Poetry Friday: “Worth” by Marilyn Nelson

It no longer seems appropriate to say, “What a week!” It seems that every single day brings some new mind-boggling occurrence. This week, at least, the bad news has been balanced by two momentous Supreme Court decisions. Still, my heart hurts for our entire country. Recently, The New York Times acknowledged the power of poetry to bring us “solace, strength, and power” by asking many prominent poets, including Kwame Alexander, Joy Harjo, and Arthur Sze, what poets and poetry they have turned to during these tumultuous days. I read many of the poems recommended, thinking I would find some to share with the my middle school students. As I read, a link to Marilyn Nelson’s poetry came up. Marilyn Nelson, former Poet Laureate of Connecticut, is the author of many powerful books of poetry for young people and has long been a favorite of mine. This poem is from Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color (WordSong, 2007), which she co-authored with Elizabeth Alexander.

Canterbury, CT 1833-1834


for Ruben Ahoueya

Today in America people were bought and sold:
five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”
If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? By ounce?
If I owned an unimaginable quantity of wealth,
could I buy an iota of myself?
How would I know which part belonged to me?

Read the rest of the poem here.

Amira Abdel-Aal and Shawna Coppola led a session on The Ed Collaborative this spring about ways to maximize student engagement with their writing. One of their suggestions was to share “provocations,” rather than prompts. They suggested that provocations are intended to “provoke thoughts, discussions,and questions.” This poem will do all of that and more.

Please be sure to visit Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Poetry Friday: Marilyn Nelson’s “1905”

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
~ Nelson Mandela ~

by Marilyn Nelson

Looking out of the front page, a wild-haired,
gentle-eyed young German man stands
before a blackboard of incomprehensible equations.
Meanwhile, back in the quotidian,
Carver takes the school to the poor.

He outfits an open truck
with shelves for his jars
of canned fruit and compost,
bins for his croker sacks of seeds.
He travels roads barely discernible
on the county map,
teaching former field-slaves
how to weave ditch weeds
into pretty table place mats,
how to keep their sweet potatoes from rotting
before winter hunger sets in,
how to make preacher-pleasing
mock fried chicken
without slaughtering a laying hen.
He notes patches of wild chicory
the farmers could collect
to free themselves from their taste
for high-priced imported caffeine.

He and his student assistants bump along
shoulder to shoulder in the high cab,
a braided scale of laughter
trailing above their raised dust.

Read the rest of the poem here.


This poem is from Marilyn Nelson’s outstanding Carver: A Life in Poems. George Washington Carver, this poem, and the entire collection are a much-needed reminder of the power of what is possible. Please be sure to visit Kay McGriff at A Journey Through the Pages for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Poetry Friday: How I Discovered Poetry


Discovery #1 (First in a series in honor of my OLW for 2015: discover.)

How do you decide on which poem to share on Fridays? Does a poem you’ve read during the week resonate so much that it must be shared? Do you write an original poem based on an event or an emotion from the previous week? If you’re like me, the answer is yes and yes. In other words, it depends. But what about those weeks when nothing strikes you, or life in general is so hectic you haven’t had time to sit down and write much of anything that’s worthy of sharing? When this happens to me, as it often does, I head over to Anita Silvey’s excellent blog, The Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac. In a sidebar, Anita offers tidbits such as this: “It’s Bubble Bath Day.” (Now there’s a topic for a poem!) By checking Anita’s blog on Wednesday (you can skip ahead to see what’s coming up), I discovered that today is Connecticut’s birthday. My home state was admitted to the United States on this date in 1788.

Not knowing any poems about Connecticut off the top of my head, I Googled “poems about Connecticut” and quickly learned that Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive who lived in Hartford (surely I knew this and had just forgotten), and that Marilyn Nelson is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and was our state’s Poet Laureate from 2001-2006. How had I missed that!?

I have been a fan of Marilyn Nelson’s poetry from many years. Miss Crandall’s Boarding School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, (Wordsong, 2007) cowritten with Elizabeth Alexander, describes an important piece of Connecticut history and is part of our eighth grade’s Civil Rights unit. A Wreath For Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), Nelson’s haunting, magnificent book-length crown sonnet about the murder of Till in 1955 is also included in this unit. On a previous Poetry Friday, I shared Sweethearts of Rhythm (Dial, 2009) the story of “the first integrated all-women swing band in the world.”

Nelson’s latest book, How I Discovered Poetry, was published last year to universal acclaim and is on many short lists for the upcoming ALA awards. The images Nelson crafts in these poems are stunning and startling. In one poem, she states that “Our leaves/become feathers./With wings we wave good-bye to our cousins.” Another poem is about a birthday party until the very end when, “a jet/made a sonic boom/like a hammer on an iron curtain.”


In the title poem, Nelson captures that moment when she first glimpsed “the power of words.”

How I Discovered Poetry

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words

filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.

All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,

but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne

by a breeze off Mount Parnassus…

Read the entire poem here.

You can also listen to Ms. Nelson read the poem, as well as several other poems from this lovely book, in an interview that aired last winter on NPR.

Happy Birthday, Connecticut! How lucky we are to count Marilyn Nelson as a citizen of our state!

Be sure to visit Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference to discover more wonderful poetry.


Poetry Friday: Sweethearts of Rhythm

Poetry_Friday_Button-210As this week of commemoration and celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech comes to a close, I’d like to share a book of poetry that gives voice to a little-known chapter in the history of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans in the United States.

Dial Books, 2009

Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, by Marilyn Nelson, is a completely original book. Nelson has created a mosaic of voices which, piece by piece, tells the story of “the first integrated all-women swing band in the world.” (Author’s Note) Rather than have each musician tell her story, Nelson lets the instruments talk. And do they have a tale to tell! Beginning with the band’s roots in the Piney Woods Country Life School, each poem shares details about the musicians and their music, as well as African-American life in the early 20th-century South.

Nelson’s poetry also illuminates the character of each instrument. In “Bugle Call Rag,” the trumpet isn’t shy about it’s status in the band:

     “No trumpet has ever been tempted

     Not to funambulate

      On the filament of a melody.

      We’re all stars; we were made for the limelight.”

Events of the wider world are also described in the poems, each one named for a popular song of the period. When war is declared against Japan, the tenor sax tells us that Twin Ione or Irene Gresham

     “…bowed her head

     Then lifted me and eased me into song…

     It was ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo,’ but it was a prayer for peace.

     She was trying to change the world through sound.”

But, in “Jump, Jump, Jump,” the alto sax reminds us that the reality of life is never far away for these musicians.

     “From ballroom to ballroom, the unsleeping eye of Jim Crow

     Ever upon us, we traveled the United States

     of Colored America, bouncing on back-country roads…”

Throughout the text, Jerry Pinkney’s amazing illustrations mix watercolors and collage to enhance the feeling of Nelson’s poems. Sepia tones are used to portray the desolation of the Dust Bowl, the indignity of segregated restrooms, and the injustice of Japanese internment camps. Warm, vibrant colors are used when children are jumping, couples are dancing, and victory is being celebrated.

Appropriately, in “That Man of Mine,” that show-off trumpet shares the news:

     “Her pristine technique wove a shimmering texture of sound

      That was shot through with joy, on the day the Armistice was declared.”

These lines could also describe Nelson’s crafting of these poems. Their “shimmering texture of sound” isn’t always shot through with joy, but it always contains the truth, a testament to the lives of these brave women and their instruments, who did bring joy to countless Americans despite the prejudices they faced.

Anna Mae Winburn and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, performing “Jump, Children

Please be sure to visit Tara at A Teaching Life for the Poetry Friday Roundup for more poetry.