Nikki Giovanni: Why We Need Poetry

From Make Me Rain, a Collection of Poetry and Prose

Poetry is like a child in many ways: it grows and grows adding whatever is needed: teeth, longer legs, a mind that discriminates.

Or maybe its like a thorn tree: it grows but you have to be careful how you touch it or how it touches you. It can be beautiful but it can also hurt.

We hear poetry from the moment we are conceived. Our mothers sing songs to us in the womb while she smiles and anticipates. The old days were better than the new because then no one knew who we were so everyone could guess and smile and tell our mothers who we would be. No one knows what a good poem is, either. We read it or we hear it but it will be a long time before we truly understand what an impact the poem will have.

People think poetry has gotten better because the youngsters are now quoting the oldsters but it’s not true. We were always young to someone else’s old. Countee Cullen all but ruined Baltimore for many of us and Paul Laurence Dunbar made us stand taller when he expressed his understanding of the caged bird.

We need poetry because it brings the light of love.

But didn’t someone who is now unknown tell us she sometimes feels like a Motherless Child? Weren’t those Spirituals poems of the highest order? Weren’t those Spirituals the poems “that got us over? Our souls look back and wonder how we got over?” Though Langston Hughes answered that saying “I’ve known rivers?” My Grandmother sang “Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior.”

It’s the nature of humans to always discover and rediscover the same thing. Aren’t we all really the canary in the mine? We, sadly, might just be the donkey going blind because there is no light. Every now and then Hitler trumps along to bring hatred and some poor folks think that is a candle.

We need poetry because it brings the light of love. Everybody wants to confuse love with sex. Ask Bill Cosby about that. But love is the patience to forgive and go forth. There is no way not to like Black Americans. We try to practice love. We use the chicken feet to make a stew; we take the scraps of cloth to make the quilt. We find the song in the darkest days to say “put on your red dress, baby ’cause we’re going out tonight,” understanding we may be lynched on the way home but knowing between that cotton field and that house party something wonderful has been shared.

We are poetry. And poetry is us. Those who share with us are poetry. Those who sit and eat our pig feet and chitterlings and those who come on Sunday to worship with us. There is no “Oh my goodness! The poetry is growing!” It is the soil that keeps all of us growing. So that the lemons will fall from the tree. And Beyoncé can make Lemonade.

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Make Me Rain

From Make Me Rain by Nikki Giovanni. Used with the permission of William Morrow. Copyright © 2020 by Nikki Giovanni.

Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni
Poet Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 7, 1943. Although she grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, she and her sister returned to Knoxville each summer to visit their grandparents. Nikki graduated with honors in history from her grandfather's alma mater, Fisk University. Since 1987, she has been on the faculty at Virginia Tech, where she is a University Distinguished Professor.





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