Audre Lorde Lorde, Audre (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lorde, Audre 1934–

Lorde is a black American poet who writes about the universal themes of love and suffering in directly physical terms. Recent works reflect her strong feminism. She has also written under the pseudonym Rey Domini. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Dudley Randall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Audre Lorde's The First Cities … is a quiet, introspective book. You first notice the striking phrases: "the crash of passing sun," "a browning laughter," "the oyster world." Then you notice the images, most of them drawn from nature, a source unusual in this age of urban poets who write of concrete and machines.

But Audre Lorde is not a nature poet. Her focus is not on nature, but on feelings and relationships. The nature images, many of them pertaining to the seasons, illustrate inner weather, the changes of love or feelings….

She does not wave a black flag, but her blackness is there…. (p. 13)

Dudley Randall, "Books Noted: 'The First Cities'," in Negro Digest (reprinted by permission of Negro Digest Magazine; © copyright, 1968 by the Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), Vol. XVII, Nos. 11-12, September-October, 1968, pp. 13-14.

Joan Larkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Audre Lorde] risks expressing herself fully in her poems as a woman capable of rage as well as love.

From a Land Where Other People Live reveals the poet's growth as a person and a craftswoman. It is, I think, one of those fortunate books that come from a poet's knowing where she stands in her life. Part of its power comes from anger…. Lorde is moved not only by injustice, but by the paradox of her identities, being both black and a woman…. (p. 39)

If I have any complaint, it is that lines sometimes tend to be prosaic, with a judgment-making adjective or adverb where there might be an implicitly forceful picture (perhaps explicit judging is always the risk in poetry of commitment). Yet the musicality and the self-assurance of the voice make it work as poetry. The best poems have a resonance that comes from powerful pressures at a depth.

There are other subjects in these poems: her love for her children, the complexities of nurturing, her own growth, tenderness for women seen as sisters and sometimes lovers, the failures and promises of her life as a teacher and a city dweller. As direct as Audre Lorde's poems are in speaking about her life, they go beyond the particular threads that bind poetic materials to their creator, and speak eloquently for others of us who are alive right now. (p. 40)

Joan Larkin, "Frontiers of Language: Three Poets," in Ms. (© 1974 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. III, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 38-40.∗

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Misery, impatience, urgings, loneliness, refusals, love, and terror rise from the pages of Audre Lorde's From a Land Where Other People Live…. In Lorde's poems, "elementary forces collide in free fall": she has a freer and less programmatic emphasis than [Sonia] Sanchez or [Don] Lee, though she is no less pained. Her poems express uncertainties about choices and roles, the difficulties and falterings of motherhood and living. (pp. 319-20)

Lorde's freedom from norms of "poetic" language gives her an acute simplicity. She spares herself not at all, seeing, for instance her own inevitable obsolescence in the flourishing of her children…. [Lorde's poems] depend less on ambiguity or irony than on the force of earnestness and plain speech…. The almost artless voices of the black poets distrust a concealing rhetoric, and practice instead only the mute rhetoric of contiguity: the condemned house, the firemen, the huddled lumps. The convergence of causes to the final effect is rhetoric enough. (pp. 320-21)

Helen Vendler, "Broadsides: Good Black Poems, One by One" (originally published in The New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1974), in her Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (copyright © 1980 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; excerpted by permission of the author and publishers), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 313-21.∗

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her uneven but intermittently powerful new poems, best in their New York reportage ["The New York Head Shop and Museum"], Audre Lorde mixes bitterness, shame, and hope, sometimes in leadenly explicit lines, but often coming alive in rapid anecdotes. She [should] be quoted at length, because her effects at her best are cumulative….

Lorde is much less gifted in her abstractions than in her story-telling, and least happy in the love poems, which run to remarks about "entering her," finding "her forests," honey flowing "from the split cup / impaled on a lance of tongues / on the tips of her breasts," etc. etc. What Lorde hasn't yet found is a way to transmute feeling into original symbolic equivalents when she is trying to deal with non-narrative material. But her street photographs are acidic and hard-edged, and sardonic "cables to rage" are humming with their own electricity.

Helen Vendler, "False Poets and Real Poets: 'The New York Head Shop and Museum'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1975, p. 8.

Sandra M. Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Until] the recent awakening of interest in women's achievements [Lorde] seemed destined for an obscurity that rarely enfolds male poets of comparable talents. What is heartening … [is that she has] made fine art out of the experience. (p. 296)

Lorde, of course, is an outsider in more ways than one. A black woman poet, living, writing, teaching, and raising children in the gray chaos that New York City has become, she observes and describes the alienation imposed on her by her race, her sex, her vocation, and even her city, "smeared upon the east shore of a continent's insanity." As an artist, she perceives that she has been "shot through by the cold eye of the way things are baby / and left for dead on a hundred streets of this city." As a mother, she struggles "to speak out living words … to leave my story behind" and to revenge herself upon those "who bomb my children into mortar in churches." And as a black woman artist—an ironic, witty, passionate outsider—she sometimes tells the story of her life, the way women always have, as a funny, cautionary fairy tale that should instruct children of all ages…. (p. 297)

Considering all the pain of her triple—maybe quadruple—alienation, then, it's not surprising that Lorde occasionally seems to be choking on her own anger. Cables To Rage is the title of one of her earlier collections, and she uses the phrase again to name one of the poems in [The New...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Claire Hahn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lorde's poems [in Coal] are concerned most often with the mystery and variety of love relationships…. Her poems are often angry and bitter, etched in vitriol on the stark page. (p. 762)

But the total impact of the poems is positive. Audre Lorde is secure in the knowledge of her worth as person and poet. Lines from the title poem, "Coal," might stand as an epigraph for the entire volume.

               I am Black because I come from
                  the earth's inside
               now take my word for jewel in
                  the open light.

Public pressures on her private world have made Lorde a poet of diamond-hard intensity. (p. 763)

Claire Hahn, "Books: 'Coal'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CIV, No. 24, November 25, 1977, pp. 762-63.

Hayden Carruth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I don't care much for [Audre Lorde's writing in The Black Unicorn], which seems far too close to the commonplace. (One wonders why contemporary Afro-American poets haven't learned more of the real eloquence, tribally based, of their Caribbean and African colleagues, especially those who write in French.) Yet few poets are better equipped than Lorde to drive their passion through the gauzy softness of commonplace diction and prosody. One can't help being absorbed in it. Her best poems move me deeply. (pp. 712-13)

Hayden Carruth, "A Year's Poetry," in The Nation (copyright 1978 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 227, No. 22, December 23, 1978, pp. 712-14.∗

Michael T. Siconolfi, S.J.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some years ago, Randall Jarrell remarked that the best critic who ever lived could not prove that the Iliad is better than "Trees."… [The Black Unicorn] often makes one long for "Trees."… Lorde writes short pieces best viewed under a buzzing fluorescent light. This gray-green diffuseness coldly reveals a world which Sam Pekhinpah might think of filming: a few of the poems are good, many are bad, and most are ugly….

All this ugliness—and there is much more—has a numbing effect, the reader's resignation to a dirty rest room rather than his rage.

Most of the poems are simply bad; they don't work as organic wholes and leave the reader surprised that a piece continues on the next page; their leaden rhythms beat out empty searches for any coherent objective symbols…. Incantational moments in other poems peter out into impotent cliches. Sentences of vigorous promise succumb to the colorless overuse of the verb "to be."

For a resident of Staten Island, Lorde surprisingly drags in a plethora of African mythology (a handy glossary is mercifully provided) which, however, never become integrated into poems like "125th Street" and "A Woman Speaks;" the result is a purple Dashiki patch….

Some good things, however, do emerge from the rubble. When the author sings on a small scale about things that she really knows, in poems like "About Religion," and "Hanging Fire," the fluorescent light turns into a laser beam….

The title poem, "Black Unicorn," laments that the author's persona has been mistaken before and is not free. The reader laments that Lorde has not learned to write less in order to be freely understood.

Michael T. Siconolfi, S.J., "Poetry: 'The Black Unicorn'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 38, No. 10, January, 1979, p. 327.

Andrea Benton Rushing

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde reaches across 300 years of black diaspora and reclaims African history and mythology as a basis for her imagery about women; and she does so without succumbing to naïve nostalgia or vapid exoticism….

One of the stereotypes of Afro-American women is mammymatriarch, so the poet who writes about black women and children risks cliché. Lorde has consistently and brilliantly met this challenge….

At the core of ["Coniagui Women"] is a traditional Africa remote from our experiences, but Lorde's straightforward language and control simultaneously sets us at ease and reveals successive levels of mystery….

["Woman"] reflects affirmation of woman-to-woman bonding and rescues the nurturing aspects of women's lives from the negative connotation of mindless fecundity….

Audre Lorde is a brilliant and honest poet, and while no poem in this volume touches me as the earlier Lorde poems do, The Black Unicorn should be read for its own with, wisdom, and incandescence.

Andrea Benton Rushing, "Books in Short: 'The Black Unicorn: Poems'," in Ms. (© 1979 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. VII, No. 7, January, 1979, p. 43.