At about 6:30 p.m. on January 11, 2012, supporters of the Poetry Society of America received an email.  This is how it began:

The Poetry Society of America is honored to announce that Marilyn Nelson is the 2012 recipient of the organization’s highest award, the Frost Medal, presented annually for “distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry.”

The Frost Medal is not simply an honor. It isan anointment and a key to an august space occupied by our nation’s finest poets, It is an anointment and a key to an august space occupied by our nation’s finest poets, past and present.  Former, U.S. Poet Laureate, Charles Simic, won the award last year.  Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg and Marianne Moore all reside in that hallowed space named for the contemporary and beloved poet who rose to the heights where only Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson dwell—that of a name synonymous with poetry in America.

Marilyn Nelson. (Photo: Poetry Foundation)

Marilyn Nelson is 65 years old.  She has distinguished herself in a world where the spotlight is small and those wishing to occupy it are many in number and often fierce in disposition.  She has gotten where she is by virtue of her undeniable talent and her fidelity to her calling.  She is that word you are never allowed to call yourself until someone has named you that first—a poet.

She shrinks from no truths—not about being a black child in the America of the fifties and sixties; not about the pain that comes with having children; not about the prejudice that will not die, but sometimes finds redemption; not about life.  She knows what loss means, and she knows what the past can offer.  Witness this stanza from her “The House on Moscow Street”:

Oh, catfish and turnip greens,

hot-water cornbread and grits.

Oh, musty, much-underlined Bibles;

generations lost to be found,

to be found.

Marilyn Nelson’s mother was a teacher, and she gave us all the gift of this woman. Another teacher gave us the gift of this poet, and we end with Ms. Nelson telling the story of how that happened.  Congratulations to a woman who tells it true, with grace.  She is one of our godmothers, and with every stanza and every poem she presents us with the treasure of why poetry matters.

“How I Discovered Poetry”

By Marilyn Nelson


It was like soul-kissing, the way the words

filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.

All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,

but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne by a breeze off Mount Parnassus.

She must have seen

the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day

she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me

to read to the all except for me white class.

She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,

said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder

until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing

darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished

my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent

to the buses, awed by the power of words.



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  • elizabeth Hemmerdinger January 22, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I wish those who taught me poetry were themselves poets. I wish I’d studied with Marilyn Nelson. Now, at least, I have the chance to study her. Thank you for this.

  • Willa Correnti January 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    I had the honor of studying with Marilyn Nelson at the University of Connecticut in the late 1990s. Marilyn taught seemingly without teaching because she so infused us, her class, with her love of poetry. She excited us with her artistic passion while at the same time challenging us to experience writing in poetic forms – we were unfamiliar with till then. Last summer Marilyn was the guest poet at a summer series “Reading in the Park” in Windham CT. I did a poem at the “open mic” & after Marilyn called me over, her luminous eyes dancing, to talk & tell me how happy she was to see me still writing poetry. I know that Marilyn has been an inspiration & muse to many of us! I am so happy she is being honored with this major award.