Marilyn (Marilyn Nelson Waniek) Nelson (1946-)
"Aframerican" poet Marilyn Nelson, who dropped the "Waniek" from her name in 1995, writes in a variety of styles about many subjects. She has also written verse for children and translated poetry from Danish and German. Kirkland C. Jones, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, called Nelson "one of the major voices of a younger generation of black poets."
Nelson's first collection, For the Body, focuses on the relationships between individuals and the larger social groupings of family, extended family, and society. Using domestic settings and memories of her own childhood, Nelson fashions poetry which "sometimes sings, sometimes narrates," as Jones described it. In Mama's Promises, Nelson continues experimentation with poetic forms in poems about her childhood, her relationship with her mother and daughter, and a woman's role in marriage and society, but she uses stanzaic division more than in her previous work. The poems in Mama's Promises also seem to bear a cumulative theological weight, as the "Mama" named in each poem is revealed in the last poem to be God.
In The Homeplace, Nelson turns her attention to the history of her own family, telling their story from the time of her great-great-grandmother to the present. She uses a series of interconnected poems, ranging in style from traditional forms to colloquial free-verse, to relate her family's background. Some critics praised the variety of poetic expression which Nelson displays. "The sheer range of Waniek's voice," Christian Wiman wrote in Shenandoah, "is one of the book's greatest strengths, varying not only from poem to poem, but within individual poems as well." Suzanne Gardinier, reviewing the book for Parnassus, found that through her poems Nelson "reaches back through generations hemmed in on all sides by slavery and its antecedents; all along the way she finds sweetness, and humor, and more complicated truth than its disguises have revealed."
In her poetry for children Nelson also writes of family situations, although in a humorous manner. Her collection The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, written with Pamela Espeland, contains poems about domestic problems and pleasures. The title poem, for example, tells of the family dog and cat and the trouble they cause throughout the neighborhood, leading the mother to decide that they must go. Such poems as "Grampa's Whiskers," "When I Grow Up," and "Queen of the Rainbow" also focus on family life in a lighthearted manner.
Although biblical allusions appear in even her earliest poems, only with the collection Magnificat does Nelson write directly of spiritual subjects. Inspired by her friendship with a Benedictine monk, she tells of her religious awakening to a more profound sense of Christian devotion. Writing in Multicultural Review, Mary Walsh Meany found Nelson's voice—"humorous, earthy, tender, joyous, sorrowful, contemplative, speculative, attached, detached, sometimes silent"—to be what "makes the poems wonderful." A critic for Publishers Weekly believed that Nelson's "passion, sincerity, and self-deprecating humor will engage even the most skeptical reader."
Nelson's book for children Carver: A Life in Poems won several major national awards. The book describes the life George Washington Carver, an African-American pioneer in science and the arts who was raised by whites and who taught at the Tuskegee Institute for many years. The story of Carver's life, from the time he was kidnapped by slavers as an infant through his adulthood, unfolds through fifty-nine "simple, sincere … and beautiful" poems, Herman Sutter wrote in a review for School Library Journal. Different poems are written in different voices: Mrs. Carver speaks of noticing Carver's extraordinary talents; a farmer writes to thank Carver for teaching him more efficient farming techniques. "Yes, it is nonfiction, and it is biography, and it is history, and it is drama. But above all it is poetry," Cathryn M. Mercier wrote in Horn Book.
Nelson was named poet laureate of the state of Connecticut in June, 2001. "Marilyn's body of work and her warm demeanor are among the great treasures of Connecticut," said Anthony Thibault, a member of the board which chose the poet laureate, in a Connecticut Commission on the Arts press release. Another board member, Susan Holmes, said in the same press release that "Nelson's presence in Connecticut has greatly enriched the state.… She is a vital American voice speaking of our past and present from her multiple perspectives of daughter, mother, wife, artist, teacher, friend, and African American."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, editors, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 23, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
African American Review, spring, 1999, Miller Williams, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 179-181; summer, 2002, Herbert Woodward Martin, review of Carver: A Life in Poems, pp. 345-349.
America, January 13, 1996, David Sofield, review of Magnificat, pp. 17-18; April 25, 1998, Edward J. Ingebretsen, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 27-28.
Booklist, September 1, 1994, Pat Monaghan, review of Magnificat, p. 20; May 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Carver, p. 1658.
Callaloo, spring, 2003, Forest Hamer, review of Carver, pp. 538-540.
Christianity and Literature, spring-summer, 1995, Steven Lautermilch, review of Magnificat, pp. 405-408; summer, 1998, Anne West, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 510-513.
Georgia Review, winter, 1997, Judith Kitchen, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 756-776.
Horn Book, September, 2001, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Carver, p. 606; January-February, 2002, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Carver, p. 41, and transcript of Nelson's Boston Globe/Horn Book Award acceptance speech, pp. 41-45.
Hudson Review, summer, 1991, James Finn Cotter, "The Truth of Poetry," pp. 343-350; spring, 1998, R. S. Gwynn, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 257-264.
Kenyon Review, spring, 1991, Leslie Ullman, review of The Homeplace, p. 179.
Language Arts, November, 2002, Junko Yokota and Mingshui Cai, review of Carver, p. 149.
Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2001, Carol Muske-Dukes, review of Carver, p. R-10.
Multicultural Review, March, 1995, Mary Walsh Meany, review of Magnificat.
New York Times Book Review, July 15, 2001, review of Carver, p. 24.
Parnassus, spring, 1991, Suzanne Gardinier, review of The Homeplace, pp. 65-78; Volume 17, number 1, 1992, pp. 65-78.
Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1990, p. 52; August 29, 1994, review of Magnificat, p. 67; May 26, 1997, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 82.
School Library Journal, June, 1991, Jackie Gropman, review of The Homeplace, p. 137; July, 2001, Herman Sutter, review of Carver, p. 129; May, 2003, John Peters, review of Carver, p. 103.
Shenandoah, winter, 1992, Christian Wiman, review of The Homeplace.
Women's Review of Books, May, 1998, Marilyn Hacker, review of The Fields of Praise, pp. 17-18.
Academy of American Poets Web Site, http://www.poets.org/ (February 15, 2001), "Marilyn Nelson."
Connecticut Commission on the Arts Web Site, http://www.ctarts.org/ (June 28, 2001), "Press Release: Marilyn Nelson Named State Poet Laureate."
Marilyn Nelson Home Page, http://www.ucc.uconn.edu/~waniek/ (April 25, 2004).
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerMarilyn (Marilyn Nelson Waniek) Nelson (1946-) Biography - Personal, Career, Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Addresses, Member, Writings