Critical Overview

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Giovanni first garnered attention as a revolutionary poet with her book Black Judgement in 1968. Known then primarily for her angry verse, Giovanni’s critics and supporters alike paid more attention to her themes of revolution than her larger themes of family and love. In 1971, Don L. Lee commented in his Dynamite Voices, “Nikki writes about the familiar: what she knows, sees, experiences. It is clear why she conveys such urgency in expressing the need for Black awareness, unity, solidarity. She knows how it was. She knows how it is. She knows also that a change can be affected.”

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Giovanni early on seems to have departed from her political stance with her poem “Knoxville, Tennessee.” One senses that beneath the revolutionary is a woman truly at peace with herself and her past. Suzanne Juhasz commented in Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition that “power and love are what are at issue in Nikki Giovanni’s poetry and life. In her earlier poems (1968–1970), these issues are for the most part separate. She writes of personal love in poems of private life; of black power and a public love in political poems.”

In her later work, Giovanni more fully embraces the politics of personal life. Giovanni is perhaps her own most interesting critic and seems to understand very well what she does with her art form. In an interview by Claudia Tate in 1983, Giovanni states of her process, “A poem is a way of capturing a moment. I don’t do a lot of revisions because I think if you have to do that then you’ve got problems with the poem. Rather than polish the words, I take the time to polish the poem.”

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Essays and Criticism