Chosen Poems, Old and New
Audre Lorde introduces her Chosen Poems, Old and New with a statement that accurately reflects the complexity of her career: “Here are the words of some of the women I have been, am being still, will come to be. The time surrounding each poem is an unspoken image.” Despite her emphasis on flexibility, however, critics almost always consign Lorde to some rigid category, usually that of “Afro-American Lesbian feminist.” Unfortunately, this in turn leads to a glib dismissal of Lorde as a serious poet, a fact clearly reflected in her absence from all major anthologies of contemporary poetry other than those devoted entirely to the work of Afro-Americans and/or women. The moral intensity and psychological insight of Chosen Poems, which includes work from all of Lorde’s previous collections except for the sequence The Black Unicorn (1978), argues persuasively for much wider recognition. As Lorde’s introductory statement implies, she resists all pressures toward ideological rigidity, committing herself instead to the discovery of individual processes while recognizing that each provisional self is inevitably conditioned by the unstated and elusive premises of its historical context. In line with this emphasis, Lorde continually explores the limits and possibilities of various identities, traditional and innovative. The question she poses in “Change of Season” strikes near the core of her sensibility: “Am I to be cursed forever with becoming/ somebody else on the way to myself?” All views of Lorde exclusively in relation to Lesbian, feminist, or Afro-American poetry radically oversimplify her voice, which also has roots in Romantic and Modernist sensibilities.
To be sure, Lorde shares a great deal with poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Adrienne Rich who, like Lorde, have passed through several distinct phases of development. All three gradually developed an awareness that the political and the personal aspects of experience cannot be separated. Like those of Brooks and Rich, Lorde’s early poems (written during the 1950’s) concentrate on “universal” themes such as the destruction of childhood innocence by an oppressive environment. Lorde has never abandoned these concerns, but, beginning in the mid-1960’s, she has begun to emphasize the relationship of personal problems to larger social and political forces. Rather than imitating her better-known contemporaries, Lorde has worked toward a synthesis of Brooks’s and Rich’s emphases on the racial and sexual dimensions of these larger forces, steadfastly refusing to elevate one concern over the other. She begins “Revolution Is One Form of Social Change” with an allusion to Malcolm X’s question: “What does a racist call a black Ph.D.?” The answer is “nigger.” Lorde pursues the implications of the question, concluding
when he’s finishedoff the big oneshe’ll just changeto sexwhich isafter allwhere it all began.
Refusing to participate in the divisiveness discussed by Angela Davis in Women, Race and Class (1981), Lorde, like other contemporary Afro-American writers such as David Bradley, recognizes the necessity of confronting racial and sexual oppression simultaneously.
Lorde’s confrontation focuses on several crucial issues. First, she insists on the reality of the emotions, many of them violent and painful, generated by racial and sexual oppression. Second, she observes that the violence of the culture inevitably infects each individual, including herself. Frequently this generates a defensive retreat into rigid categories which, in the interest of a specious protection of self, circumscribe individual processes and distort communication. Finally, she recognizes that individuals frequently transmit this historically conditioned rigidity and defensiveness to their children, denying the children’s growth and perpetuating the forces which generate the entire vicious cycle. Ultimately, Lorde insists that any hope for the future demands an acceptance of natural development, that of the self and that of the children.
Although Lorde shares some of these concerns with her contemporaries, her poetry suggests an affinity with Romantic and Modernist poets, most notably T. S. Eliot, William Wordsworth, and Walt Whitman. Eliot, who at first glance seems profoundly incompatible with Lorde’s radical sensibility, nevertheless anticipated her use of myth as a mirror for contemporary experience. Ironically, Lorde’s explorations of African and matriarchal mythologies in poems such as “The Winds of Orisha” and “To Marie, In Flight” (and at greater length in The Black Unicorn) can be seen as an application of Eliot’s method to specific circumstances he never anticipated. Lorde draws more directly on the Wordsworthian motif of childhood as the emblem of higher wisdom destroyed by socially conditioned experience. She employed this motif especially frequently in early poems such as “Now That I Am Forever with Child,” “What My Child Learns of the Sea,” and “A Child Shall Lead”—which echoes Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” in its concluding lines: “And I am grown/ past knowledge.” Similarly, “Rites of Passage” provides an image of fathers...
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