Friday, February 12, 2016

Marilyn Nelson's _How I Discovered Poetry_

Recently, The Lion and the Unicorn published its annual essay in which their panel of rotating judges awarded the 2015 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry (see the Critical Perspectives tab for citation). This year's judges, Lissa Paul, Kate Pendlebury, and Craig Svonkin, honored two books published in 2014, one of which was Marilyn Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry. This year marks the tenth year of the award's existence, and while I am thrilled that this award exists and that poetry for young readers is consistently acknowledged, I very often disagree with the award panels' views on the verse novel for young readers. Since the award's inception in 2005, although the judges rotate every year, it is always clear that the judges find very little merit in the verse novel as a form. They often dismiss and denigrate works as not being "good" poetry. While I agreed with their selection of Nelson's work as an honor book (they actually never refer to How I Discovered Poetry as a verse novel, so it's my understanding that they don't consider it one), I found their discussion of Kwame Alexander's The Crossover and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming unsettling and frustrating. The judges note that "comically inauthentic is the strongest stuff Alexander has, as most of the book relies upon anemic free verse" (339) and that "Woodson too often destroys the strength of her verse with maladroit line breaks and missed opportunities for structural or linguistic repetition... Woodson's ear, sadly, is fallible" (340). It is always clear that the judges of The Lion and the Unicorn Award have a very particular kind of poetry in mind, and it is usually not a poetry that is representative of the current trends in contemporary American poetry. This week, I take a closer look at Nelson's work and will follow up next week with a look at Woodson's verse novel; both works are unique in their exploration of autobiography and the personal, race, childhood, and American history. Marilyn Nelson is the author of poetry for adults and young readers; her poetry has received numerous awards and honors including a Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Honor, National Book Award Finalist, and Printz Honor.

The Plot: Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry (2014) includes an author's note at the back (which has become a standard for verse novels that explore the author's past personal history) that explains: "This book is a late-career retrospective, a personal memoir, a 'portrait of the artist as a young American Negro Girl.' The poems cover the decade of the fifties, from 1950, when I was four years old, to 1960, when I was fourteen" (101). The poems in her collection touch on many historical issues and events from the Civil Rights Movement to the Red Scare. Throughout the work, it is clear that place and geography are significant, as each poem is labeled with a location and date. Beginning in Ohio and moving through Texas, Kansas, California, New Hampshire, Maine, and Oklahoma, the narrative follows the speaker's family as they travel across the US. The speaker's father is an officer in the Air Force and her mother is a teacher. The narrative focuses on the young speaker as she discovers her love of books and poetry and as she tries to make friends and understand the changing world around her as her family moves around the country. 

The Poetry: How I Discovered Poetry is a sequence of 50 unrhymed sonnets in iambic pentameter. The poems mostly follow the inner musings of her speaker and play with language and repetition. For example, the first poem in the collection "Blue Footsies" beings by meditating on the word "time": "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?" (1). This rhythmic questioning continues throughout the poem, and other poems in the collection also emphasize language play. One of the most striking poems in the collection is the title poem, "How I Discovered Poetry," which discloses the speaker's degrading experience at nine years old of having her teacher choose a poem for her to read aloud to her all-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... (97). 
The image created in this poem and the title are striking. I was only disappointed that this was the penultimate poem in the collection; I'd wished this moment would have come sooner in the collection, as it would have given more weight to the events described after, specifically of the speaker's emergence as a young artist.

The Page: Another unique aspect of Nelson's verse narrative is the fact that the pages are illustrated and that there are family photos dispersed throughout the collection. One of the most compelling combinations of word and image comes halfway through the collection on pages 46 and 47. This spread includes the poem "Darkroom" and incorporates an illustration of a string with clothespins holding up three black and white family photos. These same images reappear on the cover. Moments like these draw attention to the book as an artifact and its createdness as a collection of fragments of the author's personal history.

I enjoyed Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry. I highly recommend this collection to anyone interested in autobiography and the verse novel, and I give it four stars.