A Few of Our All-Time Favorite Poems by Nikki Giovanni

Elena Nicolaou
Photo credit: Temi Oyeyola
Photo credit: Temi Oyeyola

From Oprah Magazine

Let's begin by saying choosing the "best" Nikki Giovanni poems is an impossible task. Giovanni's poems are about life, and are teeming with life. Whether she's writing about her mother or great loves, Giovanni celebrates the full spectrum of relationships. She's also famous for her poems about death, dreams, and racism—heavy concepts that are illuminated by her works. She even turns a poem about a spider into a masterpiece.

Now one of the most celebrated living poets, Giovanni's first book of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk, came out in 1968. Prolific as ever, her latest book, Make Me Rain, comes out in October of 2020. Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr in 1943 in Knoxville, TN. Publishing during the Civil Rights Movement, Giovanni's early poems were suffused with a revolutionary spirit. Along with Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde, Giovanni was a key figure of the Black Arts Movement.

Her work is warm and tender, but also displays Giovanni's high standards for her language, for the people in her life, and for what she expects from her country, marred by systemic racism. In her poems, one can find a road map for a better world. Read on for 10 of the best and most famous poems by Nikki Giovanni.

The poems below are published with permission from HarperCollins, Nikki Giovanni's publisher.


"Dreams"

in my younger years
before i learned
black people aren’t
suppose to dream
i wanted to be
a raelet
and say “dr o wn d in my youn tears”
or “tal kin bout tal kin bout”
or marjorie hendricks and grind
all up against the mic
and scream
“baaaaaby nightandday
baaaaaby nightandday”
then as i grew and matured
i became more sensible
and decided i would
settle down
and just become
a sweet inspiration

















"A Poem of Friendship"

We are not lovers
because of the love
we make
but the love
we have

We are not friends
because of the laughs
we spend
but the tears
we save

I don't want to be near you
for the thoughts we share
but the words we never have
to speak

I will never miss you
because of what we do
but what we are
together



















"Sky Diving"

I hang on the edge
of this universe
singing off-key
talking too loud
embracing myself
to cushion the fall

I shall tumble
into deep space
never in this form
or with this feeling
to return to earth

It is not tragic

I will spiral
through that Black hole
losing skin limbs
internal organs
searing
my naked soul

Landing
in the next galaxy
with only my essence
embracing myself
as

I dream of you



























"Love Is"

Some people forget that love is
tucking you in and kissing you
'Good night'
no matter how young or old you are
Some people don't remember that
love is
listening and laughing and asking
questions
no matter what your age
Few recognize that love is
commitment, responsibility
no fun at all
unless

Love is
You and me














"Choices"

If i can't do
what i want to do
then my job is to not
do what i don't want
to do
It's not the same thing
but it's the best i can
do

If i can't have
what i want... then
my job is to want
what i've got
and be satisfied
that at least there
is something more to want

Since i can't go
where i need
to go... then i must... go
where the signs point
though always understanding
parallel movement
isn't lateral

When i can't express
what i really feel
i practice feeling
what i can express
and none of it is equal
I know
but that's why mankind
alone among the animals
learns to cry
































"You Came, Too"

I came to the crowd seeking friends
I came to the crowd seeking love
I came to the crowd for understanding

I found you

I came to the crowd to weep
I came to the crowd to laugh

You dried my tears
You shared my happiness

I went from the crowd seeking you
I went from the crowd seeking me
I went from the crowd forever

You came, too















"Quilt"

(for Sally Sellers)

Like a fading piece of cloth
I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter
My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able
To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days
When just woven I could keep water
From seeping through
Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave
Dazzled the sunlight with my
Reflection




I grow old though pleased with my memories
The tasks I can no longer complete
Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology only
this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle
near

"If a Lemon"

If a lemon
Kissed a beet
Is it sour
Or is it sweet


If a bear
Gives
A hug
Will it turn
Into a rug



And then there's me
And there is you
I do sometimes wonder
What will we do


"Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like"

so he said: you ain’t got no talent
if you didn’t have a face
you wouldn’t be nobody

and she said: god created heaven and earth
and all that’s Black within them

so he said: you ain’t really no hot shit
they tell me plenty sisters
take care better business than you

and she said: on the third day he made chitterlings
and all good things to eat
and said: “that’s good”

so he said: if the white folks hadn’t been under
yo skirt and been giving you the big play
you’d a had to come on uptown like everybody else

and she replied: then he took a big Black greasy rib
from adam and said we will call this woeman and her
name will be sapphire and she will divide into four parts
that simone may sing a song

and he said: you pretty full of yourself ain’t chu

so she replied: show me someone not full of herself
and i’ll show you a hungry person


























"Mercy"

She asked me to kill the spider
Instead, I got the most
peaceful weapons I can find

I take a cup and a napkin.
I catch the spider, put it outside
and allow it to walk away

If I am ever caught in the wrong place
at the wrong place, just being alive
and not bothering anyone,

I hope I am greeted
with the same kind
of mercy.

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