Know Ohio: Poetry Inspired by Ohio

IT COULD BE OUR REMARKABLE HISTORY, OUR BREATHTAKING LANDSCAPE, OR OUR DIVERSE CITIES – BUT, WHATEVER IT IS, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT OHIO THAT INSPIRES CREATIVITY. THE BUCKEYE STATE HAS BEEN THE MUSE OF MANY NOTABLE POETS THROUGHOUT THE YEARS – WHO’VE USED THE WRITTEN WORD TO TRY TO CAPTURE OHIO’S ONE-OF-A-KIND SPIRIT. 

ON FAMOUS POET WHO SEEMED TO FREQUENTLY HAVE OHIO ON HIS MIND WAS CARL SANDBURG. BORN IN ILLINOIS, IN 1878, SANDBURG BECAME ONE OF AMERICA'S MOST CELEBRATED POETS DURING HIS LIFETIME. SANDBURG DEVELOPED A UNIQUE FORM OF FREE VERSE THAT REFLECTED THE RHYTHMS AND COLOR OF MIDWESTERN SPEECH.

HE’S WELL-KNOWN FOR HIS POEMS ABOUT CHICAGO, BUT THE POET ALSO CAPTURED OHIO’S MULTIFACETED SCENES. IN HIS POEM “HONKY TONK IN CLEVELAND, OHIO,” PUBLISH IN 1920, SANDBURG DESCRIBES THE SOUNDS OF A BIG CITY JAZZ CLUB ALMOST LIKE A ZOO, WRITING:   

“IT'S A JAZZ AFFAIR, DRUM CRASHES AND CORNET RAZZES.
THE TROMBONE PONY NEIGHS AND THE TUBA JACKASS SNORTS.”

BUT IN A CALMER POEM, “CROSSING OHIO WHEN POPPIES BLOOM IN ASHTABULA,” SANDBURG PAINTS A DIFFERENT OHIO – A MORE RURAL ONE, AS HE DESCRIBES THE TRANSITION FROM SPRING TO SUMMER: 

PICK ME POPPIES IN THE BACK YARD
IN ASHTABULA.
MAY GOING, POPPIES COMING, SUMMER HUMMING:

OF COURSE, SANDBURG IS FAR FROM THE ONLY POET TO GET HIS CREATIVE JUICES FLOWING IN OHIO – IN 1854 ACCOMPLISHED POET HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW WROTE ABOUT ANOTHER KIND OF FLOWING JUICE – CINCINNATI’S FAMOUS CATAWBA WINE. THE WINE WAS MADE FROM CATAWBA GRAPES PLANTED IN THE CITY’S VINEYARDS – AND, IN HIS POEM, APTLY NAMED CATAWBA WINE, LONGFELLOW CELEBRATES CINCINNATI’S NICKNAME, THE QUEEN CITY, WRITING:

"AND THIS SONG OF THE VINE,
THIS GREETING OF MINE,
THE WINDS AND THE BIRDS SHALL DELIVER,
TO THE QUEEN OF THE WEST,
IN HER GARLANDS DRESSED,
ON THE BANKS OF THE BEAUTIFUL RIVER."

WHILE SANDBURG AND LONGFELLOW WERE JUST VISITORS WHO HAPPENED TO FIND INSPIRATION HERE – OHIO ALSO CLAIMS ITS FAIR SHARE OF POETS. PERHAPS THE MOST FAMOUS IS DAYTON, OHIO-BORN PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR. GROWING UP IN THE 1800’S, HE BEGAN WRITING POETRY AS A VERY YOUNG CHILD AND EVENTUALLY GREW TO BECOME THE MOST FAMOUS AFRICAN AMERICAN POET IN THE COUNTRY. HIS POEMS WERE OFTEN ABOUT THE DIFFICULT AFRICAN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE AT THE TIME – AND HE DIFFERENTIATED HIMSELF FROM OTHER POETS BY WRITING IN A TYPE OF SPEECH COMMON TO AFRICAN AMERICANS.

ANOTHER OHIO-BORN POET, JAMES WRIGHT, FREQUENTLY FOUND INSPIRATION IN HIS HOME STATE. IN HIS POEM, BEAUTIFUL OHIO, WRIGHT PAINTS A PICTURE OF HIS HOMETOWN, MARTINS FERRY ALONG THE OHIO RIVER, WRITING:

SIXTEEN THOUSAND AND FIVE HUNDRED MORE OR LESS PEOPLE
IN MARTINS FERRY, MY HOME, MY NATIVE COUNTRY,
QUICKENED THE RIVER
WITH THE SPEED OF LIGHT.
AND THE LIGHT CAUGHT THERE
THE SOLID SPEED OF THEIR LIVES
IN THE INSTANT OF THAT WATERFALL.
I KNOW WHAT WE CALL IT
MOST OF THE TIME.
BUT I HAVE MY OWN SONG FOR IT,
AND SOMETIMES, EVEN TODAY,
I CALL IT BEAUTY.

THE BEAUTY WRIGHT SPEAKS OF, IS FOUND THROUGHOUT THE STATE – AND IN DIFFERENT PLACES, FROM A JAZZ CLUB IN CLEVELAND TO A VINEYARD IN CINCINNATI. IT’S THESE DIVERSE SCENES THAT MAKE OHIO SUCH A POWERFUL MUSE – EVEN IF FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS CAN BE TRICKY! 

THANKS, MARY.

SO YOU JUST HEARD HOW POETS LIKE CARL SANDBURG TURNED WHAT THEY SAW AROUND THEM INTO BEAUTIFUL VERSE – AND, NOW, WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!

WE’VE GOT AN OPENING FOR A NEWSDEPTH POET LAUREATE – SO SEND US YOUR POETRY INSPIRED BY WHAT’S AROUND YOU – YOUR SCHOOL, YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD, YOUR CITY, OR EVEN YOUR STATE!


Instructional Links


eBook: Internet Archive,  C. L. Martzolff, Poems on Ohio | Published in 1911 by the Ohio Historical Society

eBooks: Ohio Digital Library, Kids Poetry | Use your library card to read these. If your library is not listed, check your local library for access.

Classroom Resources: ReadWriteThink, April is National Poetry Month | Activities, lesson plans, interactives, mobile apps, & parent resources

Classroom Resources: Scholastic, Celebrate National Poetry Month | Poetry, authors, lesson plans, printables, poetry writing prompts

Website Article: Meet Ohio's 2016 Ohio Poet Laureate, Dr. Amit Majmudar

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