Essay: Poetry of Dennis Brutus, Nikki Giovanni

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¶ … Poetry of Dennis Brutus, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, and Amiri Baraka

While we always hear that life imitates art, it is also true and maybe even more so that art imitates life. Four poets that demonstrate how life is revealed through art are Dennis Brutus, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, and Amiri Baraka. These African-American poets bring life to their art through experience. It is from experience that we can identify with one another and thee poets attempt to not only explain, but also explore, what it means to be African-American in the word in which they live. Brutus takes us to the moment of realization that a life is lost and there is little to do about it other than mourn in solitude. Giovanni celebrates the very essence of African-American life through a series of events and circumstances that many would not consider positive at all. Jordan captures the essence of her African-American experience by attempting to imagine what it would be like to be white. Baraka looks inward at the self in an attempt to discover who he is clothed in the skin of his ancestors. All of these poems encapsulate what it means to be alive in some form or another. Being alive is not always a pleasant experience and these poems reflect this sentiment precisely. It is the human experience that eventually brings us together and when we can sit down with a poem and feel as though we can relate, the poet has succeeded. Such is the case with these poets, who find that art becomes everlasting when it summarizes life.

Dennis Brutus uses his Poetry to reveal his experience in a personal and tragic way. Brutus experienced terrible hardships in South Africa, from where he was essentially banned. He spoke out against the apartheid and was forced to leave the country. Craig McLuckie observes that the origins of Brutus' ideas and opinions are "on one level peculiar to his South African experience; on another, they belong to the Romantic tradition of poetry in English" (McLuckie 61). Evidence of this can be seen in Brutus' search for meaning, according to McLuckie, along with and "emphasis on passion and on personal experience" (61). It is believed that the poem was penned for Arthur Norjte, a south African poet that committed suicide in exile. Brutus' verse ranges from the political to the personal but it always finds that place where everything seems real, if just for a moment.

In "They Hanged Him, I said Dismissively," the poet reflects upon the death of a friend that simply cannot be captured with words. In the poem, we discover that while the poet admits that while he can attempt to explain the deceased was a "dear friend" (Brutus 3) to the poet and their shared ambitions brought them together "almost intimately/in common tasks" (4-5). The poem then moves from the life and the friend that the poet knew to the friend's death. The poet cannot bring himself to consider the "anguish that drove him to where he was/or the pain at their hands he must have faced" (6-8). The poem concludes with the notion that all of these considerations can never fully express what the poet is feeling in regard to his friend's death nor what the friend encountered at his death. The notion is that these emotions and thoughts are beyond what words can express. The pet realizes the futility of the situation and comes to the only conclusion he can, only to "dismissively" (11) say that they hanged his friend. The repetition of this word emphasizes the indifference of those that killed his friend and the utter nonsense of the situation.

Nikki Giovanni's poetry also reflects life. The poet celebrates the African-American spirit and life in the poem, "Nikki-Rosa." Mary Lystad observes that in many of her works, Giovanni "focuses on the individual's search for love and acceptance, reflecting what she considers a major struggle in the black community" (Lystad). She goes on to comment that "Nikki-Rosa" is "often cited as her signature poem. It recounts her happy childhood, asserting that happiness depends on love rather than material possessions, that black love is black wealth" (Lystad). The poem looks at all of the things that make life enjoyable as a child and weaves those things together in one happy braid. Not all of these experiences of childhood are pleasurable but when looking back, the poet understands that this is how life works.

In "Nikki-Rosa," the poet focuses entirely on misconceptions between individuals of different backgrounds and races. We see a celebration of life in this poem without sentimentalizing it or presenting it in a way that is false. Rather than present us with images of a childhood that sounds romantic and delightful, the poet chooses to let her art reflect the real life she lived. In this sense, we are never without a doubt that the poet child is happy even though she did not live the life of luxury. In fact, even with no "inside toilet" (Giovanni 4), the poet is able to admit that her childhood was happy nevertheless. The poet goes through the process of explaining what children need to be happy, which is rarely material things but rather having one's mother all to oneself and how good a bath felt even if it was in "one of those / big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in" (10-1). The poet also realizes that her father's drinking was not as important as her parents and the family being together. In addition, while she knew her parents fought, she also realizes that her parents loved their children and made sure that the girls had "happy birthdays and very good / Christmases" (25-6). This poem celebrates the very simplest of things and they are best seen through a child's perspective through the eyes of that child as an adult. Happiness is a simple thing for children and it is often easier for them to attain because they have not yet been influenced by the world and its trappings.

Another poet that uses experience as a means of making art is June Jordan. Her poem, What Would I do White" takes a look at life from another perspective through the poet's eyes.

Thadious Davis notes, "June Jordan's is an extraordinarily powerful voice. Power as a central theme in Jordan's work is accentuated by her speaking voice, which is forthright, resolute, searing, at times explosive and frightening" (Davis). In addition, Davis points out, "the unifying element in all her activities is her fervent dedication to the survival of black people, which she expresses in powerful terms" (Davis). Survival comes through various means and Jordan is quick to understand that her survival as an African-American woman involves looking at life from another perspective. From this perspective, the poet gathers strength and pride.

In "What Would I do White," the poet firmly addresses the issue of tension that lives between stereotypes of black and white. The poet asks herself what she would if she were and then follows with a series of actions that are aimed at the rich, white stereotype. In a sense this poem is reverse stereotypical because we see how the black individual views the white one and how there is no jealousy - only animosity. The poet considers her question and then answers by stating that as a white person, she would "disturb the streets by / Passing so pretty kids / on stolen petty cash would" (Jordan 6-8). She would also "forget my furs on any chair. / I would ignore the doormen at the knob" 11-13). In addition, she would return to "equity / the equity of capital I am / Accustomed to accept" (17-20). Perhaps the most powerful lines in the poem state that the black poet, as a white person "would forget" (15) and "do nothing" (21). These lines declare that being white is nothing to desire because most whites are shallow and have no appreciation for life because they have had everything handed to them. In a sense, as a white person, the forgetting would eliminate the fact of having to face such a pathetic life and the doing nothing is what the white person would eventually do in that white people do not do much.

Another poet that demonstrates how art reflects life is Amiri Baraka, whose lifetime achievements include speaking out for African-Americans in Newark. As a high school student, Baraka was one of very few African-American students. As a result, he became sensitive to the issues that African-Americans experience. Baraka grew up as LeRoi Jones and later changed his name, as well, as his "life and work has continued to undergo a series of metamorphoses" (Miller). He became vocal at a young age and "one of the prime movers of the revolutionary black theatre and the contemporary black arts movement in general" (Miller). He became a popular figure and was associated with many of the images and aspirations… [END OF PREVIEW]

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