My Wobbly Bicycle, 147

Posted by on Jan 31, 2018 | 7 comments

imagesNikki Giovanni, II:  in preparation for our conversation on March 9.  I promise not to wear out the subject ahead of time! I still have plenty of questions left.


I look at her poetry and I look at mine. I, who absorbed a great Western culture and knew it belonged to me, that my job as a writer was to extend it, bring it to the present, re-awaken it. This is not an apology for my heritage. It’s an awareness. It took many years for me to realize I was white. You know what I mean. If the entire world you know is white, if your aesthetics have derived from whiteness, how can you see it?


Is there a “black poetry,” a “white poetry”?


imagesI’ll back up:  I once had an intelligent and fiercely argued debate-by-email with someone about slam poetry. I disapproved. As state poet laureate, I’d sat through some pretty awful and self-congratulatory spoken-word performances. Poets need to know their heritage, I argued. So they don’t reinvent the wheel, for one thing. They need to have read more poems than they’ve written. They need humility. They need to work at their poems. Throwing things out into the air at an applauding audience encourages writing-for-a-crowd, to get praise. It discourages the hard, often unrecognized, work that produces greatness.


That’s what I said. See how coded my words were? “Their” heritage? What about black poets? Was there a black heritage I was ignorant of? And humility? To say this to the great-grandchildren of slaves? I’m not sure what my friend argued except to say that any creative expression is good, and that poetry-out-loud will eventually lead poets to more difficult, classic work. All of which I agree with. And did then, but I didn’t think that was the point.


download-1I think I may have missed the point. I read this from Nikki: “Black people, most of us, are inclined to be romanticists and we have a tendency to go outside Western forms and take on Oriental form.” This is what I may have missed. I’m not sure how to describe it, but if you read the poems of Li-Young Lee, you might get an idea. They don’t so much bypass the intellect as they look through it. They’re weighted toward the emotions.

Then read the great 17th Century poet, John Donne. His poems are weighted toward the intellect, no matter how passionate they are. They contain the passion within logical argument.


What’s the “black aesthetic”? Nikki answers, ““It’s not that I can’t define it. I’m not interested in defining it. I don’t trust people who do.. . . You don’t define a culture in its ascendency, only in its decline.”


download-2She goes on to say, “If a Critic is able to understand Shakespeare, he/she ought to be able to understand me. That’s the critic’s job.” That might sound ridiculously arrogant, but I’m thinking she uses the word “understand” as “have a deep feeling for where the language, the attitude, comes from.”


“You critics bear responsibility. . . . You really praise what you understand,” she says. “The fact that you understand it is almost suspect . . . .If the ideas and concepts of a work are all that comprehensible, then the work hasn’t broken any new ground. There has to be something new.”


Ah, very true. A poem we fully understand gives us nothing new. Yet, I still have an argument. I read a lot of poems that I don’t understand (I’m a very good reader), and I fault the poet for making no effort to relate to me, to bridge between us. There should be something new, yes, but not frivolously or carelessly so. The poem should reach out to me.


download-3Here is Nikki again, in a conversation with the poet and novelist Margaret Walker in 1974. “I believe deeply in a common humanity. The black man belongs to the family of man. One part of that family is out of control—like a virus or cancer—and that is the white man. He and his technological society are bent on destroying the world . . . .”


Well, Nikki and I can certainly agree on something else she said (in the sense she meant it) in that same conversation: “Poetry exists to disturb. We who are poets may not always be profound but we must always reach for the living, the different, to identify with the Outs. . . . we are all outlaws. Who can afford to be otherwise in our world?”





  1. Thanks Fleda. I valued your service as Poet Laureate of Delaware, and have enjoyed hearing you. I live in Colorado now. Still writing – I will be 70 in June. My daughter and I got to see, hear, and speak with Nikki Giovanni at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia, a few decades ago. It was a great experience – she is so real.

    • That’s the best word for her, for sure. She’s real. I miss what we all did together in Delaware. But I don’t want to go back and do it again. Too much work!

  2. Read NG’s last book, unimpressed; but recall being intrigued by others back in the day.

    • Yes, I haven’t wanted to evaluate her work here. I may talk about that in another post.

  3. I’m glad that Giovanni is coming to northern Michigan, and that the NWS is making some effort to include non-white, non-male voices in their line-up. I hope you and she have a full house for your conversation!

    • Thanks, Holly. It should be interesting. I can basically shut up. She’ll do all the talking.

  4. Where does the me of myself reside? What flavor does the I carry to convey? In the wild wide world of poetry it stews.

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