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The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni – book reviews

By Nikki Giovanni William Morrow & Co, New York, NY, 1996 292 pp. $20.00 hardcover


 I like to bring Nikki Giovanni’s poetry into my poetry workshops, especially the “Beginning Poetry Workshop.” I have a number of good reasons. The first is what her biographer, Virginia Fowler, tells us is Giovanni’s “single most important achievement,” which is “(t)he development of a unique and distinctive voice.”


 When reading the poetry, one has the feeling that the poet’s voice is “speaking to us from the page.” This “poet voice” is memorable for the way it ranges from the serious to the playful, always with wit and humor. It is the voice of a real person caught, somehow, on the page. It is the “somehow” that I want students to contemplate. How does the writer pen her personality to the page?


 The second good reason to invite Giovanni into the writing classroom is for her capacity to disturb the conventional thinking that encourages a language of hypocrisy. The most difficult task for the teacher of any kind of writing is not the transmission of lessons in grammar (as politicians and television commercials would have us believe), but the problem of freeing would be young writers of the natural fear of thinking against the social grain, the fear of encountering any truth that might disturb the safety of an illusion.


 Scornful Irony


 I give them “The Great Pax Whitie.” Someone reads it aloud. The reading is always awkward because the rhythms are the rhythms of Blackness, Bible, a gospel song. The anger is dipped in scornful irony. I ask: what do you see, what do you hear in this poem? Someone will say, “I don’t understand it.” And maybe they really don’t “understand” all of the poem’s allusions. They don’t have to. I can see in their eyes one certainty – they know this poem is dangerous. They know that just by reading it, they have transgressed several rules of conventionalism. If a poem can take us that far, we have made a good start.


 These young writers’ fears are entirely justified. The poet is telling them that writing is dangerous. Writing is for thinkers. Thinking is for the courageous. Ideas are risky. The writer of ideas is vulnerable to criticism. In her foreword to “The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni,” Virginia Fowler offers a brief overview of the career of a poet whose work, she tells us, records the story of an America of the last 25 years “through the eyes of a racially conscious Black woman.” Giovanni’s “Selected Works” contains poems from six books of poetry, provides the texts of two “Occasional Poems,” a tribute poem to Essence magazine, and her provocative broadside “Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis.” I believe this collection of works will surprise readers who think they know her.


 Love of Life


 Nikki Giovanni emerged as one of the new Black poets of the 1960s. Her first collection, “Black Feeling Black Talk/Black judgement” was published in 1967. It must have been 1971, the summer after my first year in college, when I first heard her voice over the radio, preaching the gospel of “The Great Pax Whitie” backed by the New York Community Choir singing, “Peace Be Still” — performed on the then newly released album, “The Truth Is On Its Way.” I remember the groaning church organ which brought back every Sunday morning of my young life, and then the sudden interruption, her voice narrating the end of complacency. I formed an opinion about the woman who had the nerve to rewrite the Gospel According to St.  John:

                                                       In the beginning was the word
                                                                        and the word was


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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