Lorde and Master: Confrontation, Context, and Scholarship for “Power”

In 1973, a 10-year-old African American boy named Clifford Glover was shot and killed by Thomas Shea, a policeman for the NYPD. In the days that followed, riots and protests tore through the surrounding area in Queens. Then, a year later, Shea became the first city policeman to stand trial for a murder committed on duty, but he was acquitted on June 12, 1974 (“New York Policeman” 7). Audre Lorde was in her car when she heard the news; she became possessed by outrage and grief, so much so that she had to stop the car and reach for her journal to release the anger she felt on the page. That poem, “Power,” amasses the devastation and turmoil of the period while blending with Lorde’s most politically charged material from her 1974 book New York Head Shot and Museum. In an interview with poet Adrienne Rich, Lorde said that “Power” had been born out of pure emotion rather than any kind of focus on the “craft” (Rudnitsky 474). Before she was the New York State Poet Laureate, Lorde taught and served as writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, yet the predominant characteristic in Lorde’s work is a raw desire for betterment, while her poetic style sometimes appears fragmented and indicative of a disinterest in adhering to standardized constructs in poetry. The limited scholarship on this revolutionary poet reveals Lorde’s unrelenting drive toward social change, and her sense of responsibility to confront the ideologies and norms that she believed were detrimental to humankind.

Audre Lorde’s famous declaration that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” is a strong ambassador of her work, highlighting a critical flaw in the prevailing status quo perception that Lorde fought to disrupt. Critic and author Lexi Rudnitsky wrote an article titled “The ‘Power’ and ‘Sequelae’ of Audre Lorde’s Syntactical Strategies” in which she evaluates the presence of Lorde’s “house of difference” ideology in “Power.” As Rudnitsky explains, Lorde’s concept of the “house of difference” was a theoretical construct that opposed the established, and obviously flawed, social order. In particular, Rudnitsky analyzes the somewhat ambiguous first stanza, asserting that Lorde encourages a kind of self-martyrdom for the cause of social revolution. This interpretation gives Lorde’s poem a much more somber tone than the explanation that Thomas Dilworth offers in his essay “Lorde’s ‘Power’.” Dilworth immediately takes an artistic focus as he states that Lorde was referring to the craft of writing poetry, and that the opening stanza alludes to the death of an artist’s ego before s/he can objectively create their poetry. Dilworth advocates the idea that a poet must be “dead to self” as they work to create something of passive beauty. He writes, “Either you make poetry, which entails self-abnegation, or you make rhetoric” (Dilworth 54). Because of the framework in which Dilworth presents his comparisons between poetry and rhetoric, he implies that poetry and rhetoric do not truly coexist. He seems to take Lorde’s illustration of “the difference between poetry and rhetoric” as a dividing wall, excluding one approach from the other. Dilworth’s reading strongly conflicts with the context and implicit messages Lorde expresses in “Power.” At its root, “Power” is a reactionary statement against the consequence-free societal structure that allowed Officer Shea to escape legal retribution for the murder of a 10-year-old boy. To presume that the poem is about the status of an artist’s psyche is a gross detraction from the power and purpose of Lorde’s work. Instead, Lorde herself spoke about her view of the intertwining purposes of rhetoric and poetry: “Art for art’s sake doesn’t really exist for me…what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life” (Rudnitsky 477).

In their compiled essay “Audre Lorde’s Life and Career” Kulii, Reuman, and Trapasso detail the origins of Lorde’s fascination with language, and how she manipulated spellings and syntactic structure to change meaning. The authors include mention of Lorde’s early exposure to reading at writing at the age of four which would develop into poetic interests by the time Lorde was in eighth grade. The article quotes a line from Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, in which Lorde says that this point in her life marked a shift in perception about poetry, from viewing her writing as a “secret and rebellious” to accepting the poetry as an outlet and forum for her voice and ideas. Even so, Kulii concludes that Lorde’s style is so bleak and forceful that “[Lorde] eschews a hope for a better humanity by revealing truth in her poetry” (Kulii, Reuman, and Trapasso). This reductionist point of view does not do justice to Lorde’s motivation for change, and hampers a full appreciation of the impact of “Power.” While the poem could be contorted to fit Kulii’s evaluation, Lorde’s voice crying out in opposition to an incomprehensible system is a moving example of how poetry can challenge and redirect harmful ideologies. In its most elemental form, “Power” gives the reader a rude jolt of unconventional thought as it offers images of thirst, death, desolation, and a policeman’s bloody shoes. Kulii, Reuman, and Trapasso do describe the important landmarks and transitional periods in Lorde’s life and career, however their analysis of these key points leave the reader with information and not true insight. In contrast, Dilworth’s exposition of the language that Lorde uses in “Power” reveals an intricate attention to detail, and provides several interesting interpretations. By analyzing the relationships between the policeman, boy, jury woman, and the speaker in the poem, Dilworth offers greater insight into the driving impulses that “Power” expresses in its raw and emotional style. While Dilworth’s overall focus is on a secondary meaning, (positing that the poem serves as a critique of modern poetry), his in-depth foraging into the words and forms that Lorde has used in “Power” gives credit to her ability to twist the language in order to create greater tension within her poetry.

Keith D. Leonard’s essay “‘Which Me Will Survive:’ Rethinking Identity, Reclaiming Audre Lorde” takes its title from another of Lorde’s poems, “Who Said It Was Simple.” In the article, Leonard delves into the many elements in Lorde’s work that have altered the way that contemporary poetry adapts to current issues. In particular, Leonard reviews literature that examines the reticence of today’s poets to utilize or accept the poetic experimentation of African Americans. Leonard establishes that many of the non-traditional forms found in Lorde’s work contributed to the lack of critical attention that Lorde received during her career. He believes the issue lies in a concept of “identity” and a lack of common experiences among poets of different backgrounds. Leonard makes clear connections between the poets of the past and some of the deviations that are now becoming commonplace in mainstream poetry, while reviewing some of the important checkpoints that mark the history of these transitions. Interestingly, Leonard supports the idea that Lorde, while unique and noteworthy, was not a truly innovative poet. Instead, his analysis homes in on the philosophical contradictions between the speaker and the events in “Power” as a way to illustrate how the poetic language and metaphors blend with Lorde’s underlying themes of identity and justice. Leonard uses the term “language poetics” to describe the manipulation of words to establish multiple meanings, which challenges readers to examine themselves based on their interpretation of the lines. This term poorly reflects Lorde’s deeper desire to deconstruct a flawed system of social action and to replace it with a sense of identity for all people, yet in a technical sense, “language poetics” more accurately labels Lorde’s method of “deconstructing” sentences with line breaks, as in the first stanza of “Power.” Throughout the article, Leonard wavers between analyzing the concept of identity in Lorde’s poem and dissecting the structure, providing useful and intriguing points without clear definition of purpose. More importantly, however, Leonard suggests that African American innovation in poetry, especially in Lorde’s case, has been marginalized by critics who do not appreciate the shifts in poetic language. Because of this, Leonard believes that Lorde’s changes are more indicative of a cultural and social movement rather than actual innovation.

Barbara Caruso’s 1983 Baccalaureate address at Earlham College draws heavily from Lorde’s “Power” and the question of difference between poetry and rhetoric. Caruso explains that poetry blends the metaphoric and reality to provide a nuanced representation of events or social tendencies, in conjunction with rhetoric, in order to empower change at the individual level. This reading affords Lorde’s poem much more weight, and most accurately captures the purpose found in “Power.” Caruso explores the relationship in Lorde’s violent words and the societal problems that “Power” confronts, showing that “Rhetoric is a pronouncement; poetry is a conversation” (1). Poetry is likened to a group forum that accepts, combines, and structures the ideas and beliefs of a community and organizes these into a single, developed critique. Caruso praises Lorde for her ability to passionately transfer her rage into a poem that indicts and implores change at the same time; a necessary skill for successful poetic reform. Caruso’s focus throughout most of her address is on the importance of a communal bond established through the similar experiences of a group, and this simple idea become exponentially more powerful in the context of the Thomas Shea trial. She says, “it creates a dissonance between what we understand to be a relationship based in personal events and an association which takes life in a much more public sphere” (Caruso 1). In this light, Caruso examines the differences in relationships that create two very different types of power. The restrictive, entitled relationship between the privileged and the outcast breeds an abusive power dynamic, the kind reflected in “Power,” whereas a supportive and collective relationship, which Caruso describes as the bedrock for inciting poetry, can provoke meaningful and creative discourse. In this light, Lorde’s poem strikes a balance between the two forms of power, showing the affliction in a broken system represented side by side with a dim view of the future in the absence of change.

Audre Lorde’s “Power” certainly embodies the need for a strong voice with a powerful cause, yet its varied meanings depending on the reading have created widely differing points of view as to the poem’s purpose and effect. Dilworth’s analysis of the poem provides a detailed exploration of Lorde’s usage of imagery and the deeper implications of her striking phrases, while missing the greater point of social outrage and reform. Rudnitsky’s article captures the motivation and spirit of the poem by contrasting “Power” with another of Lorde’s socially critical poems, “Sequelae.” Rudnitsky seems to grasp the impact of Lorde’s “house of very difference” vs. “the master’s house” analogy, and yet her critique includes the belief that Lorde advocates a literal self-murder in order to enact social reform. Leonard’s argument for “Power” being a reference to African American identity adds another shade of meaning to the discussion, which also deemphasizes the historical framework of Clifford Glover’s murder. With the variety of differing readings and explanations of greater social context, Lorde’s “Power” still holds a degree of enigmatic allusion without much-needed clarification in some instances. In effect, Lorde has divided her critics as much as she vivisected her violent emotions and shaped them into her own form of “Power.”

Works Cited

Caruso, Barbara. “The Difference between Poetry and Rhetoric.” Earlhamite (Fall 1983). Web. 12 Mar. 2015. Dilworth, Thomas. “Lorde’s ‘Power’.” The Explicator 1 (1998): 54-57. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. Kulii, Beverly Threatt, Reuman, Ann E., and Ann Trapasso. “Audre Lorde’s Life and Career.” Modern American Poetry (1998). Web. 12 Mar. 2015. Leonard, Keith D. “‘Which Me Will Survive’: Rethinking Identity, Reclaiming Audre Lorde.” Callaloo 3 (2012): 758-777. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. “New York Policeman Acquitted.” The Day [New London, CT] 15 June 1974: 7. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. Rudnitsky, Lexi. “The ‘Power’ and ‘Sequelae’ of Audre Lorde’s Syntactical Strategies.” Callaloo 26.2 (2003): 473-485. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Sex and the Community in the Writings of Lourde, Shange, and Diaz

The works of Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and Junot Diaz have featured communities that are formed around a shared sexual identity: one that is either chosen to be empowering or one that is forced upon the community members. In some cases, these sexually-defined communities are able to deepen the emotional connection between their members. In others, it limits or completely cuts off this connection.

Audre Lorde writes about the power that eroticism has to restore the common history and heritage of women of color in her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In it, she discusses the origin of the word “erotic” and defines it as such: “an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives” (Lorde 55). The erotic encompasses every aspect of life, from pure sexuality to the idea of being intellectually aroused by and passionate about one’s work. It allows women of color to reclaim the pride they have in every aspect of their lives. They can hold onto their shared language of womanhood and feel strengthened by it. Women unify by embracing the erotic power and using it to enrich their lives as a whole; they do not have to rely on anyone but themselves. It is a personal empowerment that becomes a shared empowerment as women adopt and implement the erotic in their lives.

As the erotic unites women through passion, it also deepens the individual relationships between women as they begin to acknowledge the differences between their stories and bridge those gaps. Through sharing the erotic, Lorde states that it “forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference” (Shange 56). By understanding that each woman’s life and struggles are different, but of equal importance, is the key to deepening the emotional relationships between them. At the same time, it prevents those differences from creating a rift that is uncrossable. It serves as a glue that seeps in and bonds women to the core.

Similarly, throughout Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” women of color are brought together as a single community through their shared, but largely negative, sexual experiences with men. The introductory poem, “Dark Phrases,” writes about the “dark phrases of womanhood / of never having been a girl” and addresses the subject head-on; verbal harassment, specifically sexual, is a guaranteed occurrence in the lives of women of color (Shange 3). Dark phrases consist of harassment such as catcalls, threats, and other sexual assertions by men. They are the unspeakable, hidden, harmful sentiments that have cast female sexuality into the shadows. This universal experience of being a target for “dark phrases” is what creates a collective womanhood in which all women of color unite to protect themselves. They have all lost their childhood to their sexual exploitation, and now they must protect their adulthood. By having each lady in the choreopoem participate, the poem invites women from across the country to feel welcome within this community. They are women from coast to coast and they all stand united in their shared female experience.

While women form a community around their shared sexual experience, they are severely hindered in achieving emotional human connection with the men who have fostered these experiences. In the poem, “One,” the lady in red acts as a seductress to get revenge on the men that took advantage of her. As she is luring men in, she says “she wanted to be unforgettable / she wanted to be a memory / a wound to every man / arrogant enough to want her” (Shange 32). She scars these men through sexual manipulation in the same way that men as a whole have scarred women of color using the same method. She asserts that men are not entitled to women, and they should not be “arrogant” to expect it at all. By inflicting a wound on these men, she is able to, if only momentarily, resurrect the independent and sexually empowered self that she has lost. However, she cannot resurrect any of the pure emotional compatibility with men that might have existed before being sexually harassed or assaulted. That relationship is forever tarnished.

On the reverse side, male sexuality in Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” does engender a community, but one that is saturated with toxic hyper masculine expectations that alienate those who don’t conform. More specifically, it is the sexual expectations imposed by the Dominican community on its children that are an alienating force. As a young boy, Oscar is described as a “‘normal’ Dominican boy raised in a ‘typical’ Dominican family, his nascent pimp-liness was encouraged by blood and friends alike” (Diaz 11). From early on in his life, Oscar is pressured to be a casanova that charms women through his sexual prowess. In fact, the phrase “nascent pimp-liness” imposes the expectation that as a Dominican male, he should be born with such a charm. If he isn’t, then he isn’t Dominican. Since Oscar is characterized as less than charming, his masculinity is called into question and he is isolated from the Dominican community that he has every right to be apart of.

Unfortunately, the way that Dominican culture perpetuates sexual dominance creates unnecessary competition between Dominican men. In some cases, it makes their emotional interactions borderline violent and sadistic. In Oscar’s fantasy about stealing a girl away from the extremely-masculine Manny, he says “when he was in a better mood he would let Ana find Manny hanging from a light fixture in his apartment, his tongue a swollen purple bladder in his mouth, his pants around his ankles” (Diaz 42). Oscar is so threatened by this other male that he wishes an extremely emasculating death upon him. By fantasizing about Manny’s suicide, Oscar suggests emotional weakness that reduces Manny’s rigid masculinity. By having his “pants around his ankles,” Oscar belittles Manny’s sense of sexual superiority. If Oscar had been raised in a community where hypermasculinity was of little importance, then maybe Oscar’s human connection to other men would be pleasant instead of tense and aggressive.

While Audre Lorde advocates for the erotic as a way to both form and strengthen communities, not everyone in the texts we’ve read were able to embrace its power in the way she intended. For the women of Shange’s choreopoem, it strengthens human connection between women but limits it between the two genders. For Oscar, never having known sexuality and passion as a morally-empowering tool, it leaves his connection to other men hostile. While sexuality impacts the characters of these stories differently, it impacts them completely.