Poetry Is Not a Luxury: Audre Lorde on the Courage to Feel as an Antidote to Fear and a Fulcrum of Action, Power, and Possibility

This is the precarious balance of a growing society: exposing the fissures and fractures of democracy, however then, rather than letting them gape into voids of cynicism, sealing them with the magma of lucid idealism that names the options and, in calling them, gears up the whole supercontinent of culture with a cartography of action. “Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the worlds fantastic fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on,” Mary Shelley wrote as she promoted the courage to speak out versus injustice 2 a century earlier, amidst a world that applauded itself for being civilized while barring people like Shelley from access to education, profession, and myriad other civil dignities on account of their chromosomes, and disallowing people just a couple of shades darker than her from practically every human right on account of their melanin.

Shelley laced her novels with the beautiful prose-poetry of conviction, of vision that saw far beyond the horizons of her time and carried generations along the vector of that vision to shift the status quo into brand-new frontiers of possibility. A century and a half after her, Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934– November 17, 1992)– another lady of unusual courage of conviction and effectiveness of vision– expanded another horizon of possibility by the power of her words and her meteoric life. Lorde was a poet in both the literal sense at its most stunning and the largest, Baldwinian sense– “The poets (by which I imply all artists),” composed her modern and coworker in the kingdom of culture James Baldwin, “are finally the only individuals who understand the reality about us. Soldiers do not. Statesmen dont … Only poets.” Lorde comprehended the power of poetry– the power of words mortised into meaning and tenoned into truth, reality about who we are and who we are capable of being– and she wielded that power to pivot an imperfect world more detailed to its highest potential.Nowhere does that potency of understanding deal with more focused force than in her 1977 manifesto of an essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” which opens The Selected Works of Audre Lorde (public library)– the excellent collection of poetry and prose, modified by Roxane Gay.

Lorde, who resolved to live her life as a burst of light as she faced her death, and so lived it, writes:

The quality of light by which we inspect our lives has direct bearing upon the item which we live, and upon the modifications which we intend to cause through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as lighting, for it is through poetry that we provide name to those ideas which are– up until the poem– formless and anonymous, about to be birthed, but currently felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births concept, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

With an eye to how poetry distinctively anneals us by bringing us into intimate contact with those parts of ourselves we least comprehend and for that reason most fear, Lorde includes:

As we discover to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to thrive within it, as we discover to use the items of that scrutiny for power within our living, those worries which rule our lives and form our silences start to lose their control over us.

One of English artist Margaret C. Cooks illustrations for an unusual 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.) I am reminded of the shared root of the words power and possibility in posse, Latin for “to be able,” as I check out Lordes incisive insistence that for ladies, this location of possibility is buried beneath strata of historic silence and is therefore particularly powerful as soon as poetry– “poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterilized word play”– does the essential work of excavation:

For each people as women, there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises … These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have made it through and grown strong through that darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of imagination and power, of unrecorded and unexamined emotion and sensation.

These reserves, Lorde argues, have stayed surprise for dates because the white starting daddies– of countries, of ideas– have not honored them, have actually not called them, have actually not engraved them into the collective vocabulary of standardized thought and selective memory we call culture. From this acknowledgment increases, tender and titanic, the central animating principles of her essay, of her life. A generation after Rebecca West firmly insisted in her excellent meditation on storytelling and survival that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, kind, is not a decorative change, but a cup into which life can be poured and raised to the lips and be tasted,” Lorde writes:

Poetry is not a luxury. Poetry is the way we help provide name to the nameless so it can be believed.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.In a sentiment expressive of Hannah Arendts sobering insight into speech, action, and how we alter the world, Lorde considers what it takes for ladies, for non-white individuals, for persons of bold and divergence from the status quo, to reconceptualize culture, then do something about it that bridges the brand-new conception with a new truth:

As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and generating premises for the most radical and bold of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so needed to alter and the concept of any significant action … We can train ourselves to respect our sensations and to shift them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which assists to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the structures for a future of modification, a bridge across our worries of what has actually never been in the past.

Poetry, Lorde intimates, is likewise a singular prism for today that becomes a portal of light from our difficult pasts to our possible futures. In a sentiment that specifically gladdens me, as someone who dwells in the lives of the long-dead and unpeels the patina of neglect and indifference from their most luminescent ideas for a more livable future, Lorde includes:

There are no originalities still waiting in the wings to save us … There are just old and forgotten ones, brand-new combinations, projections and acknowledgments from within ourselves– in addition to the renewed guts to attempt them out. And we need to constantly motivate ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams indicate, and so numerous of our old ideas disparage. In the leading edge of our move towards modification, there is only poetry to mean possibility materialized. Our poems develop the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and attempt materialize (or bring action into accordance with), our fears, our hopes, our most cherished fears.

Art by Kenard Pak for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.To action into that place of possibility, Lorde argues, needs that we question the notions we have taken as givens from the dominant culture, few more dangerous and restricting than the propagandist dictum that poetry– that is, the life of sensation, which is our locus of power, which is our fulcrum of action– is a luxury. In consonance with E.E. Cummingss splendid manifesto for being confident to feel, she writes:

Within living structures specified by earnings, by direct power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not indicated to endure … We have actually hidden that fact in the exact same location where we have actually concealed our power. They appear in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. Those dreams are made feasible through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare. If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through guarantee, is discounted as a high-end, then we quit the core– the water fountain– of our power … the future of our worlds.
For there are no brand-new concepts. There are only brand-new methods of making them felt– of examining what those concepts seem like being resided on Sunday morning at 7 A.M., after brunch, throughout wild love, making war, offering birth, grieving our dead– while we suffer the old yearnings, fight the old warnings and fears of being quiet and impotent and alone, while we taste brand-new possibilities and strengths.

Lorde understood the power of poetry– the power of words mortised into meaning and tenoned into fact, fact about who we are and who we are capable of being– and she wielded that power to pivot an imperfect world more detailed to its highest potential.Nowhere does that potency of comprehending live with more focused force than in her 1977 manifesto of an essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” which opens The Selected Works of Audre Lorde (public library)– the exceptional collection of poetry and prose, modified by Roxane Gay.

This is poetry as lighting, for it is through poetry that we give name to those concepts which are– till the poem– formless and anonymous, about to be birthed, however currently felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as sensation births idea, as understanding births (precedes) understanding.

Enhance this fragment of the inspiriting and wholly vital Selected Works of Audre Lorde with Lorde on silence, strength, and vulnerability and the importance of unity across distinction in movements of social change, then review Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry, Susan Sontag on the conscience of words, Robert Penn Warren on power, inflammation, and poetry as an instrument of democracy, and Grammy-winning musician Cécile McLorin Salvant reading Lordes poem “The Bees.”

I am advised of the shared root of the words power and possibility in posse, Latin for “to be able,” as I read Lordes incisive persistence that for women, this place of possibility is buried beneath strata of historic silence and is for that reason especially effective when poetry– “poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterilized word play”– does the important work of excavation:

Poetry is not just dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.