The Collected Poems of Nikki Giovanni

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I took a creative writing class in tenth grade. While I can’t say any of my output was remarkable, the best aspects of the class were the samples my teacher gave us of good quality stories and poetry. I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate poetry (it took two more years before that happened), yet I have always remembered one poem we read in class. I decided to go and find it.

The collected volume of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry was more than I anticipated reading. The volume has more than 350 pages of poetry and extensive endnotes (another 100 pages). As I mentioned the other day, I read poetry for feeling, sound, and enjoyment factor. As it was, I only skimmed about half of the poems and I ignored the notes. I would read a poem in full if something about it caught my attention.

The memorable poem my teacher gave 15-year-old me was “I Wrote a Good Omelet,” a love poem. I had not, at that point, fallen in love (although I may have thought I had), yet there was something universal about the mixed-up distraction the narrator in the poem expressed. I could relate to that distraction, and as a romantic teen, I longed to experience such distracted “floating.” I wanted to fall in love like this. An excerpt:

I goed on red . . . and stopped on green . . . floating
somewhere in between . . .
being here and being there  . . .
after loving you

The poem is worth reading in its entirety. It’s a great example of Givanni’s love poetry. Other love poems I enjoyed were “The Butterfly,” “Kidnap Poem,” and “Poetry is a Trestle,” which is a poet’s look at what poetry is and what it does. Giovanni compares poetry to love:

and I believe
the most beautiful poem
ever heard is your heart

I also particularly enjoyed the anti-love poem “Housecleaning,” made a parallel between housecleaning habits and her need to clean her life by eliminating the bad habit love relationship: “[…] i find/ i must remove you/ from my life.”

Giovanni wrote far more than love poetry, however, and having the whole of her poetry in one volume gave her life context. “Knoxville, Tennessee” captures some memories of her childhood, and “[Untitled],” which begins “there is a hunger,” records the pain of love ending and the real world stepping in:

because the real world
says you are a strong woman
and anyway he never thought you’d really miss him

“Poetry” tries to capture her need to write poetry, and the loneliness that comes from being a poet. An excerpt:

a poem is pure energy
horizontally contained
between the mind
of the poet and the ear of the reader
if it does not sing discard the ear

And after discussing all those poems that I enjoyed so much, I still haven’t touched on just what Nikki Giovanni’s poetry is, for she is firstly an African-American poet who came of age during the Civil Rights era. So many of her poems illustrate the frustrations of being a black woman in America, and others, as time passes, celebrate it. She was “born in the congo,” she says, “I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal/ I cannot be comprehended except by my permission” (“Ego Tripping”).

Giovanni’s first volume of poetry, which she self-published in 1968, is called Black Feeling Black Talk. In the context of the civil rights, she writes with anger and bitterness. I didn’t refer to the notes, and because I am not an expert in the era, many of the social and political events her poems capture were not familiar to me. But I loved seeing how her poetry evolved. In her third volume of poetry, Re: Creation, Giovanni’s “Revolutionary Dreams” seemed to illustrate the change in her poetic focus.

then i awoke and dug
that if i dreamed natural
dreams of being a natural
woman doing what a woman
does when she’s natural
i would have a revolution

No longer were the bulk of her poems about the black revolutionary politics, but they shifted to her love poems, poems about her son and about being a single mother in 1970s America, and poems about what it means to be a part of a world (“Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day”). The later poems are less political and more personal, which is what I prefer and what I loved. They also seemed mature in style.  I can’t say why they seemed more mature in poetic style since I’m really not an expert in reading poetry. I will say that I think Giovanni just kept getting better and better. Since she’s published two more volumes of poetry since 1998, I definitely have more Giovanni I need to read!

I say I like poetry, but I honestly haven’t read very much. Now, I also keep picking up poets I’ve already read and found that I like.  Nikki Giovanni was one of them, and I’m glad I happened to pick up her volume of collected poetry. I hadn’t intended to read it all, but I really enjoyed seeing her poetry in context from volume to volume.

Giovanni is an American poet that really should be studied:  there is so much there and it is so enjoyable. She certainly has written a lot of good omelets.

Reviewed on April 30, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

    • Kathy, it would awesome to take a class from Giovanni! Easy to see why students would love her. She’s so straightforward in her poetry. Plus fun to read!

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