Audre Lorde on Poetry as an Instrument of Change and the Courage to Feel as an Antidote to Fear, a Portal to Power and Possibility, and a Fulcrum of Action

Shelley laced her novels with the splendid 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 move 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– broadened another horizon of possibility by the power of her words and her meteoric life. Lorde was a poet in both the actual sense at its most spectacular and the biggest, Baldwinian sense– “The poets (by which I imply all artists),” composed her contemporary and colleague in the kingdom of culture James Baldwin, “are finally the only individuals who understand the reality about us. Soldiers dont. Statesmen do not … 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 closer to its highest potential.Nowhere does that effectiveness 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, edited by Roxane Gay.

This is the precarious balance of a successful society: exposing the cracks and fractures of democracy, however then, instead of letting them gape into abysses of cynicism, sealing them with the lava 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 think; it is by words that the worlds fantastic fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on,” Mary Shelley composed as she championed the courage to speak up against injustice 2 hundred years back, amidst a world that commended itself for being civilized while disallowing people like Shelley from access to education, occupation, and myriad other civil self-respects on account of their chromosomes, and disallowing people simply a few tones darker than her from almost every human right on account of their melanin.

Lorde, who dealt with 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 changes which we want to bring about 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 illumination, for it is through poetry that we offer name to those ideas which are– till the poem– formless and anonymous, about to be birthed, however already felt. That distillation of experience from which real poetry springs births thought as dream births principle, as sensation births idea, 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 understand and for that reason most fear, Lorde adds:

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

Among English artist Margaret C. Cooks illustrations for an uncommon 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.) I am advised 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 females, this place of possibility is buried underneath strata of historic silence and is therefore especially effective once poetry– “poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterilized word play”– does the important work of excavation:

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

These reserves, Lorde argues, have stayed surprise for dates since the white founding dads– of nations, of notions– have actually not honored them, have not named them, have actually not engraved them into the collective vocabulary of standardized idea 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 insisted in her excellent meditation on storytelling and survival that “art is not a toy, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not an ornamental modification, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Lorde composes:

Poetry is not a high-end. It is an important requirement of our presence. It forms the quality of the light within which we assert our hopes and dreams toward survival and modification, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help provide name to the nameless so it can be believed. The farthest horizons of our fears and hopes are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

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

As they end up being known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the sincere exploration of them end up being sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most extreme and bold of ideas. They end up being a safe-house for that distinction so necessary to alter and the concept of any meaningful action … We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose 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 just dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of modification, a bridge throughout our worries of what has never been in the past.

Poetry, Lorde intimates, is likewise a singular prism for today that becomes a portal of light from our impossible pasts to our possible futures. In a belief that specifically gladdens me, as someone who stays in the lives of the long-dead and unpeels the patina of disregard and indifference from their most luminescent concepts for a more livable future, Lorde adds:

And we should constantly motivate ourselves and each other to try the heretical actions that our dreams imply, and so many of our old ideas disparage. In the leading edge of our move toward change, there is just poetry to hint at possibility made real.

Art by Kenard Pak for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.To step into that place of possibility, Lorde argues, needs that we question the notions we have taken as givens from the dominant culture, few more hazardous and restricting than the propagandist dictum that poetry– that is, the life of feeling, 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 unafraid to feel, she composes:

Enhance this fragment of the inspiriting and completely indispensable Selected Works of Audre Lorde with Lorde on strength, silence, and vulnerability and the significance of unity across difference in movements of social modification, 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 artist Cécile McLorin Salvant reading Lordes poem “The Bees.”

Lorde comprehended the power of poetry– the power of words mortised into meaning and tenoned into truth, truth about who we are and who we are capable of being– and she wielded that power to pivot an imperfect world closer to its greatest potential.Nowhere does that strength of understanding 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 excellent collection of poetry and prose, modified by Roxane Gay.

Within living structures defined by profit, by direct power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to make it through … We have actually hidden that fact in the very same location where we have hidden our power. They appear in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the method to liberty. Those dreams are made feasible through our poems that provide 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 straight towards and through pledge, 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 ideas. There are just brand-new ways of making them felt– of analyzing what those ideas feel like being resided on Sunday early morning at 7 A.M., after breakfast, during wild love, making war, offering birth, mourning our dead– while we suffer the old yearnings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while we taste brand-new possibilities and strengths.

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

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 ladies, this location of possibility is buried underneath strata of historical silence and is for that reason especially powerful once poetry– “poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play”– does the vital work of excavation:

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