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How I Discovered Young Adult Poetry – The Zena Sutherland Lecture

Marilyn NelsonA couple of weeks ago, at a dinner with several poets, one of them said, “You’re lucky, Marilyn: you know how to write poems for the young adult audience.” I laughed and told him he was entirely wrong. I have absolutely no idea how to write for the young adult audience. I just write what I write. While it’s true that I’m lucky my books reach that audience, my good luck consists primarily in having had editors who were willing to publish my poems for a broad readership. I had only to write the poems that came to me as they came to me, without thinking too much about the age range of my intended audience. I try to write poetry that is at the same time informative and wise, complex and accessible; poetry that pleases readers of any age in the first reading and grows deeper and more challenging in a second or when read by a discerning and experienced reader. But surely this is what every poet has tried to do, in every age except the one in which we are now living.

I’m pleased that my books are considered young adult books, because that designation seems to invite reluctant readers of poetry — of all ages, I hope — with the reassurance that this is poetry accessible and possibly even enjoyable to readers with a wide range of reading savvies and sensitivities to nuance. I hope my poems will reward the young adults who read them, and that they will reward those same people years later in memory, or when the poems are revisited by the same readers as mature adults. And I hope my “young adult poems” will be found and enjoyed by senior citizens reading them for the first time, as well.

A recent Facebook conversation among a group of African American poets began when one wrote,

I’ll never write a poem that my Grandmama wouldn’t understand. My grandmother loved poetry. She had what I called a first-aid kit of poetry inside her head, and she could recite something from memory that could comfort you, encourage you, make you laugh, whatever the situation required. I was prompted to say what I said because I feel that — generally speaking — we no longer write poems that my brilliant but unlettered grandmother could embrace or would want to memorize. If she bequeathed me a love of poetry, it seemed to me that I should write poetry that she could get.

There followed a discussion of whether accessibility of “semantic meaning” is the “most important thing about poems,” or whether inaccessible, difficult, against-interpretation poems aren’t more interesting because they “mean” things in a deeper, more complex way, reaching beyond ordinary language use. But doesn’t all poetry do that?

NelsonPoetryI advocate accessibility tempered by complexity. When I was in my twenties and starting to sense that poetry was going to be the way of my life, I sent a sheaf of my poems to my great-uncle, Rufus B. Atwood. Uncle Rufus, my grandmother’s only brother, was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism during his service in an African American (then “Negro”) battalion in WWI, then finished his undergraduate degree at Fisk, completed a master’s degree at Iowa State, and was for thirty-three years the president of Kentucky State College, one of the historically black colleges and universities that became integrated and achieved university accreditation under his leadership. As university president, he had hosted campus visits by many or most of the prominent Negro writers. Sending my poems to him was a great test for me. Uncle Rufus wrote back quickly, asking, “Why don’t young poets nowadays write poems that people like me can understand?” That turned my head around 180 degrees. I had been imitating the only-white poets we read in only-white literature classes. I realized that I want my poems to be accessible to a wide range of readers. I will consider myself very lucky if any reader — be it an eighth grader, or a grandparent, or a philosophy professor — catches and holds in memory a phrase or line from one of my poems. I write for anyone who cares about the poet’s struggle to sculpt the slippery medium of language into a beautiful and true shape that will withstand time.

* * *

Googling has made me aware of the apparent existence of a little formula about what makes a fictional work appeal to younger readers. Foremost, young adult books must have young adult protagonists with whom young adult readers can identify. In my opinion, this insistence that young readers can identify only with characters who are similar to them, who are their age, or who look like them, denies one of the fundamental truths about literature: that it presents us with the experiences and thoughts of characters who are not us, and who may not be like us. While reading about characters and experiences we already know is affirming, and while self-affirmation is an important aspect of self-knowledge, literature offers more than the experience of reading in a cubicle with a mirror. Literature allows us to extend our understanding beyond ourselves; it asks us whether we can understand others. Literature teaches us empathy.

Identification was unlikely, if not impossible, for me as a reader in the mid-1950s, given what books were available in school and public libraries. There were few people who “looked like me” in the books I read. And those who did embarrassed me, starting in first grade with Little Black Sambo. I loved Huckleberry Finn, but it made me weep with both laughter and pain. I don’t recall reading as a young adult between the ages of twelve and eighteen a single novel whose protagonist was black. Wright’s Native Son (1940), Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) reached me a few years later, when I was in college. Until then, most of the novels I read were about white people of either gender (at that time, I knew of only two) who were outsiders and misfits in one way or another, individuals as alien to their surroundings as I felt I was from mine: almost always the only Negro, or one of two or three, in my military-base school class. I read and re-read A. J. Cronin’s The Green Years, which traces the formative years of an Irish orphan, a Roman Catholic, who is sent to live with his draconian maternal grandparents in Protestant Scotland. That was about as far away from my life as it was possible to get. Yet my heart throbbed with empathy for the Irish Catholic boy whose grandmother makes him wear an ill-fitting green (the color of Catholic Ireland) suit to school every day, where it causes him to be cruelly teased. I knew what it was like to be different like that, to stick out from the group. Reading about British sailors on a ship in the South Pacific, mutineers for the sake of freedom, I saw how, pushed to the limit, you can’t help standing up against malignant evil power. I read about my own isolation and loneliness in stories of Norwegian sodbusters on the Dakota plains; about humanity, its grace and foibles, in a book about white Okie refugees fleeing from the Dust Bowl. If there was a Reader’s Digest Condensed version of a novel, I read it. And if it was a Book of the Month Club selection, I at least read about it.

I’m not sure if it ever occurred to me to look for a protagonist who was a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old Negro girl. Instead of identifying, I learned to project my consciousness into characters very different from — and yet, somehow similar to — myself. Reading novels allowed me to simultaneously lose and find myself in unfamiliar worlds. I can well appreciate the satisfaction felt by a not-white child discovering another not-white child in the pages of a book. I never had that experience. But, for all the current talk of diversity in children’s books for the sake of not-white readers, I suspect that literature by not-whites is more important to the education and ethical development of Americans of European descent than it is for not-whites. I not only suspect it: I am sure of it. We Americans, most especially those born to privilege, need to learn how to identify with characters, experiences, and points of view that are not like ours. I’m sure the current availability of young adult novels by culturally and genetically diverse and LGBTQ writers will have a significant effect on the mutual understanding and respect among disparate groups in America’s future. We are separated into so many demographic groups. What better way to become one people than to read one another’s stories? While the emergence of festivals of African American (or other) children’s books is beyond exciting, I have been a bit disappointed when I’ve visited such festivals to see that the audiences are almost entirely black. When I’ve been approached by white attendees, they usually tell me they are teachers at predominantly black schools and are looking for books to share with their students. Why aren’t teachers at predominantly white schools there, looking for books to share with their students?

* * *

I don’t remember ever going into a bookstore as a child. I read what was available at home or on school or public library shelves. Except for Miss Jackson — my English teacher for part of seventh grade when my father was stationed temporarily in Fort Worth, Texas, and I attended segregated Paul Dunbar High School — in most of the places where we were stationed, there was no teacher or librarian who knew anything about African American (again, then Negro) writers and could steer me in their direction. There was no internet. Not only did Miss Jackson read us a Dunbar poem every day, she also sent me home with her copies of books by Negro poets. That joy was brief; my dad was soon transferred.

The poems Miss Jackson gave me, poetry by some of the great early Negro poets (most of them male), belonged to me as a young reader, both because of Miss Jackson and because my parents, both educated at HBCUs, were familiar with some of their work. There was Dunbar, and there were James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. There were few female poets in James Weldon Johnson’s groundbreaking 1922 anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, but there was someone something like me in their poems.

Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Anne Spencer, Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson: they and, later, Gwendolyn Brooks fed my belief in the possibility that I, too, might become a published poet. In general, poetry moved me much more than prose fiction did, perhaps because the details of the poets’ or speakers’ identities tend to be bypassed in lyric poetry. The lyric “I” seems to cut more directly to a deep and wide human experience. I didn’t ask whether the speakers of some of my early favorite poems — Sarah Teasdale’s “Barter,” Celia Thaxter’s “The Sandpiper,” Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “I Want to Die While You Love Me” — were black or white. I suppose I did identify when I read poems, if “identifying” means that I became those “I”s as I read, thinking their thoughts, sharing their experiences. I became what Emerson calls a “transparent eye-ball.” “I am nothing,” he says. “I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

Slender books by Edna St. Vincent Millay were in the library. Again and again I read her poem “Renascence,” thrilling to what seemed to me to be a deep truth about the divinity visible in the natural world, and the infinite potential of the self. I memorized its last stanza. I’d like to showcase part of the last stanza, in which the speaker imagines coming back to life from death. Maybe you’ll read these lines and think about whether it’s a young adult poem, and whether what it has to say is different for a white reader than it is for anyone else. Here’s a little bit of Millay:

God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.

[…]And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

Millay’s poem, though she was only nineteen when she wrote it, is not specifically a young adult poem. Or is it? I think what I liked about it as a teenager was the largeness of its thought. I loved its simple direct description of a great epiphany. I had had similar epiphanies myself, lying in the grass and watching the clouds.

As I’ve said, the Negro poets I read especially belonged to me. Through them I learned a lot of the cultural history that was lacking in my textbooks and classrooms, and a vocabulary for my own musings about race. I remember using an epigraph taken from Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” for a term paper. I especially loved the way so many of the Negro poets became transparent enough to allow other voices to speak through them. How many of the great poems by Dunbar, Hughes, and Johnson are persona poems, dramatic monologues whose speakers are characters telling their stories. I admired their stepping aside to honor the narratives these characters had to tell. That invisibility and the ability to sustain a narrative line are two things I learned from those early Negro poets, which have been important lessons for me about young adult poetry.

nelson_carver a life in poemsI consider myself extremely lucky that my poems can be considered young adult poems. My luck began when Stephen Roxburgh, now of Namelos, then at Front Street, decided to publish Carver: A Life in Poems as a YA book. I had already written about half of it when Stephen first saw the manuscript, and I had given no thought whatever to the question of audience. I had written the poems thinking the thoughts that always go through my mind when I’m working on a poem: that my words be clear enough, and true enough, and beautiful enough to the reader’s inner and outward ear to give the reader pleasure and some modicum of insight. The reception of that first book launched my career as a YA poet, but I have to admit it was more about how I was discovered as a young adult poet than it was about how I discovered young adult poetry. I discovered young adult poetry first by reading it, not by writing it.

nelson_fortune's bonesCarver was followed by Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, which was written as lyrics for a cantata commissioned to honor Fortune, an enslaved eighteenth-century man who lived and died in Waterbury, Connecticut, and whose skeleton was preserved as a medical specimen by his physician master. Stephen Roxburgh decided to make the text into a young adult book by adding documents, photographs, and a map. The cantata, with music composed by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, has been performed (with African drummers, a full orchestra, five solo singers, and a large choir) in Waterbury, at the University of Maryland, and in Seattle.

The next book Stephen took was The Freedom Business, which I wrote because of my long-standing interest in history, and because it had occurred to me that no African American poet had yet written a slave narrative, so this might be a “first.” Many of the poems in that book were also ekphrastic exercises, written in response to paintings in the permanent collection of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, for an exhibition of poems and paintings in the museum. Although by this time I had started to imagine a young adult reading audience, the poems in that collection do not stray far from the original prose text upon which they are based, and Stephen’s decision to include the actual slave narrative dictated by Venture Smith and published in 1798 invites the reader to compare two versions of the same story of Smith’s amazing life. As Smith did not write for a young adult audience and I was only retelling his stories in a more shaped language than his spoken language, perhaps the only thing that identifies this book as being appropriate for younger readers is its accessibility.

nelson_wreath for emmett tillA Wreath for Emmett Till was the first book I wrote thinking explicitly of the YA reader. Editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, then at Houghton Mifflin, had commissioned a “book about lynching, for children” but had also encouraged me to just write what came to me, without thinking too much about a specific audience. But I made many crucial decisions about that project based on my sense of its intended audience, from the choice of its young adult subject to my painstaking adherence to an especially complex form recognizable to even an untutored, inexperienced reader of poetry. Remembering how it felt to be a thirteen-year-old girl curled up in the easy chair in the corner, reading poems with her heart in her mouth and sometimes gasping with the pleasure of beautiful phrasings, I wanted my poem to give the reader a similar experience.

I’ve learned from writing these books and having them published that young adult poetry should be interesting; that it’s a good idea to offer a strong narrative line; that poetry can give readers a language of images with which to think about important issues such as ethics, values, and identity; and that it can offer readers the pleasure of being blown away by verbal music.

* * *

Let me return to my friend’s mistaken belief that I “know how to write for young adults.” In the mid-1980s, the great British poet and critic Sir Stephen Spender — tall, slightly stooped, elderly — accepted a visiting professorship in the English department at the University of Connecticut. He was assigned to use the extra desk in my office, so we were office mates for the semester. I was a young assistant professor, the only African American and one of a handful of women in a large department. At the time, I was juggling a full-time teaching position, an increasingly important-to-me second career as a poet, two young children, and a difficult marriage. Spender was seldom in, often running off to readings and meetings and talks. I was mostly tongue-tied whenever we’d meet in our shared office. I remember asking him early in the semester how he’d prefer — since I’d never met someone who’d been knighted before — to be addressed. I was expecting him to say, “Call me Stephen,” or “Sir Steve,” or something like that, and I was a tad shocked when he said, “You may call me Mr. Spender.” The other exchange I remember from that semester came about when I asked Mr. Spender when he first discovered poetry. He said that, like most poets, he had discovered it as an adolescent. He went on to speculate briefly about the possibility that people who continue to write and read poetry beyond their mid-twenties may experience a prolonged adolescence. He said he wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing.

What if what makes a poet’s work feel to young readers that it was written for them is really a symptom of the poet’s prolonged adolescence? Is it youth young readers look for in YA books, or something less specific? Perhaps they want the implied sense of an author who shares with them some adolescence of spirit? Perhaps they find in a young adult book the voice of an author or character like them straddling the yin/yang cusp between innocence and experience? Is it possible that what sets young adult literature apart is its attempt to capture inward growth and loss, the movement from wide eyes to narrowed? Is what we now call young adult literature essentially a modern American version of the Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel, and the adult who writes it someone like the poet Emerson describes as the person “whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood”? The spirit of infancy: is it that far from the prolonged adolescence Mr. Spender described? That spirit hovering between the pastel of childlike idealism and hope, and the somber blue-grays of experience and disillusion?

Infancy of spirit or prolonged adolescence: either of these terms suggests a poet more inclined toward hope than toward the rather bleak landscapes envisioned by many contemporary young adult authors. When I visit MFA programs in writing for children or young adults, most of the students I meet are working on some kind of dystopian novel. As if the world we inhabit is not dystopian enough! What I hope for from young adult poetry is a vision which enables young adults to hold the dream that things may improve, that the world into which they are growing may be — perhaps because of them — better than the one in which we now live. Young readers grow up. And the future depends on what they will make it. And what they will make it depends on what they learn to hope and believe. Albert Einstein once reportedly said, “I’d rather be an optimist and wrong than a pessimist and right.” It seems to me that young adult poetry should — must — give young adults the spiritual, emotional, and ethical strength to walk into a world of increased racial and ethnic strife, a world where whole populations are uprooted and migrating, a world where cultures impinge on each other, a world where we learn regularly about another species we have made extinct, another human wrong perpetrated on the defenseless. “Hold fast to dreams,” wrote Langston Hughes. These are the values taught in the African American poetry tradition, and which I strive to infuse into my work. I’m not sure the poems I have written for the young adult audience do what I hope they do, but this hope for them is, in essence, what I have discovered as a reader and as a writer, about young adult poetry.

nelson_my seneca villageI’d like to conclude with a few lines from a poem in my recently published young adult book My Seneca Village. This book, about the African American village in Manhattan founded in 1825 and integrated some twenty years later by the influx of Irish refugees from the Great Hunger, presents the voices of the village. I drew names, ages, and occupations from the U.S. Census records for the village and imagined characters to fit them. The poem from which I will quote appears early in the book; its speaker, Frederick Riddles, was a schoolboy in 1828. His race is not mentioned in the poem, though, of course, it is clear from the larger context. I hope his questioning and his sense of the vastness of the universe and of his own potential express some of the optimism, some of the hope, of child-mindedness, and that the poem opens its doors wide enough for anyone of any age, race, gender, or religion to enter it and encounter through it the inner self of the person they know best. It illustrates some of what I’ve been discovering about young adult poetry. The poem is called “Under the Fathomless.” Here is Freddy Riddles:

If there’s eternity, then what is time?

How do we know everyone is unique?
Who except God is able to compare
all of us? What if there’s a boy somewhere
whose Self and mine are perfectly alike?

What would that mean? Would it make my life less
than what I know it is when I watch clouds
form and dissolve, or when I am allowed
to stand at night under the fathomless.

From the September/October 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Her article is adapted from the 2016 Zena Sutherland Lecture, which she delivered on May 6, 2016, at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Marilyn Nelson About Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson is the multi-award-winning author of works of poetry for young adults and adults.

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Comments

  1. Jonathan Peto says:

    The Uncle Rufus anecdote was one of many highlights for me. Great question about festivals of African American children’s books too: Why aren’t teachers at predominantly… there, looking for books to share with their students?

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