Authors: Nikki Giovanni
Some Poems Are More Useful Than Others
e cannot possibly leave it to history as a discipline,” Nikkix Giovanni writes in an essay, “nor to sociology nor science nor economics to tell the story of our people.”
Instead, she continues, that story must be told by writers. To read through this volume of Giovanni's poetry is indeed to read “the story” of the last thirty years of American life, as that life has been lived, observed, and reflected about by a racially conscious Black woman. The “Black is beautiful” slogan of the 1960s is given joyous and vivid embodiment in a poem like “Beautiful Black Men,” for example, which celebrates the arrogant new strut of Black men “walking down the street.” At the same time, we are reminded by a work like “Woman Poem” that the new racial pride was not always as liberating for Black women as it was for Black men because “it's a sex object if you're pretty/and no love/or love and no sex if you're fat/get back fat black woman be a mother/grandmother strong thing but not woman.”
The rage felt by so many Black Americans at America's persistent and destructive racism is registered in poems like the fine “Great Pax Whitie,” which includes allusions to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X. The topicality of many of Giovanni's poems grounds them in the historical moment in which they were written, even as the emotional and intellectual responses to specific events transcend the particular and become universal. Although such topicality is frequently disparaged by literary critics, it is central to Giovanni's conception of poetry and the poet. “Poetry,” she has written, “is but a reflection of the moment. The universal comes from the particular” (
, p.57). Further, she has stated that “I have even gone so far as to think one of the duties of this profession is to be topical, to try to say something about the times in which we are living and how we both view and evaluate them”
pp. 32â33). This conception of the poet and poetry is consistent with the aesthetic theories of the Black Arts Movement, from which Giovanni was one of the most popular and controversial young writers to emerge; these writers sought to create, in the words of Amiri Baraka, “an art that would actually reflect black life and its history and legacy of resistance and struggle!”
Giovanni herself connects the importance of topicality in poetry to the tradition of the African
; like the
, she writes, Black American poets “have traveled the length and breadth of the planet singing our song of the news of the day, trying to bring people closer to the truth” (
, pp. 33â34). Her poems thus often speak directly about specific events or people, giving expression to the emotions they provoke and disclosing the realities and truths that underlie themâas she sees them. Giovanni does not believe, however, that the poet is a “god,” or that the poet has visionary powers beyond those of people who are not poets or writers. She also denies the power of poetry to change the world; as she has stated, “I don't think that writers ever changed the mind of anybody. I think we always preach to the saved.”
What, then, is poetry? And why does she write it?
The answers to those questions are inextricably tied to Giovanni's consciousness of her identity as a Black American and to her recognition of the struggle of Black Americans to find a voice that would express themselves and their realities: “The African slave bereft of his gods, his language, his drums searched his heart for a new voice. Under sun and lash the African sought meaning in life on earth and the possibility of life hereafter. They shuffled their feet, clapped their hands, gathered a collective audible breath to release the rhythms of the heart. We affirmed in those dark days of chattel through the White Knights of Emancipation
that all we had was a human voice to guide us and a human voice to answer the call” (
, p. 52.) Giovanni's poetry (as well as her prose) represents her own efforts to give voice to her vision of truth and reality as honestly as she can because, she has said, “the only thing you bringâ¦is your honesty.”
The “truth” her poetry speaks, then, is always the truth as she honestly sees it, and this honesty of expression is what, for her, determines that her poetry is, in fact, art: “I like to think that if truth has any bearing on art, my poetry and prose is art because it's truthful.” (
, p. 66). Articulating through poetry her vision of reality is the equivalent of the slaves' recognition that their survival depended on their finding “a human voice to guide us and a human voice to answer the call.” The loneliness inherent in the human condition is, Giovanni has said, assuaged by art, for “we are less lonely when we connect,” and “Art is a connection. I like being a link. I hope the chain will hold” (
, p. 58).
The development of a unique and distinctive
has been perhaps the single most important achievement of Giovanni's career. Although even the most superficial perusal of this volume will reveal many changes in tone, in ideas, and in subjects throughout Giovanni's writing career, what remains consistentâeven while we watch it grow in maturity and confidenceâis the voice speaking to us from the page. Many readers of Giovanni's poetry actually come to her written work after having heard her read from it. And in part because Giovanni has literally taken her poetry “to the people” through hundreds of public lectures and readings over the last thirty-five years, her spoken voice is immediately recognizable by countless people. Seeking to simulate spoken language, the poetry itself possesses distinctive oral qualities. Because it is always intended to be read aloud, its full impact can frequently be felt only through hearing it. In her poetry Giovanni attempts to continue African and African-American oral traditions, and she seems in many ways to have less reverence for the written word than for the spoken.
Often, for example, Giovanni's poetry draws our attention to the limitations and artificiality of language and of language shaped into what we call “art.” In “My House,” for example, the speaker repeatedly asks us “does this really sound/like a silly poem?” until she finally and explicitly asserts that “english isn't a good language/to express emotion through/mostly i imagine because people/try to speak english instead/of trying to speak through it.” Written language, the poem suggests, becomes a barrier to expression and understanding when we treat it as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. The aesthetic assumption underlying this conception of language is obviously far removed from notions of “art for art's sake.” Unless it is connected to the realities of life, art, for Giovanni, lacks both meaning and value.
One of Giovanni's most explicit, though lighthearted, treatments of the subject of language and poetry is found, appropriately, in “A Poem for Langston Hughes.” This playful love poem represents one of the few instances in her poetry in which Giovanni consciously attempts to employ the style of another writer. The poem's rhythms, rhyme, and images collectively evoke the essence of Langston Hughes, whose poetry and career have significantly influenced Giovanni's own. Drawing almost nonsensically on many of the formal elements of poetry, the speaker of the poem states:
metaphor has its point of view
allusions and illusionâ¦too
poems are what you do to me
Poetry, Giovanni here suggests, cannot be reduced to its component parts or rhetorical devices, for poetry is not removed from life but expressive and experiential.
Giovanni's desire, as she states it metaphorically at the end of “Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day,” is “To put a three-dimensional picture/On a one-dimensional surface.” As a poet who equates the survival of her people with their ability to use the only thing left
them, their “human voice,” Giovanni must rely on language to create written poems with the immediacy and impact of the spoken word, poems that, like such Black musical forms as the spirituals, the blues, and jazz, communicate directly to a reader/listener. Thus, she has said that she does not polish or revise the individual words or lines of a poem, but instead will rework the entire poem, for “a poem is a way of capturing a momentâ¦. A poem's got to be a single stroke, and I make it the best I can because it's going to live. I feel if only one thing of mine is to survive, it's at least got to be an accurate picture of what I saw. I want my camera and film to record what my eye and my heart saw.”
The poem is, in many ways, a kind of
Giovanni frequently writes as though she wishes to distinguish her own poems from the artifice we might normally associate with poetry. Because she sees poetry as “the culture of a people,”
she seems to believe that it has an urgency and significance we are not accustomed to expecting from it. A recent poem in praise of Black women provides a good example of Giovanni's strategy of insisting that we see the “single stroke” of meaning. Her strategy in “Stardate Number 18628.190,” a poem written for the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of
magazine, is to repeat, in three of the poem's five stanzas, that what we are reading is not art, but something else. The poem opens and closes, in fact, with the assertion that “This is not a poem.” What, then, is it? The entire piece endeavors to identify and represent itself as the Black women whom it in fact celebrates. It accumulates images evocative of the many everyday activities, extraordinary accomplishments, and modes of being of Black women, “the Daughters of the Diaspora.” These Daughters have given not a “poem” but “a summer quilt,” a metaphor used by Giovanni elsewhere, as well as by numerous contemporary women writers. In “Stardate,” Giovanni employs the
quilt as a metaphor of family history and family love; the pieces of the quilt are scraps of cloth, each of which reminds the speaker of an event and a person in her family's history, including “grandmother's wedding dress,” “grandpappa's favorite Sunday tie,” “the baby who died,” and Mommy's pneumonia. An appropriate symbol of the transformative powers by which Black Americans have resisted the oppression enacted upon them, the quilt represents the Black woman's creation of beauty out of discarded, worthless bits of material. Even more, however, the history evoked by the quilt and the love and human connection found in that history are what distinguish the quilt from “art”: “This does not hang from museum wallsâ¦nor will it sell for thousandsâ¦This is here to keep me warm.” Unlike the “art” collected in museums, which may have great monetary value but is, the lines imply, cold and sterile, the quilt's value is based on its warming, life-sustaining, and life-nurturing powers.
The opening words of the third stanza offer a variation on the assertion that “This is not a poem.” Beginning with the claim that “This is not a sonnet,” the third stanza delineates the music created and sung by Black women, from the spirituals to rap. Significantly, the stanza ends with the reiterated denial that it is a sonnet and the counterclaim that it is instead “the truth of the beauty that the only authentic voice of Planet Earth comes from the black soilâ¦tilled and minedâ¦by the Daughters of the Diaspora.” Perhaps because the sonnet is frequently regarded in Western literary tradition as one of the most elegant poetic forms, mastery of which is often expected of aspiring writers, Giovanni seizes on it in order to juxtapose its artifice to the authenticity of the Black woman's voice. What constitute the “authenticity” of that voice, the poem suggests, are the comfort, support, celebration, encouragement, unselfishness, and prayerfulness that it has lifted itself to speak and sing. In other words, authenticity is a function of human conduct, of ethical behavior. The Black woman's voice is authentic because, as the poem concludes, the Black woman has made “the world a hopefulâ¦loving place.” Such authenticity of voice is for Giovanni clearly superior to the aesthetic form in which that voice
might cast its words. Further, while the sonnet may be a poetic form prized in Western literary traditions, it is not a form capable of expressing Black realities; the Black woman's “authentic” voice has created its own forms through which to sing and speak.
Giovanni's insistence that aesthetic value emerges from and is dependent upon moral value surfaces not only in this poem from the 1990s, but in the poems throughout this volume. It is a corollary to her equally consistent belief that the poet writes not from experience but from empathy: “You try as a writer to put yourself into the other person's position. Empathy. Empathy is everything because we can't experience everything. Experience is important, but empathy is the key.”
Many of Giovanni's poems, both early and more recent, make obvious use of empathy, including such pieces as “Poem For Aretha,” “Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like,” “Poem For Angela Yvonne Davis,” and “Linkage.” But for Giovanni, empathy is not simply a tool for poetically appropriating lives and experiences removed from the world inhabited by the poet; on the contrary, empathy is key to human life and understanding because it is key to human connection (one of the primary purposes of art as she sees it). Empathy enables us to collapse the dualistic structures that polarize our world into “us” and “them.” Not surprisingly, many of Giovanni's poems attribute a powerful capacity for empathy to Black women, who “wipe away our own griefâ¦to give comfort to those beyond comfort” (“Hands: For Mother's Day”). The Black woman's unselfish willingness to empathize with others constitutes one of the sources of her authenticity of voice.