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Stories in Verse

Marilyn Nelson has an impressive body of children’s and adult poetry and other books. I had read her book of poems The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems  but I more recently found her book, How I Discovered Poetry which is written for a younger audience.

How I Discovered Poetry is not a book about poetry or a how-to about discovering poetry as the title might suggest. It a fictionalized memoir in verse. The book includes line-and-shade illustrations and Nelson’s family photos.

Nelson says that the “I’ in the book is not her, but it is certainly based on her experiences from ages 4 to 14 as her family moved and lived on numerous military base homes in the 1950s.

She calls it the “portrait of an artist as a young American Negro girl.” It is comprised of fifty autobiographically-inspired sonnets without rhyme which are are part research, part life experience, and part imagination.

The book’s title comes from a poem near the end of the book and is perhaps not the warm story we might expect about discovering poetry.

Nelson may be better known for her book A Wreath for Emmett Till.  Back in 1955, it was news that Emmett Louis Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy, was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.

It was a brutal murder. His mother had an open-casket funeral to let the world see what had happened to him.

The acquittal of the men tried for the crime was a big media story at that time.

His story became one of the triggering events in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Nelson writes that “I was nine years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His name and history have been a part of most of my life.”

In this book, meant for a high school reader, Nelson uses another heroic crown of sonnets. This is a sequence in which the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next. She says that she used this form because it ” became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter.”