What the heart wants? The heart wants her horses back. — Ada Limón “Downhearted”
In American society, grief, like poetry as Audre Lorde states, is a luxury, especially for people of color. They rarely have the time for and are not taught how to properly “do” it. This is a great detriment to society. Throughout history, communities of color have been fighting to be able to express what they have gone through and be acknowledged for it. Take, for instance, the protests that have lasted for generations concerning the atrocity of sexual subjugation imposed upon Korean and other Asian women, called “comfort women,” during WWII. Throughout history, women of color have been the subjects of different forms of sexually violent silencing. This silencing has not only greatly hurt them, but any hope for their future descendants to understand the true pain such silence causes and which continues the cycles of abuse from the past.
Black scholar and poet, Audre Lorde, understood that her blackness, her gender, and her sexual orientation rendered her unprivileged in American society. In her prolific essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Lorde claims poetry is “a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word ‘poetry’ to mean — to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.”
It is this “insight” that Lorde is concerned with, and her critique lies in “white fathers” not being able to speak for women or the black experience. In Walt Whitman’s Preface to Leaves of Grass, he defines the language of poetry as “of resistance… of common sense.”
And while the ideas that Whitman held of poetry and humanity were radical and inclusive for his time, Lorde’s view for what poetry could be, especially for women of color, is a bit different. For Lorde states, “Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded…feeling. The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.”
Unlike Whitman, Lorde realizes the fact that poetry is not “common sense” and not only made up of seemingly big and intangible ideas like the ones Whitman mentions in his preface: “growth, faith, self-esteem, freedom, justice, equality, friendliness, amplitude, prudence, decision, and courage.” But also that poetry is made up of our emotions and feelings.
Lorde urges women, especially black women, to embrace their innermost and complex feelings, which they have been taught to distrust and put away. This differs from what Whitman refers to as just “common sense,” but it does agree with his idea of poetry as a language of resistance.
Although Whitman could not represent the lives of women or the black experience, he indeed did help to inspire the breaking free from poetry’s conventions and form to express something more familiar—something more human. Contemporary poets, such as Lorde, reclaim the use of poetry as a political tool—as a way to subvert the colonization and the years of slavery that is the reality of black experience in America.
Whitman idealized what poetry should be: “The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, only then can you understand us, We are no better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may enjoy. Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme?”
I think Twitter and other social media platforms prove that. Poetry is worth practicing because it is not so much in poetry’s mystical attempts at inclusivity but in the effort of being either inclusive as Whitman proposes, or representing a singular and specific community like Lorde. It is this tangible duality that makes poetry what it is today—relevant and accessible for all.
Whether or not poetry is the utmost effective tool for stirring empathy in humanity, it continues to be a medium worth trying to execute, a poem that we women must continue writing.
When I was a little girl, my parents divorced. It was messy, it was drawn out, and it was painful. Naturally, it devastatingly affected me. The pain that ensued during and after that divorce has shaped my entire life. It took me a long time to process the internalized pain that I let weigh me down for so long. I admit that I have not entirely escaped the trauma in my past (do any of us?) and that my coming-of-age experiences, as grim as they were, still can feel as if they’re slicing my heart right in two twenty years later. But, when I enrolled in my first poetry workshop in college, I realized the value in reading about others’ lives and trying my hand at writing down my own through the use of poetry.
Poetry gave me the opportunity, for the first time in my life at twenty-five years old, to finally and healthfully grieve.
My mom is from Seoul, Korea. She immigrated here with her parents when she was about thirteen years old. Her parents were abusive. I will not digress into detail, but I will say that when Mom did confront her mother, her mother scolded her, told Mom she was lying and warned my mom to keep her mouth shut. This is the same woman who, later in America, would tell mom she needed a nose job, and her eyelids cut open to fit American beauty standards. Mom did the latter. It took me a while when I was a little girl to understand why Mom’s eyes looked different in old pictures of her versus the eyes that I knew my whole life. I bring up my mom and her mother because I feel it necessary to share what my mom told me about my grandma.
My mom has expressed to me that out of all the hurtful and abusive memories she has of her mother, the most painful is of her mother never sharing her own stories with Mom. Not even one story from her past. When Mom admitted this to me, something about it devastated me. Imagine not knowing anything about your own mother spoken from her mouth. It made me aware of the politics of silencing women of color in the past, and how it had affected my mom and naturally me, too. It made me realize how important it is to share our accounts, especially as women and women of color. This sharing helps empower us as we can relate, grieve, connect, and make sense of our pain, ensuring that future women of color pave the way for themselves—never to be silenced again.
One positive outcome from learning about my mother being left in silence by her mother was that I was grateful for my mom’s efforts to break that cycle with me. Mom was generous in sharing stories about her past—her successes, mistakes, failures, and all. In other words, my mom also taught me how to overshare. I used to be embarrassed about this habit. Now, I find it necessary. It reminds me of the quote by bell hooks, “No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much.’ Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’…No woman has ever written enough.” It is essential, especially as women of color, to write too much because, for far too long, we have not. We need to write down our stories because, not “like” our future depends on it.
For women of color, “Poetry is not a luxury.” For poets like Sonia Sanchez, Natalie Diaz, Ada Limón, and Candice Illoh (and many other women poets) because their words reflect their experiences, they know their words matter. Their words can help dismantle the subjugation that has been perpetrated against them.
For all of us, grief is inevitable, but through writing and sharing our deepest pain, we may healthfully and adequately grieve and work through our losses. As writers and readers, it is vital to strive to fill in the gaps. Because I, along with other communities of women of color, will no longer settle for less, for inaccuracy, or erasure. We will no longer let our memories, our stories, our bodies, our pains be voiced by anyone other than ourselves. As Audre Lorde states, “But women have survived. As poets.”
Recently, I put up a poll on my Instagram account, asking my followers if they would offer me their definitions of “grief.” Out of the responses I received, one reply that struck me was, “grief is love with nowhere to go.” I want to say I know where the love should go—down on paper, in the form of a poem or a story—what I mean is that love should go right back to you.
Keep writing. Keep going.
With love & rage,
Ada Limón, “Downhearted” (2015)
Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” (1977)
Walt Whitman, “Preface to Leaves of Grass” (1855)
Erin Blakemore, “The Brutal History of Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’” (2018)