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Documentary Poetry

Documentary poetry captures specific examples in history and illustrates these events in words, images, sound, video, and other media.

Poets often take a first person perspective of a person at the event or may act as observer and use a third person voice.

The poems record grief, lives, and honor voices of those who can no longer speaka nd often could not speak when alive.

Qualities of Documentary Poetry

  • Creative process connected withand inspired by primary sources
  • Poet’s intention is to represent tone/voice in primary sources authentically
  • Creative works integrate primary sources, sometimes responding to documents unseen by the reader, other times arrangingexcerpts from primary sourcesto create something new, or integrating source excerptswith original poetry
  • Purpose is to bear witness/raise awareness/incite social change, reflecting the role of poet as engaged citizen, journalist, historian, witness, and advocate


Mentor Texts

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. “The Cry of the Children.” 1844. Found online here:

Dawes, Kwame. “Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica.”

Voices of Haiti Project

Jess, Tyehimba. “Syncopated Sonnets: TED Talk.

Reznikoff, Charles. “Children 3”.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Book of the Dead. 1938. Found online here:

Trethewey, Natasha. “Believer.” Congregation.

source: Heidi Renée Aijala

Reading Documentary Poetry

Knowledge by Natasha Tretheway (CW: Nude cadaver)

Much of Tretheway's work derives from images. Whether from pictures, documents, or memories these poems draw on snapshots of history. When you read the history of the image Tretheway used (CW:suicide, body image) the poem becomes more real.

  • Teaching Ideas
    • Have students look for elements of gender, power, and tone?
    • Interrogate how Tretheway treats beauty. How does this treatment affect structure? word choice?

Writing Documentary Poetry

Side Show

  • Choose an historical event OR
  • Choose an historical photo or different source
  • Research the Event
  • Brainstorm words, phrases or feelings from the source
  • You can make a graphic organizer like a tchart and one side write what you want to describe and on the left write a stanza.
  • Optionally incorporate direct quotes

Student Examples

documentary_poetry.txt · Last modified: 2020/06/04 17:20 by