Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Close Reading: It’s Not a Just Situation

It’s Not a Just Situation:
Though We Just Can’t Keep Crying About It
(For the Hip Hop Nation
That Brings Us Such Exciting Art)

by Nikki Giovanni

You can find the full poem here. I'd recommend looking at all of the paintings and photography on that section of the site, too. It's nothing you'd expect from a fine art gallery--it's graffiti and paintings of LL Cool J.

Anyway, this poem blew me away. I was in DC over break, and while wandering through the National Portrait Gallery, stumbled upon a large instillation fill with graffiti and hip-hop portraits. This poem was on one of the walls and being read by the poet over some speakers and I was just totally, totally blown away by the fact that a national museum was actually considering this art.

Anyway, here's the passage that I'm taking a look at:

You are just
trying to show the beautiful soul of your people
You are
trying to say “I’m alive”
You are
determined to be more
than what the powers who
Just hate the idea of you want you to be

I love the use of the word 'just'. In that stanza, it takes on two meanings: either just as in 'simply' or just as in 'suddenly'. In the title, it could even work as in 'justice'. The thing that I find really effective is that the meaning isn't hidden somewhere deep in the poem or buried in Oxford's. In parts, the poem even openly makes the connection between the meanings ("You are/ just, if there is any/ justice...") It's an accessible poem about accessible things.

I think that fact adds even more to the poem. I think I rambled about this before on here, but I think it's really important for poetry as a genre to invite people in that would otherwise be told that poetry is on some pedestal that they're never going to reach. I loved the whole exhibit, just because of how inviting it was. Needless to say, it had a lot more visitors than the Renaissance masterpieces on the same floor.

I really don't know what else to say. I think the narrator (and poet) have an incredibly strong voice, and I don't really want to butcher the poem trying to explain it anymore than need be. /end rant, I guess.


Feras said...

I just read this poem and i agree with you, the use of just was a nice touch however, i believe it was a little overused. This poem is different then the ones we read in the Norton book simply because it is a little more modern and speaks to the people now even though it can be a universal timeless message. Nice close reading.

PBHURT said...

I have mixed feelings towards this poem. I understand that the poet is attempting to reach a younger audience. Poetry is something that perhaps has lost its relevance with a large segment of younger generations so this is obviously an admirable goal. The poem however is just too repetitive. I lost any hope for this poem when the poet did the tritest thing possible and rhymed 'just' with 'justice.' Poetry should be made to appeal to young people, but it needs to be a little more interesting than this.

Prof. L said...

Marissa raises an interesting point about accessibility. To us, this poem seems fairly accessible, though I would guess someone from, say, the 19th-century would find E.B. Browning more accessible than Giovanni. That is, much of understanding poetry is simply getting used to the kind of language and conventions it's using.

At the same time, poetry old and more recent (and it's not like we aren't reading more recent stuff--Giovanni was born in the same decade as Olds and Collins, for instance) relies on some very basic poetic devices.

Take a look at that last line in the selection. Why do you think Giovanni breaks three lines after "just" when they're about "you," but breaks the line before "just" when it's about what "they" want of you?

MarissaBlaszko! said...


I don't think it's trying to reach youth; I think it's trying to reach a more urban audience who, more than likely, have just never been exposed to poetry. It's not about how modern it is, but about the subject and language used. I also think the fact that I was so attracted to it is because I hang around with a lot of punks and graffiti artists that really don't understand my attraction to literature. I just really like the fact that the poem functions as a bridge. And trust me--if you're into street art, this poem is about as interesting as it gets.

As for the breaks, I think it's to emphasize the addressed individual, and their importance. This poem doesn't give two about 'them'--and the format shows that. At least, that's what I get.

Sara Bouchard said...

I agree with you. I liked this poem a lot and I think that the repetition adds to and even makes the poem.