Poetry is Not a Luxury (for the Systematically Oppressed)

(post by Nahal Amouzadeh)
(Source: Poetry is Not a Luxury by Audre Lorde)

Audre Lorde wrote a prose piece in the 1970’s entitled “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” which I recently read for an English class encompassing women’s writing and women authors. At first glance, I thought the piece hokey; the title and the opening paragraphs reminded me of the elementary school teachers I had, who forced students to write in journals daily for a grade. The idea was to create and allow a safe space for creative and personal discovery, but the assignment never quite achieved what it set out to do. For me, I never saw the pages as welcoming; they were, instead, a place where I needed to present a self that my teacher would approve of. But for others, it seemed foreign eyes weren’t the problem or the need to create an image for our teacher. It was simply starting.

Not everyone has found poetry, fiction, or any other form of writing to be a release. As a matter of fact, the majority of people I’ve come across find it to be an arduous process, filled with more stress and hardship that its intended to be. Therefore the stance Lorde takes in her piece, that poetry is needed for specifically women and more broadly the oppressed, seemed to me to be too exclusive. Despite being one of few who does (somewhat shamefully and sporadically) write (bad) poetry to express myself, I still saw her piece as a generalizing monologue of the artistic optimist. She was, at first glance, the poet who sought out to make the world see through her lens rather than their own perspectives, whatever form they metaphorically took.

Yet my snap judgments are hardly the ones I stick to. Of course, after reading it again and hearing my professor (briefly) lecture on Lorde’s passage citing “the white fathers,” I understood the deeper point to Lorde’s essay.

Lorde wrote, “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.” And I agree.

Of course, in this passage, “the white fathers” Lorde condemns are those who, during the Enlightenment era, emphasized rational thought over the expression of emotion. But I would argue that even this world of emotional expressiveness, this world of poetry has its own “white fathers,” that emphasize a problematic, validated norm.

Poetry is not a luxury for the systematically oppressed, but it is a luxury for the privileged. When poetry is used as a form of expression in the post-modern world, it is placed in this realm of exclusivity because of what canon poetry has emphasized. The canon is poetry written by poets whose expressed feelings have been validated throughout literary history. These poets and pieces of poetry are the ones we’ve been taught throughout our education and live on with the stamp of approval; think Yeats, Wordsworth, Browning, etc. What do these poets have in common? They are almost always white, straight, middle-class men who live in that privilege and consequently write from that privilege. Poetry then, written by the same people who encompass that privilege, becomes a luxury.

Poetry written by the hand of the systematically oppressed – one of a different race, gender, sexuality, etc. from the canon/privileged – is needed. 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. That poetry is in itself a challenge, fight, battle against the problematic issues that arise when the literary world is still dominated by the privileged.
This isn’t to say that the poetry that echoes the canon should be eradicated, or that those with privilege should steer clear of poetry. It is simply to say poetry is not limited to that luxurious, privileged world. Furthermore, this isn’t to say that one has to take up that elementary school journal assignment as a starting point in shedding a light on their own plight, if they don’t want to. Maybe this is where I interpret Lorde’s piece a little differently again. It is not necessary to engage in this world only by writing poetry, but it is necessary to read poetry by those who are systematically oppressed; to listen. When looked at on the surface, poetry has become a world where validity is only given to poetry that echoes the canon, a world of luxury and privilege. But it is not. It is a tool to bring awareness. And to stay aware, one should look to poetry written by someone who deviates from the canon.

Last quarter, I discussed poet Warsan Shire in a previous blog post. If anyone is looking for poetry that does not perpetuate the luxury of privilege, I would recommend her works as a jumping-off point.

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