Thoughts: 100 Best African American Poems

The Best 100 African American Poems (*but I cheated)

Edited by Nikki Giovanni

Publication Date: November 1, 2010

Publisher: Sourcebooks

228 pages

Source: Library

Note: It includes one audio CD

As a teenager I remember taking my old tattered copy of Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems everywhere I went. I loved opening a page and starting a new poem. The book really belonged to the school library but I checked out the book so much, that it felt like my own. I loved that edition so much that I recently bought the same edition that I carried around me years ago.

Now as an adult, I don’t read poetry enough. I don’t know what happened between my years as a teenager when I lived for the genre and becoming an adult, but poetry became something left behind. When Serena from Savvy Wit and Verse came up with her Fearless Poetry Challenge and asked all participants to read just one volume of poetry, I signed up. I want to go back to those years when I read poetry as much as I read novels.

I picked Nikki Giovanni’s anthology The 100* Best African American Poems (*but I cheated) because last year I read Giovanni’s Bicycles, and fell in love with her poetry. The anthology is really an anthology of more than one hundred poems that were collected and organized by Giovanni and several others. In her introduction Giovanni wrote,

African American poems are like all other poems: beautiful, loving, provocative, thoughtful, and all those other adjectives I can think of. Poems know no boundaries. They, like all Earth citizens, were born in some country, grew up on some culture, then in their blooming became citizens of the universe. Poems fly from heart to heart, head to head, to whisper a dream, to share a condolence, to congratulate, and to vow forever. The poems are true. They are translated and they are celebrated .  . .

As much as I loved the introduction, I found this anthology to be a hit-and-miss. When it comes to poetry anthologies, I think that not only is the quality of poems important but the arrangement too. The anthology starts out with Margaret Walker’s “For My People” which is a great uplifting poem that reminds me of Joy Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here”. But the next poem “Leroy” by Amiri Baraka, has such a different tone from the first poem that I had to step back. It’s a poem filled with anger and that’s okay but I think the rhythm of an anthology should be smooth−each poem should flow into the next one. “Leroy” fits the anthology but it should be located with the poems of similar themes or tones.

The first half of the anthology was a little choppy with the lack of flow and clumps of poems by the same poets but the second half was almost perfect. After reading Reuben Jackson’s “Rochelle”, I loved it so much that I had to read it over again but this time aloud to really hear it.

i want to have

an affair

with your poems.

take the haiku you read

on a late night

plane to Chicago

sip bourbon with that villanelle

in a penthouse

on central park west.

or considering

your love for this city,

an apartment above

washington

harbor.

sky dimming

like a chandelier

at twilight,

slow kisses

for each word.

“Dancing Naked on the Floor” by Kwame Alexander was another favorite of mine. I love that I was able to find new poets to follow like Asha Bandele, Pamela Sneed, and Tonya Maria Matthews.

The anthology comes with a CD that readers can listen to but since I prefer to silently read most poetry, I didn’t listen to it. I wished that the anthology came with a small biography of each of the poets instead of just an index. Overall, I think the real strength of this anthology is that it’s the perfect place to introduce readers to new poets but this isn’t the anthology that I want to keep in my permanent collection.

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26 thoughts on “Thoughts: 100 Best African American Poems

  1. I, too, love Nikki Giovanni and all that she touches. I sometimes struggle with anthologies for similar reasons, but this one sounds like something I might really love. Thanks for the sort of inadvertent recommendation! And kudos to you for bringing the poetry back to your reading. It is much less prominent in the book-blogging world. Keep it up!

  2. I’ve always thought you have to be at the “right” place in your life to be receptive to poetry. Sometimes I really am, and sometimes I just find it annoying, because opaque. I usually like poetry for kids though, probably because I can understand it!

    1. Jill, I think that’s true about being receptive to poetry and all kinds of writing. Poetry for kids can be pretty good! I’m reading a poetry anthology with my kids now which we’re enjoying.

  3. I also thought biographies would have been nice in the book. I did enjoy the CD, however. There were several good performances of the poetry. Can’t wait to read your review of Evans’ Suffocate.

  4. VERY good point about the importance of the arrangement of an anthology. I think that goes for short stories too. Sometimes the way they’re ordered really throws me off.

    1. There was a big chunk of my life where I stopped reading poetry (when my kids were younger), and I’ve been enjoying getting back into it in the last couple years.

      Anthologies often have the potential of being hit or miss in quality; too bad you feel this one needs a smoother transistion with tone as well.

      I love the “Rochelle” poem you quoted, will have to find out more about Reuben Jackson!

      I’m going to visit my library system catalog now…..

      1. Yay! I understand about not reading poetry when your kids were younger. I didn’t either though I read a lot of poetry when I was pregnant with my oldest. If you read the book, I hope you enjoy it.

  5. I have to admit that I’m intimidated by poetry and really feel like I should explore it more. My son graduated from Virginia Tech, where Giovanni teaches, and he said she is one of the most respected professors there.

  6. I can’t do anthologies of poetry, even when they are edited by people I love. I like finding poems through the Random Poem function on the Poetry Foundation website — some of them are crap, but it’s great when I get a good one.

      1. I guess because I’m used to reading books all the way through? And you can’t do that with an anthology. I end up feeling dissatisfied.

  7. The Bookrageous podcast really got me inspired to try out some poetry. I was amazed when I went through my bookshelves last week and found that I own ten poetry books. I must have had the same experience, where I enjoyed poetry in my teens and grew away from it. I’m going to check some of the poets they talked about on the podcast.

  8. It’s too bad this wasn’t more hit than miss. I have found that most anthologies are like that – while I may love a few poems (or essays, short stories, etc.) – there will be many that I won’t care for.

  9. I very read poetry anymore, but did read and write a lot of it during my earlier days. I think it would be nice to find a book of poetry that I could really get into again, but the problem is that I have no idea how to chose what I’s like to read or what moves me. It’s been so long that I don’t even think I know what I like anymore!

  10. Thanks for joining the Fearless Poetry Reading Challenge. I appreciate that. (though it is Savvy Verse & Wit, not Savvy Wit and Verse) ;) I really enjoyed your review, and I agree that for anthologies, the flow should be smooth and seamless. I would have a hard time with the choppiness if I were to read it cover to cover, but with anthologies I tend to dip in and out of them at different pages and sections, so I might not notice as much. I recently picked up an anthology of Giovanni’s work…I hope to read that soon.

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