Poetry Sunday: Three Sonnets from ‘A Wreath for Emmett Till,’ by Marilyn Nelson

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Becky_author+photo_cropped_7-12-14Written for a Young Adult audience, A Wreath for Emmett Till is a heroic crown of sonnets that serves as elegy and testament for Emmett Till, the African-American boy from Chicago killed while visiting Southern relatives in 1955. Emmett Till was14 years old when, on his way out of a country store, he allegedly whistled at the white female clerk. In response, five men savaged and murdered him and threw his mangled body into the Tallahatchie River. When Till’s mother demanded an open casket, photos were published in papers nationwide, and the case galvanized the civil rights movement.

A crown of sonnets is a sequence of 15 interlinked sonnets in which each takes as its first line the last line of the previous sonnet. A heroic crown further combines all of those lines together into a 15th sonnet. In A Wreath for Emmett Till, Nelson goes another lap, arranging those 14 pivotal lines into a final sonnet that is also an acrostic in which the first letters of each line spell out the blessing, “RIP EMMETT TILL.”

Don’t forget that besides linking the sonnets into a crown, Nelson also had to write 14 individual sonnets, each bound by a complex set of rules governing meter and rhyme. Why choose such a demanding form-within-a-form? Many poets use form as a way of distancing and containing a difficult subject, and today’s Poet’s Note confirms this strategy was employed here. The difficulty and history of the form also bestow weight that allow it to function as a powerful tribute to Emmett Till and his mother, the crown becoming a “wreath” that Nelson places on Emmett Till’s brow, or memory.

Today’s poems appear about a third of the way through the sequence and in them you’ll notice the emergent pattern of the sonnet crown. The last line of sonnet III (“Emmet Till’s name still catches in the throat”) is almost identical to the first line in sonnet IV (“Emmet Till’s name still catches in my throat”). And the last line in sonnet IV (“Her only child, a body left to bloat”) echoes the first line in sonnet V (“Your only child, a body thrown to bloat”). You don’t have it before you, but those two repeated lines appear again as lines 4 and 5 of the final, 15th sonnet.

All three sonnets are written in regular iambic pentameter and classic Petrarchan form, organizing end rhyme into an octet-rhymed abbaabba and a sestet-rhymed cdecde (or some variation of those three sounds), with a turn (“volta”) in or after the 8th line. For those of you who like to geek out on technical stuff, the end-rhyme schemes are: abba baab cdc’ cdc” in sonnet III, abba’ a’b’b”a cda in sonnet IV, and abba’ cdb’cdb in sonnet V, where the prime symbols (’and ”) designate slant rhymes.

Non-poetry nerds may wonder why anyone cares about technicalities like rhyme schemes. To begin with, anyone who’s tried to write even one sonnet in strict form can appreciate Nelson’s achievement here. Beyond that, the tension between the heroic sonnet form—one of the most venerable in the traditional canon—and its contemporary and very unheroic subject—a lynching—itself makes a powerful political statement.

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  • Jan Hersh November 15, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    I am so glad I found this site this evening. “Love trumps hate.” I like it. In the card game called bridge – spades trump hearts. But it’s just a game. Make America Love Again. I surely will miss President Obama.

  • Judie Rae November 15, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Marilyn Nelson’s sonnets are breathtaking; she haunts us with her words. I will not soon forget these poems.

    It is altogether wondrous and thrilling to know that such a poet exists.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 13, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    Dear Hillsmon,
    Let’s try to focus on Love Trumps Hate and increase our civic involvement, participating in voter registration drives on a regular basis, not just before an election; joining the party of our choice and with our presence and voice make a difference at the bottom rung of the political cycle where real voters live. America belongs to us all. This election may have been the best thing to happen to our democracy. Now we really know how fragile a democracy can be without the active participation of all concerned citizens. Nurturing young people to enter a life of public service and political life, choosing candidates and supporting them are the best ways that we can move closer to a democracy for all of our citizens who feel disenfranchised. On this, the first Sunday following the election of 2016, it is important to remember the Scripture quoted by Sec Clinton in her concession speech, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” Once again we remember Emmett Till and the truly disenfranchised and how much work there is yet to do.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 13, 2016 at 8:30 am

    This memorable poem has broken my fragile heart once again this week as I struggle to find hope that there will be order to keep us safe from monstrous anger and and white male privilege that ended the life of this black child. Of course, I have white privilege as well, so I can only suffer with the mother of Emmett Till and through the words of this incredible poem that force me to gaze upon his open casket with horror. Thank you Rebecca for giving us this Sunday gift of Marilyn Nelson’s words and the beauty of her heroic crown of sonnets.

    • hillsmom November 13, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      This week the tears were flowing freely from the devastation of 11/8. This poem has made them start anew because, unfortunately, it seems that the obscene atrocity may occur again to others. Yes, we are encouraged to make America Hate Again…