Much to my dismay, a lot of people are put off by poetry. My life would be infinitely poorer without Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara, and many others. But like contemporary classical music, much poetry of the past century or so has gained a reputation for obscurity. Fortunately, that has started to change in recent decades, with everyday speech and digestible ideas gaining ground. Nikki Giovanni has been at the forefront of that change.
Unusually, Giovanni is a poet beloved by many, even those who might ordinarily shy away from verse. For more than fifty years, she has created work of plainspoken beauty and simmering outrage. One of her best-known poems, “Nikki-Rosa,” proceeds with such walk-right-in openness that you stop and listen, disarmed:
childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in…
“If you become famous or something”—is that really an option for many poets? Yet Giovanni must have sensed, early in her life, that people were going to pay attention to her. In the last stanza of the poem, though, the tone shifts, along with her intimate remembrances is a directly experienced anger, one that demands a change in consciousness:
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
The speech is direct, but ambiguous emotions abound. The would-be happy ending/reminiscence is as annoyed as it is joyous. The rage flashes in disgust with the way Black experience is presumably rendered through white perception. But as James Baldwin stated, with his own weary disdain, “The world is not white and never was.” Giovanni brings you directly to her experience, her subjectivity, and her authority compels you to listen.
The seventy-eight-year-old poet recently moved in a new/old direction, collaborating with tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson on an album of spirituals. The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson) presents nine traditional compositions ranging from “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” to “I Opened My Mouth to the Lord.” The mostly straightforward takes have a welcome grace and gravity to them. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Giovanni and Jackson had discussed their mutual admiration for the superb Steal Away album of spirituals and other traditional songs by Hank Jones and Charlie Haden. Musically, there is a respectful air, a simplicity that nonetheless freely admits variation: the Caribbean bounce to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the Coltrane Equinox vibe to “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
The third cut is “Night Song,” once recorded by Nina Simone, and sung here in affecting fashion by her friend Giovanni. Its spare, unsentimental, but deeply felt lyric is close kin to Giovanni’s own poetry:
Not a bit of breeze.
Neon signs are shining
Through the tired trees.
Walking to and fro
Everyone has someone
And a place to go….
Where do you go
When you feel that your brain is on fire?
Where do you go
When you don’t even know
What you desire?
Jackson is joined by pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams, and drummer McClenty Hunter, and the quartet brings a suitable sense of space and focus to the compositions. Jackson began his career in the late eighties, in what turned out to be the final edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I interviewed him back then and asked him about the effect playing with Blakey had, and he answered gravely, “It changed my life, man. It changed my life.” Jackson now embodies so many of the precepts of the brilliant bandleader and teacher: how to state the melody and let the tune speak for itself, how to use dynamics, and finally how to embrace the freedom afforded to you by improvisation to expand upon the core statement.
Other than her vocal turn, Giovanni is mostly the curator of the album, someone whose discussions with Jackson led to the selection of songs. Only on one cut, the soul deep “Wade in the Water,” does the poetry of Giovanni get merged into a traditional gospel number. A colleague of Jackson at the University of Hartford, Markeysha Davis (he is the Director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz there, she an assistant professor of Africana studies and literature), suggested the poem “A Very Simple Wish.” It is read forcefully by Christiana Green and charts our downward drift, through a kind of dystopic evolution:
i should imagine if nature holds true
one day we will lose our hands
since we do no work nor make
if nature is true
we shall lose our eyes
since we cannot even now distinguish
the good from the evil
i should imagine we shall lose our souls
since we have so blatantly put them up
for sale and glutted the marketplace
thereby depressing the price
i wonder why we don’t love
not some people way on
the other side of the world with strange
customs and habits
not some folk from whom we were sold
hundreds of years ago
but people who look like us
who think like us
who want to love us why
don’t we love them
Yet Giovanni ends with a jolt of possibility that Greer’s reading makes palpable:
i’ve a mind to build
a new world
want to play
Giovanni has commented on the importance of spirituals as a source of strength, especially for Black listeners. They work beautifully as a vehicle for her collaboration with Jackson. Just as Jasper Johns called the targets, flags, and numerals he painted “things the mind already knows,” spirituals seem to exist in a space of familiarity that hearkens back to childhood. Hearing their aching melodies touches something. The duet between Jackson and Manasia, in particular, on “Lord I Want to Be a Christian,” is heart-rending.
Since her beginnings as a key member of the Black Arts movement in the 1960s and seventies, Giovanni has shared her distinctive poetic voice with us. Hearing her doing so in this context feels like a homecoming. There is an ease to the performances that Jackson said was reflected in the recording itself, which was done with no headphones and no count-offs: “I really wanted to do it just like you’re in church, where there’s a preacher talking and all of a sudden the choir begins.”
Giovanni has always heard and conveyed the subtle rhythms inside language, informed by her own lifelong love of music; one of her poems details her early desire to be a Raelette, a back-up singer for Ray Charles, wishing she could be like “marjorie hendricks and grind / all up against the mic / and scream / “baaaaaby nightandday / baaaaaby nightandday” before she “became more sensible / and decided I would / settle down / and just become / a sweet inspiration.” She has.