The icons of the poetry world have always shaped the literary landscape, testing boundary lines and extending the borders. A few impact society as well, giving voice to a particular time or movement in ways that no one else can.
Then there are writers like Nikki Giovanni and the late Charles Bukowski, who are viewed as both cultural icons and poets of the people, as some have called them. They've become household names, even to those who have never read their poetry.
Yet when someone like Giovanni or Bukowski publishes a new collection, certain questions naturally arise. Among them: Does the poet's reputation or persona outshine the poems themselves?
With Giovanni, the answer is a qualified yes. But before readers notice any weaknesses in Acolytes, currently one of the bestselling collections of verse in the United States, they see flashes of what has made her so famous.
Giovanni, as her fans know, emerged during the Black Arts Movement, which lasted from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. She, like other key figures of that era, vividly portrayed the experience of African-Americans, particularly the struggles and injustices they faced.
Giovanni's role as a voice of conscience is clear in this excerpt from "The Seamstress of Montgomery," which comes early in the book:
The saddest thing about your death
Is that you missed your funeral
You didn't get to see all the people
Who despised everything you stood for
Have to bend one knee to you
having killed no one
having no weapon other than truth
Giovanni is more direct and hard-hitting in other places, as when she writes about slave ships or the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Yet while she tries to inform and enlighten readers – as in "Rap-Blues' Child" – she does so in some surprising new ways.
The wisdom that Giovanni shares in "Acolytes" comes not just from hardship and strife, but from pleasant everyday experiences: memories, family, love. She writes about her mother's devotion to basketball, and what happens when daughters leave home. One piece mentions a bubble bath and includes a recipe. Several poems point to the power of faith.
This element of her work is refreshing, a wonderful balance to some of the grittier topics she revisits. The writing itself is classic Giovanni: spare, direct, and intimate, as in this short poem:
Robins on the wing
Dogwood in full bloom
of course it is
Readers may feel that much of the writing in "Acolytes" gets its power from Giovanni's observations and experiences, rather than from a striking use of language.
Still, the collection shows that there is good reason for fans to continue their journey with the poet.
Bukowski's new collection The People Look Like Flowers at Last is much harder to wade through. Part of the problem is that the poems in this book, the fifth of his posthumous collections, are vintage Bukowski. In fact, he chose these poems for publication because he felt they were some of his strongest. And they are, if you can stand the portrait they present.
The Bukowski in these pages drinks heavily, has one sexual relationship after another, gambles, and rarely says anything positive or pleasant. The world, as he sees it, is gritty, harsh, and often crude. His perspective often feels like a mist that the reader just can't escape.
There are reasons for his dark viewpoint, of course. He was born in Germany in 1920, the only child of a German mother and an American GI, and grew up in Los Angeles, where he briefly attended college before trying to launch a career as a writer.
When he failed to get his early efforts published, he began 10 years of heavy drinking. His dossier of odd jobs includes stints as a dishwasher, truck driver, mail carrier, post office clerk, and elevator operator. He also worked in a dog biscuit factory, a slaughterhouse, and a cake and cookie factory.
All of these experiences shaped his writing, and in 1959 he published his first book of poems. The themes that emerged over the years – downtrodden workers and the depravity of the urban environment – struck a chord with readers. Bukowski became known as a voice of the common man, a kindred spirit of the Beats, and he influenced other art forms, including film.
Yet where Giovanni offers readers a kaleidoscope of experiences, Bukowski, who died in 1994, offers different shades of gray. The lighter shades tend to come toward the end of the collection or when he writes about something delightfully bizarre that captures his attention – like two riderless horses running the wrong way during a race; a momentary kindness he offered someone; or a person he loves, as in these lines from "poem for my daughter":
she is a waving flower in the wind and the dead center of
my heart – now she sleeps beautifully like a
boat on the Nile.
For those who need more than a portrait of depravity or one man's personal darkness, "The People Look Like Flowers at Last," won't offer much more than a consistent tone and approach. Bukowski's persona, rather than a significant transformation, is what he offers here.