Today, we will be discussing intersectionality through a poem by Audre Lorde. Intersectionality is also called intersection feminism, which is briefly define different groups of people are oppressed but in a wide variety of ways that are different for every person. Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, warrior, poet” (Writing the Nation, 67). This description can be seen quite clearly in her poems. She would often fight against injustices of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism.
The first poem we will be looking at is a reflection of a march she attended. In 1973, Lorde wrote “Who Said it was Simple.” The first stanza instantly grabs the reader’s attention:
“There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.”
This stanza can be taken in a numerous of ways, primarily metaphorical. In my mind, I interpreted it as the roots represent the pent-up aggression and building anger of being oppressed over the course of many years. Since it has been growing for many years, it grew into a tree which is strong and has become immune to whatever tries to break it. However, since its roots stemmed from anger and outrage, the branches fail to bear leaves/life because the roots aren’t being fed – and were never being fed – kindness. The roots are so tangled and twisted that they are suffocating the tree and are unable to breathe for the chance of finding peace.
The last two stanzas of this poem may be the most powerful. Lorde finishes the poem by expressing the intersection of oppression:
“and I sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.”
As I mentioned before, Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, warrior, poet.” Two of those descriptions were – and arguably still are – the most oppressed groups of people in society. She was also a woman, which was another group that was greatly oppressed at the time. This stanza leads readers to believe she was asking herself, “Which part of me will people fight for? Which part of myself will I fight for?”
After the end of World War II, in the late 19050s to early 1960s, poets began to write from a more personal place. This birthed confessional poetry. Confessional poetry is often referred to as “Confessionalism”. Some of the confessing poets we will be focusing on today are Theodore Roethke and the well-known Sylvia Plath. The poems we will be looking at are some of my favorites we’ve read, so far.
First, let’s take a look at Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz” (1948). At first glance, the poem appears to be about a boy being abused by his father. The lines “The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle.” lead the reader to believe that the speaker is being beaten on purpose or has been abused previously. After further investigation, this may not be the case. From the first line, the reader can decipher that the father is drunk, and the use of the word “waltz” in the title leaves a light, dreamy tone for the poem. This could imply that the father is unaware that he is harming the child, that in his drunken state he believes they are having fun. The mother is described as frowning, possibly meaning that she can see something the little boy can’t, perhaps she is looking at her husband in disappointment. Thus, leading the boy to be extremely confused as to why he is being tossed around by someone he should admire.
Next, let’s examine Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” (1965). Of the poems we read this week, this one was my favorite. I will admit, the Holocaust references went over my head and left me confused as to why they were in the poem in the first place. However, the tone of this poem caused me to read it quickly, angrily. Throughout the poem, Plath refers to “it”. “It” represents her suicide attempts. She writes, “I am only thirty… This is Number 3. What a trash To annihilate each decade.” These few lines/stanzas made me ache for her. I read these in a sarcastic tone – more toward herself than anyone else, as if she’s displeased with herself for marking each decade with the attempt of escaping the next. The poem is full of sarcasm, almost as if she is mocking those in her life who are happy she is still alive. The lines, “There is a charge For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge For the hearing of my heart——” lead me to believe that she feels like she is being used for her pain. She ridicules the people in her life because she knows they want to read and examine and dive into her agony. The longer she lives, the more she aches; the more she aches, the more she writes; the more she writes, the more there is to dissect. My favorite part of this poem are the last two stanzas:
“Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
She directly addresses God and Lucifer, who are typically personified as men. She warns them that she is coming, that she has been through hell and back. She has seen it all before and they have nothing against her. She can destroy them simply with her teeth.
The play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams tells the story of Blanche, a former schoolteacher from Mississippi who moves to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella, as well as Stella’s husband, Stanley. The relationship between Stella and Stanley is unstable enough, and when Blanche moves in their relationship faces more conflict than ever before.
During the time the play was set, New Orleans, Louisiana was transforming from the “Old” South to the “New” South. This can be seen in the play because the characters themselves represent this shift and the clash of the aristocrats and the industrialists. Taking a closer look at the characters, it is fairly simple to determine who is the “Old” South and who is the “New” South. Blanche represents the Old South (plantation economies, coal mines, agriculture), as well as the dying out Old South, we can infer this because her character is fragile, breakable, delusional, and desperate. This leads to Stanley and how he represents the New South (working class, industrialization, the unitization of the working class). The New South is primarily dominated by men and his character is extremely masculine, brute, self-absorbed, and violent.
Throughout the play, Stanley and Blanche are constantly butting heads. Blanche desperately wants to “save” Stella from her husband. Blanche can understand that Stanley sees Stella as a possession rather than a human being. In the beginning, Stella is sympathetic toward Blanche and wants to help her, however she never does anything to help Blanche – or herself – because it would involve rebelling against Stanley.
Speak of the devil, Stanley wants to steal Stella away from Blanche, and he does everything he can to exploit Blanche’s past in order to use it against her, thus making her look like the bad guy. Stanley’s evidence against Blanche draws attention to the fact that she sold her family’s estate and used the money to purchase fine clothing. This idea is initially formed when Stanley is going through Blanche’s suitcase: “Open your eyes to this stuff! You think she got them out of a teacher’s pay?... Look at these feathers and furs” (Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire).
The entire play consists of extreme contrasts between Blanche and Stanley. One that stood out to me was Williams’ use of color. Stanley is introduced “as course and direct as the primary colors” (Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire). An example of this is his green and scarlet bowling shirt. As for Blanche… could it be any more obvious? Her name means white. She constantly chooses muted, muffled colors, and typically selects pastels or whites. She despises loud colors and avoids them. Further describing the hatred and contrast between the two characters.
Something the characters share is the desire for love. However, they have two completely different definitions of the word. As previously mentioned, Stanley is brute, meaning he is like an animal opposed to a human being. Therefore, Stanley needs love to fill his animalistic desires. His focus is on the physical aspects and actions of love, rather than the emotional and intellectual aspects. Blanche’s idea of love is on a higher level than Stanley’s. In order to understand her idea of love, you have to look at her sensitivity. She desires someone who can protect her, someone who she can communicate with. She wants devotion. Desire is a spiritual need for her, whereas it is a passionate sexual act for Stanley. Through Blanche’s interaction with Stella about Mitch, Stella asks her, "Blanche, do you want him?" She answers, "I want to rest. I want to breathe quietly again." (Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire) we can determine that she seeks security and wants to be protected by the harsh realities of the her world (Old South) coming to an end.
The Harlem Renaissance was a period of cultural activity by African American artists in the early 1900s that began in Harlem, New York (a neighborhood of New York City). Today, we will take a closer look a few poets who had an impact during this time. A few of these poets consist of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay.
First, we’ll take a look at the tension between Hughes and Cullen. For class, we read Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1920), and Cullen’s “Heritage” (1925). There are some similarities between these works, but there are also many differences. Both poets discuss Africa and focus the attention on the history of their families and themselves. They dissect the land and what it has done for them, as well as their experiences there. However, Hughes explains being in Africa, and specific experiences of being present there. He repeats the line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” twice in the poem. Perhaps he is emphasizing that his soul resides in the rivers of Africa and will always be there because he sees his history in the Mississippi River. He is very in touch with Africa whereas Cullen appears very removed. He talks of the land with a wispy tone, creating a dreamlike description of the place. Another contrast between the poets is the writing itself. Hughes writes with a very concise, modern, and accessible language. Cullen, however, uses long descriptions, and has a higher poetic diction that isn’t as accessible to the average reader. Although the poets discuss the same topic, it is very interesting to see the different approaches and techniques used between them.
Next, let us discuss Jean Toomer and his poem “Portrait in Georgia.” The poem describes a woman, her hair, eyes, lips, breath, and body. Yet it leaves readers asking one very specific question, “What is her race?” My interpretation is that she is white, but her race is being described by the ash of those of color. This expresses how they are tangled, one in the same, going hand-in-hand. Reflecting back to my previous post on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the Earth and everything that has stemmed from it was made from dust, and in the end we will all return to dust. The only difference is the color of our skin, no matter what life we live, we are all made of the same matter and are the same on the inside – why does the outside matter? The poem could also represent the discrimination against African Americans. The poem consists of very drastic comparisons. The woman’s hair is described as braided chestnut, “coiled like a lyncher’s rope.” Her eyes, “fagots.” Her lips, “old scars.” Her breath, “the sweet scent of cane.” Her body, “white as the ash of black flesh after flame.” These comparisons show the differences between how white people treat themselves and how white people treat African Americans. Toomer does this by describing the beautiful aspects of a human, then immediately describing the horrific and inhumane actions humans can do to each other.
Finally, we will take a closer look at Claude McKay’s sonnet “The Harlem Dancer.” The poem describes a nightclub scene where white men gawk at a black woman performing. In the last line, McKay describes the scene as a “strange place.” One reason for this could be that the woman performing holds the power in the room. Everyone’s eyes are on her as she sings and dances gracefully. The white men are “tossing coins in praise,” visually finding pleasure in her work – and that’s what this is to her. Work. The last two lines read:
“But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.”
This expresses that the woman is performing because she has to, this is her means of surviving. Everyone around her is having fun, but she is doing this as a job. Although the “prostitutes” are laughing with “applauding youths,” the women are still providing a service. This shows that there is still a separation between the white men and black women. Even though the black women have their bodies and hold the power in the club, the white men have their money and hold the power in the country.
Over the first couple weeks of class, we read quite a few poems. Some of the poets we discussed included H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, and many more. However, these specific poets had works that drew me in. Today, I will be diving deeper into the works of these writers while explaining my interpretations and thoughts.
First, let's discuss H.D.’s poem “The Garden” (1916). The first stanza automatically leaves the reader puzzled. What does she mean? There are many interpretations – as there should be when it comes to poetry – but I saw it as a metaphor for people. I am a hopeless romantic. I have read many novels where the male character has built a wall around his heart, never letting anyone in until the female lead strolls into his life and breaks that wall down. That is exactly how I saw this stanza, as well as the entirety of part I. Let’s look at this stanza-by-stanza:
“You are clear
O rose, cut in rock,
hard as the descent of hail.”
The speaker can see through the wall (rock) the person has built around their heart. The speaker can clearly see the beauty (rose) even though it is being hidden behind a hard exterior.
“I could scrape the colour
from the petals
like spilt dye from a rock.”
The speaker is able scrape back the layers of defense the person has built and see their true colors – the good and the bad.
“If I could break you
I could break a tree.”
The person who has built the wall is so stubborn and strong-willed that if the speaker can break their walls down, they can break a tree or anything physically stronger than them.
"If I could stir
I could break a tree--
I could break you."
Although the speaker can see through the other’s walls, they themselves have their own defenses. If they are pushed to the edge, their inner army will break loose and could cause more damage than the other person, or anyone, could imagine. They are stronger than they appear.
Next, let’s take a look at Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923). When I read the poem, I imagined a farm scene where it had just rained. Personally, I find rain very peaceful, especially after the storm has passed and everything drips themselves dry. The scene I see is very quiet, calm. When the rain began, those working went inside to avoid getting drenched, so everything is left untouched.
After it rains, colors seem to stand out. The green of grass and trees pierce through the misty atmosphere, making anything against it stand out like a sore thumb. When I imagine the wheelbarrow and its red color, I imagine fire-engine red. It catches my attention, causing me to stop in my tracks. The white of the chicken stands out most of all. The white chicken is a stark contrast to the bright green, and dark mud. Williams’ use of red and white are very “in-your-face.” They bring the reader’s attention to the importance of what few things are described. The wheelbarrow represents everything people can carry, and how everyone has limited space and limited strength. The chicken represents a few things humans need in order to survive: food, company, and a purpose. Obviously, humans can cook chicken and eat it as the main part of a meal. However, a chicken is a living creature and can be very similar to a pet. Most people get pets because they want a companion, something to keep them company. Pets need to survive so they become dependent on their owner. The owner provides for them, giving the human a purpose.
Now, let's focus on cummings and his poem “My Sweet Old Etcetera” (1926). There is one main question nagging at the back of the reader’s mind and that question is, “What is ‘etcetera’?” Everyone who dissects the poem has a different answer. However, there is one thing most people agree on: the poem is critiquing war, as well as the beliefs of older generations and the different genders. Due to this, my answer for the previously proposed question is that everything continues on. By everything I mean the war, the lifestyles, and the ideas continue on. Although there are efforts to end the war and the stigma around it, nothing changes. Etcetera is commonly used when listing things that relate back to or mean the same thing as something else stated. At the end, the speaker sees and dreams of a world with peace and harmony. Nevertheless, no matter how many years go by, or how many different ways something is being said, it all means the same thing and people have stopped listening.
Finally, let's discuss Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). One of the most known lines from this poem is “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Commonly, this is viewed as the ashes of those who have died during the war. This single line makes everyone understand what point Eliot is trying to get across. It is a direct jab at those reading the poem, as if he is saying, “You should feel guilty, you should feel sick. The way you’re feeling is correct, don’t hide from it, or push it away. I will show the aftermath you whether you want to see it or not.”
Death makes us feel disgusting, and guilty no matter who or what it is. No one wants to confront death face on. People like to turn their heads and look the other way. They like to send their thoughts and prayers, but they never want to take action. They don’t want to change their minds. Just like “My Sweet Old Etcertera,” that is why nothing has changed.
I will leave you with this: when I was young, my grandma said to me, “For you were made from stardust, and to stardust you will return.” No matter how sickening or saddening death is, we will return to the earth the same way we came: dust.