"Poetry is Not a Luxury" - Audre Lorde

I wrote an reflection on Lorde's essay and believe her words resonate with those who find power in the arts.




Audre Lorde is not a silent woman in her poetic voice. She engulfs the page with illustrative diction that brings her passion and activism to life. According to the Poetry Foundation, Audre Lorde is “A self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’”. Lorde was born in 1934 in New York City and passed away in 1992, creating numerous essays and poems (Poetry Foundation). Lorde had elements of her identity emerge in each of her works, prose or verse, when she would use her voice to explain what life was like for a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. Her work was “Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as ‘lesbian’ and ‘black woman’ (Poetry Foundation).

In our country, we categorize people based on the assumptions we make with information about how that person may be different than us. Lorde’s focus was on de-emphasizing this categorization. In this lens, I am focusing on Lorde’s prose essay called Poetry Is Not a Luxury, written in 1985. This piece is speaking to how poetry can be a uniting force for all of us, but more so, the power that it can provide, as a vehicle for those who have been silenced for decades.

In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real” (Lorde, Poetry Is Not a Luxury).


My argument is only to disseminate my reaction to Lorde’s piece. I will never know what it is like to identify as Audre Lorde. I do feel closer to her as I read her work, but her voice is hers and hers alone. The need to speak for another person has long been woven into the history of The United States; “our” country. However, who are those who stand as “true Americans”? Audre Lorde was not systematically one of these chosen voices to represent the American way of life. She states this clearly in Poetry is Not a Luxury in the third from final paragraph. “For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive.”

The people who have ‘linear power’ through capitalism are more financially valuable, and thus, have more opportunities to be heard. Lorde explains that her identities were not meant to survive because she was not recognized as a financially valuable individual in The United States, purely based on her skin color. Another influential artist and woman of color, Toni Cade Bambara spoke to this fact: “And the challenge that the cultural worker faces, myself for example, as a writer and as a media activist, is that the tools of my trade are colonized. The creative imagination has been colonized.” (Bambara and Morrison). Lorde came from the same school of thought as her artistic tools were pushing up against the colonialization of her ethnic heritage.

If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core- the foundation of our power, our woman-ness; we have given up the future of our worlds” (Lorde, Poetry Is Not a Luxury).

When the terms “institutional dehumanization” and colonization are a part of your identity, power has been taken away from your understanding of the self. What Lorde stands to argue is that poetry is the artistic force where your power can be witnessed. She says: “The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us- the-poet- whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free” (Poetry Is Not a Luxury). Lorde believes that even through systematic oppression of people of her race and of her gender, she still has a power deep within that is inextinguishable. She continues to say: “The women’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, ancient and it is deep” (Poetry Is Not a Luxury). The power of her woman-ness is a core element of her work and without expressing that, her voice would not be heard, being nor true to herself or true to those who she is speaking for.

As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action”. (Lorde, Poetry Is Not a Luxury).


Audre Lorde was revolutionary in voicing the feelings of women of color during the late 20th century. In Poetry Is Not a Luxury, Lorde uses these feelings to push the reader to feel our own emotions and speak to them, because this gives us power. Analysis of Lorde’s intersectional approach to poetry illustrates the need to recognize contributing factors to the identity of those individuals who speak about their emotions as they go through life as a part of an oppressed group.


When a person is consistently told that their experiences are less valuable than others’, they will inevitably begin to speak a little softer. When you are silenced, it is difficult to understand your feelings. The power of poetry for Lorde is in putting words to her feelings and creating poems through these powerful words. “We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared” (Poetry is Not A Luxury). Sharing the language of our feelings is not the luxury that the majority groups of people are given at birth and this why poetry is so essential in the words of Audre Lorde.

In reflection of Lorde’s Poetry Is Not A Luxury, Abaki Black wrote a response paper. She is a woman associated with The POC Online Classroom. Black spoke to the misconception about poetry being a luxurious artform that has no further significance for the women of color who create such work. She says: “…emotions are left by the wayside, and we are viewed merely in terms of our ability to think and produce. For women of color, however, poetry is vital for survival and thinking of new ways of being and striving for justice in the world” (Black). Silence replaces our feelings when we believe we are not free. Audre Lorde stands to keep the dialogue freely open with her poetic voice and encourages others to do the same.


When Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer, the illness that would end up taking her life, she created a collection of essays called The Cancer Journals. Here, Lorde illustrates that sharing a person’s truth with others going through similar pains will bring us all closer together. “…For every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am seeking, I had to make contact with other women while we examined the words to fit in a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences” (Lorde). In a collaborative environment, groups of people can voice their experiences, their emotions, and relate to each other. These connections among others are particularly important when you are trying to bring voice to a feeling but are struggling with the words.

On many occasions in my life, I have struggled with what words could adequately explain that life experience. Lorde believes that this struggle is common, and the answer lays inside the creation of poetry. “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought” (Poetry Is Not a Luxury). When a voice is being spoken through art, it can be even more powerful than when it is spoken in person through discussion. The rawness of which words were used and in which types of ways is what connects the reader to Lorde’s poetry. In her poem called Power, she further explains. “The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children” (Lorde). Her poetic voice holds her disenfranchised feelings, possibly feelings that others who find poetry to be luxurious, would have difficulty to understand.

In Lorde’s opinion, the steps in the poetry creation process are vital. Feelings are the cornerstone of expressing emotion, which is understood in Lorde’s quote: ‘giving name to the nameless’. These names continue forward to form ideas beyond prose, where the language is solely used for “…its notional and semantic content” (poetry.org). The aesthetic nature of our language is formed into ideas that will expand our limitations. These ideas, once given names, are then suitable for action. In another reaction to Lorde’s work, a student at the University of California- Los Angeles spoke to the steps of poetry creation and its importance.


Poetry is a luxury when it expresses a privileged lifestyle that alienates. Otherwise, poetry is a weapon, or a vehicle meant to revolutionize. It is a tool that helps the poet discuss oppression while it helps readers understand (albeit superficially) the poet’s struggle. Poetry is not a luxury to the systematically oppressed because, when the theory of cultural study is applied to poetry, it becomes a part of history, an artifact that encompasses the epoch the poet lives in”. (Nahal Amouzadeh).


Audre Lorde agrees that poetry is a tool, at times a weapon, to use against the forces of suppression. As ‘cultural study’ is understood alongside Lorde’s poems, the concept of intersectionality is awoken. As previously mentioned, Lorde was a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and each one of these identifiable layers of herself contribute to her voice.

For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7 AM, after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth; while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths” (Lorde, Poetry Is Not a Luxury).


Feelings of isolation and silence are not new to the time when Lorde was writing. Minority groups are consistently marginalized and put into categories of assumption by groups that are currently fighting to retain that ‘linear power’. It is the emotions or feelings that are given voice in Lorde’s Poetry Is Not a Luxury. Lorde says: “They [feelings] lie in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. They are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare” (Poetry Is Not a Luxury). Abaki Black also echoes the power of poetry through asking the questions of “How will accessing and giving voice to their emotions- anger, fear, love- challenge white supremacy and western norms of success?” How can art, like poetry, help us better communicate with ourselves and others?” (Black). What is a ‘western norm of success’? It is merely to produce and attribute all human value to that production? Or is there more to find behind what each person can create? Audre Lorde proves to the reader that poetry is the artistic force in which a person’s power can be witnessed and heard. It is our luxury, as the reader, to be afforded these gifts.



Works Cited

Amouzadeh, Nahal. “Poetry is Not a Luxury (for the Systematically Oppressed)”. UCLA Journal of the Arts- Westwind. Retrieved at: http://www.westwind.ucla.edu/2016/01/28/poetry-is-not-a-luxury-for-the-systematically-oppressed/

Bambara, Toni Cade, and Toni Morrison. “Language and the Writer.” In Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.

Black, Abaki. “Poetry is Not a Luxury”. POC Online Classroom. 28 March 2017. Retrieved at: http://www.poconlineclassroom.com/blog/2017/2/17/rad-reading-poetry-is-not-a-luxury

Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. Published in 1980. Retrieved at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/31713-my-silences-had-not-protected-me-your-silence-will-not

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is Not a Luxury”. Course Packet Lit. 1001, Summer 2019. 163.

Lorde, Audre. “Power”. Poetry Foundation. 1978. Retrieved at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53918/power-56d233adafeb3

 

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