By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’ is a 1977 essay by the American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92). In the essay, Lorde argues that poetry is a necessity for women, as it puts them in touch with old feelings and ways of knowing which they have long forgotten. Poetry also offers women a way to bring those feelings to light again and to share them with others.
You can read ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Lorde’s essay below. The essay takes around five minutes to read.
‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’: summary
Lorde begins by drawing a connection between poetry and life, arguing that poetry is a form of illumination which helps us to make sense of our lives. True poetry, which stems from a distillation of experience, can then give rise to thoughts, much as a dream can give rise to a concept or a feeling can give rise to an idea, or as knowledge precedes, and helps us to develop, an understanding of something.
Poetry can thus help us to conquer our fears, since it allows us to understand and take control of those fears. Quoting lines from her 1973 poem ‘Black Mother Woman’, Lorde addresses other women, pointing out that their true spirits lie ‘hidden’ within them, out of sight. However, it is within the darkness that these secret ‘places of possibility’ within women have grown and survived.
These dark places within women contain great potential for creativity and power. The problem with European culture is that it privileges ideas over these dark, secret places inside. Connecting with the ancient ways of knowing encourages women to value their feelings over ‘ideas’.
However, Lorde believes that women can combine these two modes of knowing – feelings and ideas – in their poetry. This is why, for women, poetry is not a luxury, but a vital necessity. Poetry is one of the ways women can give a name to those nameless feelings they experience, so those feelings can be transformed into thought.
Poetry, Lorde argues, is the framework for women’s whole lives. It provides women with a way to make acceptable those ideas which would otherwise have been baffling or frightening. By respecting their own feelings, women can turn them into language and share them with other women. Indeed, poetry can even help to create a language for things, a language which does not already exist.
Lorde then discusses the difficult nature of ‘possibility’, or potential for change. It can easily be extinguished or diminished, especially when women are accused (by men) of being immature or overly reliant on their feelings. Lorde counters the ‘white fathers’, who said ‘I think, therefore I am’, with her own mantra from ‘the Black mother’: ‘I feel, therefore I can be free.’
But action is also needed. Rather than seeking new ideas to bring about the change that’s needed, Lorde urges women to turn to the ‘old and forgotten’ ideas which will give them courage. Poetry is a way of rediscovering these ideas and, more importantly, the authentic feelings women have. To give up poetry or dismiss it as a luxury is to deprive oneself of a better future for women.
‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’: analysis
It was W. H. Auden who famously said, in his poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. He went on to remark that poetry’s value was as a ‘way of happening’: an act in and of itself which keeps the poet’s voice alive, or their ‘mouth’ from falling silent.
In ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, Lorde goes further and seems to suggest that poetry can make things happen, although she shares with Auden a distrust of viewing ‘poetry’ and ‘action’ as two separate and distinguishable modes.
Words like ‘vital’ and ‘necessity’ make it clear to us that Lorde views poetry as an essential component of women’s struggle to liberate themselves from patriarchal oppression and control.
But she also suggests that, in particular, she has Black women in mind: words and phrases like ‘noneuropean’ (which appear to call back to the African heritage of African-American women in the modern United States) and ‘Black mother’ indicate that, for Lorde, poetry is especially valuable to women of colour who are facing racial as well as patriarchal oppression.
At one memorable moment in ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, Audre Lorde quotes the line, ‘I think, therefore I am’, attributing it to ‘white fathers’. Specifically, this line is from the work of the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, who argued that he could be sure of his own existence because he was capable of rational thought.
Lorde’s recasting of this formula into ‘I feel, therefore I can be free’ reveals that the freedom that white men like Descartes could take for granted has always been unknowable to Black women, at least as lived experience. And ‘experience’ is another key term in ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’: poetry is both a reflection of experience and a way of experiencing the world.
Because poetry does not rely on cold fact or reason, but instead fuses feelings, thoughts, ideas, and experience together in a heady mixture of intuition and knowledge, it can lead to a deeper kind of enlightenment or wisdom which acknowledges that how we feel about the world is as important as what the world ‘is’.