemetery. I stumbled upon such a pairing this past weekend.

On the northern side of The Shops at Legacy in Plano, Texas, there is a hill surrounded by an iron fence where inside lies the remains Henry Cook, a veteran of the War of 1812, and a member of the Peter’s Colony. Braccus Cemetery, named after Cook’s daughter’s married name, was founded by Cook when he buried his son there in 1847. A Texas Historical Marker provides a brief history of the location.

Braccus Cemetery Historical Marker
Baccus Cemetery Historical Marker

The cemetery was not my reason for going to The Shops at Legacy, I did not even know it was there. I went because I had only been in the area two times before, briefly, and wanted to take a more in-depth look around. It was a pleasant surprise to find.

Standing tombstones in the Baccus Cemetery in Plano, Texas.
Standing tombstones in the Baccus Cemetery in Plano, Texas.

Cemeteries offer something special that many historical sites do not. Historical sites can be impacting places to visit if you allow yourself to fully comprehend and reflect on what occurred in the area. Yet, in most cases the people who caused, played a part in, and/or simply experienced these occurrences cannot be found there.

While a cemetery is not always the host to a notable historical event, it does provide the resting place of the bodies of those who had lived those events. It is one thing to walk the ground of an historical site, but a cemetery can be significantly more profound since the remains of the men, women and often children who lived it are a few feet below the ground where you stand.

Some smaller cemeteries can be found in the most unlikely places. The Riley and Warner cemeteries in Carrollton, Texas are two examples of small cemeteries, not much bigger than a house lot, and are found in the middle of neighborhoods. They are an odd sight. You have a series of houses that are unexpectedly interrupted by a little hill capped with a fence and old native trees. Mixed within are grave markers more than a century old.

The Riley Cemetery in Carrollton, Texas.
The Riley Cemetery in Carrollton, Texas.
The Warner Cemetery in Carrollton, Texas.
The Warner Cemetery in Carrollton, Texas.

Perhaps the title “Historical Cemeteries” is a bit inappropriate. There are those that are declared official historical sites, but in truth, all cemeteries are historical, aren’t they? They contain the remains of people who have lived in a different time. Their bones may be all that remain, but consider this: those bones are what carried their bodies and supported them as they lived through all the events we are taught about, and many more that we are not. Their bones are the most profound connection to our past.