[Poetry Friday] A Heroic Crown of Sonnets in “A Wreath for Emmett Till”

poetry friday

Myra here.

Yes, it’s me again, joining the Poetry Friday community. Just when things start to get really busy, I strive to get even busier by doing even more things. Strange, huh? I’ve always figured, might as well, right? Our host this week is Betsy H from I Think in Poems.

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As some of you who may be following our blog know, our current bimonthly theme is on Loss, Heartbreak, and Coming of Age. As I was doing my research on possible picture books that can be featured in connection with this theme, this book came highly recommended:

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The poet, Marilyn Nelson. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

The poet, Marilyn Nelson. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

The Genius of Poetic Forms. I was taken by Marilyn Nelson’s Author’s Note when she described how she wrote the book and conceptualized its landscape. Once again, I marvel at how little I know about the science of poetic structure and forms. The entire book is written as a “heroic crown of sonnets” in iambic pentameter with a Petrarchan rhyme scheme.

A crown of sonnets is a sequence of interlinked sonnets in which the last line of one becomes the first line, sometimes slightly altered, of the next. A heroic crown of sonnets is a sequence of fifteen interlinked sonnets, in which the last one is made up of the first lines of the preceding fourteen.

Sounds complicated? It is. But it is also a thing of beauty as this book demonstrates. The poet’s choice is also purposeful as Nelson explained in her Introductory Note:

The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter, and a way to allow the Muse to determine what the poem would say. I wrote this poem with my heart in my mouth and tears in my eyes, breathless with anticipation and surprise.

Who is Emmett Till? I did not know about Emmett Till until I read the book. I thought that it was also fitting to share this today as the date August 24 holds special significance for this young man who was born in Chicago on 25 July 1941. Emmett was 14 during the summer of 1955 when he visited some of his relatives in the South – a time when segregation was still considered legal in the United States. It was on August 24 when he allegedly whistled at a white woman when he went into a country store. He was then taken from his uncle’s house four days later and his body found three days after. He was beaten to death in the most atrocious form imaginable and shot in the head by men who thought this to be a justified, rational act – which, if one really thinks about it, is one of the greatest tragedies of all.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Emmett’s mother held an open-casket funeral in Chicago which helped to galvanize people into action, especially after the men who took Emmett were decreed to be ‘not guilty’ by a jury who deliberated for just over an hour. This drew a great deal of media coverage and attention and is said to help spark the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett’s mother, continued to be an activist for civil rights until the day she died in 2003 at the age of eighty-one.

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Teacher Resources. For teachers who wish to make use of this in the classroom, here is a Sonnet Project created by Kiarra Smith that might inspire students to do their own. Here is a link to a video book discussion by C-Span Video Library with Marilyn Nelson reading a few of the poems and answering questions from the audience. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has also created this very detailed Teachers’ Guide that may prove to be helpful to educators. Each of the sonnet also comes with an explanation by the author found at the end of the book.

My Poetry Offering this Week. This must be one of the most powerful books I have read this year. It reminded me how poetry is able to distill pain – providing a way through which broken spirits can be transformed into something that resembles wholeness and light. While each of the sonnets spoke to me, making my heart ache just a little bit more with each line, this is the Sonnet that I would like to offer you this week, my Poetry Friday friends. I thought that it provided that singularly-soft radiance that heals and allows one to make sense of something so completely incomprehensible – a gathering of flowers, a heroic wreath of words.

Sonnet 10:

Let me gather spring flowers for a wreath.

Not lilacs from the dooryard, but wildflowers

I’d search for in the greening woods for hours

of solitude, meditating on death.

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Let me wander through pathless woods, beneath

the choirs of small birds trumpeting their powers

at the intruder trampling through their bowers,

disturbing their peace. I cling to the faith

that innocence lives on, that a blind soul

can see again. That miracles do exist.

In my house, there is still something called grace,

which melts ice shards of hate and makes hearts whole.

I bear armloads of flowers home, to twist

into a circle: trillium, Queen Anne’s lace…

A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson and Illustrated by Philippe Lardy. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Book borrowed from the library. Book photos taken by me.

AWB2013_greenA Printz Honor Book

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 38 (35)

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Read-a-Latte Challenge Update: 172 (150)

  1. There are so many parts to this post, moving and fascinating; issues and creativity. And I loved learning about the complex sonnet forms. Thank you, Myra.

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  2. Sonnet 10 is beautiful. I had heard of a heroic crown of sonnets, but it was nice to be reminded and to see a part of one in action. I liked this quote from Ms. Nelson: “The strict form became a kind of insulation…and a way to allow the Muse to determine what the poem would say.”

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  3. What a touching post, Myra. I had not heard of this tragic incident before. It’s riveting! And the sonnet is so lovely. Props to Marilyn for taking on this intricate form! I need to get this book!

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  4. What a touching, timely post, Myra. I love your poem choice and hearing the story of Emmett Till. I’d heard his name before but didn’t know all the details. The “wreath of words” you shared offers hope and healing. Marilyn Nelson’s work is brilliant.

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  5. This is an amazing book, isn’t it? You made me want to read it again. The form so perfectly fits the topic and the overall effect is so powerful…

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  6. I’d never heard of a crown of sonnets, much less an heroic crown. The book was also new to me. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. I loved every part of this post, but your words here struck me, “providing a way through which broken spirits can be transformed into something that resembles wholeness and light.” That was just beautiful. Thank you for sharing such an amazing story.

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  8. An incredible story of injustice; an incredible poem of healing and hope. Thank you for sharing them both.

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  9. […] me a little bit of A Wreath for Emmett Till with the scales of justice being weighted in favor of white hoods and blinded by a collective […]

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  10. I am trying to post all of the true Heroic Crown of Sonnets written since 2000 on my blog. If you’d like yours posted here
    http://everysonnet.blogspot.com/
    please advice and link me to copy
    Lawrence R. Eberhart

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    1. Hi Lawrence, it’s ok for you to repost. 🙂 Please do note though that this is from a book by Marilyn Nelson.

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