Poetry Is Not A Luxury Essay

Today I share excerpts from poet Audre Lorde’s feminist essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” found in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 1985). The essay can also be found on-line in its entirety here.  In Lorde’s vision, poetry reconnects us with deep truths that have been suppressed and forgotten. By giving these truths a voice and a shape, poetry allows us to consolidate and build upon them.

By Audre Lorde, excerpts from “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”

…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 external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

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. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have once found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but the true meaning of “it feels right to me.” 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. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives…

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 coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom. However, experience has taught us that the action in the now is also always necessary. Our children cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different from ours?…

For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They 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.

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 fountain–of our power, our womanness; we give up the future of our worlds…


And here’s a Lorde poem that I’ve always appreciated that makes her point. As I read it, she is pushing against the stereotyped traditional relationship in which a woman wants a man who will protect her. The poem envisions–becomes a sanctuary, fortress, or spawning ground for–another possibility: it takes a strong woman, not a weak one, to be drawn to a strong man. I don’t entirely understand the image of children building sand castles but I see three possibilities. The one that appeals most to me, as a man, is that just as strong women will learn to love strong men, so strong men will learn to love children, even if those children are engaged in fragile enterprises. In other words, just as feminism freed up women to build nations, so feminism freed up men to care for children.

But perhaps the reference to children is an image of nation-building men: strong women can learn to love strong men even when those men are engaged in enterprises that will fail. Strong themselves, they will not fear allying themselves with men who may fail. Or the poem could be saying that strong women and strong men together will learn to love their vulnerable children.

I invite readers to send in their own interpretations.

The Seventh Sense

by Audre Lorde

who build nations
to love
who build nations
to love
building sand castles
by the rising sea.

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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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