Poetry Friday: A Worker Reads History

April 10th, 2009

On the first day of school Sarah Cooper, author of Making History Mine, reads this poem by Bertold Brecht to her students. The poem “urges us to recognize ordinary people whose contributions made great events possible,” writes Sarah. After she discusses unfamiliar words, she asks her student to stand as the entire class reads the poem out loud. “This kind of activity — combining reading comprehension, literary awareness, historical context, and critical thinking — enable us to view the nuts-and-bolts details of history through a longer lens,” Sarah argues. You can browse Making History Mine in its entirety now!

A Worker Reads History
By Bertold Brecht

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

Entry Filed under: Content Areas,Poetry Friday

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. meshaun  |  December 9th, 2009 at 8:05 am

    a nice poem

  • 2. Brian MacDonald  |  December 15th, 2011 at 4:10 am

    A wonderful reminder that explorations are made on the muscles of bearers, Caesar led legions of sweating men with blisters chaffing in worn caligae, and great monuments were built on the calloused hands and dusty backs of masons and hauliers.

    Once it was said, ‘Spare a penny for Belizarius” , the military genius blinded by a fool of an Emperor. Let us also say, ‘Spare a thought for the ordinary folk who died builiding the pyramids or following Alexander, standing in the British square or digging the mines that fueled the Industrial Revolution’s ‘dark satanic mills’, and enriched the Robber Barons to come.

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