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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.

Billie Maciunas

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.

Farwell says:

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.

Linda Garber

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

Linda Garber.

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