Poet's Challenge: Speaking In Distinctive Voice That Elevates

THE SELECTED POEMS OF NIKKI GIOVANNI

By Nikki Giovanni

William Morrow & Co.

292pp., $20

There's a big difference between a poet who can truly speak to the general public and one whose work can simply be understood by anyone who reads it. The former is rare indeed, and just the kind of "ambassador" who could bring contemporary poetry the wide, committed readership it so desperately needs.

Nikki Giovanni, who emerged during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, has a reputation for being this kind of writer. Her awards are not the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, but Woman of the Year titles from magazines such as Ladies' Home Journal and Essence. She's as likely to be read in prisons as on college campuses, in part because she portrays black women as making the world a more positive, loving place.

But Giovanni writes poems that are meant to be heard, not read. One almost wishes that her new "Selected Poems" had come out on tape instead of in hardback.

The danger of being on the page is that readers see everything that is - or isn't - in the work. There's no way the poet can cover up a weak poem with a dramatic presentation; no way to emphasize certain words to add depth or power. If the lines themselves don't resonate, the poet is in trouble.

Then, too, there's always the danger that readers may connect with the work because it seems to reach "down" to a basic level instead of bringing the reader "up" to a higher plain.

In Giovanni's case, the challenge of reaching out to her readers is more complicated because of self-imposed restrictions. In addition to giving herself the mission of recording the story of the black woman in America during the last 30 years, she also limits herself to the use of average speech - no "pretty" language allowed.

Giovanni is more successful at the latter than the former, because - ironically - her language is devoid of color. There's something rather pedestrian about the phrasing she uses, and one gets the impression that anyone - of any race - could have penned her lines. But sounding generic is not the best way to cross color lines; instead, they should be crossed because of common ground or universals that emerge through a distinct voice and vision.

In some ways, the anger and passion of Giovanni's early poems are more noteworthy than much of her more mature work. Here, at least, she grapples with difficult situations in bold and thought-provoking ways, although the effects on her readers will likely be determined by their own political views. Some will be infuriated and others will agree wholeheartedly:

"Poem (No Name No. 2)"

Bitter Black Bitterness

Black Bitter Bitterness

Bitterness Black Brothers

Bitter Black Get

Blacker Get Bitter

Get Black Bitterness

NOW

But when Giovanni moves away from the hot-button topics that first brought her attention, the test of her abilities really begins. Page after page deals with the challenge of making relationships work. The speaker sounds almost schoolgirlish at times; in other places she is lusty and demanding. The work satisfies in the way that a romance novel or a B-grade movie might: The reader finds a certain familiarity - almost a predictability - in the writing:

"The World Is Not a Pleasant

Place to Be"

the world is not a pleasant place

to be without

someone to hold and be held by

a river would stop

its flow if only

a stream were there

to receive it

an ocean would never laugh

if clouds weren't there

to kiss her tears

the world is not

a pleasant place to be without

someone

Readers may respond to such verse because they find some sense of recognition - the feeling that Giovanni has spoken exactly what they already know - but that satisfaction quickly wanes when the work is taken in large doses.

One begins to get the sense that the speaker must have more to offer and that she either doesn't draw on her own experiences or doesn't use them to the best advantage. She loses the specificity and groundedness that could make her work ring true.

This style may have allowed Giovanni to reach her many readers, but that's no reason not to take them - and herself - higher. If she did that, and if she communicated a deeper understanding of what it means to live as a black woman in America, then her work truly would meet the needs of many people.

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