By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92) was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’ Her poetry was often openly political and was intended to help other women – and in particular Black American women – to connect with each other through a kind of shared experience.
In her 1977 essay ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, Lorde argued 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.
Below, we select and introduce ten of Audre Lorde’s best-known poems, suggesting why we think they – and all of Lorde’s work – is worth reading, and why it remains so relevant. To explore her poetry in full, we thoroughly recommend The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.
1. ‘A Litany for Survival’.
This 1978 poem is addressed to people who are voiceless and marginalised in society. Lorde points out that fear rules their lives but it is better to speak up and use one’s voice rather than remain silent.
The word ‘litany’ provides a clue as to how we should respond to this poem: a litany is a form of public prayer in which the clergy lead and the people respond. We can regard Lorde, or her poem’s speaker, as the ‘clergy’ in this secular litany, with the people – other marginalised people – being invited to respond.
2. ‘A Woman Speaks’.
This is another poem published in Lorde’s 1978 collection The Black Unicorn. A Black woman addresses society and warns that she has not forgotten the powerful magic of her African ancestors, nor the fury she feels about society’s failure to deliver on its promise of a better future for women of colour.
Perhaps of all of Audre Lorde’s poems, ‘A Woman Speaks’ most powerfully articulates the need for what is now called intersectional feminism. For as the last line of Lorde’s poem makes clear, this is not just any woman who is speaking: specifically, it is a Black woman, whose experiences and challenges are different from those faced by many white women in America.
With its description of her unborn child growing ‘heavy’ against the wind, this poem is Lorde’s most powerful poem about becoming a mother: something she did in the early 1960s when she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.
Lorde knows she will now be ‘forever’ with child because she will be defined by her motherhood thereafter, and will always put her daughter first.
Lorde wrote this 1963 poem when her daughter, Elizabeth, was just one year old. In the poem, a mother considers her new-born daughter and the knowledge she will acquire as the speaker herself grows older.
The poem ends with her declaring that the shared knowledge, which her daughter has inherited from her, is the main reason her daughter will one day cut the ‘ropes’ that bind the two of them together.
Here we have a poem about the voicelessness felt by many women, especially African-American women, in American society. Lorde observes the way one’s voice is shaped by society’s inability (or, more accurately, unwillingness) to listen to or hear what one has to say. Such voices, as the title has it, create ‘echoes’.
However, this poem is also about love and desire, as the second stanza takes the poem into more sensual territory, and with its references to transgressive love (Lorde herself was a lesbian at a time when it was hard to speak openly about such things), the poem becomes one of Lorde’s most tender poems about love.
6. ‘Hanging Fire’.
This 1978 poem is perhaps Lorde’s most consummate expression of teenage angst: the speaker is a 14-year-old girl who feels unhappy in her own skin, is in love with a boy who isn’t right for her, and isn’t sure if she’ll survive the night.
A recurring refrain here is the speaker’s mother being in her bedroom with the door closed: this is a teenage girl struggling towards independence, and filled with the neuroticism and anxiety which plagues so many of our lives during those difficult years of adolescence.
This powerful poem, published in 1982, addresses some of the darkest moments in US history pertaining to race relations, including the murder of the 14-year-old African-American boy Emmett Till in 1955.
As elsewhere in her work, Lorde does not shy away from the harrowing aspects of this history, combining the personal with the political and using visceral imagery to put across the horrors of it. And like her other work, ‘Afterimages’ is a poem written in the hope of reaching her readers and bringing to light a shared experience, especially among Black women.
In some of the earlier poems on this list, Audre Lorde addresses her attitudes towards motherhood. But in this 1978 poem, Lorde explores her feelings towards her own mother. The poem explores the racial split Lorde feels, between wanting to be true to her authentic Black self and the social pressures to fit into the ‘ivory’ of white American society.
This 1968 poem is one of Lorde’s most frequently anthologised lyrics, and sees her harnessing the rage she feels when, for instance, she sees white people’s attitudes to black Americans. ‘Coal’ is black, of course, but if you put it under enough pressure, it can produce diamonds.
Lorde asserts that love is a way of being open, and argues that she is black because she was formed in the earth’s core. She urges the reader to view her words as a jewel which shines in the reader’s open light.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best Audre Lorde poems with ‘Power’, another poem from 1978. This poem explores racial injustice, and in particular, racial violence against children, and discusses how Black writers such as herself should respond to it.
The powerful opening stanza is about both power and poetry, with Lorde distinguishing ‘poetry’ from ‘rhetoric’ is that the former is about killing one’s own self: genuine poetry is about the poet destroying her own ego in order to serve some higher cause.