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Primary Source Set Found Poetry

The resources in this primary source set are intended for classroom use. If your use will be beyond a single classroom, please review the copyright and fair use guidelines.

Teacher’s Guide

To help your students analyze these primary sources, get a graphic organizer and guides: Analysis Tool and Guides

“Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”

--W.B. Yeats


Why Use Primary Sources?

The historical record is made up of factual evidence, but history becomes meaningful for students only when they personally engage in determining what that evidence reveals. Primary sources can help students perform the critical thinking necessary for them to develop a personal understanding of the past.

Primary sources are the raw materials of history—the documents and objects left behind by the eyewitnesses and participants in past events. Because they are incomplete and often come without solid information about their historical context, they require that the student move from making concrete observations to making inferences about the materials. Primary sources encourage students to ask questions about point of view: What is the intent of the speaker, of the photographer, of the musician? How does that color one’s interpretation or understanding of the evidence?

It can be difficult for students to understand that we all participate in making history every day, that each of us in the course of our lives leaves behind primary source documentation that scholars years hence may examine as a record of the past. The immediacy of first-person accounts of events is compelling to most students and can provide a link between the lives of people who lived long ago and students’ own lives. Primary sources thus help students relate in a personal way to events of the past and come away with a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events.

“Retelling” History

After you have engaged your students in analyzing and interpreting historical primary source content, in synthesizing the information, and in making personal connections with history, ask them to articulate their understanding. Retelling history from one’s own perspective can help them make the learning their own. While there are many ways that students can “retell” history, one very effective strategy is the writing of “found” poetry. Using rich primary source texts, students select words that allow them to retell the historical content in poetic form. Evocative images of an era, theme, or topic contribute to historical understanding and can spark writing ideas. Careful observation and analysis of an image will provide historic details and to historical understanding and can spark writing ideas. Careful observation and analysis of an image will provide historic details and supportive information, and may even offer rich language for the found poem. Have your students use the tools provided in this Primary Source Set for document analysis. Notations about objective and subjective observations will be invaluable when they begin to retell history through their own poems.

Creating Found Poetry

To create a found poem, students select words, phrases, lines, and sentences from one or more written documents and combine them into a poem. Raw material for found poems can be selected from newspaper articles, speeches, diaries, advertisements, letters, food menus, brochures, short stories, manuscripts of plays, shopping lists, and even other poems. A set of Library text resources written by well-known authors is provided in this Primary Source Set.

There is no single strategy for creating a found poem. The words and phrases selected to make the poem depend upon the student’s initial purpose. Here are some strategies you may suggest to your students:

  • Analyze the source document(s) for understanding and retell the same story in poetic form.
  • Focus on the underlying issues of the source(s), then create a found poem that discusses the same issue but as it relates to today’s world.
  • Focus on descriptive techniques by selecting words that bring vivid images to mind.
  • Select words and phrases that contain poetic effects such as alliteration and consonance.
  • Select words and phrases and use them creatively in any way that moves you. When students have selected their words and phrases, they combine, arrange, and rearrange them, considering not only the content and meaning of the emerging poem but also its rhythm and line breaks. Because writing found poetry is a personal process, students will approach their work in various ways. Some students will use pencil and paper. Others will cut out words and phrases from the printed source document and physically arrange them on a desktop or blank sheet of paper.

Suggestions for Teachers

Teachers may find these Library of Congress primary source documents of particular support to interdisciplinary teaching. This set provides evidence of the writing process, as well as historical evidence about persons, periods, and events.

  • The letter written by Helen Keller will astound students with Keller’s ability to “see” the World’s Columbian Exposition, despite her visual limitations. The image of this event will help your students to “see” what Keller describes.
  • Students can compare and contrast Walt Whitman’s first notebook (#80) with later notebooks (#94 and #101). Students may consider how Whitman’s writing and thinking changed in the years between the writing of these notebooks, and what might have caused these changes. Teachers may find the Collection Connection, Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection, a useful resource.
  • Alice Paul’s dedication to the cause of women’s suffrage is well documented in a newspaper article, while an essay provides an opposing viewpoint and opportunity to consider this cause from different perspectives.
  • Langston Hughes’ poem offers students a chance to view the process of his writing, not just the final product. Students can analyze Hughes’ edits, consider why these changes may have been made, and think about what the poem would have said without these changes. Students may wish to find out more about the life of Booker T. Washington, as well.
  • Students can gain an appreciation of the Harlem Renaissance through a selection from the WPA Life Histories. Students may be surprised to learn that Zora Neale Hurston wrote for this project.
  • Zora Neale Hurston’s play settings and character lists are rich in descriptive language. Students may wish to read Hurston’s entire play after this introduction.

Additional Resources