Marilyn Nelson:
“Three Sonnets from A Wreath for Emmett Till”

Poetry Sunday columns this month will reprise previous features of black women poets and poems that take up questions of social justice. We share the outrage and heartbreak over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other BIPOC and believe that a courageous dialogue about racial prejudice is critical to the survival of our culture and country. These poems remind us that poetry is a powerful vehicle for such a dialogue, and we will continue to make them a regular part of the Poetry Sunday series.


Three Sonnets from A Wreath for Emmett Till


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.


Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
to visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s ways. His mother had finally bought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folks. She’s told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.


Your only child, a body thrown to bloat,
mother of sorrows, of justice denied.
Surely you must have thought of suicide,
seeing his gray flesh, chains around his throat.
Surely you didn’t know you would devote
the rest of your changed life to dignified
public remembrance of how Emmett died,
innocence slaughtered by the hands of hate.
If sudden loving light proclaimed you blest
would you bow your head in humility,
your healed heart overflow with gratitude?
Would you say yes, like the mother of Christ?
Or would you say no to your destiny,
mother of a boy martyr, if you could?



From A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson. Text copyright ©2005 by Marilyn Nelson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Read the original 11/13/16 column featuring these poems here.


Marilyn Nelson is the author or translator of more than twenty books and chapbooks for adults and children. Her critically acclaimed books for young adults include A Wreath for Emmett Till, newly issued as a paperback and available for order here, and Carver: A Life in Poems, a Newbery Honor Book. Of Marilyn’s nine poetry collections for adultsThe Homeplace won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award, and The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems received the 1998 Poets’ Prize, the PEN Winship Award, and the Lenore Marshall Prize. A three-time finalist for the National Book Award, her many honors include the Frost Medal, the Poetry Society of America’s award for “distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry,” and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. A professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Nelson was Poet Laureate of Connecticut, 2001– 2006. Author photo credit: Curt Richter. [Source here]

Nelson reads two of today’s featured poems here and the entire sonnet sequence here.

Listen to this “On Being” podcast featuring Nelson here.


Poet’s Note

I was nine years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His name and history have been a part of most of my life. When I decided to write a poem about lynching for young people, I knew that I would write about Emmett Till . . . lynched when he was the age of the young people who might read my poem. After revisiting what I knew about lynching, reading more about it, and growing increasingly depressed, I knew that I would write this poem as a heroic crown of sonnets. . . . When I decided to use this form, I had seen only one heroic crown of sonnets, a fantastically beautiful poem by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. Instead of thinking too much about the painful subject of lynching, I thought about what Inger Christensen’s strategy must have been. The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter, and a way to allow the Muse to determine what the poem would say. I wrote this poem with my heart in my mouth and tears in my eyes, breathless with anticipation and surprise. [The foregoing remarks are drawn from “How I Came to Write this Poem,” the introduction to A Wreath for Emmett Till—Editor.]

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