Poetry Activity: The Cold Within

James Patrick Kinney’s poem meets Frost’s “Mending Wall”

Looking for a poem to generate a rich and engaging discussion with your students?

I recently came across a post in one of the Facebook Groups I belong to. As I scanned the comments on a particular post, I learned about a poem called “The Cold Within” by American poet James Patrick Kinney (1923-1974). The teacher commenting said this simple poem had yielded some of the most meaningful discussions her students had ever experienced.

Photo: Pexels

I did some quick online searching and located the poem, which is in the public domain, according to this website. In this article by Susan Hawkins, the author’s son Timothy Kinney acknowledges that his father wrote the poem as a “parable about the things that separate us and how the coldness in men’s hearts is a kind of death.”

Even though James Kinney had written the poem during the early years of the United States’ Civil Rights movement, it didn’t gain notoriety until much later, Hawkins writes. He presented it to the city council in Cheviot, Ohio (near Cincinnati) in response to the council’s begrudging attitudes about the removal of a long-standing curfew that had been placed on African-Americans years earlier.

Kinney applauded the lifting of the curfew; he abhorred the council’s initial hesitation to do so. You can read much more about the conflict here, but without further ado, here’s the poem:


by James Patrick Kinney

Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.

Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.

The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.

The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?

The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.

The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.

The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.

Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.

See what I mean by powerful? Can you imagine the conversations? Can you envision the possibilities with this poem?

Of course, you’ll want to first read it a few times aloud with your students, teach any new vocab, close read (to study the poem’s structure, rhyme, and word choice), and introduce students to the author and his motivation for writing the poem.

You may also want to read my post about how to make discussions fair and respectful of student privacy.

After that, here are three ways to dive deeper into “The Cold Within” in your classroom:

  • Ask students to write down the character from the poem they can identify or sympathize with — and why — as you read the poem. For example, if a student feels as if people who are born into wealth have an easier time at life, she would write that she can sympathize with the man in tattered clothes from the fourth stanza. Next is the hard part: explaining why, personally, they feel this way. What circumstances or observations have prompted this belief? Are those observations accurate and fair?
  • Have students share their first impressions of the poem. Prompt them by asking, “If you were to describe this poem’s message to someone, what would you say?” This will help them boil the poem down to its essence… to summarize it, in effect. Another idea: try a one-word summary.
  • Even though this poem addresses six different “coldnesses,” others also exist. Ask students to think of one more type of “cold within.” What other difference could compel people to grasp tightly to their metaphorical birch logs? A disability? Political worldview? Gender? Have students write a four-line stanza for their one additional “cold within” that could be added to Kinney’s poem. Ask how can we find commonalities despite these differences?

Stay tuned for more posts about poems I think might be interesting for high school classrooms in the year 2020. Whether we’re in our classrooms this fall, holding Zoom meetings, or simply sharing poems in packets, students need practice reading them, discussing them, and honing their civil discourse skills amid real world issues and struggles.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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