The Many Poetic Legs of Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables”

Poetry has many legs that take readers places and forces them to see things in different perspectives. Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Allowables” articulates subliminal meanings that revolve around the death of a spider. This poem illustrates someone admitting to having killed a spider out of fear and then reflecting on their actions. Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables” poetically develops the unequivocal theme that humans should be kind and not harm any living thing through the demonstration of various literary elements.

The speaker/narrator of “Allowables” is an anonymous entity using first-person narration to establish a personable, yet relatable connection with audiences. The speaker incorporates repetition of the word “I” by using this pronoun on six separate occasions throughout this 16-line poem. Audiences can assume that a human, either male or female, is the voice of the poem. The forthright first line of the poem, “I killed a spider” (1) evokes a confessional voice of the story. Audiences reading the poem’s first line can make the assumption that the speaker has important information to share surrounding the death of this spider. By admitting the wrong violent act, the speaker can now have peace with their decisions and no longer have to internally struggle – the perfect poetic justice. The speaker’s role in this poem is very significant to the evolution of the poem’s plot.

The insight and information audiences gain towards the spider’s qualities are through the narrator’s characterization using literary devices and techniques such as symbolism, metaphors, imagery, and personification in the poem. Spiders, in an outlook, are a symbolic representation of human fragility and the enticement of evil and the narrator supports this idea in the poem. The speaker affirms readers that the spider is not a “murderous brown recluse” (2) or “black widow (3). The poem’s spider, among other diverse spiders, references diversity as a metaphor that all living things should live symbiotically with one another. Mentioning different species of spiders alludes to the poem’s theme that humans should not harm others, no matter who/what they are; diversity is something to embrace, not something to fear. Imagery and personification are later incorporated in the poem’s plot when audiences learn the spider was, “only a small / Sort of papery spider” (5-6). Visual images such as these explicate the spider’s vulnerability. This small spider is described as “papery” which possesses the etymology of being thin, flimsy, weak, or vulnerable (OED). When audiences are reminded of the spider’s weakness, it generates an empathetic tone for the spider’s unfortunate death. Finally, the speaker of the poem declares the spider’s sex to be female through the incorporation of gender pronouns “she” and “her” on lines 9-11. Since the spider is a female, this characterization further illustrates the spider’s prejudicial weakness. Therefore, the spider’s vulnerability demonstrates to audiences that the spider was an unwilling and undeserving victim of the narrator’s violence.

Tone and rhythm both play a significant role in constructing the audience’s attitude towards the poem’s main subject matter. There is no specific meter, rhyme, or form in this free-verse poem. The first stanza starts fast and long (11 lines). This stanza begins with the confession, “I killed a spider” (1) and ends with another revelation, “And I smashed her” (11) which indicate a violent-feeling to the first stanza based on the actions verbs of “killed” and “smashed”. This stanza really displays the narrator’s external actions. Yet, after the eleventh line, there is a line break that indicates a shift in tone from violent to fearful. The rhythm is also impacted by the speaker’s decision to break up the poem into multiple stanzas. From lines 12 – 16, there are 3 separate line breaks emphasizing the speaker’s realization of their actions. Line 13 states, “I don’t think” and line 16 says, “Frightened” which are both clearly more emotion-based verbs than action-based verbs. Lines 13-16 act as one unit, one main idea that results in developing the rest of the theme for “Allowables”; not harming one another based on fear. The speaker believes that they should not kill something based solely out of fear when they say, “I don’t think / I’m allowed // To kill something // Because I am // Frightened” (12-16). This section of the poem rebukes what the audience read on lines 1-11. These lines, now, are more spaced out and broken up to reveal and reflect on the speaker’s internal actions of fear. Just like in everyday life, “Allowables” resembles instances where people act first and think second instead of the opposite.

Nikki Giovanni’s poem incorporates various elements of irony that reflect the poem’s overall message. To start, the title “Allowables” means “worthy of praise; praiseworthy, laudable.” (OED). Yet, the speaker is not praising their actions, but contemplating them instead. The speaker wants death-by-fear to not be allowable. This makes for an ironic title for a piece centered mainly on retrospection. “Allowables” ironic title could be seen as a commentary, or maybe even a mockery of human’s behavior of doing one thing, but saying another. Meanwhile, there is another instance where irony is thrust into the poem for effect. When the narrator, “picked up the book,” to smash the spider, the book acts as an ironic symbol of human wisdom (8). This wisdom the speaker held in their hands was the knowledge that humans should not kill/harm something based off fear. The irony in “Allowables” is not by coincidence, but by consciousness.

The literary elements present in “Allowables” promote the mindset to not harm other beings/things, especially when fear gets in the way of rationality. While spiders can evoke fear, audiences must remind themselves that spiders, like all living things, do not deserve harm. The poem “Allowables” serves as a daily reminder to anyone that poetry, kindness, and emotional cautiousness can take someone farther than their own two legs can.