Lorde, Audre (Poetry Criticism)
Audre Lorde 1934–1992
(Full name Audre Geraldine Lorde; also wrote under the pseudonym Rey Domini) American poet, essayist, autobiographer, and nonfiction writer. See also Audre Lorde Literary Criticism.
Lorde's poetry evokes images of African Culture, candidly depicts racial intolerance and urban blight, and emphasizes pride and anti-victimization among African American women. Describing herself as a "black lesbian feminist mother lover poet," Lorde blended elements of history and mythology to create a poetic idiom that celebrates the differences between social groups as dynamic and liberating rather than as threatening to self-identity. Lorde also advocated poetry as a means to address the conflicts that lead to cultural separatism and to alleviate the pain of emotional isolation and displacement. Believing it her moral responsibility to address the concerns of women, Lorde stated that she wrote "for [those] women for whom a voice has not yet existed, or whose voices have been silenced."
Lorde was born in New York City to West Indian immigrants. She published her first poem while still in high school; after graduating she attended Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in library science. During this time she supported herself with various jobs, including medical clerk, x-ray technician, ghost writer, and factory worker. She received her master's degree from Columbia University and in 1966 became head librarian at Town School Library in New York City, where patrons knew her as the "librarian who wrote." In 1968—a year she considers a turning point in her life—Lorde received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, became poet-inresidence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and published her first volume of poetry, The First Cities. Her collection From a Land Where Other People Live was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973; three years later Coal was the first of her collections to be released by a major publisher, thus exposing her to a broad readership. From 1991 to 1992 Lorde served as the State Poet of New York.
In the late 1970s Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy; she chronicled her feelings of hopelessness and despair during this experience in her 1980 nonfiction work The Cancer Journals. Lorde learned in the late 1980s that the cancer had metastasized to her liver. Instead of undergoing a biopsy, she chose a holistic treatment combining homeopathy, medication, and self-hypnosis. Although the cancer went into
remission for a number of years, Lorde eventually succumbed to the disease in 1992.
Lorde's poetry collections reveal a diversity of styles and subject matter. The poems in The First Cities employ nature imagery to explore the mutability of love and human consciousness. Lorde's second volume, Cables to Rage, is considered more confrontational and pessimistic as a result of the author's emerging social concerns and her exploration of guilt and betrayal. This collection is also notable for the poem "Martha," in which Lorde reveals her homosexuality for the first time. From a Land Where Other People Live is more universal in conception than the author's earlier volumes. Lorde here confronts racial oppression, worldwide injustice, and her identity as an African American woman. The New York Head Shop and Museum, often described as Lorde's most politically radical work, depicts images of a decaying New York City and the hardships of poverty and urban blight. Comprising poems from The First Cities and Cables to Rage as well as newly published verse, Coal demonstrates the poet's increasing mastery of figurative language. Throughout the collection, for example, coal is a unifying metaphor through which Lorde celebrates her blackness: "I am black because I came from the / earth's insides / Take my word for jewel in your / open light." The Black Unicorn is regarded as Lorde's most poetically mature work. In this volume she utilizes symbols and mythology associated with the African goddess Seboulisa to integrate themes of motherhood, black pride, courage, and spiritual rejuvenation. Forgoing the tight free verse for which she was previously noted, Lorde here employs loose rhythmic forms associated with African oral traditions and American blues music. Our Dead behind Us records Lorde's speculations on the history of womankind as she traveled to such diverse locales as Grenada, Germany, and the Transvaal in South Africa. Her final collection, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, joins politically oriented pieces with poignant personal messages to numerous members of her family.
Lorde saw a close interaction between her poetry and political action: "I want my poems," she maintained, "to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs to be done." Accordingly, critics have often found that themes of the search for identity and social activism, especially as they relate to black women, are intertwined in Lorde's poetry. Jan Clausen used the term "identity politics" to describe Lorde's concerns and observed: "Poetry was the core of [Lorde's] political thinking." Julie Parson Nesbitt hailed Lorde's "characteristic courage and stubbornness" in "claiming all parts of her complex identity"—including gender, race, and sexual orientation—"as necessary and whole." Similarly, Chinosole praised her poetry's expression of the "matrilineal diaspora": the capacity of black women "to survive and aspire, to be contrary and self-affirming across continents and generations." Lorde's poems do not speak only to women of color, however; as Estella Lauder pointed out: "By reuniting all people with her African sources through the crucible of her imagination, Lorde allows Blacks and whites, women and men, to reconceive… erotic energy in terms that allow for social action."
The First Cities 1968
Cables to Rage 1970
From a Land Where Other People Live 1973
The New York Head Shop and Museum 1974
Between Our Selves 1976
The Black Unicorn 1978
Chosen Poems: Old and New 1982
Our Dead behind Us 1986
Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (Revised) 1992
The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance 1993
Other Major Works
The Cancer Journals (journal) 1980
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (novel) 1982
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (essays) 1984
A Burst of Light (essays) 1988
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SOURCE: "Poems Are Not Luxuries," in Claims for Poetry, edited by Donald Hall, The University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 282-85.
[In the following essay—which the poet herself described as one of her "core pieces " of expository prose—Lorde characterizes poetry as a "vital necessity" for women: "It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." This piece was written in 1977.]
The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless—about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.
As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.
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SOURCE: "Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us," in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall, Rutgers University Press, 1989, pp. 150-72.
[In the essay below, Hull conducts a broad appraisal of the themes and issues Lorde addresses in her poetry.]
In Audre Lorde's poem "A Meeting of Minds," a woman who "stands / in a crystal" is not permitted to dream ("the agent of control is / a zoning bee") or to speak ("her lips are wired to explode / at the slightest conversationsation"), although around her, "other women are chatting."
the walls are written in honey
in the dream
she is not allowed
to kiss her own mother
the agent of control
is a white pencil
Denied access to her sleeping consciousness, this heroine cannot see her past or future, nor can she fully know and constitute herself. Prohibited conversation, she cannot connect with other women except in what feels like oneway visual separation, rendered even more cruel by her observing of their verbal sharing with each other around the honeyed walls. Crystal, a gem used by women for vision, protection, and the transmission of healing energy, becomes here cold, imprisoning stone whose properties only enhance her...
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SOURCE: An interview with Audre Lord, in Callaloo, Vol. 14, No.1, Winter, 1991, pp. 83-95.
[The following is a telephone interview that took place in 1990 between Rowell and Lorde, who was living in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Lorde discusses the relationship between her roles as poet and member of society. "Being a poet is not merely a question of producing poems, " she states. "Being a poet means that I have a certain way of looking at the world, involving myself in the community around me."]
[Rowell]: Here on the mainland of the U.S.A., there are those of us who miss seeing and talking with you, and hearing you read your work. And we are concerned about you in your new environment. Will you talk about your stay in your new home in the U.S. Virgin Islands. How has it been? Why did you go there? Is being a writer there the same as being a writer on the mainland?
[Lorde]: Being a poet here is a very different experience from being a poet on the mainland, but poets become part of any community out of which they operate, because poetry grows out of the poet experiencing the worlds through which she moves. St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a very different environment from New York City, from Staten Island. Why did I come here? After three separate bouts with cancer it became very clear to me that I had to change my environment, that I needed a situation where I could...
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SOURCE: "Audre Lorde and Matrilineal Diaspora: 'moving history beyond nightmare into structures for the future …'," in Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance, edited by Joanne M. Braxton and Andrée Nicola McLaughlin, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 379-94.
[In the excerpt below, Chinosole explores the ways in which Lorde's poetry celebrates Black and female differences from the dominant culture as sources of power and self-definition.]
The fullest vision and deepest wisdom that Audre Lorde shares with us as Black women is what I call matrilineal diaspora: the capacity to survive and aspire, to be contrary and self-affirming across continents and generations. It names the strength and beauty we pass on as friends and lovers from fore-mothers to mothers and daughters allowing us to survive radical cultural changes and be empowered through differences. Matrilineal diaspora defines the links among Black women worldwide enabling us to experience distinct but related cultures while retaining a special sense of home as the locus of self-definition and power. Through matrilineal diaspora, Audre Lorde realizes her journey to "the house of self." …
The meaning of matrilineal diaspora is rooted in African and Afro-American cultures. As a working historical definition, "diaspora," or dispersal, means the forced displacement of Africans...
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SOURCE: "Word Warrior," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 256, No. 4, February 1, 1993, pp. 130-33.
[In the following review, Clausen uses the coinciding occasions of Lorde's death and the publication of Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (Revised) to conduct a broad survey of Lorde's life and poetry.]
Audre Lorde, poet, died on November 17 at the age of 58, following a fourteen-year war of attrition with cancer, in the midst of which she wrote much of her most important work. Born during the Depression to West Indian immigrant parents, Lorde grew up in Harlem. As a young adult she took part in the "gay-girl" Village scene described in her autobiographical prose narrative Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. She would live mostly in New York City, teaching for many years in the CUNY system, raising a daughter and son in an interracial lesbian relationship and combining writing and political organizing in a range of settings at once astonishingly broad and flatly necessary, given who she was. In the words of her poem "Who Said It Was Simple," she must often have wondered "which me will survive / all these liberations."
In the 1970s Lorde did groundbreaking organizing with other Black feminists and lesbians on the East Coast, and in the early 1980s helped start Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a multicultural effort publishing Asian-American and Latina as well as...
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SOURCE: "Richer for Their Bitter Edge," in The American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, October-November 1993, p. 15.
[In the following review, Parson-Nesbitt traces the development of Lorde's poetry as evidenced by the selections in Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (Revised).]
Audre Lorde wrote, "Poetry is not a luxury." Her writing testifies to the truth of that statement. To live in the second half of the twentieth century, with its daily psychic and physical violence, we need her poems for guidance and sanity. Lorde was Black, lesbian, a mother, the daughter of Grenadian immigrants, and a poet of fierce and expansive talent. With characteristic courage and stubborness, she insisted on claiming all parts of her complex identity as necessary and whole. Her adopted African name, Gamba Adisa: "Warrior—She Who Makes Her Meaning Known," expresses Lorde's commitment to both political struggle and writing, rejecting any separation between the two. She wrote:
Be who you are and will be
learn to cherish
that boisterous Black Angel that drives you
up one day and down another
protecting the place where your power rises
running like hot blood
from the same source
as your pain.
Passionate and incisive, sensual and political,...
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SOURCE: "Myth Smashers, Myth Makers: (Re)Visionary Techniques in the Works of Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde," in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 26, Nos. 2-3, 1993, pp. 73-95.
[In the folowing excerpt, Keating argues that Lorde incorporates elements of African myths into her poetry and, in doing so, "reclaims a tradition which has been almost entirely erased by western culture."]
For Audre Lorde …, writing, "making soul," and building culture are intimately related. By fully integrating her personal experience as a black lesbian feminist with her public role as a writer, she demonstrates her conviction that self-discovery, art, and social protest are inseparable. As she explains in an interview with Claudia Tate [in Black Women Writers at Work, 1983], she believes that societal change begins within the individual: "our real power [her emphasis] comes from the personal, [and] our real insights about living come from that deep knowledge within us that arises from our feelings." Lorde's work is shaped by her belief that poetic expression and political action have their genesis in each individual's emotional life. In The Cancer Journals, for example, she examines the anger, sorrow, and loss she felt after her mastectomy in order to learn "who [she] was and was becoming throughout [that] time." For Lorde, self-expression and self-discovery are never ends in...
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Avi-ram, Amitai F. "Apo Koinou in Audre Lorde and the Moderns: Defining the Differences." Callaloo 9, No. 1 (Winter 1986): 193-208.
Argues that apo koinou, the "figure of speech … in which a single word or phrase is shared between two distinct, independent syntactic units" is one of Lorde's basic methods of poetic composition.
Carr, Brenda. "'A Woman Speaks … I Am Woman and Not White' : Politics of Voice, Tactical Essentialism, and Cultural Intervention in Audre Lorde's Activist Poetics and Practice." College Literature 20, No. 2 (June 1993): 133-53.
Analyzes the relationship between Lorde's ideological beliefs and her poetry.
Dhairyam, Sagri. '"Artifacts for Survival': Remapping the Contours of Poetry with Audre Lorde." Feminist Studies 18, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 229-56.
Maintains that the "competing discourses of race, gender, and sexual persuasion" in Lorde's poetry prevents readers from forming definitive interpretations of her works.
Gilbert, Sandra. "On the Edge of the Estate." Poetry CXXIX, No. 5 (February 1977): 296-301.
Review of The New York Head Shop and Museum. Gilbert observes that when Lorde "connects...
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