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Audre Lorde on Poetry as an Instrument of Change and the Courage to Feel as an Antidote to Fear, a Portal to Power and Possibility, and a Fulcrum of Action

“As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”

Audre Lorde on Poetry as an Instrument of Change and the Courage to Feel as an Antidote to Fear, a Portal to Power and Possibility, and a Fulcrum of Action

This is the precarious balance of a thriving society: exposing the fissures and fractures of democracy, but then, rather than letting them gape into abysses of cynicism, sealing them with the magma of lucid idealism that names the alternatives and, in naming them, equips the entire supercontinent of culture with a cartography of action. “Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on,” Mary Shelley wrote as she championed the courage to speak up against injustice two hundred years ago, amid a world that commended itself for being civilized while barring people like Shelley from access to education, occupation, and myriad other civil dignities on account of their chromosomes, and barring people just a few shades darker than her from just about every human right on account of their melanin.

Shelley laced her novels with the exquisite prose-poetry of conviction, of vision that saw far beyond the horizons of her time and carried generations along the vector of that vision to shift the status quo into new frontiers of possibility. A century and a half after her, Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992)– another woman of uncommon courage of conviction and potency of vision — expanded another horizon of possibility by the power of her words and her meteoric life. Lorde was a poet in both the literal sense at its most stunning and the largest, Baldwinian sense — “The poets (by which I mean all artists),” wrote her contemporary and coworker in the kingdom of culture James Baldwin, “are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t… Only poets.” Lorde understood the power of poetry — the power of words mortised into meaning and tenoned into truth, truth about who we are and who we are capable of being — and she wielded that power to pivot an imperfect world closer to its highest potential.Nowhere does that potency of understanding live with more focused force than in her 1977 manifesto of an essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” which opens The Selected Works of Audre Lorde (public library) — the excellent collection of poetry and prose, edited by Roxane Gay.

Lorde, who resolved to live her life as a burst of light as she faced her death, and so lived it, writes:

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. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are — until the poem — nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

With an eye to how poetry uniquely anneals us by bringing us into intimate contact with those parts of ourselves we least understand and therefore most fear, Lorde adds:

As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.

One of English artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

I am reminded of the shared root of the words power and possibility in posse, Latin for “to be able,” as I read Lorde’s incisive insistence that for women, this place of possibility is buried beneath strata of historical silence and is therefore especially powerful once poetry — “poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play” — does the vital work of excavation:

For each of us as women, there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises… These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling.

These reserves, Lorde argues, have remained hidden for epochs because the white founding fathers — of nations, of notions — have not honored them, have not named them, have not inscribed them into the collective vocabulary of standardized thought and selective memory we call culture. From this recognition rises, tender and titanic, the central animating ethos of her essay, of her life. A generation after Rebecca West insisted in her superb meditation on storytelling and survival that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Lorde writes:

Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment evocative of Hannah Arendt’s sobering insight into speech, action, and how we change the world, Lorde considers what it takes for women, for non-white persons, for persons of daring and divergence from the status quo, to reconceptualize culture, then take action that bridges the new conception with a new reality:

As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action… We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.

Poetry, Lorde intimates, is also a singular prism for the present that becomes a portal of light from our impossible pasts to our possible futures. In a sentiment that especially gladdens me, as someone who dwells in the lives of the long-dead and unpeels the patina of neglect and indifference from their most luminous ideas for a more livable future, Lorde adds:

There are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us… There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves — along with the renewed courage to try them out. And we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams imply, and so many of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real (or bring action into accordance with), our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors.

Art by Kenard Pak for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

To step into that place of possibility, Lorde argues, requires that we question the notions we have taken as givens from the dominant culture, few more dangerous and limiting than the propagandist dictum that poetry — that is, the life of feeling, which is our locus of power, which is our fulcrum of action — is a luxury. In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s magnificent manifesto for being unafraid to feel, she writes:

Within living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive… We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They surface in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. Those dreams are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare. If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is discounted as a luxury, then we give up the core — the fountain — of our power… the future of our worlds.

For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt — of examining what those ideas feel like being lived on Sunday morning at 7 A.M., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth, mourning our dead — while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while we taste new possibilities and strengths.

Complement this fragment of the wholly indispensable and inspiriting Selected Works of Audre Lorde with Lorde on silence, strength, and vulnerability and the importance of unity across difference in movements of social change, then revisit Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry, Susan Sontag on the conscience of words, Robert Penn Warren on power, tenderness, and poetry as an instrument of democracy, and Grammy-winning musician Cécile McLorin Salvant reading Lorde’s poem “The Bees.”

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Bruce Lee on Death and What It Takes to Be an Artist of Life

“The intangible represents the real power of the universe. It is the seed of the tangible. It is living void because all forms come out of it, and whosoever realizes the void is filled with life and power and the love of all beings.”

Bruce Lee on Death and What It Takes to Be an Artist of Life

“Do you need a prod? / Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” Mary Oliver asked in her stunning love poem to life, composed in the wake of a terrifying diagnosis. “Let me be as urgent as a knife, then, / and remind you of Keats, / so single of purpose and thinking, for a while, / he had a lifetime.”

Think of Keats when you need that prod for living — Keats, who died at the peak of his poetic powers, already having given humanity more truth and beauty in his short life than most would give if they had eternity. Or think of Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) — another rare poet of life, who too pursued truth and beauty, if in a radically different medium; who too was slain by chance, that supreme puppeteer of the universe, at the peak of his powers; who too left a legacy that shaped the sensibility, worldview, and wakefulness to life of generations.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

On the bench across from Bruce Lee’s tombstone in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, where he is buried alongside his son, also chance-slain in youth, these words of tribute appear: “The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” They are often misattributed to Lee himself — perhaps because of the proximity, perhaps because they radiate an elemental truth about his life. The animating ethos of that uncommon life comes newly alive in Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee (public library) by his daughter, Shannon Lee, titled after his famous metaphor for resilience — a slender, potent book twining her father’s timeless philosophies of living with her own reflections, drawn from her own courageous life of turning unfathomable loss into a path of light and quiet strength.

In the final year of his life, Lee was in the last stages of a long negotiation with the Hollywood machine over what had long been his dream — a film that would introduce Eastern philosophy into Western culture through the thrilling Trojan horse of martial arts action. It was a dream he attained by his sheer force of vision and will, for the Hollywood studios had such a contrived initial template and such resistance to his deeper conceptual ideas that Lee, at the risk of losing his one great opportunity for reaching millions, refused to be a mere actor in a mindless, unimaginative, and stereotype-reinforcing action movie; he insisted that it be altered and elevated, then ended up radically rewriting the script — adding, among many other poetic-philosophical cornerstones, the now-iconic “finger pointing at the Moon” scene — and giving the film its now-iconic title: Enter the Dragon.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

Throughout the entire experience, which pushed Lee to step beyond the limits of his prior creative and existential imagination, he began drafting and redrafting a piece he titled “In My Own Process.” In it, a century after the young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary of self-discovery and moral development that “this is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?,” the young philosopher-king of martial arts aimed at a “sincere and honest revelation of a man called Bruce Lee.” He resolved:

I know I am not called upon to write any true confession, but I do want to be honest — that is the least a human being can do… I have always been a martial artist by choice and an actor by profession. But, above all, I am hoping to actualize myself to be an artist of life along the way.

He didn’t know that the way was soon to be cut short; he didn’t know that he was already an artist of life. “The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver would write decades later in an essay of staggering insight, “are those… who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” Bruce Lee felt his restive potential, and though chance interceded before he could give it due time, he gave it more than due power. His daughter quotes another passage from the notebooks he relentlessly filled with ideas, insights, and open questions to be answered in the act of living — a passage that bespeaks the wellspring of his existential and creative power beyond time:

Recognize and use the spiritual power of the infinite. The intangible represents the real power of the universe. It is the seed of the tangible. It is living void because all forms come out of it, and whosoever realizes the void is filled with life and power and the love of all beings.

It was this diffuse and integrated understanding of existence that conferred a rich sense of meaning upon Lee’s life and allowed him to face death, not knowing he was facing it, without regret, without fear, as a fully actualized artist of life. In another notebook entry, he writes:

I don’t know what is the meaning of death, but I am not afraid to die. And I go on, non-stop, going forward, even though I, Bruce Lee, may die some day without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I will have no regrets. I did what I wanted to do and what I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.

Complement with Nobel laureate Louise Glück’s love poem to life at the horizon of death, physicist Brian Greene on how our transience confers dignity and meaning upon our lives, astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s stunning antidote to the fear of death, and Walt Whitman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Lee on the measure of success, his previously unpublished reflections on willpower, imagination, and confidence, and the philosophy and origin of the famous teaching after which his daughter’s book is titled.

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Every Color of Light: A Stunning Japanese Illustrated Celebration of Change, the Sky, and the Fullness of Life

A synesthetic invitation to dance across the full span of the spectrum within and without.

Every Color of Light: A Stunning Japanese Illustrated Celebration of Change, the Sky, and the Fullness of Life

One of the most bewildering things about life is how ever-shifting the inner weather systems are, yet how wholly each storm consumes us when it comes, how completely suffering not only darkens the inner firmament but dims the prospective imagination itself, so that we cease being able to imagine the return of the light. But the light does return to lift the darkness and restore the world’s color — as in nature, so in the subset of it that is human nature. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” Loren Eiseley wrote in one of the greatest essays ever written. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

We forget, too, just how much of life’s miraculousness resides in the latitude of the spectrum of experience and our dance across it, how much of life’s vibrancy radiates from the contrast between the various hues, between the darkness and the light. There is, after all, something eminently uninteresting about a perpetually blue sky. Van Gogh knew this when he contemplated “the drama of a storm in nature, the drama of sorrow in life” as essential fuel for art and life. Coleridge knew it as he huddled in a hollow to behold “the power and ‘eternal link’ of energy” in his transcendent encounter with a violent storm.

The life-affirming splendor of the spectrum within and without is what Japanese poet and picture-book author Hiroshi Osada and artist Ryoji Arai celebrate in Every Color of Light: A Book about the Sky (public library), translated by David Boyd — a tender serenade to the elements that unspools into a lullaby, inviting ecstatic wakefulness to the fulness of life, inviting a serene surrender to slumber.

Born in Fukushima just as World War II was breaking out, Osada composed this spare, lyrical book upon turning eighty, having lived through unimaginable storms. I can’t help but read it in consonance with Pico Iyer’s soulful meditation on autumn light and finding beauty in impermanence, drawn from his many years in Japan. Arai’s almost synesthetic art — radiating more than color, radiating sound, a kind of buzzing aliveness — only amplifies this sense of consolation in the drama of the elements, this sense of change as a portal not to terror but to transcendent serenity.

The story traces the symphonic movements of a storm. The pitter-patter of a rainy day crescendoes into whipping wind and slanting rain as the blues grow darker and the greens deeper, suddenly interrupted by the electric kaleidoscope of lightning.

And then, just like that, the storm passes, leaving a shimmering light-filled sky in its wake, leaving the darkened colors not just restored but imbued with a new vibrancy as the setting sun blankets everything with its golden light.

The shadows grow longer, the birds go to roost, the Moon rises enormous and ancient against the clear star-salted sky, and the time for sleep comes like birdsong, like a moonrise, like a whispered poem.

Complement the subtle and staggeringly beautiful Every Color of Light with science-inspired artist Lauren Redniss’s wondrous Thunder & Lightning and artist Maira Kalman’s charming MoMA collaboration with author Daniel Handler, Weather, Weather, then revisit Little Tree — Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata’s uncommonly magical pop-up celebration fo the cycle of life — and Georgia O’Keeffe’s serenade to the sky.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books. Photographs by Maria Popova.

BP

Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s Love Poem to Life at the Horizon of Death

A subtle, stunning serenade to the lifelong hunger for self-love and self-forgiveness.

Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s Love Poem to Life at the Horizon of Death

A generation after Walt Whitman declared himself “the poet of the body and the poet of the soul,” animated by an electric awareness of how interleaved the two are — how the body is the locus of “the real I myself” — the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James revolutionized our understanding of life with his theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, scientists have begun uncovering what poets have always known — that spirit is woven of sinew and mind of marrow. The body is the place, the only place, where we live — it is where we experience time, it is where we heal from emotional trauma, it is the seat of consciousness, without which there is nothing. And yet we spend our lives turning away from this elemental fact — with distraction, with addiction, with the trance of busyness — until suddenly something beyond our control — a diagnosis, a heartbreak, a pandemic — staggers us awake. We remember the body, this sole and solitary arena of being. The instant we remember to reverence it we also remember to mourn it, for we remember that this living miracle is a temporary miracle — a borrowed constellation of atoms bound to return to the stardust that made it.

That is what poet Louise Glück, laureate of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, explores in the short, stunning poem “Crossroads,” originally published in her 2009 book A Village Life, later included in her indispensable collected Poems 1962–2012 (public library), and read here by the poet herself for the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize.

CROSSROADS
by Louise Glück

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —

love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —

My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,

not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:

it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.

Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” composed as her own body was cusping over the untimely horizon of nonbeing, and poet Lisel Mueller, who lived to 96, on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives, then revisit physicist Brian Greene on mortality and our search for meaning and the fascinating history of how the birth of astrophotography changed our relationship to death.

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