Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Nikki Giovanni Flap: Organizers Should Have Known

Cincinnati's news reporting has mostly been beset with a spasm of reaction to the miserable excuse for a poem read by alleged poet Nikki Giovanni at the dedication ceremony for the renovated Fountain Square. A story with a link to a Word document with the entire poem is available here, for those with the patience.

Most reaction has been about how unsuitable it was for her to use vulgar expressions to insult Ken Blackwell. Actually, we think she probably got Blackwell a few sympathy votes from that move.

We actually don't mind the political stuff, and we're unshocked by the vulgarity, though we would prefer to do without it. But we vigorously object to this miserable piece of incoherent, unpoetic and inaccurate drivel being read to living people. The "poem" possesses nothing of a remotely poetic character. It reads more like a randomly arranged list of "things to do in Cincinnati," with a couple of hackneyed political remarks thrown in for good measure.

What's worse, Giovanni didn't even get the details right. "I am Montgomery ribs," she intoned. We assume she refers to Montgomery Inn Ribs. "I am Findlay Street Market." No, you are merely Findlay Market. "I am Symphony Hall." Well then, you are not in Cincinnati. No such venue exists in Our Fair City. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra plays in Music Hall.

In sum, we agree with Xavier English professor Norman Finkelstein, whose opinion on Giovanni the Enquirer summarizes this way:

Finkelstein called Giovanni's poem a "klutzy" piece that seemed to have been dashed out in a few minutes, a poem that reached for "too many easily accessible images of Cincinnati and Cincinnati history." Giovanni might have included her reference to Blackwell to be provocative, he said - but "in doing that, whatever poetic integrity the thing had went down the tubes."

Giovanni "has a good deal of skill and panache in handling a certain kind of public oratory," Finkelstein said. "I don't think she's a particularly strong poet anymore."

But this is no sub-par performance for Giovanni. This is what she does. Again, we defer to the experts, per the Enquirer:

James Cummins, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and curator of the school's Elliston Poetry Collection, agreed that the poem wasn't good - just a string of images, a catalog of facts, a bit of opinion. . . .

He also said that while Giovanni might not be a "great poet," she is a "poet/activist" known to speak her mind - and event organizers should have expected just that.

"Absolutely, they knew what they were getting when they asked Nikki Giovanni," he said.

Exactly. Giovanni is successful as a poet because she has managed to do what lots of people in the arts have done historically: bamboozle people of means and pretention into paying her. In earlier ages, that largely meant producing things that flattered the ruling classes. Now it means producing things that offend the middle classes. For those wealthy elites whose tastes have developed no farther than their naively quasi-Marxist politics, such offense to the bourgeoisie is the equivalent of artistic merit, not to mention penance for their own social privilege.

Ironically, on her own terms this makes Giovanni, who called Blackwell a political whore, a poetic whore.


farris said...

Does calling her a poetic whore represent a bit of poetic justice? That was miserable poetry, not to mention way less offensive than I thought it would be in re: to Blackwell. I'm sure it was initially shocking, but I guess perusing blogs all day makes one less immune to faceless criticism.


Calus The Great said...

A better poem:
Today is sleezy
I feel like a snooze
My family is boring and my brother is snoring

Dynitta said...

It is with a sense of great sadness and shame that I must admit, the Nikki grew up in my old neighborhood. I even remember in elementary school, she appeared on our yearly Black History Month Test, where we were taught to view her as someone "Outstanding within our Community." I have not read her piece, and utterly refuse to call what she writes/says art, much less poety, for fear that blood may begin to ooze from the sockets of my eyes. As an American of African descent, I am consistently annoyed by so-called "Black Leaders" and the sleazy way they earn money by large fees and then claiming to actually care about the "disenfranchised masses." When in reality it's all about self grandisement and "making chedda'." [In an effort to be ethnically sensitive, the word chedda' refers to ones finances, specifically, monetary].