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On Lesbian Poetry Essay, Research Paper
Mary J. Carruthers
This essay chiefly considers four volumes
of poetry, three published in 1978 and one the previous year. They are Adrienne Rich’s The
Dream of a Common Language, Audre Lorde’s The Black Unicorn (which includes
poems published earlier in a chapbook called Between Our Selves), Judy
Grahn’s The Work of a Common Woman (a collection of poems previously published by
the Feminist Press Collective of Oakland, California), and Olga Broumas’ Beginning With
O. Among them, these volumes articulate a distinctive movement in contemporary
American poetry, the definition of which is the subject of this essay. I call this
movement "Lesbian poetry," because the naming and defining of this phrase is its
central poetic preoccupation. These poets choose to deal with life at the level of
metaethics—its social, psychic, and aesthetic underpinnings, which are articulable
only in myth; their metaethics takes its structure from a complex poetic image of lesbian
These four poets have voices that are bold, even arrogant, in their common, urgent
desire to seize the language and forge with it an instrument for articulating women. Not
all women writing today write this kind of poetry, not all poets who are lesbians are
Lesbian poets, nor are all Lesbian poets always lesbian. I would like very much in this
essay to keep separate the realms of life and art, except where in truth they do meet, in
the alchemical laboratory of language. If we insist on applying to these poets the
psychoanalytical interests and expectations of Confessional poetry, we will certainly
misunderstand them because we will not properly hear them.
The word lesbian presents in paradigm the large issues of value in language, of
women’s psyche and of social transformation, of alienation and apocalypse, which these
poets address. Rich has defined "the lesbian in us" as "a primary intensity
between women, an intensity which in the world at large [has been] trivialized,
caricatured, or invested with evil." She continues:
It is the lesbian in us who drives us to feel imaginatively, render in language, grasp,
the full connection between woman and woman. It is the lesbian in us who is creative, for
the dutiful daughter of the fathers in us is only a hack.
(On, Lies, Secrets, and Silence)
To think of the word lesbian in terms of male-excluding or man-hating is
profoundly to misunderstand these poets. Their poetry does not arise directly from nor
concern itself primarily with a response to men. Its energy springs rather from the
perception that women together and in themselves have a power which is transformative, but
that in order to recover their power women need to move psychically and through metaphor
to a place beyond the well-traveled routes of patriarchy and all its institutions,
especially its linguistic and rhetorical ones. That is the task of "the lesbian in
us," a phrase whose meaning is a constant theme in virtually all the poems which
appear in these four volumes.
In this poetry, the word lesbian encapsulates a myth of women together and
separate from men. Broumas looks to Greek myth and especially to Sappho to seek it out,
Lorde to the Yoruba Vodun of ancient Dahomey, Rich to the lives of extraordinary women
about whom history has been silent or naive, and Grahn to that which is common and
ordinary in all women. Lesbian is also the essential outsider, woman alone and
integral, who is oppressed and despised by traditional society, yet thereby free to use
her position, to reform and remember. She is a figure both of the satirist and the
seer, a woman of integrity and power who is by nature and choice at odds with the world. Lesbian
is also erotic connection, the primary energy of the senses which is both physical
and intellectual, connecting women, a woman with herself, and women through time. Finally,
lesbian signifies a change of relationships, radical internal transformation; it is
a myth of psychic rebirth, social redemption, and apocalypse.
It is certainly true that some of the values espoused by this new myth are not
new—indeed they are the values we used to call "humane." But the
traditional myth-language systems which purported to incorporate them have proven unable
to support them, and indeed have become actively hostile to them. Yet the solution, as
these poets see it, is not the expected Modern one of revitalizing the old myths. As far
as women are concerned, many myths are deservedly vitiated because they have always
embodied a fundamental oppressiveness which has now fully revealed itself in violent,
death-devoted modern society. Only a new myth altogether, conceived along new lines, can
reclaim the world which is lost (or that which never existed but should have). That, I
believe, is the artistic logic which lies behind these poets’ choice of subject matter for
their visionary poems.
A crucial re-vision in this new mythic system concerns the relationship of the muse to
the maker of poetry. The myth of the muse is a myth which deals with the source and nature
of imaginative energy. The muse traditionally is female and the poet male. He addresses
her in terms of sexual rapture, desiring to be possessed in order to possess, to be
ravished in order to be fruitful. The language of violent sexual encounter, of submission
and dominance, describes a relationship both of possession and enslavement. She comes and
goes, mysteriously; he is utterly dependent upon her, worthless without her, yet she
speaks only through him. She is wholly Other and strange, to use Simone de Beauvoir’s
category, a higher being in classical and Renaissance myth, an ethereally beautiful young
girl in the tradition of romance. But whatever guise she assumes throughout history, the
basic relationship of dominance and possession is constant between her and her poet.
In the myth of the Lesbian poets, the muse remains female. This completely changes the
relationship of the poet to her poetry. Because the muse is female, she is not Other but
Familiar, maternal and sororal, a well-known face in the poet’s immediate community. Their
relationship is not one of possession but of communal bonding. This myth seeks to recreate
and remember wholeness, not through the domination of an Other which complements a gap or
lack in the Self (as in Plato’s egg myth, or the Oriental myth of Yin and Yang), but
through a meeting of familiars which recalls a completeness that is present but forgotten
or suppressed by history. Motifs and metaphors drawn from archaeology are frequent in
Lesbian poetry, and the reason for this is obvious. They bespeak the recovery of a self
that is deeply buried, unwritten, but recoverable as the poet, aided by a series of images
embodying her muse, re-members herself in selves "who are come to make our shattered
faces / whole," as Audre Lord writes. By familiarizing the muse, Lesbian myth
provides a way of seeing the poet in the woman, not as alien or monstrous, but as an
aspect of her womanhood. It does not make the poetic calling any less difficult or
special, but it focuses the difficulty where it really is—in the nature of her craft
and individual talent, not her sex.
In summary, Lesbian poetry celebrates integrity as the metaethic of civilization.
Virtually all its images—those of apocalypse, exile, fragmentation, re-cognition,
familiarity, and bonding—are ingredients of a vision of personal wholeness and truth.
Muse, mother, lover are familiars who come together in an integrated psyche, the Lesbian
magic circle. More radical than this psychic myth, however, is their social one, the ethic
of Lesbian civility, especially as it links themes such as exile and odyssey with
apocalypse and redemption (the influence of Mary Daly may be crucial in defining this
link, though her Gyn/Ecology is virtually contemporaneous with the volumes
discussed in this essay). The Lesbian psyche is not simply reborn or rediscovered, it is
redeemed and redemptive. Lazarus (often in disguise) is an important figure for Judy Grahn
in "A Woman is Talking to Death" as well as for Audre Lorde in
"Martha," and Broumas’ Greek deities are not merely reconstructed but
transfigured. Marie Curie, the wounded heroine, is redeemed by the woman of
"Transcendental Etude." Lesbian redemption is not transcendent, however; it
never loses its historical embedding in the world of "fact" so important to Judy
Grahn, the world of Harlem and islands of Manhattan. The epic dimension of their poetry
distinguishes these four poets absolutely from their immediate "confessional"
precursors, especially Plath and Sexton. Their lives and times are embodied in their work
together with an apocalyptic "time-tension," the unspoken Lesbian past and the
ineffable Lesbian future bearing continuously upon the present. In achieving their epic
theme, the familiarization of the muse by the Lesbian poet is essential, for it is that
crucial metaphoric relationship which makes the woman at home in the poet, able to create
new worlds through the power an integrated self.
from "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga
Broumas." The Hudson Review. Summer 1983, 36:2.
In 1983 Mary J. Carruthers published her important article "The Re-Vision of the
Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." Carruthers’
"Lesbian poetry" and the "poetic image of lesbian relationship" is
metaphorically lesbian. Although Carruthers’ article deals only with lesbian poets, she
acknowledges that "not all poets who are lesbians are Lesbian poets, nor are all
Lesbian poets always lesbian," laying the foundation for lesbian poetry.
In 1988 Farwell proposed an aesthetic based on the lesbian subject as a metaphor for
women’s writing. Outstanding features of this aesthetic were a break with the conceits of
masculine and feminine and the importance of the reader’s relationship with the text.
As a metaphor for creativity, lesbian . . . refuses many of the elements essential to
the connection between heterosexuality and creativity: dualism, transcendence, ecstasy,
reproduction, and a product. Instead it emphasizes the autonomy of the creative self, the
community of readers and writers, and the diffuse physicality of the creative act and of
the text itself. (110)
Farwell’s essay led the way for a succession of metaphors that emphasized movement and
the blurring of boundaries as a way of conceiving desire. Butler’s Gender Trouble showed
that gender can be a masquerade of many configurations. For Butler the lesbian represents
the movement of these configurations unmoored from the heterosexist presumption of
absolute gender dichotomy. The playful and knowing lesbian subject traverses gender and
other boundaries for political purposes and for pleasure, privileging context and
confounding entrenched identity categories.
from Maciunas, Billie. "Crossing Boundaries–Lesbian as Metaphor/Lesbian Poetry in
Brazil and the United States." Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1995.
Copyright ? 1995 by Billie Maciunas.
At least since the early twentieth century, when the medical profession in Europe and
the United States both pathologized and popularized the concept of homosexuality, poetry
has been central to the self-conscious construction of European-American lesbian identity
and community. The self-reflective possibilities of the lyric and the myth-making
potential of the epic surely play a role here, but the importance of poetry for white
lesbians rests largely in the historical figure of Sappho, poet of Lesbos. While Radclyffe
Hall adopted the sexologists’ terminology to plead for acceptance in her novel The Well
of Loneliness, Renee Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney, Hall’s contemporaries in the
lesbian literary subculture of 1920s Paris, translated and rewrote Sappho. Vivien and
Barney even attempted to create a community of women on the isle of Lesbos, geographically
and symbolically linking lesbians and lesbian writing to the central figure of lesbian
myth making. The idea of Sappho, whether or not the actual woman was what we would call a
"lesbian" today, has been central to white lesbian identity and community
because her presence in history provides a foundation on which lesbians could build a
lineage—connection to the past (both mythic and historical), connection to others,
and the possibility of surviving into the future. Some lesbians of color also look to
Sappho as an ancestor, although many rely on the history and spiritual traditions of their
own ethnic heritages. For example, Audre Lorde incorporates the African Yoruba tradition
and names herself "zami," a Carriacou name for women who work together as
friends and lovers; Gloria Anzaldua writes about indigenous Mexican figures from Coatlicue
to Malintzin/La Chingada and names herself "the new mestiza." Dominant white
culture’s name for all women-loving women comes, not surprisingly, from classical western
culture rather than from any of the many cultures of people of color now living in Europe
and the Americas.
In The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, Margaret Cruikshank explains that
the desire to create a tenable lesbian/gay history is linked to "self-esteem. . . .
Lesbians [throughout history] took great pride in the sixth-century poet Sappho"
(28). In 1955, Daughters of Bilitis, which would later become the first national lesbian
organization, took its name from Pierre Louys’ Songs of Bilitis (Chansons de Bilitis, 1895),
a book of poems about an explicitly lesbian, fictional character named Bilitis, supposed
to have been a student of Sappho of Lesbos. In the 1970s, when lesbian culture flourished
publicly on a large scale for the first time, Sappho’s name was everywhere. In Sappho
Was a Right-On Woman, Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love presented "A Liberated View
of Lesbianism." A short-lived newspaper in Brooklyn was titled Echo of Sappho; another
was, simply, Sappho. Suggestive or creatively- reconstructed fragments of Sappho’s
poems were printed on posters for sale at women’s bookstores. A political button
proclaimed "Sappho Is Coming." In the mid-1980s, Judy Grahn traced a lineage of
lesbian poets back to Sappho in The Highest Apple: Sapph and the Lesbian Poetic
Tradition. Grahn names Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, H.D., and Gertrude Stein
as ”historic foremothers of today’s Lesbian poets," a multicultural group including
contemporary writers Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Olga Broumas, Paula Gunn Allen, and Grahn
herself (Grahn, 1985, xix).
Through poetry as a vital locus of cultural meaning, lesbians have self-consciously
created lineage, history, and identity. I will argue that in this sense lesbian-feminist
poetry is a social constructionist project. While some lesbian feminists in the 1970s
undeniably tended to essentialism, early radical writers questioned the institution of
heterosexuality and self-consciously worked to create lesbian identity and community.
[. . .]
The first lesbian press on the West Coast, The Women’s Press Collective in Oakland, was
co-founded in 1970 by Grahn and later included other poets as well. Seajay and Grahn
recall that "the poetry and the grassroots organizations" came first, followed
by a few newspapers, and then the boom in women’s publishing generated by the
establishment of women’s presses and bookstores (Seajay, Part II, 56-7). Cruikshank
emphasizes "the crucial importance of writing in gay culture" and notes the role
of small lesbian- or gay-owned presses (128-9).
Within the lesbian literary and cultural boom of the early 1970s, poetry was
particularly important. In "Culture Making: Lesbian Classics in the Year 2000?"
Melanie Kaye [Kantrowitz] compares "women’s poetry in the early seventies" to
"shakespeare [sic] in his own time" or "the audience for rock
in the late sixties"; in their own context, each was "extremely popular, the
best . . . exploding with mass energy and creativity" (24). Cruikshank agrees,
"Women’s poetry readings have held a special place" in lesbian culture; she
cites Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Judy Grahn as "among the most respected
figures" (136). In her 1993 study of the political uses and institutionalization of
lesbian poetry, Sagri Dhairyam elaborates on the poets’ participatory role in the creation
of communal lesbian identity: "[The lesbian] poet is not only the person who creates
a literary text, but overlaps with the person who reads, who participates in a ritual for
identity. . . . Poetry is an integral mode of willing communal identity in women’s
gatherings (Dhairyam, 1993, 47, 57).
Grahn herself has called poets the "map makers" of lesbian feminism,
"going out first and laying down the dimensions of the terrain and what the landscape
(and the future) could possibly look like" (Seajay, Part II, 61). Lorde makes a
similar point in her essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury": "[Poetry] lays the
foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been
before. . . . In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only poetry to hint at
the possibility made real" (Lorde, 1977a, 38, 39). Grahn reports that "masses of
women" attended lesbian-feminist poetry readings in the early days of the movement,
and that "Fifteen years later . . . the movement still keeps one ear to the ground to
hear what else its poets may be telling." According to Grahn, "The leadership
exerted by Lesbian and feminist poets as the mass movement of women developed during the
1970s cannot be exaggerated" (Grahn, 1985, xviii, 71).
Grahn’s and Lorde’s assessments are more than mere self-aggrandizement.
Critics—from academic journals to feminist newspapers—attest to the importance
of lesbian-feminist poets in defining lesbian identity and lesbian community, that is, as
I have contended, in self-consciously constructing and politically deploying the identity
categories "lesbian" and "woman." Estella Casto, in her study of
Sexton, Rich, Lorde, and Broumas, concurs that feminist and lesbian poetry
"demonstrates how poetry can be a means of political agency" (17). In 1981, Jan
Clausen went so far as to call feminism—including, but not limited to, lesbian
feminism—"A Movement of Poets."
Contemporary Lesbian Identity Poetics:
A Brief Review of the (Scant) Literature
Like the work it sets out to describe, much criticism about lesbian literature—and
especially about poetry—has been centrally concerned with questions of definition,
identity, and community. This is poetics as a decidedly political pursuit, in which many
critics and poet-critics consider the stakes too high to speak of lesbian poetry or
fiction "dispassionately," solely in technical or aesthetic terms (Rich, 1983,
173). For some critics this takes the form of a preoccupation with defining the genre of
"lesbian poetry," much as lesbian poets concern themselves with reclaiming
lesbian identity and creating lesbian community. Nearly 200 studies of individual lesbian
poets that discuss the poet’s lesbian identity in some way were published in
nationally and internationally distributed periodicals between 1970 and 1990. However,
only a handful of writers have attempted to put forth a contemporary lesbian poetics that
transcends the study of a particular poet.
[. . .]
Rich’s statement, made at a Modern Language Association (MLA) convention, asserts
the importance of naming lesbian relationships between women in history, because
Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored
in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made
difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an
inadequate or lying language—this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable
(Rich, 1976, 199, author’s italics).
Rich argues that it is the "lesbian" in every woman that is the creative
force, opposing this figurative creative "lesbian" to the "hack"
writer who is "the dutiful daughter of the fathers," the character whom all
women are socialized to become (Rich, 1976, 201). Inevitably, and perhaps purposely,
controversial, Rich’s deployment of the term "lesbian" provoked heated
debate about the source(s) of female creativity and the meaning of lesbian identity. Some
lesbians felt that using "lesbian" as a generic term robbed them of their
historical and political specificity (Rich, 1979, 202), that "lesbian writ large
essentialized and ahistoricized lesbian and female existence" (Farwell 67). Many
straight women felt left out by the equation of oppositional voice with "lesbian.
"Lesbian Imperative" (Ostriker, 1983, 121), an idea that Karen Alkaly-Gut took
(too) literally in Contemporary Review, where she asserted (with a straight face,
as it were), "Many women writing poetry today in America have come to the conclusion
that the only way they can write as women is to reject men and write as lesbians"
(209). . . .
Grahn is less concerned with the status of lesbian poets in the mainstream literary
world than she is with their importance to a lesbian audience and to each other. In an
interview with Kathryn Machan Aal published one year before The Highest Apple, Grahn
emphasized the value of poetry that "can be maximally used" (Aal, Part II, 61).
She described the way in which lesbian poetry readings "energize" poets and
audiences (Aal, Part II, 57), transforming the experience and relevance of poetry readings
as social institutions. Within this charged space, the unconventional content of
lesbian-feminist poetry challenges stereotypes of poetry, women, and sexuality.
In The Highest Apple, Grahn credits lesbian poetry with reclaiming "loaded,
stereotypic" language (Grahn, 1985, 70); providing "ethical guidelines"
(Grahn, 1985, 71); literally building a variety of communities to replace the "island
of centrality" that was Sappho’s Lesbos, "since we believe our work, and
act on it" (Grahn, 1985, 71); and saving lesbian lives, at least figuratively:
"More than once Lesbian has been kept from floundering on the rocks of alienation
from her own culture, her own center, by having access, at least, to Lesbian poetry. We
owe a great deal to poetry; two of our most important names, for instance: Lesbian and
Sapphic (Grahn, 1985, xxi). In Grahn’s schema, lesbian poets are accountable to and
benefit from the communities they help to create (Grahn, 1985, 56), including communities
of lesbian poets where "connections . . . are of vital importance to the growth of
our ideas" (Grahn, 1985, 57).
In The Highest Apple Grahn acknowledges her reliance on Mary Carruthers’ 1983
essay "The Re-Vision of the Muse," in which Carruthers draws a definition of
lesbian poetry from her readings of Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, Lorde’s The
Black Unicorn, Grahn’s The Work of a Common Woman, and Olga Broumas’ Beginning
with O. Carruthers writes that "among them, these volumes articulate a
distinctive movement in American poetry. . . . I call this movement ‘Lesbian poetry,’
because the ‘naming and defining’ of this phrase is its central poetic preoccupation"
(Carruthers, 1983, 293). Carruthers views lesbian poets, of all the poetry movements of
the 1970s, as having "the moral passion of seer and prophet" (Carruthers, 1983,
299), which they bring to the task of establishing "a new civitas" (302)
through the reinvention of mythologies in the creation of a new lesbian epic (Carruthers,
1983, 300). (Similarly, Grahn considers "mythic realism" the operant mode of
most contemporary lesbian poetry [Grahn, 1985, 871]). Carruthers’ "new civitas"
is "predicated upon familiarity and likenesses, rather than oppositions"; it
is troubling "to the general public" in its "use of the lesbian bond to
signify that wholeness, health, and integrity which are minimized or negated by the
death-devoted sickness of male-inspired civilization" (Carruthers, 1983, 304). Both
in ‘The Re-Vision of the Muse" and her earlier essay "Imagining Women: Notes
Towards a Feminist Poetic" Carruthers opposes the anti-Romantic imagery and diction
of much lesbian love poetry to the physically "alienated,"
"confessional" style of earlier woman poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
from Garber, Linda. "Lesbian Identity Politics: Judy Grahn, Pat
Parker, and the Rise of Queer Theory." Diss. Stanford U, 1995. Copyright ? 1996 by
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