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Poetry: Lesbian  
 
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Does "lesbian poetry" refer to poetry by lesbians or poetry with a certain eroticized woman-identified sensibility?

The Problem of Definition

Both of these definitions and more are included in the term. To meet the terms of that second definition, must such poetry have been written by a "real" lesbian? Or does poetry by Pierre Louÿs, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire, poetry that, as Lillian Faderman suggests, might be categorized as "lesbian exoticism," count as "lesbian poetry"?

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Apparently the organizers of the "Daughters of Bilitis," a contemporary group of visible lesbians hoping to dispel myths of sexual pathology who cryptically named themselves after Pierre Louÿs's lesbian work Chansons de Bilitis, considered his work lesbian poetry.

Although scholars quibble over whether applying the term lesbian to Emily Dickinson is anachronistic, artists, musicians, dramatists, and poets, lesbian and otherwise, have recognized this premier woman poet as an "American Sappho."

Of poets writing from the sixteenth century to 1950, Louise Bernikow argued:

Whether all the woman-to-woman relationships that exist in the lives of these poets were explicitly sexual or not is difficult to know, for taboo was always in the way and evidence that might have told the true nature of those relationships is missing. Yet what matters most is not who did what to whom in what bed, but the direction of emotional attention.

From these nineteenth-century examples of poetic production and twentieth-century examples of poetic consumption, readers can see that they might do well to formulate principles for defining poetry as lesbian from the archaic architectural definition for "lesbian" rules--from a mason's rule of lead, which bends to fit the curves of a molding (OED); hence, figuratively, lesbian rules are pliant and accommodating principles for judgment.

The primary principles for judging poetry as lesbian, then, are flexible and include both poetry written by lesbians, and poetry exploring and celebrating lesbian eroticism and sexuality from a variety of perspectives. And "lesbian" refers to eroticized emotional attachment as well as to literal flesh-and-blood experience.

Lesbian theorist Katie King could have been talking about all lesbian poetry, lesbian poets, as well as critics and readers who want to identify certain poetry as lesbian when she described her objectives in close reading the poetry of Audre Lorde: that she wants to appropriate academic "forms of authority" and thereby "empower Lorde's texts; in short to enable their literary canonisation."

As King points out, poetry has long been a valorized genre in which Lorde and many other lesbian poets have a political investment, and as Alicia Ostriker makes plain in her critical history of contemporary women's poetry, the "extraordinary tide of poetry by American women in our own time" is "challenging and transforming the history of poetry . . . the self and culture" by producing new knowledge about "explicitly female experience."

Of the "long-hidden, long-repressed feelings" and thoughts of women, none has been rendered more invisible and inaudible than those of lesbians. Thus contemporary lesbian and bisexual poets like Lorde, Judy Grahn, Ai, Alta, Joy Harjo, Susan Griffin, Pat Parker, Adrienne Rich, and many others have championed poetry for its ability "to release imprisoned strata of experience into the daylight of language."

The History of Lesbian Poetry

The history of lesbian poetry might be divided into several eras or phases, but for our purposes we shall consider two.

First, there are centuries of poetry prior to the late 1950s and early 1960s in which women poets were scarce and, with the exception of Sappho, lesbian poets were practically invisible (and readers should be aware that Sappho's lesbianism was frequently obscured and, by many critics, denied); second are the recent decades in which women's poetry has achieved prominence and lesbian poetry has been key in moving audiences beyond aesthetic appreciation and into political action.

Surveys of anthologies, which make works available and begin to formulate canons, and critical studies, which direct readers' attentions and significantly contribute to canon formation, recount these histories of lesbian poetry and time and again highlight the distinct break between recent highly politicized lesbian poetry and a tradition of lesbian forerunners.

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