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.”
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.
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