‘The Women Gather‘ by Nikki Giovanni is a short free, or blank, verse poem that touches on how we understand one another. The poem does not have a consistent pattern of rhyme but it does contain a number of end and beginning line words that repeat throughout the poem.
The speaker continues to return to the same themes throughout and the repetition of words helps the reader understand which thoughts she is currently discussing. Some such beginning words include, “We” and “It,” while some popular end line words are, “man” and “stress”.
The poem begins with the speaker describing horrible times of tragedy, such as a death, “women gather” together for moral support. Together they are able to help one another through difficulties. The speaker continues to describe a number off different types of people who, themselves, can cause tragedy. She speaks on the hypocrites who pray the loudest in church, and those who present to be “humane” but never act on it. She is dismayed by diplomats who promote war and the fact that sometimes the old must bury the young.
While all of these things are awful, they are abominations. They do not occur so often that the world cannot be changed. She then asks the reader how one is able to judge a man when anyone could have a secret life.
She answers the question by stating that “We” must judge by understanding good intentions, even if the result aren’t what the person wanted or was hoping for. We must come together and help one another in times of stress and learn to comfort when it is needed. Hope must be passed on.
Through these changes we make to ourselves we will be able to find goodness within negative situations. It will exist like an “unburnt” picture pulled from ashes.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Women Gather
This piece begins with the speaker of the poem defining the first reason that people, women in this case, come together. The first line carries the title of the poem, therefore lending it special importance8. She states that “women gather together” because they are “seek[ing] comfort” in “hours of stress.” The second line, while operating as a separate thought, can also be seen as relating to the first.
A man must be buried.
Women gather when there is a communal need for support in times of hardship. One such hardship might be the death and burial of “A man,” who was close to one or more of these women. It is a necessity of life, that a man, or woman, must be buried. All must end at some point but there is no need to deal with these hard necessities of life alone.
The third line works in the same way. It can be read as a single thought, or connected to the lines above. During the progress of life there are time in which “the old bury the young.” These times, though they do happen and it is not “unusual,” as still an “abomination.”
The final two lines of this section speak on a theme that will be repeated throughout this piece, that of hypocrisy and unworthiness. The speaker states that “It is not strange”for the “unwise and…ungentle” to be seen as the leaders of humanity and morality. These people are misread, misunderstood, and have placed themselves in positions that they do not deserve. The speaker is trying to come to terms with the fact that even though this is a “castration of the spirit” that as a whole, there is nothing that she can do about it. The world is always going to contain people like this.
The next lines of the poem take the reader farther into the speaker’s head as she makes clear that the “intellect” of the world is no longer disturbed by people such as those mentioned in the lines above. It is not a life changing, earth shaking, eventful to find out that “those who make war” are able to “call themselves diplomats.”
The same theme is reiterated in the next line, this time related to church. The speaker sees the same hypocrisy, and guesses that the readers of this piece will have seen it too, in the faces of those that “pray loudest” at church and those who face “east” in rooms (the direction in which one prays in Islam). These often turn out to be the most unfaithful among us.
What, the speaker asks, is one supposed to do about this? How can a man possibly ever be judged correctly? The next line gives the first part of the speaker’s answer. These types of people that she has mentioned are the minority. “Most of us” are not this way and “love” because we want to, not because “we find someone deserving” of us.
She continues to answer her question in the next set of lines. She states that unlike the dangerous, hatful people o the world, “Most of us comfort” one another because we ourselves will need comforting and our past has dictated that this is a way to renew, and pass on, “hope” we have “reciev[ed].”
She asks, through a statement, one more time,
And how do we judge a man.
More answers to this question follow when she says that “We,” as a connected human species will “learn to greet” one another upon “meeting” as well as “cry when parting, we will learn to temper our words during stressful times. She believes that the human race, can and will be able to make up for those among it’s number who are inherently cruel and unfeeling.
The final eight lines of the poem bring the reader back to the first line in which the speaker mentions the gathering of women. These women come together and “gather with cloth and ointment” to anoint those who have died. This process of finding some hope amongst the darkest pasts of life speaks to the strength of humankind, and in this particular case, women. They are compared to “willows” that even when blown in the wind, still “stand” strong and “unbroken” in the face of “death.” So too must the human race meet all it’s struggles.
The speaker then goes on to describe two more ways in which “We” are able to judge one another. When considering another, “We” must take into consideration “his dreams,” and not base options solely on what he has done. Just as “We” must consider “intent” not just “shortcomings.”
If those around us are striving for better, then that must be taken into account when choosing a value for that particular person.
In the last three lines of the poem, the speaker concludes each thought that she has engaged with. She explains that “We,” the human race, are quick to judge “a man” because often times we do not directly know them. It is after “We” see them for who they truly are, rather than that which others have told us.
She states that “women gather strangers” together because all have known what it is to love a man, or fellow human. All, in one way or another, have felt a love for someone and can help soften the grief of another.
The final line of the poem fully projects the optimistic attitude that Giovanni’s speaker is taking. She states that even after a fire, when one is “sift[ing] through ashes” there might just be something that survived. There could be an “unburnt picture,” some little bit of hope that there is a good person inside a bad and silver lining inside a tragedy.
About Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr. In Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943. From a young age she was educated in African American culture by her close-knit family. She quickly learned the importance of spoken language; she would later skillfully incorporate her appreciation of the common vernacular into her poetry.
For much of her youth, she lived with her family in a black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. She returned to Tennessee to attend Fisk University in Nashville. Giovanni was part of a cultural renaissance at Fisk and she graduated in 1968. She would later attend both Columbia University in New York and the University of Pennsylvania.
Giovanni’s first books of poetry were published in 1968 and explore the growing awareness of the need for equal rights between races. Her poetry was greatly influenced by the assassinations of Medgar Evans, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Her work quickly solidified her place a prominent African American writer, a standing that she still maintains today.
Throughout her career she has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1970, the Langston Hughes Award, and the Reverend Martin Luther Kind Jr. Award for Dedication and Commitment to Service in 2009 along with many others including more than twenty honorary degrees from colleges across the country. She has been teaching as a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech since 1987.