Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 1

To honor the death of Aretha Franklin last week, and also honor Nikki Giovanni (very much still alive), let's start with Nikki's "Poem for Aretha"

Poem for Aretha
Cause nobody deals with Aretha—a mother with four children—
having to hit the road
they always say "after she comes
home" but nobody ever says what it's like
to get on a plane for a three week tour
the elation of the first couple of audiences the good
feeling of exchange the running on the high
you get from singing good
and loud and long telling the world
what's on your mind.

Then comes the eighth show on the sixth day the beginning
to smell like the plane or bus the if-you-forget-your-toothbrush
the strangers
pulling at you cause they love you but you having no love
to give back
the singing the same songs night after night day after day
and if you read the gossip columns the rumors that your husband
is only after your fame
the wondering if your children will be glad to see you and maybe
the not caring if they are
The scheming to get
out of just one show and go just one place where some doe-doe-dupaduke
won't say "just sing one song, please!".

Nobody mentions how it feels to become a freak
because you have talent and how
no one gives a damn how you feel
but only cares that Aretha Franklin is here like maybe that'll stop
chickens from frying
eggs from being laid
crackers from hating

and if you say you're lonely or scared or tired how they always
just say "oh come off it" or "did you see
how they loved you did you see, huh, did you?"
which most likely has nothing to do with you anyway
and I'm not saying Aretha shouldn't have talent and I'm certainly
not saying she should quit
singing but as much as I love her I'd vote "yes" to her
doing four concerts a year and staying home or doing whatever
she wants and making records cause it's a shame
the way we're killing her.
We eat up artists like there's going to be a famine at the end
of those three minutes when there are in fact an abundance
of talents just waiting let's put some
of the giants away for a while and deal with them like they have
a life to lead.

Aretha doesn't have to relive Billi Holiday's life doesn't have
to relive Dinah Washington's death but who will
stop the pattern?

She's more important than her music—if they must be separated—
and they should be separated when she has to pass out before
anyone recognizes she needs
a rest and I say I need Aretha's music
she is undoubtedly the one person who put everyone on notice.
She revived Johnny Ace and remembered Lil Green. Aretha sings
"I say a little prayer" and Dionne doesn't
want to hear it anymore
Aretha sings "money won't change you"
but James Brown can't sing "respect" the advent
of Aretha pulled Ray Charles from marlboro country
and back into
the blues made Nancy Wilson
try one more time forced
Dionne to make a choice (she opted for the movies)
and Diana Ross had to get an afro wig pushed every
Black singer into his Blackness and negro entertainers
into negroness you couldn't jive
when she said "you make me feel" the Blazers
had to reply "gotta let a man be/a man"
Aretha said "when my soul was in the lost and found/you came
along to claim it" and Joplin said "maybe"
there has been no musician whom her very presence hasn't
affected when Humphrey wanted her to campaign for him she said
"woeman's only hueman"
and he pressured James Brown
they removed Otis Redding cause the combination was too strong the Impressions had to say "lord have mercy/we're moving on up"
the Black songs started coming from the singers on stage and the dancers
in the streets
Aretha was the riot was the leader if she had said "come
let's do it" it would have been done
temptations say why don't we think about it
think about it
think about it
Poetry is this thing – this thing you just gotta do. You gotta have poetry in your life.

Poetry gives us new metaphors, but metaphors ossify. When a metaphor is used so often and becomes so common that it becomes literal, we say it has ossified. "Skyscraper" is an ossified metaphor. The first person to call a tall building a skyscraper was evoking images of the sky itself being scraped, was imparting motion – the movement of scraping – to a stationary building. "Riverbed" and "spam" (to refer to unwanted email) have become ossified metaphors. When they were fresh, they stretched our associations, stretched our minds, stretched our world. But repeated use ossifies the metaphor – makes the delightful warp of a new way of seeing things into the rut of the literal.

A life of meaning is a life that continually takes in and makes new meaning. There is no such thing as understanding yourself, understanding the world, understanding anything -- apart from the processes of adding new understandings. Without the always ongoing making and taking in new ways to see things there is no seeing at all. That’s why I say you gotta do poetry – so your life doesn’t ossify.

And when I say “do poetry,” I mean four things: Read poems, listen to poems, write poems, and speak poems.

Read ‘em and write ‘em and hear ‘em and say ‘em.

I write poems – generally short verses for which I use a Zen koan as a prompt. I’ve been at this for years, and I don’t know what a poem is. The mysteriousness of the very idea of some string of words constituting a poem is not clearing up the more I do it. The mystery, instead, is deepening.

I remember, when I was a young and literal-minded philosophy professor, a conversation I had once with a colleague professor from the English department who was a poet. He was struggling with this question of the nature of poems. I said, “word wrap.”

He said, “Huh?”

I said, “Word wrap. If the words wrap to the next line only because of the margin with no relation to the text meaning, and you only press return at the end of a paragraph, then it’s prose. If the line breaks matter – if there is no need for word wrap because the lines are shorter and part of the meaning is conveyed by the line ending – then it’s a poem.”

I was being glib. I was treating line breaks as if they were the end of the matter, when they are only the beginning.

Why do we have this way of writing that pays attention to line breaks? I think it’s because the line breaks give the thing rhythm, and the rhythm signals the intensity of the language. It’s a mystery how language can be intense that way – and in that intensity, show us the world new. Somehow, it does.

At Community UU, we have a poetry celebration service every August. This is the sixth annual. The first celebrated the Beat poets collectively. The second singled out Jack Kerouac. The third, Mary Oliver; the fourth, Rumi; and the fifth, last year, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Today we celebrate Nikki Giovanni.

In 1967, at age 23, she graduated from Fisk University, the HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in Nashville. I showed up at Fisk twenty-five years later, in 1992, as assistant professor of philosophy. As a teacher there, I learned as much as I taught, and, Nikki, as a student there, I imagine, taught as much as she learned.

Not that Fisk was eager to learn what Nikki had to teach. It is a place that likes decorum. Fisk thought rabble was for distancing oneself from and rising above. Nikki thought rabble was for rousing. She had contempt for Fisk’s silly rules. Her run-ins with the Dean of Women led to expulsion. A few years later, with a new Dean, she re-enrolled.

1968: the year she turned 25, a year after graduating, her first book of poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk, came out. Because she feared rejection of publishers, she didn’t submit it to any. Instead, she borrowed money from family and friends to print it herself, and she distributed it herself. 2,000 copies were sold during its first year – extraordinary for a privately printed and privately distributed book of poetry.

I love the way that Nikki's high-minded ideals of art, and revolution and justice, and black liberation interweave with her delight in romance, in intimate relationship. She brings the force of righteous anger, but turn the page to find the tender joy of romantic love. Her affirmations of stunning power and strength interweave with the vulnerability of relationship. Political tension and sexual tension equally command her attention.

You see that on the first page of that first book. It’s a poem about going to a Conference of Unity and Art in Detroit in May, 1967. She met H Rap Brown at that conference, and they hit it off.

Detroit Conference of Unity and Art
(for HRB)
We went there to confer
On the possibility of
And the inevitability of

We talked about
Black leaders
And Black Love

We talked about
And Black men
No doubt many important
Were passed
As we climbed Malcolm’s ladder

But the most
Valid of them
All was that
Rap chose me.
You see? For Nikki, the personal and the political are not separate.

Nikki Giovanni celebrated women – black women in particular. It was an antidote to the slurs so often cast upon them, at the intersection of racial hatred and misogynist patriarchy. Perhaps her most audacious celebration of black women -- and her most popular poem -- was "Ego Tripping," which appeared in the 1970 volume, Re-Creation.

Ego Tripping 
(there may be a reason why)
I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
out the sahara desert
with a packet of goat’s meat
and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
so swift you can’t catch me

For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
He gave me rome for mother’s day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings from my fingernails are
semi-precious jewels
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended
except by my permission

I mean -- I -- can fly
like a bird in the sky.
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni"
See also
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 2
Poetry Celebration: Nikki Giovanni, part 3

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