Thursday, August 7, 2014

Comparing historians and poets

What do historians and poets have in common?
Both create.
Historians create accounts of past events and people. To do this, they must make choices about what from the past is worth writing about and take a close look at sources from the past. From there, they construct and refine evidence based arguments about the past.

What does a poet create? A poet creates meaning using language. Though a poet is not tied to evidence and remains of the past the way an historian is, the two create meaning using language.
For our purposes, by focusing on this similarity, we can note a number of useful points about the discipline of history.

For example, historians work with sources. Sources from the past come in a variety of forms. How an historian approaches a source often requires a sensitivity to language and human behavior, both areas that overlap with the work of a poet.

In addition, historians interpret evidence and construct arguments about the past, which then must be interpreted by readers. In this way, there is common ground regarding how a reader approaches a poem and an historical account. Both must be interpreted. Both contain vareid meanings, including revealing much about the author.

Both have to make choices about topic and language use.
What am I going to write about?
How am I going to write about my topic?

Both have readers who make judgements about their creations.

Why is judgement necessary?
The choice to write is purposeful. But, obviously, people write for a variety of reasons. As a careful reader, you need to consider an author’s purpose and factor that into how you interpret a text. Readers sometimes just start reading a text without considering the circumstances surrounding its creation.

Think about the way a person reads a restaurant's menu or an instruction manual. If you approach a poem or an historical account this way, you are going to only derive one superficial layer of meaning, missing many others.

Think of an onion and its many layers. Often the most important layers of a historical account or a poem are beneath the surface, not stated but implied.

Because the author of a poem or an historical account has made so many choices about how they write, readers must consider these choices when forming a judgement about what they have read. The meaning conveyed in a text is not just what’s written on the page.

Historians and those who study literature or poetry are quite aware of this. And you are going to need to practice to learn how to detect this, to derive unstated yet defensible meaning from a text.

Historians and poets tell us something by what they choose to write about and, more specifically, how they write. They also tell us something by what they choose not to write about. Authors also reveal assumptions. Usually you have to infer these from the text. This is called subtext.

In the end, a focus on subtext, in a variety of forms unites historians and the creator of poetry, as well as other forms of literature.


  1. Hi Joe, I have been thinking about how history teachers can learn to be better writing teachers. I like your choice of allying historians and poets as creators. We know from research that the structure of a writing prompt influences student outcomes. Unfortunately, when most history teachers assign writing, the focus is on summarization. This focus inhibits historical reasoning because interpreting history relies on reconciling multiple sources of evidence. How can history teachers create prompts that emphasize corroboration, sourcing, and causal analysis into their everyday classroom practices?

  2. Hi Scott, well said. I'd like to elaborate on the issue of prompts, as well as the connection b/t writing analytically and reading carefully, thoughtfully. Will incorporate into some upcoming posts. Thanks for taking the time to read, post.