Pride, Politics, and Poetry

Adrienne Rich died last week.

Adrienne Rich was arguably one of the most influential poets of the last century. Not only because she was a wonderful writer, but also because she was a fierce activist for women, lesbians, and mothers.

I had the privilege of seeing her read her poetry while I was in college. I remember feeling honored to be in the presence of such a strong and talented woman. Her rheumatoid arthritis was already taking a toll and it took several people to help her onstage. However, her hunched and elderly body disappeared once her adamant, fierce, and beautiful words filled the theater.

Rich played a substantial role in the women’s movement. The phrase ‘the personal is political’ may seem cliché now, but it wasn’t always that way. Consciousness raising groups were formed by women and LGBT people alike to explore what these particular parts of our identity meant. In these groups people came to realize that the burdens they experienced based on their race, their gender, and their sexual identity were not isolated incidents but instead part of a system of oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia) all meant to keep them feeling dis-empowered.

Rich’s poems were a perfect example of the personal and political coming together. Diving into the Wreck is one of her more famous poems which she wrote in the mid 1970s when women’s rights and LGBT rights were coming to the forefront of many political movements. The poem is literally about diving into a shipwreck, but like all poems it has many layers of meaning:

We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book myths

in which

our names do not appear.

– Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck

As one of an innumerable number of protests in her life, Rich refused to accept the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry. Instead she invited Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, two of the other finalists, on stage to accept the award on behalf of women everywhere.

Audre Lorde was another powerful voice in the 1970s who spoke to issues of blackness, femaleness, and queerness. Getting back to my post last week and the idea of intersectionality, Lorde was many things, among them “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. Her political ferocity was evident in the many poems and essays that she wrote throughout her life.

The phrase ‘the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house’ may ring some bells. It is the name of one of many brilliant essays from her book Sister, Outsider. (Seriously, if you haven’t read Sister, Outsider I insist that you run out to the library and pick it up right now. A friend of mine was writing a summary of the book the other day and we joked that the whole report should be boiled down to just a single reference: see Sister, Outsider. Because, really, no one says it quite like Audre Lorde does.)  The essay, as you may guess from the title, espouses the fact that new tools or forms of resistance must be created to fight racism and sexism.

Although Rich and Lorde both wrote amazingly influential political essays, there is a certain part of ourselves that only poetry can touch. So instead of quoting any of Lorde’s essays in Sister, Outsider, I will instead leave you with a couple of lines from Lorde’s commanding poem The Black Unicorn:

The black unicorn is restless

the black unicorn is unrelenting

the black unicorn is not

free.

– Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn 

What role do you think art plays in political movements? And do you have any poetry you’d like to share? 

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