The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Beloved Poet Nikki Giovanni on Love, Friendship, and Loneliness

Beloved Poet Nikki Giovanni on Love, Friendship, and Loneliness

In his magnificent meditation on the nature of creativity, the late poet Mark Strand defined poetry as the art of “meaning carried to a high order,” adding: “It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication.” Few poets embody this ideal of totality more boldly and bridge the daily with the essential more beautifully than writer, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), recipient of twenty honorary degrees from some of the world’s most renowned universities and the Langston Hughes Medal for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters.

Giovanni shares a kinship of sensibility with such diverse peers as e.e. cummings, Denise Levertov and Wislawa Szymborska. Her poetry is, perhaps above all, a masterwork of translation — the personal into the universal, the mundane into the monumental, the traumatic into the transcendent. Inside and between her verses, the most elemental human longings and concerns — love, loss, friendship, loneliness, freedom — at once new and even more immutable.

Here are my readings of five of Giovanni’s most beautiful poems — please enjoy.

From The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1995 (public library):


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

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
through 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


i’m not lonely
sleeping all alone
you think i’m scared
but i’m a big girl
i don’t cry or anything

i have a great
big bed to roll around
in and lots of space
and i don’t dream
bad dreams like i used
to have that you
were leaving me

now that you’re gone
i don’t dream
and no matter
what you think
i’m not lonely
all alone

From the 1997 volume Love Poems (public library), one of Giovanni’s most delicious:


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
no matter what your age

Few recognize that love is
commitment, responsibility
no fun at all

Love is
You and me


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

From her most recent and most exhaustive volume, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (public library):


when i die i hope no one who ever hurt me cries
and if they cry i hope their eyes fall out
and a million maggots that had made up their brains
crawl from the empty holes and devour the flesh
that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person
that i probably tried
to love

Published July 15, 2015




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