Disrespecting Nikki Giovanni's poem WE ARE VIRGINIA TECH
Somewhere online I read that when a catastrophe occurs, poets are amongst the first responders. After the Virginia Tech massacre, American poet Nikki Giovanni was the firstest of the first, and her poem WE ARE VIRGINIA TECH was read to a Convocation of the University on April 17, 2007.
In the aftermath of Cho's massacre, in which he killed 32 people before killing himself, the person who most attracted my interest was Nikki Giovanni, about who I knew nothing except the bare facts given by the International Herald Tribune, which were that she was a professor of poetry at Virginia Tech and had once been Cho's teacher.
I was interested in her situation: the poet plunged into the public realm in such a fraught and tormented time. So, seeking to find out more about her situation, I punched her name into the Google News search box.
What followed was not enlightenment but, rather, confusion, as initially I ended up totally misconstruing both the poem and the poet.
I first encountered the text of the poem on a newspaper site where it was called not a "poem" but an "address," so I took it to be a speech, and that was how I initially interpreted it.
As a piece of rhetoric put together under time pressure, I thought it was pretty good, at least in the opening parts. What really impressed me were these words:
"We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly
We are brave enough to bend to cry
And we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again"
These words struck me as being clear, skillful and appropriate to the situation.
But who or what was this "Hokie Nation," as in the following lines:
"We are Virginia Tech
The Hokie Nation embraces
And reaches out
With open heart and mind
To those who offer their hearts and hands"
I completely misconstrued the situation here, because my surmise, which was totally wrong, was that the "Hokie Nation" was some remnant of the indigenous peoples that had survived white America's attempt to cram them into the genocide bin, and that Yolanda Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni was, with a name like that, surely of the same ethnic persuasion as Marisa Acocella Marchetto, and what was an Italian American doing speaking on behalf of an ethnic group which was not her own?
My thought at the time was this:
By what color of right does she, the white Italian, presume to speak for the Hokie people?
I was confident that if I did just a little research online, I would very shortly discover that Ms Giovanni was more Italian than the Pope.
But in this I was completely wrong.
It turns out that Ms Giovanni is not an Italian American poet but a black American poet, and her theory is that her distinctively Italian surname was bestowed upon her ancestors by an Italian gentleman who, back in the days of black slavery, was their master.
As for the "Hokie Nation," as far as I can make out, this is actually the social community associated with a college football team.
This is what I understand from the following web page:
The page publicises a movie which is "A film about a team, a town and the best darned fans in college football!"
According to the site, HOKIE NATION is an independent film scheduled for release in August, and I presume that means August of this year, 2007.
I think when I get to the part which says "The Hokie Nation embraces /
Our own" I should read this as meaning "we embrace our own," ie we the members of this football-focused community.
Decrypting that took a little bit of doing. No doubt when the poem finally appears in textbooks, it will be accompanied by appropriate explanatory footnotes, and the reader will not be faced with the initial bewilderments which beset me when I first ventured into Ms Giovanni's world.
The fact that Ms Giovanni is black explains why I found a couple of her poems on a site which also featured two poems by the black boxer Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay. When I first saw these poems I was unsure as to their provenance, and was not certain who actually originated them. But what I now presume is that they were genuinely written by Ali himself.
The site featuring both Ali and Giovanni is:
It features poems by a number of poets, and my assumption now is that they are all black poets.
One of the poems by Ms Giovanni which I found on that site was called THE TRUE IMPORT OF PRESENT DIALOGUE, BLACK VS. NEGRO (FOR PEPE, WHO WILL ULTIMATELY JUDGE OUR EFFORTS).
I misconstrued this as being a poem by a white poet writing about black anger, but actually it is, of course, a poem written by Ms Giovanni (back in the days of her youth) and written, it seems, out of the heart of her youthful black anger.
In summary, then, initially I totally misconstrued both the nature of the poet and the nature of her poem, WE ARE VIRGINIA TECH. But now I believe I have both in focus, and therefore will confidently proceed with criticism, my purpose in posting regarding this poem being not to praise it but to disrespect it.
Although every man and his dog seems to have posted the entire text of the poem online, I will not take that liberty, but, as of today's date, Friday 27 April 2007, you can read the text if you copy the following URL and paste it into your browser:
This page is online courtesy of the Virginia Tech English Department, where you can read the poem and make your own judgment.
My judgment is that whether considered as a speech or as a poem, WE ARE VIRGINIA STATE is, on balance, a failure.
The opening lines are fine, and do a great job of responding to utter disaster in a coherent and controlled manner, not denying the reality of the horror but, at the same time, successfully coping with it.
In the opening lines, we see a skilled technician who is speaking to her audience (and, at the Convocation, it was a live audience) from her heart.
So far, so good.
But the poem comes off the rails with the following disjunctive lines:
"We do not understand this tragedy
We know we did nothing to deserve it
"But neither does a child in Africa
Dying of AIDS"
That's definitely sliding off the topic.
If the diversion into the wider world ended there, then the poem could survive it. Arguably, the reference to AIDS contextualises the poem, the context being the so-called civilization which we humans have put together on planet Earth.
But the poem, not content with the AIDS reference, goes on to speak of Iraqi teenagers, Appalachian infants, children at risk of being inducted into rogue armies as junior warriors, and, worst of all, plunging right to the depths of bathos, the plight of the poor baby elephant, a member of a community which is hunted for its ivory.
Ms Giovanni has been a political activist for years, and, in this poem, once she loses focus by mentioning the AIDS issue, the politician takes over. It's like a freight train coming through. There's no stopping it. The poet is crushed out of existence and a posturing politician is left to dominate the stage. The fact that the politician is totally sincere does not pardon this crime against poetry.
While working on this post, I read the poem through yet again, and when I got to the bit about the baby elephant, I left the keyboard and went to the family reliquary room, which contains, among other things, a piece of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified and the lower jawbone of Genghis Khan.
In that austere environment, I tasked myself to the spiritual discipline of meditating on the suffering of baby elephants. But from my spiritually delinquent soul there came not even one small whimper of sympathy for Dumbo junior. I tried to kickstart my recalcitrant soul by eating some chocolate, but even consuming a whole bar of the stuff failed to do the trick.
Evidently, I am unworthy to kneel on the cold flagstones of the sacramental chapel and to pray, with the appropriate piety, in the company of Saint Yolanda Cornelia Giovanni.
The good thing about this poem is that it has absolutely nothing to say about Cho Seung Hui. It does not even mention his name. Cho has had more than his fair share of publicity, which, we may reasonably believe, is exactly what he wanted.
Looking at the situation, at the background to the poem, on the professorial level I cannot fault Ms Giovanni, and I don't think anyone else should fault her, either.
She recognized that Cho was malignant, and did the right thing, which was to excise him from her class. I don't think more than that could be demanded from her. Or from any teacher. A teacher cannot take global A for the lives of all the students who wander into that teacher's ambit. As a teacher, she did just fine.
But, as a poet? No, I don't think so. The politician took control of what started off as a pretty good poem, and the poem went down the toilet.
Because of the circumstances of its reception, WE ARE VIRGINIA TECH, which is already famous, is destined to remain famous, and will be taught to death and used as a model of how this kind of poem should be written.
And I imagine some kid sitting in a room in Beltway City, up in the state of Maine, thinking to himself, "Well, I'm really broken up. But I've done a pretty good job of cooking up a fairly decent poem about dad's car crash suicide. But now how do I tweak the draft and work in all that other stuff I should be including, the stuff about the famine in Zimbabwe and the suffering of the foie gras geese?"
A poem should be about something, should focus on that subject, and should not wander off into a general review of the sorry state of the universe. And if I'm at my friend's funeral and you're delivering a poem which is ostensibly about my friend's life and death, and you then choose to inflict suffering baby elephants on us, then my response is going to be screw the baby elephants.
And if I'd been at the Convocation on April 17, with my friend dead in the morgue and the blood not yet cleaned from the walls of the carnage ground, then my personal response would have been even less polite than that.
In closing, a footnote on terminology. In this piece I've made free use of the word "black," and in doing so I've taken my cue from a 2007 column by word maven William Safire, one of the world's leading experts on the correct use of the English language. (Though he does recommend that you first deploy the term "African American," and only then switch to the nimbler term "black.")