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Writing Civil War Ballads from Photographs and Whitman’s Words

Step Six: Fashioning the Poem

The first thing we do is put together the choruses for the poems. Depending on the students’ experience, they either start writing immediately or I do a demonstration on the board, using Whitman’s phrases suggested by members of the class. When it is hard to decide how much of Whitman’s language to use in a line, or when to alter it to fit our purposes, a demonstration can model some strategies. To do this, I ask class members to swap notes with each other and then to read out phrases they like. Let’s imagine that from this we have collected the following phrases on the board:

by common consent and arm
musketry so general
on in the ranks
a ruthless force
flash of musket barrels
sunrise cannon and one at sunset
one great pitchy torch
in pews laid down
full length in mud
dare advance
youths with the experience of oldest veterans
face white as lily
several dead bodies lay near
men in old clothes and are dirty
leave not the bridegroom quiet
at my feet a soldier, a mere lad
at the foot of the tree, amputated feet, arms, hands
no happiness must he have with his bride
the mass of men in the army are young
men dying upstairs and down
no sleepers must sleep in those beds
heap of amputated limbs
our army foiled with severe loss
orders given to fall in
27 hours of attack… everyone lying on their backs
so shrill you bugles blow
fresh graves of mostly officers
shadows of deepest, deepest black
names on barrel boards stuffed in the dust
the eyes calmly closed in death

Playing around with these phrases—condensing and rearranging them, for instance—leads us to some unusual combinations:

Flash of sunrise cannon.
Youths dare advance.
White as a lily
in pews laid down.


Youths the highest veterans
consent and arm.
One great pitch torch
full length in the mud.

The lines of these choruses use standard poetic lengths of between four and seven syllables. But after reading Whitman, we know that much longer, sweeping lines are possible. Make a shape that suits you, I tell the students. If you want to try long lines, add your own words to the phrases you’ve taken from Whitman.

The chorus may also come from our own words and ideas. We can look to Whitman for historical details, then cast them in our own words. Either way, the chorus can evoke the essence of the photograph.

Also published in The Story in History.