Knoxville, Tennesee Themes
by Nikki Giovanni

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Knoxville, Tennesee Themes

(Poetry for Students)

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Simple Life
“Knoxville, Tennessee” was written at a time when many writers and social critics identified the experience of black Americans with urban problems such as poverty, crime, and race riots. This poem presents a sense of nostalgia for happier and simpler times, which are all related to summer in the mind of the poem’s speaker. The first half of the poem centers on vegetables that are eaten in the same place they are grown, cutting away the chain of producers and handlers that comes between most city and suburban dwellers and the vegetables they consume. This phase of the poem gives way to another phase, represented by foods that are only slightly altered from their natural ingredients, such as barbecue, buttermilk, and homemade ice cream. All of these products are common, but their processed versions are far from the simple pleasures that the natural versions evoke in this poem’s speaker. In a similar way, gospel music is a type of religious experience that invites participants to involve themselves directly in religion, rather than filtering religion through abstract philosophical thoughts.

Giovanni uses food to represent life in Knoxville for two reasons. For one thing, it is a powerful cultural indicator. The foods that this poem’s speaker associates with Knoxville give readers a clear sense of the people who are discussed here. For instance, “fresh corn” implies that this poem takes place in the country, but not exactly on a farm, since the fresh corn in the poem comes from a garden. “Home made ice cream” similarly implies a rural setting. Several specific vegetables, such as okra and especially greens, are found in the southern part of the country and are strongly associated with the South’s culinary tradition. Even though the poem’s title makes it possible for readers to locate its setting on a map, these foods help readers experience the culture being discussed.

Frequently mentioning food also makes the poem a powerful experience for readers by ap- pealing to their sense of taste. Poets often try to help readers experience the reality of the world about which they are writing by using images that affect the five senses. As the sense that is least often used in poems, taste is particularly effective in drawing readers into a situation, making them feel reality as the poem’s speaker feels it. This poem uses words to remind readers of foods and their particular tastes, rendering the experience of summer in the South.

The church event mentioned in the poem is not just any gathering: it is referred to in line 17 as a “homecoming.” This one word extends the meaning of the church beyond its natural religious function to a social function, welcoming people back to the community after they have gone on to live in different places. They may attend religious services wherever they move, but, regardless of where they have gone or how long they have been gone, this church identifies Knoxville as their home.

The sense of “home” that runs through “Knoxville, Tennessee” is emphasized even more by the attention given to family. A father is mentioned early, in line 4; traditionally, the father is the head of the family and, in this case, he lives up to tradition by providing nourishment with vegetables he has raised. The addition of a grandmother in line 19 establishes a home that is open beyond the narrowest definitions, a home that includes members of the extended family.

But, the aspect of the poem that most clearly identifies this situation as “home” is the speaker’s familiarity with the routine that occurs there. The speaker uses the present tense to speak of eating and listening to music and going to the mountains, indicating that she has done these things often and expects to do them again and again.

Security and Insecurity
The use of the word “daddy” in line 4 establishes the poem’s point of view as that of a child, or at the very least as someone who finds comfort and security in speaking of her father. Throughout the poem there is a tone of security in the rituals and familiar foods the speaker finds in Knoxville. This culminates in the final lines, which identify Knoxville in the summer as a place where one can “be warm / all the time / not only when you go to bed / and sleep.” This warmth can literally be the warmth of summer days, in contrast to cold winter days, but warmth can also be used to symbolize a sense of safety, implying that the poem’s speaker no longer feels the need to be guarded most of the day.

Using “warmth” as a symbol for security in this poem leads readers to wonder why the poem’s speaker sometimes feels insecure. If she only feels secure in her bed or during the summers, when she can wander in nature, then the implication seems to be that insecurity occurs when dealing with other people in society. If such is the case, then “Knoxville, Tennessee” is a true reflection of the experience of many Americans who moved from farms to cities but who only feel comfortable when they return to a country environment.