Friday, June 3, 2016

Poetry Friday: Marilyn Nelson

I enjoyed reading My Seneca Village last weekend. It was a delicious read that one must take time to digest and enjoy. I've always loved Marilyn Nelson's work. I blogged about her book, Carver: A Life in Poems here. It's one of my all-time favorites. In her new book, Nelson's poems span a period of thirty years, from 1825 to 1855. The voices reflect the characters as they grow and change with life in Seneca Village. It's no easy feat and beautifully accomplished.

Before each poem, the author reflects on what she sees in the poem. It reminds me of how an actor breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience in the midst of his lines in a play. It's not a modern technique, especially when it happens in fiction. I remember the variety of opinions expressed when Kate DiCamillo addressed her audience in A Tale of Despereaux, but I loved it there, too. I like that connection between the author and the reader. Nelson manages it so seamlessly we don't feel the slightest hint of intrusion, and it's a useful tool that helps to connect the voices through the years.

Here are a few excepts.

Frederick Riddles is a boy in 1828.
excerpt from "Under the Fathomless"

Am I the only person that dreams my dreams?
Does anybody else on this planet think my thoughts?
Are my ideas like darting lights I've caught?
Is my mind a net sieving through thought-filled streams?

Twenty years later, the same Frederick Riddles writes to his girl.
excerpt from "New York to Nicaragua"

Sailing choppy coastal waters. Seasick
Nothing but blue to see, both sea and sky.
Our wooden vessel crackled, banged and creaked.
Twenty awe-making sunrises and sunsets.

In her note at the end of the book, Nelson discusses some of her rhyme patterns and forms. She explains what she calls conceptual rhyme, used in the poem "New York to Nicaragua." Rather than sound rhyme or visual rhyme, conceptual rhyme, she says, "'echoes' related intellectual concepts," like "sky" and "sunsets" in the excerpt above.

So much to enjoy in this book. If it's not already on your list of to-read books, you should add it!

Click here for SLJ book review.
Click here for a lesson plan and discussion guide for the book.

More about Seneca Village and the property taken from African American residents to become Central Park.

Marilyn Nelson reads.

Jone hosts our Poetry Friday round up today at Check it Out. Stop by and enjoy the poetry.


  1. I love all things Marilyn Nelson, including this one. My top favorite is A Wreath for Emmett Till.

  2. Didn't take much to convince me, but you did so in spades. This is on my to-read list, Dori. Given your own talent of storytelling through poetry, it's easy to understand why Marilyn Nelson is a favorite of yours.

  3. This sounds like a fascinating book. Ms. Nelson's "conceptual rhymes" remind me of the parallelism used in Bible poetry, where thoughts are often restated in slightly different words. It's wonderful how our minds make connections when they find recurring sounds and concepts.

  4. Thank you for this, Doraine. Your writing about it alone inspires.

  5. Conceptual rhyme. How I love that! Thank-you for sharing, Dori.

  6. My favorite Marilyn Nelson book is "A Wreath for Emmett Till." I love the way that she used a series of sonnets to contain the story of Till's life and the ugliness of how he was murdered.

  7. Fascinating that Senaca Village was taken to make a park. That must have been devastating to the community. The years I lived in NYC I never heard that story. I'll look for the book. I love the way she reads, so calm, with such sureness. And great reference to color, golden shoulders and fawn pants.