Sunday, April 13, 2008

Poetry in the Classroom - A Wreath for Emmett Till

Having just finished participating in the writing of a crown sonnet, I've been thinking a lot about the discipline, skill and sheer force of will that must have been required of Marilyn Nelson to write A Wreath for Emmett Till.

This narrative poem, describing the events and emotion surrounding the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, is written in the form of a heroic crown of sonnets. Let's step back for a minute and think about what that means. A sonnet is a 14 line poem written in iambic pentameter. A crown of sonnets is a sequence of A sequence of sonnets in which the last line of each sonnet is the first line of the following sonnet. In addition, the first line of the first sonnet also serves as the last line of the last sonnet. A heroic crown is a sequence of 15 sonnets, written in the same manner as a crown of sonnets. The difference is that in the heroic crown the last sonnet is composed entirely of 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.”

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.
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. Most of the books I have highlighted to date have all been for the elementary classroom. This one is most appropriates for grades 8-12. This is an amazing piece of poetry that will lend itself to interdisciplinary study in both English and social studies.

Here are some additional resources for introducing this work and the events surrounding it in the classroom.

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