Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Response to Audre Lorde's "Poetry is Not a Luxury"

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS 455: Feminist Theory -WIU
“Poetry Is Not a Luxury”
August 2005

In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde weaves poetry and feminist theory together. The essay was a remarkable work of poetic theory: a genre in itself. She refers to the human inner voice as “magic,” emphasizing its power (15). As individuals, our voice is who we are. It is also who we might become. When women use their voices, they are able to break out of the silence that they have been bullied into by racist and sexist ideologies. Lorde raised my awareness of my own fears about writing poetry. Every time I write poetry, I am making a powerful statement because writing requires choice. I choose to write. I write for myself and for women. I write as a twenty-year old-feminist-lesbian-daughter-sister-partner-student-liberal-woman.

There are times when I feel intimidated, as though what I have to say doesn’t matter. Fear interferes with my authentic voice, and has the power to turn my poetry into words without meaning or necessity. Lorde makes a distinction between the distracting nature of word play and the simplicity of words that are meant to convey clear-cut issues. My voice does matter, and I want to be less ambiguous about my messages. If I write a poem about a passionate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I want to let the reader know what my words imply. Over the years, I have been taught (in school) that my stories aren’t good enough, that I need to change my voice in order to write “clever” poetry. It is often difficult to ignore discouragement. In fact, sometimes it is difficult to detect when the unnecessary words are interfering with the simple message. I need to fight that tiny critical voice that interrupts the sound of my own voice. My experiences and thoughts are significant. They ought to be heard and I need to hear the stories of other women’s experiences because sharing creates a community.

Although Lorde writes to the individual poet, she also writes to a community of female voices. She persistently encourages women to use their voices to be empowered. Writing poetry requires confidence. Lorde’s inner strength allowed her to listen to her own authoritative voice rather than modifying her behavior to fit rigid writing standards. If you read traditional books on writing poetry, much of the focus is on the arrangement of words. A budding writer will probably be discouraged by the pretentious attitude many writers have toward beginners. Luckily, Lorde solves this problem by eliminating that exaggerated hogwash with the theory that poetry is always within us, and therefore, easily accessible. Through her personal experiences as a poet, she found her identity. Unlike other theorists, she doesn’t approach feminist theory with a step-by-step plan. Instead, she provides women with a genuine inspiration and a solid foundation for the feminist movement. She informs women that they have all of the necessary tools within themselves to work for change.

The focus on the self is what stands out in Lorde’s essay. It is so easy to become caught up in meaningless conventions, such as adhering to grammarian folklore or avoiding white after Labor Day. There are overt as well as hidden principles that have been created by hierarchical institutions to govern American society, and instead of rebelling, people often take what seems to be the easier road: compliance. Lorde’s metaphors and prose could be summed up with one question: Why should we comply? Asking that question is a necessary part of the process of giving up trying to please the patriarchal world and giving in to the beautiful world of womanly intuition. Poetry doesn’t have to be written to please a male audience; poetry comes from an authentic place within the mind and soul. Every woman has the power within herself to be vocal. Audre Lorde’s poetic language heightens the impact of her theory. She describes the woman’s place of power as “neither white nor surface,” but rather suggests that “it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep” (15). By describing darkness as something incredibly beautiful that needs to be embraced and tended to, Lorde is challenging society on two levels. Not only is she challenging the literary connection often made between darkness and evil, she is also using darkness as a metaphor for the oppression of the African American woman.

For a feminist, poetry is a powerful way to end silence and to reclaim autonomy. The poetwoman embraces written and spoken voice. Audre Lord’s essay reinvents and reclaims poetry by encouraging women to share their stories without the interference of wordplay. She suggests that women need poetry because it is their greatest means for freeing their inner voices. Poetry is truly the “Black mother within us,” as Lorde so insightfully writes (16). Her essay has given me a new way of thinking about poetry. By writing poetry, we are challenging and breaking down some of the most oppressive barriers that we are up against. Women can voice their plights whether they are fighting for the right to have an abortion, escape an abusive relationship, or marry a same-sex partner. Whatever the stories are, they are necessary to the feminist movement. In celebration of this article, I have included two poems.

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