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Poetry: Lesbian  
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Describing Rich's role as poet/prophet in 1985, Catharine Stimpson might have been describing a score of other lesbian poets:

Because patriarchal culture has been silent about lesbians and "all women who are not defined by the men in their lives," the prophet/witness must give speech to experience for the first time. This is one meaning of writing a whole new poetry. However, patriarchal culture has not been consistently silent. Sometimes, it has lied about lesbians. The prophet/witness must then use and affirm ". . . a vocabulary that has been used negatively and pejoratively."

Stimpson continues, ". . . she must transvalue language" to tell "stories that matter," that give "images from the mind and of the body, for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind."

Varieties of Lesbian Poetry

Some lesbian poets like Angelina Grimké or H.D. have written in forms readily embraced by the white male literary definition of poetry, whereas others, like blues singer Bessie Smith, have worked in forms traditionally regarded as of a lower artistic order. Like Grahn and many other lesbian poets, Minnie Bruce Pratt consciously composes a prosy kind of poetry, the primary objective of which is straightforward explicit expression, knowing that some will deny that it is art.

Stimpson astutely apprises the import of this generic "miscegenation," and again her comments about Rich pertain to many lesbian poets:

. . . Rich, a sophisticated student of the genetics of the text, coherently crossed autobiography with biography; polemic with scholarship; political theory with literary criticism. In part, her transgressions of generic conventions are the deconstructive gestures of post- modernism--without much manic play or ludic romps. In greater part, her mingling of "subjective" and "objective" genres, advocacy and argument, demonstrates her belief in their inseparability. Her style also emblemizes the position of contemporary, educated women. No longer forced to choose between public or private lives, women can lead both--at once. No longer forced to choose between writing about public or private concerns, women can take on both--at once.

And enjoy success at doing so. Witness changes in Florence Howe's "Introduction" to No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets: Newly Revised and Expanded (1993).

Bulkin notes the minimizing commentary of Howe's introduction to the 1973 version of No More Masks!: "In her long introduction . . . Florence Howe recognized the existence of lesbian poetry--at least recent lesbian poetry--but seemed to regard lesbianism as just one more theme women can write about; its political significance--and history--seemed lost."

Lesbianism as Identity

By 1993, however, Howe describes lesbianism as identity and directly links her change in consciousness as one of the effects of women's and lesbian poetry:

What has altered in poetry during these two decades of rapid change and discovery for all areas of women's life and history? . . . the specificity of identity has become especially important, in life and in art. Some poets identify themselves as lesbian, as working-class, as ethnically Jewish or Slavic, Chinese or Chicana, or some combination of these and other elements.

Audre Lorde wrote extensively on the importance of poetry that is "not sterile word play" but is "revelatory distillation of experience" and of the erotic that does not emphasize "sensation without feeling" but acts as a "measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings."

In "Poetry Is Not a Luxury," she flatly declares that

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. . . . 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.

Embracing Political Implications and Effects

Persuaded that "moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love" is as profound a statement as "writing a good poem," Lorde insisted that the lesbian poet's responsibility is to embrace the political implications and effects of the actions brought forth by her writing. She is far from alone, for effecting political, social, and cultural change is characteristic of lesbian poetry today.

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