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Poetry: Lesbian  
page: 1  2  3  4  5  

Indeed, Minnie Bruce Pratt assumes the mantle of poet/prophet when asked as a participant in a poetry series to respond to its theme, Shelley's "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," and plainly describes the vulnerable outlaw status of the lesbian poet:

As a lesbian poet, I have been contemplating Shelley's words. To be a poet who is a lesbian is to be a potential felon in half the states of this country and the District of Columbia, where I live. In some countries of the world, to be a lesbian poet is to be subject, by law, to imprisonment or even execution. How I love is outside the law. And when I write and speak of my life as a lesbian, my poems have also been seen as outside the bounds of poetry.

The very word lesbian is intensely charged, evoking some of the nastiest responses to and assumptions made about any group. Lesbians are women without men, so are by the very fact of their existence threatening to patriarchal social arrangements. Not surprisingly, lesbians have been seen as dangerous and as sexually wild and out of control.

Grahn satirically caricatures the tradition-bound response of a aggressive doctor in "Edward the Dyke":

Your disease has gotten completely out of control. We scientists know of course that it's a highly pleasurable experience to take someone's penis or vagina into your mouth--it's pleasurable and enjoyable. Everyone knows that. But after you've taken a thousand pleasurable penises or vaginas into your mouth and had a thousand people take your pleasurable penis or vagina into their mouth, what have you accomplished? What have you got to show for it? . . . Do you see how you're missing the meaning of life? . . .

Yet this response to love misses the point, pornographically dismembering lesbians and gay men into sexually driven body parts.

Not only by decrying social injustices and institutionally reinforced prejudice, but also through graphically beautiful love poetry, lesbian poet/prophets expound the profundities of lesbian physical love. Perhaps the most famous example besides Rich's "Floating Poem" is Lorde's "Love Poem":

And I knew when I entered her I was
high wind in her forests hollow
fingers whispering sound
honey flowed
from the split cups
impaled on a lance of tongues
on the tips of her breast on her navel
and my breath
howling into her entrances
through lungs of pain.

Her lover's body is the promised land flowing with milk and honey, a sheltering forest and a wilderness in which lesbian lovers freely revel in one another and their mutual delight.


The genre "lesbian poetry" was recognized not first by scholars or booksellers but by women who needed to give voice to such experience, and by women who needed to be reassured of a lesbian literary history.

Politics, sexuality, lyric, epic, history, autobiography, biography, polemics, aesthetics, and gentle persuasion intersect in lesbian poetry and affect teaching (both formally in the academy and informally among general readers) and thus effect cultural change.

A sense of separation and disenfranchisement has characterized the work and reception of many a lesbian poet. But with the burgeoning of alternative curricula and the visibility and information proffered by the literary history you are presently reading, lesbian poetry will, let us hope, to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, become everybody's poetry and proud heritage not just that of those who imaginatively inhabit the separate isle of Lesbos.

After all, lesbian poetry is, as that white patriarch Robert Frost remarked of poetry itself, "the stuff of life."

Martha Nell Smith

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literature >> Anzaldúa, Gloria

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literature >> Baudelaire, Charles

Baudelaire was among the first French poets to include lesbians as subjects.

literature >> Bishop, Elizabeth

Widely acknowledged as one of the finest twentieth-century American poets, Elizabeth Bishop encoded a lesbian identity in her poems.

literature >> Broumas, Olga

Greek-born lesbian poet and translator Olga Broumas writes openly erotic poems that combine ancient Greek echoes and late twentieth-century idiom.

literature >> Cliff, Michelle

Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff explores issues of race, class, and sexuality in her prose and poetry.

literature >> Dickinson, Emily

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literature >> Doolittle, Hilda

The bisexual poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle, who published under the initials H. D., wrote poems and autobiographical prose works that celebrate women's romantic relationships with each other.

literature >> Gidlow, Elsa

Elsa Gidlow, known to many as the "poet-warrior," was unabashedly visible as an independent woman, a lesbian, a writer, and a bohemian-anarchist at a time when such visibility was both unusual and potentially dangerous.

literature >> Grahn, Judy

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literature >> Grier, Barbara

As bibliographer, reviewer, collector, editor, and co-founder of Naiad Press, Barbara Grier was an important nurturer of lesbian literature.

literature >> Grimké, Angelina Weld

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literature >> Lorde, Audre

The work of African-American activist and writer Audre Lord was greatly influenced by her lesbianism.

literature >> Lowell, Amy

Much of Amy Lowell's poetry is extremely frank, forthrightly sensual, and often overtly lesbian.

literature >> Mew, Charlotte

Charlotte Mew's poetry encodes the emotional pain of hiding her lesbian identity in a world of compulsory heterosexuality.

literature >> Moraga, Cherríe

In her own works, CherrĂ­e Moraga defines her experience as a Chicana lesbian; and in her capacity as editor/publisher, she provides a forum for traditionally silenced lesbians of color.

literature >> Oliver, Mary

Although Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has not been an outspoken lesbian activist, her poetry is deeply resonant with contemporary lesbian consciousness, and many lesbians claimed her as one of their own before she publicly came out.

literature >> Porter, Dorothy

The work of Australian lesbian poet Dorothy Porter presents a cheeky challenge to a literary establishment whose poetry has often been defined by pretension and obfuscation.

literature >> Pratt, Minnie Bruce

Award-winning author Minnie Bruce Pratt has written moving and erotic poems and stories that explore sex and gender issues, as well as powerful essays that decry bigotry in its many forms.

literature >> Rich, Adrienne

Adrienne Rich, who aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics, is America's most widely read lesbian poet.

literature >> Rukeyser, Muriel

Muriel Rukeyser's poetry, which breaks the silence of many aspects of female experience, has been enormously important to many feminist and lesbian readers.

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Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

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May Sarton, who gradually revealed her lesbianism in her writing, worked successfully in poetry, the novel, essays, and the journal.

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Gifted with a powerful voice and sophisticated musical artistry, singer Bessie Smith conducted her life by her own set of rules and had affairs with both men and women.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

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One of America's most inventive and incisive poets, May Swenson wrote many love poems celebrating lesbian sexuality.

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The poetry of Paul Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.

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literature >> Wolverton, Terry

Throughout her varied career as a writer, editor, teacher, and performance artist, Terry Wolverton has consistently worked to document glbtq history and increase the visibility of the community.


Barrington, Judith. An Intimate Wilderness: Lesbian Writers on Sexuality. Portland, Oreg.: Eighth Mountain Press, 1991.

Bernikow, Louise, ed. The World Split Open 1552-1950. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Brandt, Kate. Happy Endings: Lesbian Writers Talk about their Lives and Work. Tallahassee, Fla.: Naiad Press, 1993.

Bristow, Joseph, ed. Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing. London: Routledge, 1992.

Bulkin, Elly. "'Kissing/Against the Light': A Look at Lesbian Poetry." Lesbian Studies: Present and Future. Margaret Cruikshank, ed. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982.

Carruthers, Mary J. "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." Hudson Review 36.2 (Summer 1983): 293-322.

Clausen, Jan. A Movement of Poets: Thoughts on Poetry and Feminism. Brooklyn: Long Haul, 1982.

Corinne, Tee, ed. The Poetry of Sex: Lesbians Write the Erotic. Austin, Tex.: Banned Books, 1992.

Covino, Gina, and Laurel Galana. The Lesbian Reader: An Amazon Quarterly Anthology. Oakland, Calif.: Amazon Press, 1975.

Cruikshank, Margaret, ed. New Lesbian Writing: An Anthology. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1984.

Doan, Laura L. The Lesbian Postmodern. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Grahn, Judy. The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition. San Francisco: Spinsters, Ink, 1985.

Gubar, Susan. "Sapphistries." Signs 10.1 (Autumn 1984): 43-62.

King, Katie. "Audre Lorde's Lacquered Layerings: The Lesbian Bar as a Site of Literary Production." Cultural Studies 2.3 (October 1988): 321-342. Rpt. New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings. Sally Munt, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. 51-74.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1984.

Luczak, Raymond, ed. Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader. Boston: Alyson, 1993.

Meese, Elizabeth A. (Sem)erotics: Theorizing Lesbian Writing. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Munt, Sally, ed. New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Ostriker, Alicia. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Picano, Felice. A True Likeness: Lesbian and Gay Writing Today. New York: Sea Horse Press, 1980.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. Rebellion: Essays 1980-1991. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1991.

Ramas, Juanita, ed. Compañeras: Latina Lesbians (An Anthology). New York: Latina Lesbian History Project, 1987.

Roscoe, Will, coordinator. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Gay American Indians History Project. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Sheba Collective. More Serious Pleasure: Lesbian Erotic Stories and Poetry. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1990.

_____. Serious Pleasure: Lesbian Erotic Stories and Poetry. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1989.

Stimpson, Catharine. "Adrienne Rich and Lesbian/Feminist Poetry." Parnassus 12.2-13.1 (Spring-Winter 1985): 249-268.

Weathers, Carolyn, and Jenny Wrenn. In a Different Light: An Anthology of Lesbian Writers. Los Angeles: Clothespin Fever Press, 1989.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Martha Nell  
    Entry Title: Poetry: Lesbian  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 31, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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