Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Poet's Challenge: Speaking in Distinctive Voice That Elevates Series: WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Poet's Challenge: Speaking in Distinctive Voice That Elevates Series: WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH

Article excerpt

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. …

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