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Chosen Poems, Old and New consists of seven previously unpublished poems and ninety-two poems reprinted from Lorde’s five earliest collections: The First Cities (1968), Cables to Rage (1970), From a Land Where Other People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.