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

Those rhyme diagrams also document what you’ll discover yourself if you hear the sonnets read aloud: Nelson’s skillful use of a technique that concentrates rhyme. Already more dense in its end rhymes than that other classic sonnet form, Petrarchan form employs just five rhymes, designated as a,b,c,d, and e. (A Shakespearian sonnet has eight.) But today’s poems rhyme even fewer sounds: just three in Sonnet III (variants of “childhood,” “years,” and “night”), four in sonnet IV (variants of “throat,” “mouth,” “suitcase,” and “underwear”) and four again in sonnet V (variants of “bloat,” “denied,” “blest,” and “humility”). Moreover, because every sonnet but the first repeats a line from the sonnet before it, the same concentration of sound seen in each sonnet happens across the sequence as a whole.

What is the effect of this concentration of rhyme both within and across the sonnets in A Wreath for Emmett Till?  It’s a form of sound repetition somewhat like a song or chant. Such sound repetitions are highly effective for expressing intensity of feeling—think of the Psalms, or of a Buddhist chant, or even the cheers of a stadium full of diehard Cub fans singing “Go Cubs Go,” where repeated sounds set up resonances and generate amplitude until the air swells it. The dense sound repetitions here give weight and intensity to the speaker’s expression of feeling, not just of anguish and loss, but also an equally vital sense of Emmett Till’s unconscious heroism.

Today’s poems are representative of a longer sequence that uses and adapts classical form to treat an agonizing subject with high contemporary stakes, using language simple enough for young adults to understand but with more than enough depth and linguistic interest to captivate older audiences. It renders a highly complex linguistic form into vernacular language in the way the best poems do, making it look easy, and it tells as well as enacts something now more important than ever: “we must bear witness to atrocity” (sonnet 14). It takes my breath away, a black woman poet adopting a classical “dead white guy” form and adapting it to her own uses, in the process transforming the victim of a lynching into the hero of the civil rights movement, and it reminds me that the possibilities for poetry are indeed endless.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • 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…