Saturday morning at the Wisconsin Book Festival, the award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson reads the concluding 29 lines from A Wreath for Emmett Till, her heroic crown of sonnets about the Chicago youth whose 1955 lynching helped spark the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
Marilyn Nelson's appearance Saturday morning at the Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio may have been the most compelling presentation at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival. The award-winning poet's reading of A Wreath for Emmett Till rendered her audience mute in their attention to this heroic crown of sonnets.
The short video and a report about the reading follows below.
An elegy for the 14-year-old Chicago youth whose 1955 lynching helped spark the Civil Rights movement, A Wreath's narrative is as challenging as the form in which Nelson chose to write it. You don't get to read many heroic crowns of sonnets, let alone hear them read aloud by the poet. This is due, in part, to the fact that a heroic crown of sonnet is so difficult to compose: In addition to conforming to the iambic pentameter of an individual sonnet, the poet must take the last line of each sonnet and use it as the first line for the next -- and then compose the last sonnet from the first lines of the preceding 14.
All that and, in this case, tell the story of Till -- so brutally murdered while visiting relatives in the South -- and invite readers and listeners to bear witness to his memory. A Wreath for Emmett Till has been published as a book for young readers, but as you will see in this clip, its reading by Nelson can render an adult audience rapt. Here, she reads the last line of the 13th sonnet, all of the 14th and crowning sonnets and is met with robust applause.