If I compiled a list of my top ten favorite poems of all time, it is easy for me to say Marilyn Nelson‘s “How I Discovered Poetry” would be one of the first poems I would write down. (There would be no second guessing myself.) Chills creep over my body every time I read Nelson’s “How I Discovered Poetry.” Every time I read Nelson’s poem, I feel the passion I felt the first time I read it. People, this is what good poetry does to its reader.
I use “How I Discovered Poetry” every chance I can when leading a workshop. I love to see the looks on the faces of writers after they finish Nelson’s poem–the sound of the gasp as they finish the last line. I’ve also found it is a great exercise to have people use the first line of the poem as a writing prompt.
Marilyn Nelson is a powerful and talented poet whose words will make you bow to her work. Marilyn is a delightful, kind-hearted poet. Every time I’ve seen her she wears a smile that reaches out and hugs you. Marilyn Nelson is a poet who has not been polluted by her success. She is a delight.
My series titled “How I Discovered Poetry,” as you probably already assumed, is inspired by Marilyn Nelson’s poem, “How I Discovered Poetry.” This series will be posted only during April in tribute to National Poetry Month and in honor of Marilyn Nelson. The series will include responses from Denise Duhamel, Ellen Bass, Mark Bibbins, Sandra Beasley, David Trinidad, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, and more. (I’m even going to participate! I am hosting the party after all.) I think I can safely say there will be a little something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a moment every so often to visit I Was Born Doing Reference Work In Sin to check out the series.
I begin the series with Marilyn Nelson’s poem, and it will end on 4/30/09 with brief commentary from Marilyn on her poem.
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. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all except for me 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. When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.
Marilyn Nelson, “How I Discovered Poetry” from The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems.