‘How I Discovered Poetry’ by Marilyn Nelson is a tragic poem detailing an impactful event in the young life of Marilyn Nelson. In this the speaker is engaged by the content of a lesson at school, wanting to hear more, unlike other students in the class, only to be humiliated by her teacher. Nelson is an accomplished poet, being the winner of the Robert Frost medal, the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment, and a three-time finalist for the National Book Award – with her love for poetry explored and juxtaposed with racial abuse she suffered as a child making for an impactful poem.
Explore How I Discovered Poetry
‘How I Discovered Poetry’ at first seems to extol the beauty of poetry, presenting it as something that captivates the poet. Nelson sets the poem within a classroom, with the teacher giving a lesson on poetry. While other students are not interested in the lesson, a childhood Nelson wants to hear as much as she can, taking a particular interest. The teacher notes her interest in poetry and gives her a poem to read in front of the class the next day. At first, this appears to be the teacher promoting a love of the art but it transpires that the material is full of racial slurs and injustices and the act is designed to humiliate the speaker.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem measures 14 lines, which instantly links it to the idea of a sonnet, a form that is normally associated with love. However, the rhyme scheme does not match up with that common of a sonnet, indeed ‘How I Discovered Poetry’ does not have a rhyme scheme at all. This breaking with convention could point to the fact that this act might have killed the speaker’s love of poetry. However, if we assume that this poem is at least partially autobiographical it clearly didn’t destroy the writer’s love of poetry completely. Perhaps we can take from this that the art form itself is more powerful than the cruelty shown by the teacher.
Nelson also ends her first and final lines of ‘How I Discovered Poetry’ with the same word, ‘words’. This use of a cyclical structure could serve to emphasize the importance of words. In the first line, the words are described as soul-kissing. Whereas in the last line the power of words is emphasised showing the duality of language.
Nelson uses enjambment within the poem, with many of the lines running on from one to another. This gives the poem a sense of freedom and openness at the start of the poem as ideas flow together. However, as the poem reaches its volta the enjambment becomes far more jarring emphasizing the traumatic experience.
Analysis of How I Discovered Poetry
The title immediately deals with the personal pronoun ‘I’. This suggests that the poem is going to be intimate and recount something personal. Indeed, the poem follows this path, with Nelson recounting a past memory
This is further displayed by the use of the past tense, ‘discovered’ suggesting that Nelson will be dipping back into her memories to tell the readers a story from her past.
It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
The use of the direct object, ‘it’ suggests that Marilyn Nelson is continuing the story directly from her title – we understand ‘it’ as signifying ‘poetry’. Yet, at the same time, in using this technique, the ‘it’ is assigned a layer of mystery and majesty, it is something important and exciting, something that is never actually mentioned in ‘How I Discovered Poetry’ directly, just within the title.
The use of ‘soul-kissing’ further elevates the revenant beauty of poetry, with the direct connection between two people’s souls being an interesting way to present the sharing of ideas poetry holds. The heaviness of ‘soul’ displays how important this becomes to Nelson, being touched to her core by the newfound poetry.
Nelson begins to mouth the words to the poem under her breath, copying ‘Mrs. Purdy’ as she ‘read from her desk’. This is a replication of the ‘soul-kissing’, with Nelson’s mouth moving to reflect each word uttered within the poem.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
Nelson and the other children within her class are separated by their interest in poetry. While Nelson is obviously entranced by the poetry reading, the other children zone out, ‘zoned an hour ahead’, not listening to the reading. This could show that perhaps while not liked by everyone, poetry can touch some people deeply.
The reference to ‘wandered lonely as clouds’ is a direct reference to William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lovely as a Cloud’, suggesting this is one of the poems that the teacher is reading. The fact that Nelson and Mrs Purdy are grouped together in this reference ‘lovely as clouds’, suggests that they are experiencing the poem together, both enjoying it as much as the other. This seems at first to be the reason Mrs Purdy decides to let Nelson read a poem to the class, however, this assumption is soon jettisoned.
The reference to ‘Mount Parnassus’ could be discussing the poetic-artistic trend during the 19th Century called ‘Parnassism’. Responding to ideas of Romanticism, it embodies many of its ideas while also returning to classic elements. The reference could also be discussing mythology, with Mount Parnassus being the site of several events in Greek mythology.
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
‘How I Discovered Poetry’ then uses repetition of ‘she smiled harder’, echoing ‘harder’ many times suggests the difficulty the speaker had in reading the poem. ‘Oh yes I could’ is likely to be Mrs Purdy’s response to the speaker pleading that they can’t read the poem out. To do would presumably be far too harrowing. When read this way the teacher becomes almost maniacal in her repetition.
Mrs Purdy suggests the poem is for all ‘except for me white class’, here the teacher’s actions become increasingly clear. The act of tapping into the speaker’s obvious fascination with poetry is not to encourage a love of the form but to humiliate them.
The speaker begins to read, forcing out racial slurs and words designed to ostracise themself ‘playing drakes, pickaninnies, disses and dats.’ Some people mistakenly attribute the silence in the class to being the white classmates, ashamed of what they (or their ancestors) have done. However, I think it is more likely that the people of colour in the class have fallen silent as the abusive teacher regains what they perceive to have lost from their fragile ego by humiliating the poor black girl who audaciously dared to show in interest in an art form that has been traditionally, and erroneously considered the property of middle and upper-class white men.
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.
These final lines conclude ‘How I Discovered Poetry’, exploring the after scene of Nelson’s poetry reading. The classmates sit in awkward silence, staring ‘at the floor’. They daren’t push back against the racial slurs and bullying. The final two lines are incredibly powerful, the lack of noise in the ‘silence’ providing an excellent contrast to the noise of the ‘banjo’ symbolising Nelson’s reading of poetry.
The final six words are polysemic. At once, this line suggests that poetry and the ‘words’ that construct it can shock and hurt people. Perhaps the biggest irony is that despite being introduced to poetry in such a cruel way that the young Nelson was able to cling to the powerful beauty presented by the likes of Wordsworth and not have her love of the written world destroyed by her cruel teacher.