How I Discovered Poetry

howidiscoveredpoetryWritten by Marilyn Nelson, Illustrated by Hadley Hooper


Although I do like poetry well enough (I actually used to write a bit of it myself for fun), I am not usually the type to sit down and just read a poetry book straight through, like I would a novel. I usually go through and pick a poem to read here and there in no particular order and for the most part I think that works the same way for everyone. But this collection of poems by Marilyn Nelson really does seem to operate as a cohesive story in verse. She outlines a narrative very similar to the experiences of her own childhood (though these are not exact memories or experiences) from the years 1950 to 1960 (ages 4-14). She calls this book “a late-career retrospective, a personal memoir, a ‘portrait of the artist as a young American Negro Girl’.” The volume is written as “a sequence of fifty unrhymed sonnets. Like other sonnets, these have fourteen lines, and are roughly iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line).”

Although the poems in this book don’t rhyme, the phrasing is very lyrical and I liked the wording that Nelson used. Her style is simple, yet sophisticated and it is easy to grasp the concepts she is trying to portray while enjoying the artistry of the language.

It is interesting that you can observe the progression of “the Speaker” (as Nelson terms her narrator) from the musings of a 4-year-old (for example, “Once upon a time. Upon a time?/ Something got on a time? What is a time?/ When it got on a time, could it get off?”) to the deeper issues that crop up in her youth when she declares, “I could spend hours searching the mirror for clues to my truer identity . . . You can’t see what the mirror doesn’t show:/ for instance, that after I close my book/ and turn off my lamp, I say to the dark:/ Give me a message I can give the world.” The themes of the poems become increasingly more mature and sophisticated.

Issues that Nelson chooses to address among others are the life of a military family, the “Red Scare” (communism) of the 1950s, the threat of the atom bomb, racism, the Civil Rights movement, and feminism. What she presents is a fairly innocent look at each of these subjects and how a young child perceives and processes them. But she still evokes powerful emotions regarding all these issues that generated a lot of interest and engagement for me. It seemed I could feel what she was experiencing a little bit and I felt like I gained some insight into her situation and responses.
For me the most interesting point that I got out of these poems was the feeling of not being able to fit in anywhere. She didn’t fit in with the white population because she was African American and there were many people in the community that made her very aware of that. But there were also places that she went where she was in a group of all black people and they rejected her because she was interested in education and reading and writing. In those places she was accused of trying to be too white. It was such an interesting circumstance for her to be shunned in both societies. It was a very sad and poignant occurrence to me.

I really liked this collection. I love how the author framed it and poured so much of her soul into it. I loved how effectively these words made me think and consider so many things in my own life and community. I think this is a very worthwhile read that is readily accessible to a variety of readers and it provides a great deal of relevant insight for people living in our society now. And it is a fast, easy read with so much to gain from it, in so little time. I would recommend this book.

Review by Rachelle Funk, Skyline High Media Center
Rating: ★★★★✩ (4 stars)
Interest Level: Jr. High/High School

Author Website: http://marilyn-nelson.com/
Marilyn Nelson’s Poem “How I Discovered Poetry” and other Resources

How I Discovered Poetry
Written by Marilyn Nelson, Illustrated by Hadley Hooper
Dial Books
112 pages
Release Date: January 14, 2014
ISBN: 9780803733046 (hardcover)

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