Thursday, April 26, 2007

Marilyn Nelson’s birthday

Today is poet Marilyn Nelson’s birthday (born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 26, 1946). She’s the author of three amazing poetry books for young adults:

*Carver: A Life In Poems (Front Street, 2001) PAIR WITH: Carole Boston Weatherford’s Remember the Bridge (Philomel, 2002)
*Fortune’s Bones; The Manumission Requiem (Hand Print, 2004) PAIR WITH: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2006)
*A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) PAIR WITH: Chris Crowe’s Getting Away with Murder (Dial, 2003)

Each of these is a brilliant blending of poetry and history, completely absorbing and full of details and powerful imagery. But they are for more mature readers, at least middle school age or older, IMO. Her work has been recognized as a finalist for the National Book Award and with Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor citations. She has also authored highly regarded collections of poetry for adults and has been named the Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut. She teaches in the English Department at the University of Connecticut and opened her home as a writer’s retreat with the proceeds from the sales of Carver. Isn’t that lovely?

I first heard about Marilyn Nelson when I participated in an NEH funded Children’s Literature Institute in the summer of 1985 held at the University of Connecticut. She had just translated a poem collection by the Danish poet, Halfdan Rasmussen, Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children (1982). Later I learned that she had earned her PhD from the University of Minnesota (in 1979) at the same time I was beginning my doctoral coursework there.

Here’s just one Nelson nugget, the poem, “How I Discovered Poetry,” part of the NEA and Poetry Foundation “Poetry Out Loud” national recitation competition.

How I Discovered Poetry
By Marilyn Nelson

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 borne
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 for me
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.

From The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems copyright 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, Louisiana State University Press.

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David said...

Wow, that poem was a genuine rush of wonder. Thanks, Sylvia, for introducing me to another poet. I will surely check out more of her works.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks-- I was so moved by it, too. And all of her work is of this calibre, IMO.