happy lowercase 75th birthday to nikki giovanni.

i will have to fight the word-processing program in this computer, as of course it “thinks” i have made accidental errors as i neglect to capitalize. i do know the difference.


I’ll revert to the standard-usage capitalized “I” to avoid an essay that is overly contrived and to avoid having to argue with this machine more than I wish to, but the thing is, I knew the difference back in the fifth grade, too.

My fourth-grade teacher named me the “class poet.” That’s alright; I’ve been called worse things I probably didn’t deserve. As a 10-year-old I would foist off some random free-verse fluff about seagulls in flight or what-the-hell-ever on the teachers, who ate it up, because not a lot of the grade-school kids did much with free verse or sincere observation-of-the-natural-world poetry for their assignments (outside for, maybe, the week spent on Haiku, in which we wasted way too much time on the bookkeeping of the form, and not enough experiencing the real thing; I love Ryokan’s little poems, which go far beyond “ ‘I see a pretty flower,’ let’s see, that makes seven....”). We elementary kids mostly stuck with rhymes constructed in the manner of laying bricks, and many of us believed poetry to be invariably the sentimental ooze of a sympathy card, unless the sturdy doggerel of a limerick. But I knew fluff art when I saw it.

In the fifth grade, they tried this enlightened and progressive arrangement where the redheaded battle-ax who normally taught the fifth-graders across the hall switched with my regular teacher once a day; he taught her class math, and she taught us what they called Language Arts. Language Arts of course is what had once, in days of yore, been English, or Reading, Writing, and Spelling, and since has become “E/LA,” and is now I suppose Literacy.

In any case, the idea was to expose us fifth-graders to some culture, diversity art, maybe even some higher-order thinking. You can see where this is probably headed. We read a lot of poetry, which is never a bad thing to be doing in the fifth grade; we were, after all, old enough to grok a few abstractions. Among the poets whose work we studied was American poet nikki giovanni who wrote some poems in which she eschewed the usual convention of starting each line with a capital letter. I recall seeing her name in lowercase letters; how radical.







So, having taken my lessons seriously, I turned in a poem in which I also eschewed capital letters. It seemed to me that the point of all this exposure was “Here are some options; try them.” After all, that was what we were supposed to do with all the truly lame poetic forms we’d been assigned in earlier grades, such as to write a poem in the shape of a balloon, or a Christmas tree, or a hammerhead shark, or compose a meaningful and deep work of art in which the first letters of the lines spell out “soccer team bake sale” or some other rot. Yeah, that stuff.

Anyway, the redheaded battle-ax red-inked the poem I had submitted in the style of nikki giovanni, with the stern comment that it was incorrect, and that poems always have the first letter of each line capitalized. I replied that nikki giovanni didn’t do that. She said, “nikki giovanni is a Real Poet. You are just a school kid.”

nikki giovanni is a real poet you are just a school kid a school kid a school kid.…

I have never forgotten that day.

I’d read enough poetry by then to know her dismissive snap at me was a bogus answer and a load of attitude, thanks to all the people who gave me books of poetry, or wrote Real Poems in my young presence. I knew a thing or two about Real Poets; more, conceivably, than the red-headed battle-ax did. As a little kid, I had the right kind of friends.

We lost one of our Real Poets a few days ago with the passing of Karen South, formerly of Matinicus Island. Karen was my friend. I remember her asserting in all seriousness that she could write poetry 40 hours a week. I thank Karen, friend and neighbor and Real Poet. In a certain twisted way, I thank the redheaded battle ax, for a lifetime memory and a good reason to work harder. I thank nikki giovanni, who supposedly said, “There are things you stand up for because it’s right,” and who for sure said, “it never says ‘accept me’ for poems seek not acceptance but controversy…”

Karen the Real Poet and i could have shared a laugh over the whole business.