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Carver: A Life in Poems (2001)

by Marilyn Nelson

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4581839,091 (4.05)3
This collection of poems assembled by award-winning writer Marilyn Nelson provides young readers with a compelling, lyrical account of the life of revered African-American botanist and inventor George Washington Carver. Born in 1864 and raised by white slave owners, Carver left home in search of an education and eventually earned a master's degree in agriculture. In 1896, he was invited by Booker T. Washington to head the agricultural department at the all-black-staffed Tuskegee Institute. There he conducted innovative research to find uses for crops such as cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, while seeking solutions to the plight of landless black farmers. Through 44 poems, told from the point of view of Carver and the people who knew him, Nelson celebrates his character and accomplishments. She includes prose summaries of events and archival photographs.--Publisher information.… (more)

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This book of poems imagines various moments of George Washington Carver's life (and the lives of people he came into contact with), some pivotal, some quiet and contemplative. Many of the poems include short biographical footnotes—useful for signposting major events of his life. A traditional biography would be preferable for those wanting more details about Carver's life, but by the end of this book, I felt as though I truly knew him. ( )
1 vote Katya0133 | Mar 9, 2020 |
I don’t know if Nelson invented the format but for me it was a revelation.

Arranged chronologically as signposts in Carver's life, nevertheless each of Nelson's poems stands alone. The opening verses, for example, relay the musings of a mercenary hunting a missing woman, Mary, and Mary’s infant son. The mercenary finds the boy, but not Mary, and is rewarded. That boy is Carver, and the mercenary’s tale of triumph and reward serves as Carver’s “origin story”. (We never hear from the mercenary again.) Nelson builds up a picture of Carver from many such poems: singular, isolated, viewed over distance. Carver is revealed to be amiable, curious, generous, and accomplished, but always a person apart.

Nelson in her verse observes Carver's personal qualities, evoking images and tones, avoiding Biblical inventory of ancestral history, Homeric tallies of the dead and their deeds. Seemingly recognizing that most readers will be almost wholly unfamiliar with Carver's biography, however, she appends relevant documentary detail in occasional footnotes: bulleted almanac entries with the necessary detail for a fuller appreciation of a given poem. Not all poems need them; in one instance, a photograph explains an obscure reference. It was not wholly clear to me, in that first poem, what tale the mercenary was telling, or the significance of his hiring, until the poem’s footnote was read, but the story was in the poem, not the footnote.

Typically Nelson's poems assume the perspective of someone not among Carver’s intimates. In this way the poems mimic the position of the book’s readers: outside looking in on a life, telling a story from what little can be known without having participated. There are several exceptions: perhaps three (of almost 60 poems). One is narrated by Carver, "My beloved friend", reading as though we've opened a letter intended for someone else. Another appears to quote from a different letter, then proceeds to observe the letterwriter without comment. "Last Talk with Jim Hardwick" is subtitled “a found poem”; whether wholly invented or taken from a diary, however, is unclear.

I opened this book knowing no more than I learned in primary school: Carver was a black scientist who found countless uses for the humble peanut. Having read it, somehow I know Carver as a person brimming over with talent and insight, a man of science and of spiritual visions, all of this tempered by his gentle demeanor. I am all the better for meeting him. ( )
  elenchus | May 6, 2019 |
Does just what it says on the tin - tells Carver's life story in verse. It takes a particular kind of poetry to grab my attention, and this isn't it, but I willingly admit that that's my own shortcoming and no fault of this book. ( )
  electrascaife | Jul 9, 2018 |
This book was all about George Washing Carver's life through poetry. Each poem was about a specific period that provided a portrait of his life. He was an amazing botanist and inventor who became famous for his peanut plants but grew up as a slave's child who was raised by the white slave owners after they died. Throughout this book Carver faced many injustices- there were a couple of poems about lynching and how he witnessed them in horror.
I felt this was an amazing story through poetry of Carver's life. I thought it was really neat how a biography could be done through poems. I have never actually read poems that turned into a biography. I really didn't even know this book was nothing but poetry because I was just trying to find some Newbery award winning books at the public library and the lady that helped me just wrote some books down and I just happened to pick that one. It was hard to read as a biography but beautifully written.
I don't even know how to extend this book. I think would put in some pictures for sure since the poetry was done so creatively. I think pictures would help bring the book more to life instead of just imagining it in your head. I would also extend it by trying to use Carver's point of view since it seems that most of them were done as a person on the outside looking in.
  lf028176 | Apr 21, 2017 |
"Carver: A Life in Poems" collected by Marilyn Nelson is a book of poems about the life of George Washington Carver, a man who was born into slavery but later became known for his inventions and work in botany. The poems are written in free verse and bring a detailed insight into the life of Carver. This book is a Newbery Honor book and also has a Coretta Scott King honor. I would definitely use this book in a middle school or high school classroom, maybe even fifth grade. The poems are complex enough to go over the heads of younger students. I would use this book to teach more about history and George Washington Carver. I would also use this book to begin to analyze different parts of poems and teach how to pull deeper meaning out of a text. The media used in this book is photographs. ( )
  jbohall14 | Mar 18, 2016 |
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This collection of poems assembled by award-winning writer Marilyn Nelson provides young readers with a compelling, lyrical account of the life of revered African-American botanist and inventor George Washington Carver. Born in 1864 and raised by white slave owners, Carver left home in search of an education and eventually earned a master's degree in agriculture. In 1896, he was invited by Booker T. Washington to head the agricultural department at the all-black-staffed Tuskegee Institute. There he conducted innovative research to find uses for crops such as cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, while seeking solutions to the plight of landless black farmers. Through 44 poems, told from the point of view of Carver and the people who knew him, Nelson celebrates his character and accomplishments. She includes prose summaries of events and archival photographs.--Publisher information.

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