“Poetry Is Not a Luxury”

I’d like to take this opportunity, on International Women’s Day, to sing the praises of Audre Lorde, whose essays and speeches I’ve recently been devouring in Sister Outsider (published by The Crossing Press, 1984).  She was an amazing, twentieth-century Black lesbian feminist poet activist mother – the list goes on.  I wish they taught her in high school!  I wish everyone read her poetry and other writings.  Yes, I’m talking to you – if you haven’t, get on it!  I’d come across her writing in snippets over the past decade, but am now finally digging into her theoretical work, and feeling so moved and inspired.  Her writing is beautiful and challenging, rich with powerful insights (still shockingly relevant today) on feminism, racism, women loving women, exercising female power – again, the list goes on.

Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury” has resonated with me deeply.  I have not always been confident about the political necessity or effectiveness of my chosen art forms, playwriting and poetry.  Although I have always written with deep conviction, I have been taught that plays in particular should conform to current tastes, in order to be commercially successful; the goal should not be societal change.  But thankfully, Audre Lorde has reignited my belief in the revolutionary power of writing.  She argues:

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury.  It is a vital necessity of our existence.  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.  Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.  The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. As they become known to us and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action (p. 37).

Reading this made a light bulb go off in my head, thinking about the poems I have published on this blog in the past year.  They convey feelings and ideas which were difficult to conceptualize or acknowledge; I would not initially have been able to express or accept these ideas in a more rational, logical form.  Once called up from my inner chaos in the form of poetry, I could look at the ideas in the light of day, make real-world conclusions, and begin to take actions toward the world I want to create.  For example, in “My Religion”  I was able to articulate practices that I want to incorporate into a meaningful life; before writing that, I was too restricted by thinking of religion in traditional patriarchal terms.  In “Winter” I clarified my understanding of what I had been experiencing in my grief during the past year, and then was able to prepare myself for a coming shift, aligning the seasons of my heart with those of the Earth.

Audre Lorde is helping me articulate how and why I believe poetry to be a revolutionary tool for all, even for those of you who don’t consider yourselves writers.  She writes, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free” (p. 38).  On International Women’s Day I’d like to challenge you, men and women, to honor the Black mother within you – tap into your inner thoughts and feelings you rarely visit; let them make a mark on the page.  If you don’t fancy yourself a poet, try this: time yourself for 10 minutes and write continuously (to use the method Natalie Goldberg outlines in Writing Down the Bones).  Start with a prompt like “I remember” or “I’m afraid of” or “I love” – and keep your hand moving.  It’s only 10 minutes – you can do it!  See what bubbles up from within, what might be the kernel of a poem.  What might rise up that could be a deep calling from your soul, a call for change, for action, for revolution?