Poetry and History

Monday Morning Musings


With Susan Weidener at my poetry workshop for her Women’s Writing Circle


“Prose is words in their best order; poetry is the best words in their best order.”

–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Herodotus says, “Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.

–Mark Twain, A Horse’s Tale (1907)

“I dream a dream that dreams back at me”

–Toni Morrison, A Mercy


It was a weekend of poetry and history,

ancient arts,

poetry, the word

derived from the ancient Greek, “I create,”

the forms,

honed over centuries,

the sea metric cadences of Homer,

the structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets,

the beauty of its language and rhymes,

discussing love and mortality,

the spare words of Emily Dickinson

magic with dashes

varied styles,

reflections on nature and life

best words in best order,

words in place and time.


I teach a workshop

with these ideas in mind—

to provide some guidance

to give my knowledge

(such as it is)

to women who want to

write their lives, their history, in verse

to help them find the best words

to capture the magic

to help them release it

in the right order.


We sit in a hotel conference room

large windows covered partly by pleated white shades,

in the lobby desk clerks laugh and flirt,

but in this room

we sit round the table

with a candle burning,

enlightening light,

coffee and water at hand

(nourish the body

as well as the soul).

I give the women prompts

and they create magic,

the right words come

in the right order.


“How did it go?”

my husband asks me,

he offered to drive me,

drive me

to the workshop

and home again.

Though I would have done it,

I was grateful for his gesture.

“It went well,” I reply

I feel good.

As we travel home,

I gaze at the traffic and cornfields

bright white clouds

fat, puffy sheep

frolicking across a field of blue,

Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Are they more real because I’ve recorded them?

I wonder.

We journey home to New Jersey

and I think of how these women have inspired me

and given me confidence in myself

my abilities to create,

to share the right words

the best words

in the best order



The next day,

My husband and I go to the movies,


a film about an historical event,

the plot to kill Reinhard Heydrich,

Architect of the Final Solution,

“Butcher of Prague.”

It is a true story of bravery and courage,

though fictionalized,

the men are humanized here,

they are not stone figures, no,

not larger than life,

their hands shake on triggers,

they love,

they feel regret.

And was their sacrifice worth it

in the end

when thousands were killed in reprisal,

the town of Lidice razed?

Something to ponder,

the costs of war

morality and immorality,

how to fight evil.

Still, no one can discount the bravery

of these seven men,

ordinary men

who did the extraordinary.

I think of Herodotus

(In my head,

his name pronounced

in Ralph Fiennes’s The English Patient voice)

telling history as an entertaining narrative.

There is a line,

but sometimes a story is richer

and somehow more true

for being told as fiction

by using the best words

in the best order.

History is not simply the lives of the great

or of defining moments,

floods and plagues,

wars and assassinations.

There are ordinary men and women

who lived through each of these moments

who survived

or died in cataclysmic events

that change the world

or fail to change it.

It is important to tell their stories, too.

And what of me?

And what of you?

What about our lives?

How do we tell our own histories?

I ponder this,

searching still to find

the best words

and the best order.


Susan G. Weidener, Women’s Writing Circle

Where you can find information about the groups and her books.

Also, find Women’s Writing Circle on Facebook

And Susan Weidener on Twitter


Here’s the official trailer for Anthropoid (be advised that the movie gets violent).








Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On


“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

–William Shakespeare, The Tempest

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

–Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”

I had a dream the other night that I was explaining the difference between a comma and a semicolon to my niece’s six-year-old son.* Unlike my niece, he got it right away. (My niece is amazing, but she is the first to joke about her sometimes grammar-challenged writing.) Unfortunately, I don’t remember my great nephew’s dream sentences now, but they were kind of deep reflections of life and death in nature. It’s funny what we remember from dreams, and what we don’t.

I often have dreams of writing. I also dream of food and recipes I want to try. While finishing my forthcoming World of the American Revolution, I dreamt of editing primary sources. I actually saw and read texts in my dreams. In a half-conscious state I’ve written brilliant prose in my head (or so it seems) that I promptly forget once I’m up and about.

I’m waiting to dream of a masterpiece, something like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” For those unfamiliar with the poem, subtitled, “Or, a vision in a dream: A Fragment,” or with its origins, it is a well-known poem, one of the great works of Romantic poetry, a poem of beauty and imagery, and a poem of dreams. I can remember my dad reciting its opening lines. (You can read the poem here. ) Coleridge said the poem came to him while he was in the midst of an opium dream. While writing it down, he was interrupted by someone who came to his door. When Coleridge returned to his desk, he could not remember the rest of the poem.

Coleridge was an opium addict. Opium, in the form of laudanum, or a tincture of opium dissolved in a base of alcohol, was a common household medicine in the nineteenth-century in England and the United States. (The modern hypodermic needle was invented in the mid-nineteenth century, allowing morphine to be injected to relieve pain—and creating a group of Civil War veteran addicts, among others.) Laudanum did not require a prescription, and it often cost less than alcohol. Poor parents and unscrupulous nurses dosed infants with laudanum to keep them from crying from hunger or to induce sleep. Men and women took it to relieve the myriad pains of nineteenth-century life—everything from toothaches and menstrual pains to migraines, diarrhea, and severe coughing. It was a common ingredient in patent medicines. Many of the other Romantic Poets also took laudanum, although perhaps not as often or notably as Coleridge.

I would love to awaken with the memory of a brilliant book, poem, play, or other creative work that I could quickly write down before it disappeared from my memory. (I could say I dream of it, but I won’t.) Unlike Coleridge, I would have to do so without actually taking any mind-altering substance. Unless you include chocolate or caffeine, or an occasional glass of wine, as mind-altering–which I suppose they are in a kind of happy mouth-feel kind of way. Yes, I do dream of chocolate. You’re not surprised, are you?

If you have a cat or dog, you’ve probably seen them dreaming. Their bodies twitch and sometimes their legs move as if they’re running. I remember one of our dogs sometimes barked in her sleep. I always wonder if their dreams are happy and what they see. Dreaming must be necessary for them, as well as for humans.

Dreams are essential to human life–both the nighttime fantasies that take place as our brains process the events of the day, and the daydreams we all have. C’mon you do, too. Dreams can be scary. They can bring out inner demons and taunt us with visions of things that cannot be. At least not now. But the dreams of artists, scientists, explorers, and revolutionaries have led to discoveries and movements that have changed the world. Dreams are the visions of the real and the unreal that meet and mingle in our brains. Dreams twist time and space. Sometimes they even twist and shout.

Most Americans probably know of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” If you haven’t read or heard the entire speech, you can read and listen to it here. It is still soul-stirring.

Perhaps what’s odd is not that we have dreams, but that we seldom remember or act upon them.

* If anyone needs help with commas and semicolons, here’s a great post from The Oatmeal

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”

–John Lennon, “Imagine”