At the time that “Knoxville, Tennessee” was published in the late 1960s, Nikki Giovanni was gaining public attention for writing angry political poems that contained racial slurs and calls for violence. Other poems from her collection Black Feeling, Black Talk / Black Judgement have not withstood the test of time. Lines of poetry like “Blessed be machine guns in Black hands” from her poem “A Litany for Peppe” or her advice to black children to “grow a natural [afro] and practice radicalism” from “Poem for Black Boys” catapulted her to stardom in her twenties, but their significance has faded as the spirit of revolution has, for better or worse, faded from the racial dialog in America. But, for more than thirty years, “Knoxville, Tennessee” has endured, quietly proving itself more powerful than the poems with heated rhetoric and inflammatory ideas. Speaking simply about a simple subject, the poem has insight to offer people across racial, age, and cultural differences.
Often readers who think they are praising a poem by saying they can “relate to it” are actually disrespecting the poet’s skill without even knowing it. To say that many people understand something might just mean it is superficial enough to be appreciated without much thought. The most common way to produce something thousands of unrelated strangers will be able to understand would be to offer something that has very little substance. Millions of people relate to television shows that make a point of leaving out anything that might alienate anybody, and critics generally agree that television has less artistic merit than poetry, which alienates just about everyone. Even though there are poems that gain popularity by being shallow, there are also works like “Knoxville, Tennessee,” which are able to speak to a wide audience without having to water down its message because it understands the common threads of human existence and is able to address them directly. This poem succeeds because it does not shy away from the task of showing readers one specific situation and relating this situation to something they may have experienced.
One way this poem is able to reach so many readers is its narrative perspective. Giovanni renders this poem in the persona of a child, but subtly, without any condescension. This is a key factor in the reader’s ability to relate to the situation she describes because each reader was a child once. Although she makes this narrative stance seem easy, a technique like this is actually a true test of a poet’s skill. There is much that could go wrong when writing in a child’s voice. The particular details a child would focus on are not the ones that an adult sees, and the language a child would use limits the poet. The poet trying to write in a child’s voice risks failure with each line.
Giovanni does not make any pointed reference to the speaker’s age; instead, she reveals it through sublime methods, leaving it for the reader to discern. For instance, she works in references to other family members who are older. The fourth line’s reference to “daddy” is a clear clue that the speaker at least feels like a child in reference to her father. The later mention of “grandmother” gives an even stronger sense of the speaker’s age, establishing her as young enough to have two living generations around. These two words are probably the most direct indicators that this poem is being told from a young person’s perspective.
But, they are only clues and do not, in and of themselves, provide enough evidence to know the poem’s speaker. The sense of familiarity that most readers get from this poem comes from Giovanni’s ability to write convincingly in a child’s voice without making a big issue of the fact that she is doing so. It is a child’s voice, but it is not childish. The poem consists of words that are simple, but not too simple, arranged in short lines that generally run for no more than four or five...
(The entire section is 5,016 words.)