Bowled Over – A Life with Poems: The 2017 NSK Prize Keynote

Dancers interact with a number of picture frames
photos: shevaun williams & associates

 After being visibly moved by dance adaptations of four of her poems, Dr. Nelson delivered the following keynote to the packed audience in attendance, which included several hundred students from the Norman middle schools.

The title of my meditation on my life as a poet makes reference to three things: First, the words “bowled over” describe my immediate response to the news I received last year that I was to receive the NSK Neustadt Prize. Of course, all writers dream of having their work rewarded—an embarrassingly large proportion of most writers’ daily thought menu is devoted entirely to envy: Why did one’s friend X’s new book win the X-Prime award, while one’s own book lies, with several thousand other books published in the same year, in the dustbin of literary history, waiting to be pulped? In my opinion, one of the wisest things writing guru Anne Lamott says in her by now already classic book of suggestions for writers, Bird by Bird, is that all writers experience envy. Accepting that reality with humility, hoping for but in no way expecting awards, I couldn’t help being absolutely bowled over by the NSK Prize news. I’ve been pinching myself all year! How can I be so lucky?

Since I am a poet and express myself best in the words I struggle to shape, I’d like to let a poem speak that sense of being bowled over by the blessings of good luck. The poem is from my book Carver: A Life in Poems, which is a biography of the great African American scientist/saint, Professor George Washington Carver. The speaker in the poem is the young Carver, at this time a twenty-nine-year-old orphan, a former slave with no living relatives, who has struggled to get an education and is at a point in his life when it seems likely that his genius will come to full flower as a painter: his painting Yucca and Cactus had won a prize at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Before I read the poem, l want to make sure you know that the phrase “sustained by dew” is an allusion to the book of Exodus, when the Israelites in the desert had nothing to drink but dew, and nothing to eat but the miraculous manna, bread out of thin air. I know you’ll recognize the allusion to King Midas, blessed and cursed with a magic power that made everything he touched turn to gold. What I had in mind when I wrote the word “exponentially” was an illustration I saw years ago in a Disney film about atomic fission: in a room whose floor is covered with mousetraps, each set with two ping-pong balls on it. On it, one ping-pong ball tossed into the room sets off a chain reaction: within a few seconds every mousetrap has snapped, every ping-pong ball is in the air (you can see this on YouTube). This is what “exponentially multiplying” means.

In my poem, in spite of the many disadvantages with which he has had to struggle—his mother was stolen and never found again; he and his brother were raised by the white couple who had bought and owned their mother; he has had to struggle to find schools willing to educate him; he faced racism, poverty, loneliness, etc.—in spite of all those barriers and burdens, Carver feels bowled over by his good luck, his sense that he’s living a “charmed life.” And he is so grateful for the many blessings he has received that he feels he must dedicate his life to a higher cause. That’s a long introduction to a short poem, but I hope knowing these things will enhance your experience of the poem.

A Charmed Life

Here breathes a solitary pilgrim sustained by dew
and the kindness of strangers. An astonished Midas
surrounded by exponentially multiplying miracles: my
Yucca and Cactus in the Chicago World exposition;
friends of the spirit; teachers. Ah, the bleak horizons of joy.
Light every morning dawns through the trees. Surely
this is worth more than one life.

That’s what I mean when I say I’m “bowled over.” The rest of the title of what I want to say here also refers to my Carver book. But, while the book about Carver uses poems to tell his life, what I’d like to discuss here is how my life has been “a life of poems.” A poet moves from word to word, line to line, poem to poem, and (if the poet is lucky) from book to book, as the poet grows and his or her gift blossoms. My own love of poetry began in childhood, with a two-volume Childcraft anthology of poems selected and illustrated for children, Poems of Early Childhood and Storytelling and Other Poems. Here I discovered poems by master poets like Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, Countee Cullen, Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Christina Rossetti, Carl Sandburg, William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. I spent countless afternoons swimming through the words and pictures in those pages, lost in their alternate universes. I can still close my eyes and savor the first lines of John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” or Longfellow’s “Hiawatha’s Childhood,” or Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman.” My life of enjoying poems began with Childcraft. When I was about twelve, I graduated to a poetry anthology my father had kept from his college days. I read its poems over and over and began to feel something new: beyond the pleasure of enjoying poems, I was starting to sprout the ambition to write my own poems, to be a poet when I grew up.

Way back in the olden days, schoolchildren were not encouraged or expected to write poems. We might read them in class, and the teacher told us what they “meant.”

I’m a few years older than most of you are, and when I was a child, way back in the . . . (I’m suddenly reminded of a time in the car with my family, when my mother was starting to tell us a story about something she remembered from her childhood. She began, “When I was in third grade, I . . .” My younger sister exclaimed, “WHAT? You went to school!?!? Our teacher said girls didn’t go to school back in the olden days!!”) . . . way back in the olden days, schoolchildren were not encouraged or expected to write poems. We might read them in class, and the teacher told us what they “meant.” Occasionally we were made to memorize and recite them to class. Although I remember that my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Gray in Kittery Point, Maine, predicted that I would someday be known as a poet for young readers, and that she was the one who first made me understand the concept of poetic meter, I don’t remember being asked to write poems in her class.

My commitment to poetry has been divided into two very different strands: social justice and simple beauty.

It was a different teacher, Mrs. Purdy in Burns Flat, Oklahoma, who first made me realize how tender and how brutal poems can be. My poem about what she taught me is called “How I Discovered Poetry.” I wrote it years ago. It was first published in my book The Fields of Praise in 1994. Twenty years later it became the inspiration and title poem of another book, How I Discovered Poetry. It begins with a memory of Mrs. Purdy reading aloud a beautiful poem by William Wordsworth called “Daffodils,” which begins, “I wandered lonely as a cloud . . .” The poem takes place almost sixty years ago, in 1959. For a long time I held the optimistic belief that people who think like Mrs. Purdy did no longer exist. But the daily news keeps proving they do.

How I Discovered Poetry

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.

Later, in Ft. Worth, Texas, I went to a segregated school that was named after the nineteenth-century African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote proud and loving poems in dialect, which in other hands was often cruelly racist. I was lucky to be taught there by Miss Jackson, a young teacher who was a passionate advocate for African American poetry. She began every class by reading a Dunbar poem, and she brought poetry books from her own collection of books by black poets for me to read. Miss Jackson’s encouragement gave me role models, allowed me to dream of someday following Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks. From that point to the present moment my commitment to poetry has been divided into two very different strands: social justice and simple beauty. Two of my early favorite poems illustrate that division. The first poem is by Sara Teasdale, who was born into a prominent white family in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1884.

Barter

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

The other early favorite is by Langston Hughes, who was born into a complex and highly educated family in Joplin, Missouri, about twenty years later. The poem is quite long, so I will just quote part of it:

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe. [. . .]

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!

That tension between social justice and simple beauty have been two lodestones of my writing life. My poem “Parking Lot Dawn” depicts that tension. It takes place during a cross-country drive my family made when my dad was transferred to a different Air Force base. A few background notes: “Speida” was our little dog, a miniature pinscher, who liked to stand in my lap with his nose out the window when we were in the car. It was 1959, a year of turmoil around civil rights. Motels and restaurants along highways were often hostile to black people; my family ate and slept in the car on long trips.

Parking Lot Dawn

After the cousins came the long drive west.
Car games, sing-alongs, and conversation,
alternating drivers, meals in the car.
Gas station restrooms, or behind a tree.
Daddy corrects white men who call him boy.
Even when they’re in police uniforms.
Even though the radio updates news
of sit-ins and white citizens’ councils.
I ride behind his beautiful close-cropped head,
my window slightly cracked for Speida’s nose.
Last night, awake alone, he parked the car
in the Grand Canyon visitors’ parking lot.
And this morning, he woke us up to dawn.
There’s more beauty on Earth than I can bear.

When I started writing I thought of myself as a poet writing for adults. Though I had translated, with a friend, some verses for children written by the great Danish children’s poet Halfdan Rasmussen, and written with the same friend some verses of our own, influenced by Rasmussen, my books were published for grown-ups, until the surprising decision made by a visionary publisher named Stephen Roxburgh to publish my poetic biography of George Washington Carver, which I was writing as an ordinary book of poems for adults, as a book for young readers. Stephen’s decision bowled me over and led to a major turning point of my writing life. The success of that book, Carver: A Life in Poems, led another publisher to ask me to write a book for young readers about lynching. That book, A Wreath for Emmett Till, led to other books about African American history: Pemba’s Song (written in collaboration with Tonya Cherie Hegamin), and Sweethearts of Rhythm, and Fortune’s Bones, and Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, and My Seneca Village, and How I Discovered Poetry, and American Ace, all of them published for young readers, or as I like to think of them, intended for audiences ranging from about fourteen or fifteen and up.

There’s a story about each book, about how it grew from a previous book or a conversation with an editor or my own interest in expanding my knowledge about local history. Lucky for you, there’s not time enough for me to take you on that meandering way. I will, however, say that the poems I’ve written for these books have challenged me to invent and learn from speakers often quite different from myself. I’ve had to learn how to see their worlds, through their eyes. I’ve had such a good time creating them out of words. Sometimes a poem I’m writing bowls me over: when I find a rhyme that says exactly what a character wants to say; when a poem arrives at an insight beyond me; when a word is so right that writing it makes me say, “Oh!” Each of my books has felt like a gift good fortune has placed in my hands. And I’ve been bowled over by their reception. I’m bowled over every time I realize that my work is being taken seriously, that it means something to someone. I’m bowled over by the notes and questions I’ve received by students through their teachers and through the Poets.org “Dear Poet” program sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. And, believe me, I am absolutely, positively gob-stoppered and bowled over to be standing here before you today, the recipient of the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize!

If I had been able, when I was the age of most of you here today, to look into a magic mirror and see myself today, I would have laughed at the unlikeliness. But this is what I started asking for, praying for, dreaming of, when I was about thirteen. I’d like to end with a poem describing that thirteen-year-old girl, wanting to be a poet and terrified of the responsibility and the possibility of failure.

Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl

My face, as foreign to me as a mask,
allows people to believe they know me.
Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl,
headlines would read if I was newsworthy.
But that’s just the top-of-the-iceberg me.
I could spend hours searching the mirror
for clues to my truer identity,
if someone didn’t pound the bathroom door.
You can’t see what the mirror doesn’t show:
for instance, that after I close my book
and turn off my lamp, I say to the dark:
Give me a message I can give the world.
Afraid there’s a poet behind my face,
I beg until I’ve cried myself to sleep.

Norman, Oklahoma
November 10, 2017

Marilyn Nelson is the 2017 NSK Neustadt Laureate and the author or translator of some twenty poetry books, among them a biography-in-verse, Carver: A Life in Poems, a memoir-in-verse, How I Discovered Poetry, and a novel-in-verse, American Ace. Her The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems won the 1998 Poets’ Prize; Carver: A Life in Poems won the 2001 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award; Fortune’s Bones was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry; and My Seneca Village won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Young Adult Literature. Nelson’s honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, a fellowship from the J. S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Frost Medal, and the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. She was Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut from 2001 to 2006 and is currently Poet-in-Residence at Saint John the Divine’s American Poets Corner. Lubaya’s Quiet Roar, a picture book, is forthcoming from Dial Books.

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