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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.


Marilyn Nelson, “How I Discovered Poetry” from The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 by Marilyn Nelson. Reprinted with the permission of Louisiana State University Press.

Source: The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997)

Poet Bio

Accomplished poet, children’s verse author, and translator Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio into a military family. She is the daughter of one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen, and her mother was a teacher. She spent much of her youth living on different military bases and began writing poetry when in elementary school. Her poetry carries with it a unique perspective on the United States military and its families. In addition to teaching at the University of Connecticut, Nelson also teaches at the University of Delaware and has taught poetry at West Point.

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