Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Chosen Poems, Old and New consists of seven previously unpublished poems and ninety-two poems reprinted from Lorde’s five earliest collections: The First Cities (1968), Cables to Rage (1970), From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), and Coal (1976). Written over a period of thirty-two years, the poems selected for this volume reflect Lorde’s changing self-definitions, or what she describes in a brief preface as “some of the women I have been, am being still, will come to be.” Like a number of twentieth century North American women poets, Lorde combines autobiography, poetry, and political critique to invent self-empowering descriptions of womanhood. By naming herself a “sister outsider,” however, thus emphasizing her membership in a number of diverse and sometimes conflicting groups, she achieves an unusual level of complexity. As she affirms the various components of her identity—black, female, lesbian, mother, daughter, feminist—she creates an Afrocentric perspective that challenges preestablished categories of meaning and confronts multiple forms of oppression simultaneously.

Chosen Poems, Old and New is divided into four parts, illustrating the development of Lorde’s poetic voice as she moved from the formulaic, rather conventional elegies written in the 1950’s and early 1960’s to a complex synthesis of personal, political, and spiritual issues. The first section, which includes a number of her earliest published pieces, introduces topics such as childhood memories, mother-daughter relationships, and female bonding to which Lorde returned throughout her career. Yet those poems written before she had adopted a black lesbian feminist identity contain a nostalgic self-reflectiveness not found in her later work. The second and third sections, consisting primarily of poetry written between 1969 and the early 1970’s, demonstrate Lorde’s increasingly sophisticated ability to connect her personal experiences with an intricate web of local, national, and international events. As she integrates her aesthetics with self-discovery and social protest, she expands previous self-definitions to incorporate analyses of the underlying systems that structure unjust social relations in United States culture. She explores diverse sets of issues, including racism in the women’s movement, sexism in the Black Power movement, South African apartheid, and the development of cross-cultural alliances among women. The final section contains seven previously unpublished poems, written between 1979 and 1981. These newer pieces reaffirm the visionary perspective as well as the intense anger found in Lorde’s work from the 1970’s.

Chosen Poems Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Chosen Poems, Old and New illustrates Lorde’s longstanding belief that poetry provides women with a vital tool for personal and social change. As she asserts in Sister Outsider (1984), for women, “poetry is not a luxury”; by enabling them to translate their previously unexamined, inexpressible feelings into language and action, poetry facilitates the development of supportive, woman-centered communities. She associates women’s disempowerment with their fear of acknowledging their differences—both from the dominant patriarchal culture and from one another—and maintains that ignoring ethnic, sexual, or class differences creates a false sense of commonality that, paradoxically, keeps women divided. Throughout her career, she challenged her female readers to begin speaking out; only then can they recognize their interconnections with women from apparently dissimilar groups.

This emphasis on the transformation of silence into language and action played a significant role in expanding twentieth century feminists’ definitions of female identity. In Chosen Poems, Old and New and elsewhere, Lorde rejects ethnocentric concepts of womanhood for culture-based models of female identity and creates a feminine, Afrocentric voice and a collective identity that affirms black women’s power. Significantly, Lorde’s affirmation of black womanhood occurs simultaneously with her attempt to establish cross-cultural alliances among women. As she translates her black lesbian feminist perspective into words, she offers readers of all ethnic backgrounds new ways to perceive themselves and new ways to act.

Although Chosen Poems, Old and New provides readers with a useful overview of Lorde’s aesthetic, personal, and political growth, the collection’s representative nature is somewhat limited, both by Lorde’s decision not to include selections from The Black Unicorn (1976), a collection of poems thematically unified by references to Yoruban and Fon mythology, and by the subsequent publication of Our Dead Behind Us (1986), Undersong (1992), and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (1993). Our Dead Behind Us and The Marvelous Arithmetic of Distance contain complex, enigmatic poems, considered by many critics to be Lorde’s most difficult, yet potentially most rewarding, work. Undersong, Lorde’s revised version of Chosen Poems, Old and New, includes nine previously unpublished pieces written between 1955 and 1972, as well as extensive stylistic changes.

Chosen Poems Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Annas, Pamela. “A Poetry of Survival: Naming and Renaming in the Poetry of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich.” Colby Library Quarterly 18, no. 1 (March, 1982): 9-25. Written from a feminist perspective, this essay situates Lorde in the context of other well-known United States women poets. In addition to exploring the restrictive nature of externally imposed definitions of female identity, this analysis outlines a five-stage self-naming process that Lorde and other twentieth century women writers enact.

Avi-ram, Amitai F. “Apo Koinou in Lorde and the Moderns: Defining the Differences.” Callaloo 9, no. 1 (Winter, 1986): 193-208. This essay analyzes one of Lorde’s most sophisticated poetic devices: her use of ambivalent line breaks to generate multiple meanings. By positioning Lorde’s work in the context of modernism, this analysis indicates her significant contribution to twentieth century Western poetry.

Chinosole. “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. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Through biographical and cultural analysis, this essay examines...

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