Reading Audre Lorde in the Age of Poetry as Product
Updated: Jun 5, 2022
A line from the film 'The Big Short' which allegedly originated as something Author Michael Lewis overheard in a bar in Washington D.C.
Poetry as Product
Poetry is not a popular medium. In our culture of convenience there is little room for poetry. Content comes at us in droves with speed and spectacle and we demand to be entertained lest we turn elsewhere. For the majority of people life under late-stage capitalism is nothing but soul-crushing. Its cult of achievement, its blood-soaked history, its unending political turmoil, its climate inaction, its oppression and exploitation, its resistance to positive change, its self-destructive obsession with productivity, success and infinite growth; we cannot gaze into its abyss for too long without falling into fatalism or despair.
For many people, life is defined almost entirely by work, either as a necessity for survival or as a socially mandated climb towards some nebulous symbol of achievement. This cult of work requires us to use whatever leisure we may have in a way that is productive. Yes, our pleasures are a reward for our labour, but they are also the batteries that keep us from collapsing under the sheer weight of life during the 2020s. We cannot neglect our need for respite and rest without risking a gradual or sudden descent into burnout, exhaustion, depression and the rest of it. This is reflected in much of our mainstream media and entertainment. We need instant gratification. We need comfort and consolation. We need spectacle and escapism. We need commodities that stimulate our happiness chemicals and replenish our resistance to stress, fatigue and existential dread.
More profound needs like purpose and meaning have either been commodified or neglected. Advertising has incorporated the promise of purpose and meaning to propagate conventional desires like adoration, wealth, success, status etc. Some industries rely entirely on the general lack of societal purpose, like those promising to sell you fulfilling lifestyles. However, less quantifiable forms of meaning and purpose have been relegated to the fringes of so-called High Culture. This is where less commercial, more challenging pieces of art and literature are usually found. It is a place that has significant cultural and critical power, but is nevertheless considered to be at the cultural margins from the dominant business-focussed point of view. Some money can be made there, perhaps even a living for those who are lucky, but it is not where the mainstream gaze is drawn and it is not where most people go when they are looking for culture to relax, excite, comfort and amaze them. So what about poetry? Well, it has been mostly driven to the margins of the margins. Literature in general has become a lesser cultural force, as visual media have overtaken it in popularity and contemporary cultural significance. But where seminal literary fiction and non-fiction might still reach mainstream audiences through things like cinematic adaption, poetry stands defiant in its resistance to adaption. Music might offer possible answers to some forms of popular poetry, while leaving most to mainstream irrelevancy.
Moreover, even when pieces of poetry, art, literature, cinema etc. are able to be produced in their cultural niche without the profit motive directly influencing their conception, the context of commercialised culture still has far reaching consequences for things like distribution, marketing, critical & audience reception, cultural shelf life etc. One exceptionally pernicious way in which cultural commercialism diminishes non-commercial art is through its proliferation of reductive attitudes and approaches. One example of this is the way in which the algorithmic approach to content on platforms such as YouTube has skewed the popular conception of cultural criticism and analysis; on these platforms the dominant approach to art/literature/cinema is one of superficial plot explanation, aesthetic description and a myopic focus on the discovery and criticism of so-called plot holes rather than the nuanced discussion of style, theme, context etc. that is preferred in academic and intellectual circles. As various video essayists, producers, actors, commentators etc. have pointed out, this does have palpable consequences for how mainstream audiences approach and receive more complex pieces of culture.
Furthermore, the commercialisation of culture has one far more insidious effect, mainly the short-sighted attitude with which most of mainstream society judges ‘the value’ of culture. The commodification of culture demands that everything be reframed as content to be consumed. However, the potential consumer only has limited time and money; the speed of our technology, the pressures of ostensible personal growth, success and happiness that emanate from social media and the cult of work all demand that we do not indulge the impractically ponderous. Consequently, in order for content to be considered valuable it is required to justify its existence by promising that its consumption will have some tangible benefit to its audience. This is the dominant language of advertising and marketing; ‘how consuming this piece of content might will move, excite, inform you or make you more clued in to the cultural conversation…’ But it also results in a widespread attitude amongst audiences that approach culture with implicitly self-centring motivations. This attitude has been most poignantly described & criticized by the American author and cultural commentator Fran Lebowitz, saying: “…people are consistently told “What can you learn about your own life from this novel, what lessons will this teach you? How can you use this…” This is a philistine idea. This is beyond vulgar. It’s an awful way to approach anything. It should take you away. A book should not be a mirror, it’s supposed to be a door.”
So, how does this commercialised attitude towards culture influence poetry? Well, it ensures that whatever poetry does manage to penetrate the mainstream often has to do so at a certain cost. Given poetry’s popular reputation for impracticality and obfuscation, the invisible hand of the free market regularly finds that the most merit (i.e. the most profit) lies in poetry that subverts this reputation and strives to be relatable and accessible, pandering to the attitude that implicitly asks of culture: ‘What use to me are you?’ Mainstream poetry’s most widespread response to this implicit question is: ‘I will teach you something about yourself.’ Therefore, most poetry that manages to enter the mainstream either consciously or subconsciously strives for a certain unambiguous universality, which usually helps it to reach the largest possible audience. This makes sense, of course, “broadening appeal” in general has been a popular mantra amongst the men in suits who run most industries. Finding a niche audience and sticking to it is the resigned fate of those poets who decide they cannot stomach the desperate climb to socially approved success and instead write for themselves and for anyone who is willing to take their work as it is. But in the ‘real world’ growth is king, so this will not do. Thus, people with certain talents turn to accessibility, relatability and universality to reach the mainstream.
What is lost in this commercialised approach to poetry is ambiguity, subtlety, nuanced complexity, an openness to emotional discomfort that is deliberate and sensitive without being manipulative, an honest undiluted engagement with intellectual, philosophical or abstract ideas, the inclusion of purposefully unresolved tensions, themes and mysteries and unmitigated depictions of Otherness, as well as the peculiarities of personal experience that give artistic expressions their depth and power; it is increasingly similar to what is abandoned in art forms such as cinema, television, video games etc. whenever the priority becomes taming the unyielding leviathan that is mass-appeal for the sake of maximised profit. Most of what poetry has to offer lacks general profitability and remains far outside of mainstream culture as a result. This has led to many poets, including myself, needing to cope with the realisation that their medium has sunk so deep in the culture’s couch that mainstream attention will not grace us with its presence. And when it does, it is so fickle, so incurious, so self-centred that only very few poets actually benefit from it. To put it another way, we have chosen to work within the most niche of niches and most of us must accept that a wide readership, recognition, making a living writing etc. are all definitively out of reach.
Reading Audre Lorde
So what does Audre Lorde have to do with any of this? Well, to me, her poetry is the clearest antidote to the insidious influence of commercialised culture on poetry, and can tell us why we should still read, write and publish poetry even though most of us stand to gain nothing material from it. It also illustrates why the desire for relatability or universality that has so much of contemporary poetry in its grasp will always be an easy answer that diminishes the true potential of our medium.
Whenever I read Audre Lorde's poetry, I am reminded of what I love most about this medium; Its uncompromising intimacy. Her work stands as a monument to shame those who dilute their style and story to appeal to some nebulous universal human experience (including myself). It is uncompromisingly personal. Its style is unapologetically complex and diverse. Its politics are radical. Its spirituality is fierce. Her work shows that simply writing plain impersonal verse about what you believe to be universally relatable and accessible because you think it is the only way to make people care is an act of cowardice and pitiful self-denial.
Much of Lorde's poetry cannot be removed from her individual life story and her identity as a Black lesbian radical. Much of her work is mystifying to a White cishet dude (aka. still the dominant audience demographic for most media and entertainment) like myself. And that is exactly what makes it transcendent in its greatness. The cis-het white male gaze does not stand a chance. It buckles beneath the sheer power of Audre Lorde’s style and voice.
Instead of diluting the personal to become universal, Audre Lorde builds a mesmerising edifice from a style and story that is aggressively personal and dares us to look away because we are not perfectly reflected. It forces you to let go of your need to be present in every story. Her poetry tells me that this is not my story. It tells me to shut up and listen. And I cannot help but do so.
However, this does not mean that Audre Lorde’s verse is inaccessible to those of us who are of a different race, sexuality, gender etc. The uncompromising intimacy of her work allows for true universalities to reveal themselves naturally through the empathic capabilities of the reader. This could not be further removed from how it is achieved in the popular forms of aphoristic poetry that proliferate on social media: i.e. by chasing universality through plain verse and generic themes at the cost of becoming impersonal and one-dimensional.
Audre Lorde’s verse is unapologetically personal. This renders the distance between her and her reader almost beautiful in and of itself. Her sexuality, her spirituality, her politics, however different, they are conveyed with such power that the empathetic urge to better understand them is unstoppable. That way, someone who is distanced from her perspective by their own identity is encouraged to accept difference without giving up the desire to better understand, to empathise, to find commonality in the personal without being tempted to simplify her work or project their life story unto hers. Her work resists shallow readings. It resists easy answers. When something needs be said plainly it will do so unflinchingly, but it will not dilute its complexity for those who read poetry simply to find soundbites or aphorisms that reflect their own lives perfectly.
For someone who does not share Audre Lorde's lived experience, her sexuality, her spirituality etc. her poetry can provide a way to understand that human beings, be they dead or alive, might never be entirely knowable to each other and yet there is tremendous beauty, wisdom and power in working to understand one another better. However, it is important to mention that her work should not and cannot be reduced to this or any similar ‘lesson’. More than anything, her work illustrates that poetry does not always have to teach you something or have some palpable effect to be valuable or profound. Moreover, it important to keep in mind that I can only speak from the perspective of someone who is not Black, who is not American, who, in their privilege, has not known any of the struggles Audre Lorde faced. I am sure people who are Black, lesbian (or LGBTQIA+ in general) and female do find much that is familiar. However, I do think that Audre Lorde's work is so closely related to her singular vision as an individual that even people who share multiple aspects of their identity with her would not be able to in good faith reduce her work merely to a reflection of themselves.
Reading Audre Lorde's poetry has made me a better poet. Even though we have very different poetic styles and very different life stories, reading her work has caused a fundamental shift in how I approach the medium of poetry. After years of following unstable instincts, made unreliable by their fickleness, I found a bedrock on which I can build my work with some certainty. I now know exactly why I do adore this art form even though much of it is difficult, uninviting and estranging. I now understand that to strive for universality in art is a betrayal of self. Instead one should approach one's art with uncompromising intimacy. Universality cannot be forced into existence without creating shallow and generic work. It can only be successfully fostered by letting whatever personal truth lies at the heart of your work flourish without impediment or hesitation.
This approach might scare people away, be they many or few, but those that aren’t turned away will be drawn into your personal perspective and be encouraged to approach your work with empathy. Consequently, it becomes possible for your audience to find powerful personal meaning in your work without you having to sacrifice its precision, its intensity, its uniquely individual origin for the sake of relatability or broadness of appeal. Another consequence of this is that whatever meaning they find will be far more durable and valuable than any that is available in the platitude-laden aphorisms of poetry as profitable product. And as your work stands as undeniably true and singular, the intentional fallacy, which is so common in poetic interpretation, will not find easy entry. For work that is uncompromising in its intimacy and truthfulness is the most efficient way to illustrate that authorial meaning & intent are essentially unknowable, which in turn might contribute to readers finding meaningful personal interpretations without conflating them with the authorial perspective.
To summarise: Audre Lorde's poetry is sublime. It urges you to actively use your empathy in an effort to better understand her work and experience, whilst also showing you that there is an unbridgeable distance between artist and audience that must be accepted. Audre Lorde’s poetry reveals that this distance is not an impediment to better understanding but an opportunity to let go of the desires to find ourselves perfectly reflected in every piece of art, to search authorial intent or project the personal meanings we find onto the cultural significance of the art or the motivations of the artist.