The Poetic Teachings of Audre Lorde

Using Lorde’s own words, poet and film-maker Esther Heller introduces us to Audre Lorde, a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”.

Colourful collage of Audre Lorde's photos and scraps like a typewriter, sunflowers and a wine glass
Message Received for Audre Lorde collage by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Audre Lorde was a poet, essayist, Black feminist, civil-rights activist, mother, librarian, mentor, editor, publisher, cancer survivor and educator. Lorde described herself as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”: knowing her identity was important to her, saying, “If I did not define myself for myself, I would be eaten alive.” So, I’m going to give you an introduction to Audre Lorde’s poetry, largely through her own words and teachings. 

During one lecture she gave in Berlin, Lorde said to her students that she is “committed to poetry not only as an art but as a way of life.” Lorde said that it is “through poetry that we give names to those ideas that are until the poem is written nameless and formless”. The lesson that Lorde was teaching her students was that through poetry, you can voice your ideas about anything. Lorde had difficulties communicating as a child, and said that “When someone said to me “How do you feel?” or “What do you think?” or asked another direct question. I would recite a poem and somewhere in that poem would be the feeling, somewhere in it would be the piece of information. It might be a line. It might be an image. The poem was my response.”

In addition to having difficulties communicating, Lorde grew up in Depression Era Harlem (New York) in the 1940s and was extremely near-sighted to the point that she was considered legally blind. Her mother had decided that Lorde would start kindergarten early in a special sight conservation class in a public school. Lorde said, ‘It was very exciting to be starting school. When I came to class I already knew how to read and write because I had learned about all that from the librarian at the Countee Cullen Library.’ The Children’s librarian was Augusta Baker, who taught Lorde how to read, and shortly after that Lorde learnt how to talk and how to write. Baker had such an influence on young Lorde that she later went on to become a librarian.

Words and language always played a very significant role in Lorde’s life. She said:

When I was a kid I’d take words apart and fragment them like colours. I would look at light and it would break down. Lights were surrounded by halos of colour because my eyes were so bad […] Every light was a prism. Words were like that. Every word would pop out and it would have all this energy and colour. It can be a painful process, too, because words hurt when they’re used too loosely. In my pre-adolescence and in my adolescence, it was a constant state of hypersensitivity in which I remember existing. The responsibility of the poet is to speak truth as she sees it.

Audre Lorde smiles wearing black
Portrait of Audre Lorde, 1989. Photo copyright Dagmar Schultz.

Lorde’s famous poem, ‘A Litany for Survival’, from her acclaimed poetry collection The Black Unicorn (1987), further emphasises the responsibility of the poet to speak the truth even when the poet is afraid of speaking.

when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.

Exercise: what is it that I feel?

Read ‘A Litany for Survival’ in full here. During one of her lectures Lorde said to her students: “You don’t enter a poem by going around it, you read it repeatedly and ask questions from yourself: what is it that I feel? how do I feel about this line, what does it sound like, what does it remind me of?” 

Read ‘A Litany for Survival’ again, and ask yourself what is it that I feel? how do I feel about this line, what does it sound like, what does it remind me of? Write your answers down.

A litany is a prayer performed in a church service, whereby the clergy recites a series of prayers that are interspersed with responses from the congregation. As a poetic form, a litany is a repetitive recital, series, or list that includes repetitive phrases. The first and second stanzas of Lorde’s poem ‘A Litany for Survival’ both repeat the line ‘For those of us’. The poem has several repetitive phrases such as ‘when the sun’ and ‘we are afraid’ in the lines below:

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid

Exercise: the litany

Read stanza three out loud with a partner. The first person (A) reads the first line and the other person (B) responds with the following line, and continue to alternate between A and B, like in a religious litany. Ask yourself how do I feel after reading the poem like this? what did I hear that I did not hear before? what does it sound like, what does it remind me of? Write these down and discuss them with your partner, comparing your findings from the previous exercise.

“The responsibility of the poet is to speak truth as she sees it.”

Nancy Bereano (the publisher and editor of Audre Lorde’s highly acclaimed collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider) said that Lorde “creates material from the dailiness of her life that we can use to help shape ours.” This usage of daily life is mirrored in Lorde’s poem, ‘Coal’, which appeared in her 1968 debut collection, First Cities, and which in 1976 became the title for her first book published by a large publisher. ‘Coal’ was written by Lorde while riding the subway in New York City. Lorde describes the subway as a “primary symbol of pressure”. The poem uses the imagery of diamonds which are formed by heat and high pressure. ‘Coal’ also speaks about the strenuous task of finding the right words to speak one’s truth, which ultimately is the responsibility of the poet, according to Lorde.

To explode through my lips
Like young sparrows bursting from shell.
Some words
Bedevil me.

Audre Lorde in Berlin. Photo copyright Dagmar Schultz.

Exercise: build a bridge

I think that the places of our power are also the places of our biggest strain. I think it is the tension between these two things that generates a kind of creativity, in the same way that building a bridge does. I mean the image is really the bringing together of similarities and differences with sparks between them. (Audre Lorde, 1984)

Read the poem ‘Coal’ and pay attention to the image of the diamond in the poem. Now think about another natural object different to a diamond, like a tree for example, and list some differences and similarities between your chosen object and the diamond. Reading Lorde’s quote above, can you use your listed differences and similarities to build a bridge between your object to the diamond as a starting point in a poem?

“My audience is every single person who can use the work I do. Anybody who can use what I do is who I’m writing for.”

Lorde was a cultural traveller who believed in the power of building communities across borders through poetry. She was a lecturer and teacher who cultivated writing groups globally and co-founded a women’s publishing press called Kitchen Table: Women of Colour Press in 1980. As she said, “without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” She inspired many of her students and poets from around the world. Notably, one of these poets was the acclaimed Afro-German poet May Ayim, who was a student of Lorde’s and became a good friend during Lorde’s time in Berlin (1984 – 1992) as a lecturer and activist.

Audre Lorde and May Ayim in Schöneberg, Berlin. Photo copyright Dagmar Shultz

Audre Lorde believed in the power of words, and the forming of language through poetry. Lorde said that strong poetry gives words to our expressions. These could be screams, laughter or even silence, and a poet should be committed to breaking silences: “If I open my mouth and scream, that is an expression of feeling, but it’s not a poem and it’s not really useful to you. I have to take the scream and put words to it in such a way that will make you feel why I was screaming.”

As a Kenyan-German poet who writes about joy, memory, loss and grief, Audre Lorde’s poetry, life and work has taught me and is still teaching me how to use my voice. I am learning from her to speak with and listen to others who are “seeking a now that can breed futures”, to shape a world filled with equality, joy, community and care. I hope that this small introduction to Audre Lorde, largely in her own words, has sparked your interest to find out more about her poetry and work.

Further resources:

Conversations With Audre Lorde, edited by Joan Wylie Hall (University Press of Mississippi, 2004)
Audre Lorde – Dream of Europe: selected seminars and interviews: 1984 -1992, edited by Mayra Rodriguez Castro (Kenning Editions, 2020)

Photo of Esther Heller reading from a book on stage with 'Barbican Showcase 2019' in the backgroundEsther Heller is a poet, writer, Barbican Young Poet 2018/2019, and experimental poetry filmmaker. They recently graduated with an Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford and have performed their poetry among other places at the Roundhouse, APT Gallery and the Barbican.

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