Lessons Learned: On Why Poetry Is Not a Luxury


A few days ago, I read Audre Lorde’s essay, Poetry Is Not a Luxury. Yes, I know it’s a classic. Yes, I’m a bit late to the game. But it’s as if this piece entered my life at just the right moment–when the lesson was ripe for the learning.

Lorde tells us that “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”


I have all ways thought of the light-as-illumination motif as being static–an if-then proposition–when there is light there is illumination. Maybe not. Maybe, as Lorde says, it is the quality of that light, that matters most, that either illuminates or obfuscates. It brings to mind National Geographic photographer, George Steinmetz’s award winning aerial photograph of camels in the desert. What is real, what is shadow–this is determined not by light, but by the “quality of the illumination.”

Too often, women are dismissed as being irrational, childish, changeable. Our feelings, our ideas, remain buried, un-birthed, and like the cycles, are often lost, washed away unexpressed. But through poetry, writes Lorde, we can “give name to those ideas which are–until the poem–nameless and formless.” Poetry gives us the language, the means through which those ideas, those dreams that are the most elusive, the most illusive become real.

I know this to be true.

Before poetry, my writing was all left-brained–sorting and selecting ideas, arranging and organizing them in conventional ways and so on. But with poetry, I am able to draw on feelings and intuition and fuse them with ideas and information in ways that are surprising, even to me–especially to me! Poetry frees me to be unintentional, emergent, and spatial. It helps me to “give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” It turns the paradigm on its head, reverses the directionality–nameless, name, thought.

The more I allow myself, train myself to trust the nameless, the better the writing, the better the thoughts. How can something so essential, so revolutionary be a “luxury?”

As Lorde reminds us, “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”


Source: Anthologized in By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry ~ Molly McQuade
First published in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture, no. 3 (1977)

Photo Credit: https://prideinmadness.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/a-time-to-talk-poetry-activity/

Categories: Reflections

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1 reply

  1. Extremely interesting. I just read Poetry Is Not a Luxury for the first time this week, as an assigned reading for my Feminism class. I now have to write a 3-5 age paper on the subject matter & interpretations. This blog was highly interesting and helpful.

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