Review: How I Discovered Poetry

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Title: How I Discovered Poetry
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial
Pages: 103
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On Shelves Now

Summary: A powerful and thought-provoking Civil Rights era memoir from one of America’s most celebrated poets.

Looking back on her childhood in the 1950s, Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Marilyn Nelson tells the story of her development as an artist and young woman through fifty eye-opening poems. Readers are given an intimate portrait of her growing self-awareness and artistic inspiration along with a larger view of the world around her: racial tensions, the Cold War era, and the first stirrings of the feminist movement.

A first-person account of African-American history, this is a book to study, discuss, and treasure. — Cover image and summary via IndieBound

Review: Reading How I Discovered Poetry is like looking through a photo album with a loved one while they share memories. Here a laugh, there a tear, sometimes even an admission of mischievousness. Marilyn Nelson has crafted fifty sonnets that begin with the simplicity of a pre-schooler and progress to the complexity of the early teen years. Each sonnet is a snapshot of family life, but many also give glimpses of the cultural changes that were occurring in the wider world.

What I loved was the voice that truly seemed to mature. I could just see a young child asking,

“Why did Lot have to take his wife and flea
from the bad city like the angel said?”

She is truly puzzled about that flea as she sits there in church. She has many such misunderstandings as she grows up. Over time, they become less about vocabulary issues and more about the deeper questioning she is doing concerning the world and her place in it. As she learns, grows and experiences life, the sonnets show her increasing sense of self. She begins to find her voice – the voice of a poet.

There are so many ways that readers can connect to this book. Nelson throws the door open so we can see into the life of a military family on the move. There are sibling and family interactions that I know I could sympathize with as an older sister. She includes civil rights issues and instances of prejudice. With so many brief moments of time highlighted, there are many opportunities for readers to see echoes of their own life.

As a military family, they move all over the country. In most of the places they are stationed, they are the first or only Negro family. This makes for a lot of what she calls “First Negro” moments. Some of the experiences are positive – like her mother being the first Negro teacher of the all white class on base. Some are negative like the racial name calling that happens. In the midst of her personal stories, she also embeds stories from the Civil Rights movement including people like Emmett Till and Rosa Parks.

Humor is present here along with the serious matters. I enjoyed the poem “Fieldwork” where Daddy says, “Let’s pretend we’re researching an unknown civilian Caucasian tribe,” when they move to New Hampshire. The poet goes on to explain the eating habits and vocabulary of the locals.

If you know any of Marilyn Nelson’s previous work, you won’t be surprised to find out that there is also beauty among the poems. There is beauty that she describes, but there is also simple beauty in her words. If you want a taste, be sure to read the poems from the book that are linked below. The NPR interview is excellent. It’s about seven minutes long and features a reading of the title poem at the end.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you are a poetry lover. Even if you don’t typically read poetry, this is a great book for history buffs or those who enjoy memoirs. Besides, reading How I Discovered Poetry would be a perfect way to celebrate Poetry Month.

Extras:
NPR Interview
Sample poem posted on GottaBook blog “Telling Time
Excerpt (five poems including the title poem)

 

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