Sunday, January 15, 2006

Poet chose a heroic task

Children's book about Emmett Till set in classical sonnet verse form.
By Chauncey Mabe
Books Editor
Posted January 15 2006

When a publisher asked Marilyn Nelson, the poet laureate of Connecticut, to write a children's book about civil rights martyr Emmett Till, she paid her young readers the ultimate compliment.

She did not write for them.

"I just wrote what I normally would have written," says Nelson, one of the luminaries at this year's Palm Beach Poetry Festival, "and added notes at the back for references. I did not write specifically for young people."

What's more, Nelson, who could have chosen the ease of free verse, instead wrote A Wreath for Emmett Till in "a heroic crown of sonnets" -- a sophisticated and difficult classical poetic form.

Nelson declares herself "a formalist," a member of that small but increasingly significant segment of the poetry world that turns its back on experimental trends to explore traditional fixed forms.

"Freer forms have run their course," Nelson says. "They've reached the point where most of the poetry I pick up is uninteresting. If you wrote most of what passes for poetry today in prose and forgot the line breaks, I doubt anyone would suspect it's a poem."

In addition to Nelson, the second annual poetry fest, which starts Friday, boasts a lineup of prize-winning writers, including Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Susan Mitchell, Tony Hoagland and Laure-Anne Bosselaar. All events will be at Old School Square in Delray Beach.

a challenge in rhyme

Devotion to rhyme and meter in poetry is one thing, but with A Wreath for Emmett Till, Nelson posed herself an especially thorny challenge. A crown of sonnets consists of seven sonnets written on a theme, with the last line of each rhymed, 14-line poem serving as the first line of the next. A heroic crown of sonnets, however, extends the sequence to 15 poems.

"It's wonderful fun," she says of the struggle to find worthwhile rhymes in English, which is notably poorer than Romance languages in that respect. "Agony, painful, but fun. Even with a rhyming dictionary there aren't that many rhymes. When you find the right one, the right rhyming phrase, it's terribly exciting."

Illustrated by Phillipe Lardy, A Wreath for Emmett Till was published last year -- the 50th anniversary of Till's lynching -- to rapturous reviews.

According to Kirkus Reviews, "Only Marilyn Nelson can take one of the most hideous events of the 20th century and make of it something glorious." Critics were awed by the nerve, dexterity and clarity of lines such as "A mob/heartless and heedless, answering to no god,/tears through the patchwork drapery of our dreams," which ends one sonnet.

The next begins: "Tears, through the patchwork drapery of dream,/for the hanging bodies, the men on flaming pyres,/the crowds standing around like devil choirs."

A life's desire

Mixing poetry, formalism and history has proven a potent brew for Nelson. Her first children's book, Carver: A Life in Poems (2001), about the great black scientist, was also not written with the age of its readers in mind. But Nelson had the "good luck" of finding a children's publisher who liked the manuscript.

"The Carver book pushed me over into this different publishing world and market," Nelson says. "I haven't made any changes in the way I write, but now I have a wonderful and much larger audience than the usual poetry audience, and it's an important way to develop a future audience for poetry."

Born in Cleveland in 1946, Nelson, the daughter of an airman and a teacher, was raised to value books, reading and education as she followed her father from one Air Force base to another. She started to write while

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