‘How I Discovered Poetry’ by Marilyn Nelson is a tribute to the childhood class in which the poet was introduced to poetry for the first time. She is engaged by the content of the lesson, wanting to hear more, unlike other students in the class. 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 in this poem being the spark that lit the flame.
Explore How I Discovered Poetry
‘How I Discovered Poetry’ elevates the beauty of poetry right from the first line, 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 particular interest. The teacher notes her like of poetry and gives her a poem to read in front of the class the next day. The poem states that Nelson is the only black student in the class, touching on themes of race. She is allowed to read out this poem in front of the class, with their reaction being ‘awed by the power of words’. The poem emphasises the importance of poetry, words, and the fantastic freedom that allows for teachers to help students pursue their interests.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem measures 14 lines, which instantly links it to the idea of a sonnet, a form which is normally associated with love. However, the rhyme scheme does not match up with that common of a sonnet, indeed ‘How I Discovered Poetry’ not having a rhyme scheme at all. I suggest that because this poem is about the discovery of poetry, Nelson is suggesting that the younger version of herself was not familiar with poetry at this age, of course this must being her introduction. Therefore, while recognising the 14 lines, the more intricate part of rhyme scheme is left out, reflecting the younger perspective within the poem.
Nelson also ends her first and final lines of ‘How I Discovered Poetry’ with the same word, ‘words’. Emphasis is placed upon ‘words’, both through syntax which places it in a focal point during two key sentences, and also through repetition. Poetry is playing around with words and ideas, and here Nelson pays tribute to this idea, emphasising the importance of ‘words’ through the structure of her poem.
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, matching the enlightening content that is happening. Moreover, the meter quickly flows from one line to the next, allowing the poem to take on a joviality, displaying the poet’s happiness at finding this new thing she adores.
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 could be why Mrs. Purdy decides to let Nelson read a poem to the class the following day, noting her interest now.
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 teachers excitement at giving Nelson the opportunity to read the poem. ‘Oh yes I could’ suggests that at first Nelson is surprised by this revelation, not totally believing it, needing further encouraging. Mrs. Purdy supports Nelson, allowing her to read the poem and helping the poet to find her feet.
Following the teacher and Nelson’s mutual love of poetry, Mrs. Purdy then gives Nelson a poem to read to the class. Here we find that, ‘except for me white class’, she is the only black student in the classroom. By making her read the poem to the class, she is put into a position of power, with Mrs. Purdy selecting her, and only her, to read out a poem. This is a subversion of the idea that she is marginalised within the poem, actually being the character which is shown to be academically favourited.
The revelation of ‘How I Discovered Poetry’ comes when Nelson begins to read, transforming ‘my mouth to banjo’ and ‘playing drakes, pickaninnies, disses and dats.’ Nelson overcomes the slurs that her ‘white class’ have said to her, being the centre of power within the scene and pushing back against the system which keeps her down. With the encouragement of her teacher, Nelson becomes the most important aspect of this poem, leading to the silencing of her classmates.
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 understand that Nelson has stood up for herself through poetry, pushing back against their 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, are magnificent and can shock people. And moreover, it also suggests that for the first time, the ‘white class’ understand the pain they have inflicted with their ‘words’, those racial slurs finally coming to light as damaging and wrong.