"A Wreath for Emmett Till"

In a sequence of 15 sonnets, award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson pays tribute to the young boy whose brutal, racially motivated murder outraged the country. This list includes words from Nelson's notes on the historical event and her writing process.

For a fictional perspective, see the vocabulary lists for Mississippi Trial, 1955
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definitions & notes only words
  1. lynch
    kill without legal sanction
    I was nine years old when Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His name and history have been a part of most of my life. When I decided to write a poem about lynching for young people, I knew that I would write about Emmett Till. He was lynched when he was the age of the young people who might read my poem. After revisiting what I knew about lynching, reading more about it, and growing increasingly depressed, I also knew that I would write this poem as a heroic crown of sonnets.
  2. sonnet
    a verse form of 14 lines with a fixed rhyme scheme
    The rhyme scheme I chose to use in these sonnets is called Italian, or Petrarchan (after Petrarch, 1304-1374, the poet who invented it). A crown of sonnets is a sequence of interlinked sonnets in which the last line of one becomes the first line, sometimes slightly altered, of the next. A heroic crown of sonnets is a sequence of fifteen interlinked sonnets, in which the last one is made up of the first lines of the preceding fourteen.
  3. insulation
    the state of being isolated or detached
    The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter, and a way to allow the Muse to determine what the poem would say.
  4. denote
    have as a meaning
    What should my wreath for Emmett Till denote?
  5. innocence
    the state of being unsullied by sin or moral wrong
    Daisies and white lilacs, for Innocence.
  6. grief
    intense sorrow caused by loss of a loved one
    For grief, more than one, for one
    is not enough: rue, yew, cypress.
  7. reverie
    an abstracted state of absorption
    If trees could speak, it could describe, in words beyond words, make us see the strange fruit that still ghosts its reverie
  8. blight
    cause to suffer devastation
    But one night, blood, spilled at its roots, blighted its foliage.
  9. slaughter
    the savage and excessive killing of many people
    Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
    shivering the deep silence of the stars.
  10. anecdote
    short account of an incident
    She’d told him the truth of many a Mississippi anecdote:
    Some white folks have blind souls.
  11. fate
    your overall circumstances or condition in life
    I’d put you in a parallel universe,
    give you a better fate. There is none worse.
  12. surpass
    be or do something to a greater degree
    A universe where you’d surpass your mother’s dreams.
  13. terrorist
    a radical who advocates violence against civilians
    But parallel realities may have terrorists, too.
  14. obituary
    a notice of someone's death
    Let’s write the obituary of a life
    lived well and wisely, mourned by a loving wife
    or partner, friends, and a vast multitude.
  15. groan
    indicate pain, discomfort, or displeasure
    Thousands of oak trees around this country groaned with the weight of men slain for their race
  16. acquit
    pronounce not guilty of criminal charges
    their murderers acquitted in almost every case.
  17. sap
    a watery solution in the vascular system of a plant
    Picked, one blackens, and one bleeds a thick red sap.
  18. thrive
    grow vigorously
    Indian pipe, a weed
    that thrives on rot, is held in disesteem,
    though it does have its use in nature’s scheme
  19. plead
    make an allegation in an action or other legal proceeding
    The bloodroot poppy needs
    no explanation here: Its red sap pleads
    the case for its inclusion in the theme
    of a wreath for the memory of Emmett Till.
  20. wreath
    a circular band of foliage or flowers for ornamentation
    Though the white poppy means forgetfulness,
    who could forget, when red sap on a wreath
    recalls the brown boy five white monsters killed?
  21. wrath
    belligerence aroused by a real or supposed wrong
    Like the full moon, which smiled calmly on his death.
    Like the stars, which fluttered their quicksilver wings.
    Like the unbroken song creation sings
    while humankind tramples the grapes of wrath.
  22. agonize
    suffer anguish
    Like wildflowers growing beside the path
    a boy was dragged along, blood spattering
    their white petals as he, abandoning
    all hope, gasped his agonizing last breath.
  23. immortal
    not subject to death
    Like a nation sending its children off to fight
    our faceless enemy, immortal fear,
    the most feared enemy of the human race.
  24. plague
    any large-scale calamity
    Like a plague of not knowing wrong from right.
  25. atrocity
    an act of shocking cruelty
    we must bear witness to atrocity.
  26. populace
    people in general considered as a whole
    People may disappear, leaving no trace,
    unless we stand before the populace
  27. denounce
    speak out against
    orators denouncing the slavery to fear.
  28. vicious
    able or disposed to inflict pain or suffering
    They feared because they saw their own
    inner shadows, their vicious dreams,
    the farthest horizons of their own thought,
    their jungles immune to the rule of law.
  29. shame
    a state of dishonor
    We can speak now, or bear unforgettable shame.
  30. remembrance
    the ability to recall past occurrences
    Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare wrote.
  31. extroverted
    at ease in talking to others
    Emmett Louis Till was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941. He was a friendly, extroverted African American boy who grew up during a time when racism and segregation were legal parts of the culture of the United States.
  32. casket
    box in which a corpse is buried or cremated
    Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, held an open-casket funeral in Chicago to show what had been done to her son.
  33. galvanize
    stimulate to action
    Graphic photos appeared in newspapers and magazines, galvanizing anger across the nation.
  34. deliberate
    discuss the pros and cons of an issue
    After deliberating for just over an hour, the jurors came back with a verdict of not guilty.
  35. outraged
    angered at something unjust or wrong
    People around the country—both black and white—who previously had felt separated from southern racism were shocked by Emmett Till’s death and outraged by the injustice of his killers’ trial.

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