How I Discovered Poetry
How I Discovered Poetry
Marilyn Nelson, illus. by Hadley Hooper
ISBN 9780803733046
Dial/Penguin, 2014.
5 stars
Keywords: 1950s coming-age how-i-discovered-poetry hydrogen-bomb marilyn-nelson memoir segregation sputnik

How I Discovered Poetry
by Marilyn Nelson, illus. by Hadley Hooper

Marilyn Nelson (A Wreath for Emmett Till) calls this collection of 50 poems "a personal memoir, a 'portrait of the artist as a young American Negro Girl.' " As in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the protagonist is a stranger in her own land, seeing its beauty and its cruelty. Nelson harnesses her observations into unrhymed sonnets in iambic pentameter, and unpacks their power one line at a time.

The poems cover the evolution of a child's thoughts from age 4 to 14, from 1950 to 1959, in states stretching from Ohio to Texas, California to Maine. They chronicle the becoming of a poet and the maturation of a nation. Like Frost and Dickinson, Nelson moves from the specific to the abstract and back again. On the eve of her best friend, Helene, moving away, she writes, "Tomorrow I'll feel lonely as Sputnik," only to have Helene put their situation in a larger context in the last lines: "Helene talks about the kids in Little Rock:/ how brave they are, how lonely they must feel."

Young Marilyn questions the American mythology--the Sweet Land of Liberty and Thanksgiving: "I read by the window in the attic,/ and things people believe in are unmasked/ like movie stars whose real names are revealed/ in their obituaries." The seeds planted in the early poems flower by book's end. Like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Portrait, a teenage Marilyn begins to own the power of what a calling as a writer might mean.

This review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.
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