Audre Lorde Lorde, Audre (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

Coal 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

Audre Lorde (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1330 words.)

Gloria T. Hull (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7185 words.)

Audre Lorde with Charles H. RoweU (interview date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7610 words.)

Chinosole (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1750 words.)

Jan Clausen (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3007 words.)

Julie Parson-Nesbitt (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2310 words.)

AnnLouise Keating (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 322 words.)