Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Poetry A-Z: D is for Dolorous

I have a few poetry books that are hard to read, evoking such heartbreak and sadness. Generally these books tell of tragic events in our history or the unimaginable horrors associated with war. While these topics are difficult, the writers of such books bring readers important perspectives and open our eyes to injustices in this world that cannot and should not be ignored. 

DOLOROUS - feeling or expressing great sorrow or distress

A Wreath for Emmett Till, written by Marilyn Nelson and illustrated by Philippe Lardy, is a heroic crown of sonnets, or a sequence of 15 sonnets that are interlinked like a normal crown of sonnets, except in the heroic crown the last sonnet is made entirely from the first lines of the previous 14 sonnets. One of the things that makes this heroic crown such an achievement is the the last sonnet is also an acrostic poem, in which the first letters of each line spell out the phrase “RIP Emmett L. Till.”

The poems in this crown are not easy to read. They are unsettling, shocking, and sad, but this is an important event in the history of our nation that needs to be told again and again. The book ends with a short biography of Emmett Till, extensive notes on the 15 sonnets, and an artist's note. The tempera illustrations by Philippe Lardy quietly reflect the themes and moods of the sonnets.

One of the sonnets in this crown is written from the perspective of the tree witnessing the lynching, and echoes some of the sentiments expressed in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem The Haunted Oak.

Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,
my heartwood has been scarred for fifty years
by what I heard, with hundreds of green ears.
That jackal laughter. Two hundred years I stood
listening to small struggles to find food,
to the songs of creature life, which disappears
and comes again, to the music of the spheres.
Two hundred years of deaths I understood.
Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
shivering the deep silence of the stars.
A running boy, five men in close pursuit.
One dark, five pale faces in the moonlight.
Noise, silence, back-slaps. One match, five cigars.
Emmett Till's name still catches in the throat.

Poem ©Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved.

Take a few minutes to watch Marilyn Nelson read an excerpt from A Wreath for Emmett Till.
You can also listen to an interview with Marilyn Nelson on NPR and hear her read the poem. If you are interested in using this book in he classroom, you can download a teacher's guide from Houghton Mifflin.

Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto, written by Paul Janeczko and accompanied by illustrations created by prisoners (and found after the War), is a collection that provides a heartbreaking, shocking, and brutally honest picture of the lives of inmates in the Terezin Ghetto. The walled city of Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia (Terezin) was a ghetto for Jews transported from Prague and other cities and a way station to the gas chamber. Here's a bit about the camp from the Afterword.
What set Terezin apart from Nazi death camps was the nature of many of its inmates. Terezin became "home" for many of the Jewish intellectuals and artists of Prague. As a result, it became a prison in which the arts were tolerated, then encouraged as a Nazi propaganda tool. Classical music and opera performances were commonplace, despite the horrors and cruelty of captivity. 
There is beauty in this collection, even though readers repeatedly experience loss and death. The humanity and strength of the victims, the depravity of the SS, and the horror that was the Holocaust  is evident in Janezcko's carefully chosen words. Reading this is like watching a train wreck—you want to look away, but can't. I wanted to stop reading, but couldn't put it down.

Here's an excerpt from one of the poems.

Tomasz Kassenwitz/11850

For nearly sixteen years of Fridays
Willi and I played chess in the park
unless snow drove us
to the back corner of Bloom's.
Only for death—
when my beloved Helen passed,
when his son fell through the ice—
did we miss.
. . .
On a most glorious morning in October
Willi placed the peppermints on the table
but did not sit.
I looked up at the face of sorrow.
He picked up the white king
then laid it softly on its side.
“I can no longer play with you,”
said a false voice.
The sun is blue 
would have made as much sense.

Poem ©Paul Janeczko. All rights reserved.

You can hear Paul read this poem and one other in the video below.

That's it for D. See you tomorrow for some C inspired poetry ponderings.


  1. Ooh. I hadn't heard of Requiem in such detail - just the title. The illustrations must be just stunning - and heartbreaking.

    Dolorous poetry is a necessity - like music, it sometimes speaks better to the emotions of the human condition.

  2. 2 of the greatest poetry books I've ever read. Read them both more than once because I wanted to make sure they were as good as I thought they were on first blush. They are!