Documentary poetry is a form of poetry that seeks to document (or capture) a historical moment in words, images, sound, video, and other media. The genre can be spoken in the first person or take a more removed third person perspective. This type of poetry:
-- (often) contains quotations, images, and other documents not produced by the author
-- adopts the use of testimonial
-- seeks to uncover hidden truths about historical events, especially as those events apply to marginalized histories
-- includes individual narratives as well as collective stories
Drawing from the definition of documentary poetry from the Chicago School of Poetices, this unit explores how documentary poetry works with pre-existing cultural documents— such as newspapers, family documents, advertising, archival material, and public testimony—to produce poetry that intervenes in the textual construction of “reality” by merging the social with the personal.
More specifically, this unit will consider how documentary poetry records grief, mourns the dead, and memorializes the voices of those who can no longer speak, such as Chinese coal miners who were killed in the Sunjiawin mine disaster and the Jews who were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. To frame our discussion, we will read widely and deeply in the form of documentary poetry, beginning with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous 1844 poem “The Cry of the Children.” As we read, we will consider the implications of documentary poetry across history, emphasizing the present consequences of such calls and ultimately taking up Claudia Rankine’s 2014 work, Citizen. Ultimately, we will conclude the unit by constructing our own documentary poems.
Poetry is a matter of words. Poetry is a stringing together of words into a ripple and jingle and a run of colours. Poetry is an interplay of images. Poetry is the iridescent suggestion of an idea. Poetry is all these things, and still it is something else...The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and “discovers” a new world within the known world.
-- "Chaos in Poetry," D. H. Lawrence, December 1929