Friday, August 1, 2014


Several weeks ago, I happened across a review of Marilyn Nelson's new memoir, HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY. Nelson, an English professor and poet laureate from Connecticut, is also the author of several young adult novels, including  CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS, A WREATH FOR EMMITT TILL,  and one of my favorite dog stories, SNOOK ALONE. She's also written more than twenty volumes of adult poetry. You can read some of her poetry on her website.

Marilyn Nelson's father was a Tuskegee Airman and her mother was a teacher. HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY follows the family's travels across the country, from Maine to California, from Texas to Oklahoma to Colorado, through Marilyn's childhood,  during the 1950's. It's a perfect middle and high schoolbook for a study on the Civil Rights era, African American history. You could also use it in a memoir study. Or you could just read and reread and enjoy it, like I did last Saturday afternoon.

"How I Discovered Poetry"
(Clinton-Sherman AFB, Oklahoma, 1959)

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds bourne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she'd chosen especially
to read to the all-except-for-me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing,
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.

Marilyn Nelson

If you want to know more about Marilyn Nelson, here is her website.

Margaret is hosting Poetry Friday at Reflections on the Teche. 


Irene Latham said...

Wow, I had no idea she'd published so much for adults! This is on my to-read list. Thank you so much for sharing about it here... the poem makes me grateful my own introduction to poetry was safely in my father's lap to his rumbly voice reading Shel Silverstein.

Buffy Silverman said...

Powerful words indeed in this poem--thanks for sharing it and introducing this memoir.

Linda B said...

I have it, Carol, still haven't read it, but now I will. I didn't connect that she was the author of Carver, & A Wreath for Emmett Till, both of which I loved. Thanks for sharing so much about this.

Ramona said...

Carol, I read about this book somewhere else so when I read your review, I headed off to request it before commenting. I was also unaware that Nelson had written adult poetry. Thanks for making us aware of this memoir. Maybe I should also request Snook Alone to read with my neighbor who is headed to 2nd grade.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to track down this book. Thanks so much, Carol.

Joyce Ray said...

I know this poem by Nelson and think it is so powerful. I can recommend The Fields of Praise, a collection of her adult poems. Marilyn Nelson is an American treasure.

Bridget Magee said...

Looking forward to reading this soon - another on my to-read list. Thank you for sharing. = )

Ruth said...

Oh, what a painful poem. Thanks for sharing it!

Margaret Simon said...

I loved this book and savored it one summer afternoon. Her writing is so easy to access. I will be sharing this book with my students.

Karen Edmisten said...

Wow -- powerful and painful. The power of words indeed.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Thanks for sharing, Carol - all I can add is another "Wow."

Sounds like a treasure of a book; I have her Carver book (great) but need to read more of her works.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Thank you for sharing that powerful poem, Carol! I already knew of this book, but now I'm pretty much sold.

GatheringBooks said...

I have fallen in love with Marilyn Nelson's books - I think I reviewed a few of those in GatheringBooks, including the very powerful A Wreath for Emmett Till."
I loved these lines from the poem that you shared:
"It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth"
- I have a visceral reaction to poetry - and these two lines capture that perfectly.