Reading Pathways: The Best Nikki Giovanni Poems

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I was 15 when a friend and I found Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni in our school library. We took turns reading them out loud. Nikki Giovanni’s poems were completely different from anything I’d studied in school. In fact, they changed my entire understanding of what poetry could be. Nikki Giovanni self-published her first volumes of poetry, Black Feelings, Black Talk and Black Judgement, in 1968. Nikki Giovanni poems grew out of her feelings about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcom X, as well as the loss of her own grandmother. Since then she’s produced almost 20 books of poetry, along with multiple nonfiction works and children’s books.

Here are nine* of my favorite Nikki Giovanni poems that feel like a good place to start among her long, important body of work. I hope when you read them, you feel like I did at 15 discovering her for the first time.

Get to know the poetry of Nikki Giovanni with this guide to her best poems. book lists | poetry | nikki giovanni poetry | poems by nikki giovanni | best nikki giovanni poems

Where to Start With Nikki Giovanni Poems: Her Ten Best*

1. 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

2. 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

3. A Good Cry

4. 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

5. 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

6. I Wrote A Good Omelette

I wrote a good omelet…and ate
a hot poem… after loving you
Buttoned my car…and drove my
coat home…in the rain…
after loving you
I goed on red…and stopped on
green…floating somewhere in between…
being here and being there…
after loving you
I rolled my bed…turned down
my hair…slightly
confused but…I don’t care…
Laid out my teeth…and gargled my
gown…then I stood
…and laid me down…
To sleep…
after loving you

7. Ego Tripping

8. Nikki-Rosa

childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
your mother
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in
and somehow when you talk about home
it never gets across how much you
understood their feelings
as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
and even though you remember
your biographers never understand
your father’s pain as he sells his stock
and another dream goes
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
concerns you
and though they fought a lot
it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy

9. Knoxville, Tennessee

I always like summer
you can eat fresh corn
from daddy’s garden
and okra
and greens
and cabbage
and lots of
and buttermilk
and homemade ice-cream
at the church picnic
and listen to
gospel music
at the church
and go to the mountains with
your grandmother
and go barefooted
and be warm
all the time
not only when you go to bed
and sleep

Next Read: More Beautiful Nikki Giovanni Poems

For a next step in your Nikki Giovanni exploration, I suggest you start with Bicycles: Love Poems, A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter, or, for a more comprehensive look at her writing, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni. And for younger readers interested in poetry, I highly recommend Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry With a Beat.

*The term best is highly subjective. These are ten poems I find beautiful and representative of Giovanni’s work. But I don’t have the hubris to assume I can actually be the judge of what her best writings are.

*Editor’s Note: This post originally credited the poem “Mercy” to Nikki Giovanni in error; “Mercy, after Nikki Giovanni” was written by Rudy Francisco and can be found in  Helium.