Poems with Pattern and VADER, Part 2: Nikki Giovanni

(This post is part of a two-post series—I ended up having too much to say about the poems I looked at with VADER and Pattern, so I split it up. First half can be found here!)

Nikki Giovanni’s “The True Import of the Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro” is probably one of her most famous poems. According to Howard Rambsy’s excellent recent book on the larger literary scene of what he calls “the Black Arts enterprise,” this poem is also “among Giovanni’s most anthologized pieces,” with Giovanni herself being “a fixture in anthologies of African American verse” (72). More than just a fixture in anthologies, Giovanni was at the time “undoubtedly one of the most popular” of the new black poets, according to Melba Joyce Boyd in her book on Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press (175).

This poem is also famed for being exemplary of what Rambsy calls “black arts discourse,” which he describes as “characterized by expressions of militant nationalist sensibilities, direct appeals to African American audiences, critiques of antiblack racism, and affirmations of cultural heritage” (10). According to Rambsy, “The True Import” in particular holds an “aggressive approach to liberation,” similar to other poems in “utilize[ing] violent and nationalist rhetoric to encourage [a] presumably black audience to liberate their minds from the hegemony of whiteness” (10). Giovanni’s entry in the Black Literature Criticism reference series seconds this, describing the poem as “typical of her early work: a call to black Americans to destroy the whites who oppress them as well as the blacks whose passivity and compliance contribute to their own oppression” (881). Likewise, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature names this early “well-known” poem as one “that led to Giovanni’s identification as an angry, militant poet” (317).

In other words, many see “The True Import” as an angry poem—a poem that is, in fact, famous for its anger. This assessment feels in keeping with a first reading. To offer a straightforward gloss, “The True Import” explores the difference between being an African American locked into white supremacist ideology (being a “negro”), versus being an African American who has liberated themselves from white thought and come into their own (being “Black”). With regards to then-contemporary conversations regarding these terms and their significance, Haki Madhubuti’s “Toward a Black Aesthetic” and Sarah Webster Fabio’s “Who Speaks Negro? Who Is Black?”—both of which appear in the 1968 September-October issue of Black World / Negro Digest—are informative and insightful. Madhubuti writes that, unlike the “black man (or woman)” who is “positive of [their] identity,” “the Negro is a filthy invention” that “didn’t come into existence until about 1620”— an “imitation white” (27). Fabio, meanwhile, writes that “Negro is a psychological, sociological, and economic fabrication to justify the status quo in America” (33). With regards to Giovanni’s “The True Import,” this poem explores the role that violent liberation plays in this difference between “negro” and “Black.”

But a summary like this doesn’t get across what makes the poem so “angry,” which has more to do with the poem’s style—the texture of its explicitly violent diction (“Can you splatter their brains in the street”), its point-blank, repetitive questions (the phrase “Can you kill” appears 13 times in the 51 line poem), and its rapid-fire tempo (most lines are only a few words). Moreover, “killing” plays a central role in this poem’s idea of liberation: killing white men (“Can you piss on a blond head / Can you cut it off”) as well as killing the consciousness within that has internalized oppressive white thought (to kill part of your “mind / And free your black hands to / strangle”).

There is, of course, more to this poem than just anger. Cheryl Clarke in her 2004 book on female poets in the BAM notes a tension in its concluding line—“Learn to be Black men”—in that it addresses “Black men” specifically, as opposed to black people more generally. Clarke suggests this “erasure of black women” might have to do with a desire “to project the urgency for unity and solidarity, to focus on the possibilities for sameness” within the movement (53). In his 1971 Dynamite Voices, Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee) notes Giovanni’s references to Vietnam in the poem (“We kill in Viet Nam / for them”) as a concern that “Black men have been sent out of the United States to kill other ‘colored’ peoples of the world when the real enemy is here” (68). In short: scholars and critics have had a lot to say about “The True Import” from a variety of perspectives. Here, however, I am interested in the poem’s purported “anger.”

VADER and Pattern’s Analyses

So what do our sentiment classifiers think? Pattern is so off the mark again that it isn’t worth going into very deeply. As explained in my previous post, Pattern only looks at adjectives. Of the poem’s 51 lines, it assigns a neutral score of zero to 43 of them, because the lines lack adjectives Pattern has in its lexicon. Lines like “can you shoot straight and / fire for good measure” both have positive scores because of the adjectives “straight” and “good.” The only “negative” words Pattern knows in this poem are “down” and “black,” meaning that the final line—perhaps the most hopeful, affirmational moment of the poem to which the intensity of the prior lines builds—has a score of -0.167, because “Learn to be black men” has the adjective “black” in it, which Pattern, as discussed in more detail in my previous post, scores as negative. Pattern gives the poem a neutral score (0.02), but for all the wrong reasons, some of which are quite troubling.

With regards to VADER, however, I was surprised to find that the classifier’s results are very much in keeping with what critics have said. Critics consider “The True Import” to be one of the most significant examples of a certain type of angry, militant, even aggressive poem; having evaluated each of its lines, VADER considers it to be the single most negative poem in the 26-book corpus. That is to say that, in a sense, critics and VADER actually agree about something: that Giovanni’s “The True Import” is a poem that, on the surface, has an exceptional amount of negative sentiment compared with its contemporaries.

I add the caveat of “on the surface” because, as mentioned above, a lot is going on in this poem that might complicate our understanding of its angry, revolutionary rhetoric—something that scholars, critics, and other readers of Giovanni’s poetry note but that VADER does not. VADER doesn’t know the meaning or significance of any of the words it analyzes. It just knows sentiment scores for strings of letters like “kill,” “poison,” and “die.” Having been designed to analyze social media text, VADER is (unlike Pattern) also equipped to deal with slang like “piss” as well as the racial expletives used throughout the poem, which it counts as having negative sentiment. But because it doesn’t know anything but sentiment scores for these words, VADER misses what William Harris (in his chapter in Mari Evans’s edited volume Black Women Writers) calls the “complex connotations” of certain racial expletives and the speaker’s strategic use of them “to suggest the consciousness that wants to conform to white standards,” and, subsequently, the idea that ‘killing’ this part of the mind will “transform consciousness” (221). In short: VADER finds sentiment, but has nothing more to add with regards to interpreting its potential significance.

Brandishing Anger

As a more informed reader of Giovanni’s poetry, I do have more to add. For example, I would argue that the role of “negative sentiment” as it appears in “The True Import” goes beneath and beyond the immediate, denotative, and affective impact of individual words or lines and actually relates deeply to the poem’s structure, genre, and social purpose.

In her essay “Black Poetry—Where It’s At” from a 1969 issue of Black World / Negro Digest, BAM writer and poet Carolyn M. Rodgers details “several broad categories” or types of poems in then-contemporary black poetry. One such type is signifying poetry, in this case referring to the black vernacular tradition of signifying. Scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. have explored the history and significance of signifying more in depth, which Gates describes in his 1988 work The Signifying Monkey as both the commonplace practice of “engag[ing] in rhetorical games” (68) as well as a more general “theory of criticism that is inscribed within the black vernacular tradition and that in turn informs the shape of the Afro-American literary tradition” (14).

But rather than jump straight to Gates’ now famous definitions and theorizations of this tradition, I want first to stick with Rodgers’ formulations of it in her essay. Citing Giovanni, Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, and “the master of it all” Amiri Baraka as having written these kinds of poems, Rodgers describes signifying as “a way of saying the truth that hurts with a laugh … a love/hate exercise in exorcising one’s hostilities” (14-15). She also notes, however, that signifying “is very often a bloody knife job,” and because it “often contains such a broad base of truth it has been known to cause—in fact, is famous for causing—a fight or a death. It can get too down, too real, so true and personal it uncovers too much” (15-16). While acknowledging its long history in black vernacular traditions, Rodgers also emphasizes signifying’s fresh significance and potentially productive social purpose as a poetic genre:

From a literary point of view, it is a significant, exciting aspect of today’s poetry. I know, and you know, that we have always signified. On the corners, in the poolrooms, the playgrounds, anywhere and everywhere we have had the opportunity. … However, to my knowledge, no group of Black writers has ever used it as a poetic technique as much as today’s writers. It is done with polish. … Too much signifying can be negative, I think; however, most of today’s poets are very conscious of how important positive vibrations are, and few have carried signification to an extreme. In the main, it is being used, for constructive destruction. (14)

Just with these brief descriptions, we can already see an intense ambivalence between what might be seen as “positive” or “negative” in a type of poem that engages in this rhetorical practice. They are “love/hate exercise[s]”; they speak truths “that hurt,” but do so “with a laugh”; they are an opportunity for “exorcising one’s hostilities”. In writing such a poem, poets must demonstrate restraint and moderation so as not to carry “signification to an extreme”: they must strike a balance because “positive vibrations” are important and “[t]oo much signifying” can be “negative”. As Rodgers summarizes at the end, a good signifying poem destroys, but in a constructive way. It is “a bloody knife job,” but one that can have a productive social purpose.

Rodgers’ article offers, I feel, an extremely productive lens through which to view the “anger” in Giovanni’s poem. Other scholars would seem to agree—Cheryl Clarke, cited above, notes that, along with the poem’s “harsh repetition,” “violent rhetoric and images,” and “its castigation of white people and black people,” the poem has a “dozens-like resonance” through which it “engages in the politics of conversion by rebuke” (60)—the dozens being what Gates calls “an especially compelling subset of Signifyin(g)” (90).

Rebuke, castigation, conversion, “constructive deconstruction,” speaking “the truth that hurts”—rather than just an expression of rage or militant feeling, this poem uses “anger” in complicated, socially-minded ways. This poem isn’t just angry—it wields anger. And by brandishing anger in this way, the poem strategically applies a specific set of affects to a specific set of issues with an eye for inciting change. On the surface, what the poem declares to be “The True Import of the Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro” seems to boil down to a militant voice asking the question: “Can you kill.” Beneath the surface, however, this voice uses negative sentiment (including the repetition of questions like “Can you kill”) to urge, push, and even shove the reader into crucial—if painful—awareness: to realize the life-or-death stakes of racial injustice, as well as the different kinds of violence that oppressive racial ideologies can inflict.

This perspective changes not only the “message” of the poem, but how we read the seemingly negative sentiment in individual lines. For example, the poem’s final lines make two demands: that the reader “Learn to kill” their own internalized oppression, which, the poem implies, will allow them to “Learn to be Black men.” Rather than read this first command as just another instance of the poem’s persistently violent rhetoric, we might better see it as a transitional line or hinge—one half of a closing couplet that uses two imperatives to channel a backlog of violent rhetoric into something constructive (Rodgers’ “constructive deconstruction”). In this sense, this hinged couplet makes a sudden shift from “negative” sentiment into intense recognition—a kind of poetic anagnorisis, or what The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines as “the turning point in a drama at which a character … recognizes the true state of affairs, having previously been in error or ignorance.” Painful knowledge, in short. An important insight acquired through what might have also been “a bloody knife job.”

Surface Sentiment and Positive Negativity

To reframe this with an eye for this project: this poem, and signifying poems Rodgers describes more generally, can make use of a positive negativity. Which is basically VADER’s worst nightmare. Sentiment-laden language deployed with this depth of rhetorical nuance, figurative complexity, and vision of broader social purpose is exactly the kind of thing VADER’s sentiment classifier cannot pick up on. VADER was, however, able to pick up on and offer an explicit line of reasoning for why the poem seems so negative—something that many others have noted since its original publication. While mechanically averaging the affective weight of words and phrases according to a sentiment lexicon built to evaluate social media text isn’t exactly how a reader today would go about getting a first impression of this poem, this gloss of the poem’s surface ended up being an indicator that something was indeed going on in terms of the poem’s use of heightened affects.

This disjoint—between the “negative sentiment” on the surface of this poem, and the significance and meaning of this sentiment with regards to the poem as a whole—is one of the things I find interesting about “The True Import,” and one of the things that VADER’s analysis helps me to see.

This may seem like a sharp left turn, but I happen to be reading I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism (1929) and found strange echoes between his experiment (in which he documents and evaluates a corpus of undergraduate responses to anonymous poems in an effort to develop new critical techniques) and certain aspects of my own current project. For example, Richards’ is greatly interested in the way that his students jumped to conclusions about poems based on initial impressions. This is particularly the case when it comes to the connections between a word’s “sense” and its “feeling”—almost exactly the parameters that a sentiment classifier like Pattern’s or VADER’s invite us to consider. He writes: “Words, as we all recognise, are as ambiguous in their feeling as in their sense; but, though we can track down their equivocations of sense to some extent, we are comparatively helpless with their ambiguities of feeling. We only know that words are chameleon-like in their feeling, governed in an irregular fashion by their surroundings” (203). In short, Richards is confident that we can figure out the “sense” of a word in a poem, but less sure about pinning down its “feeling” given how complicated poetic contexts can be. Moreover, Richards is clear to distinguish between a word’s feeling-as-it-exists-in-the-poem in contrast to its more general affective connotations, basically the “external” affective baggage a word might drag into a given gloss or interpretation. He writes

…we are concerned, firstly, with the feeling actually aroused by the word in the poem, not with the feelings the word might have in other contexts, or the feeling it generally has, or the feeling it “ought to have,” though these may have with advantage be remembered, for a word’s feeling is often determined in part by its senses in other contexts. … Is the pull [of the word’s feeling] exerted by context … sufficient to overcome what may be described as the normal separate feeling of the questionable word? Can this pull bring it in, as an item either in accordance or in due contrast to the rest? Or does the word resist, stay outside, or wrench the rest of the poem into crudity and or confusion? (201-203)

Richards is, in short, trying to think through the kind of “feeling” a word has as used in a poem in contrast to its “normal separate feeling.” More specifically, he is interested in the competing “pull” these two loci of feeling exert on a given reader. For Richards, while a poem often makes strategic use of a word’s “senses in other context,” it is a kind of failure for a poem to lose this gravitational contest of feeling—for a word’s feeling to “resist, stay outside,” and thus “wrench the rest of the poem into crudity and confusion.”

Though I disagree with Richards’ conclusions on this, I find the distinction to be a useful one: a word’s “normal separate feeling” is exactly the kind of sentiment that VADER was designed to evaluate. But where Richards’ views this as a distraction external to a poem and capable of casting it “into crudity and confusion,” I (almost 90 years later) view it as a consideration that can be more central to poem’s aesthetic and affective practice. As explored above, Giovanni’s “The True Import” makes explicit use of “apparent” feelings—those affective associations floating nearest to the surface of a word—as well as a word’s more complicated affective connections, using a combination of both to urge the reader, with great rhetorical nuance, towards a specific kind of understanding.

With all this in mind, I view the ability to read for this kind of surface sentiment as extremely valuable. In the case of these sentiment classifiers, VADER in my mind reads the poem the way that someone unfamiliar with the history of the Black Arts Movement might—a surface reading more attuned to the immediate affective impact of words (based on their “normal separate feeling”) than to their affective import as shaped by poetic, literary, social, and political contexts. I imagine that if this poem were assigned in an undergraduate seminar without any introduction, it might ruffle some feathers. VADER, by highlighting the intensity of this poem’s negative sentiment according to the words and phrases it uses—without the literary and historical context of their use—both anticipates this potential discomfort and helps us to see one reason why a reader might respond in such a way (certain words can spark certain feelings regardless of context).

But ruffling feathers is, of course, part and parcel of many BAM poets’ aesthetic practice. And this disjoint between a surface anger and a poetic form that leverages “negative sentiment” to address other issues requires an interested and informed human reader to identify, untangle, and make sense of.

Exploratory Computational Analysis

In closing, I want to note another role that VADER played in addition to its perspective in the readings offered in the preceding paragraphs: when I was first reading Giovanni’s Black Feeling, Black Talk, this poem stood out to me for its particularly charged language and affective stance. But I was reading a lot of poems in a lot of books—hundreds of them—and at the time of reading had yet to learn about the privileged place that “The True Import” has in anthologies, criticism, and scholarship. As a researcher, I only learned about all that after having decided to look more closely at the poem as opposed to others, which I did because of its prominence in VADER’s analysis.

Twenty-six books of poetry may not seem like that many when compared with other computational projects, but for someone with limited time and resources (i.e., most researchers), VADER’s suggestion that “this poem might be particularly interesting!” led me immediately to a text that ended up being extremely relevant to my initial research questions, even if VADER thought it was interesting for different reasons than I eventually would. That’s pretty awesome. And something that, as far as I can tell, is an exciting, relatively unexplored use for sentiment analysis in literary study. While sentiment classifiers can’t explain why a poem, line, or word matters (or even what it means), they have proven so far to be an intellectually productive way for me to explore the many texts in my literary corpus—particularly when pursuing research questions that I already know matter to the scholars, critics, and readers of that corpus.

Ethan Reed is a 2017-2018 graduate fellow as well as a Ph.D candidate in English Literature at the University of Virginia, working with 20th and 21st century texts and feelings of injustice in recent literary history. Before being a graduate fellow, Ethan was a 2015-2016 Praxis Fellow. He is also interested in exploring the links between materiality, textuality, and physical computing in and out of the Makerspace in the Scholars' Lab.

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