Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and the Lesbian Art of Survival

Writing, Write, Person, Paperwork, Paper, Notebook
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by Samantha Brigandi

Artists have always had a way of surviving the tests of time and encapsulating history. Like ancient cave paintings whispering stories of far distant ancestors, artists have the ability to connect us through time. Those who survived then created, and by doing so they taught others this art of survival. Audre Lorde, a black, lesbian, feminist, warrior poet and fellow lesbian poet Adrienne Rich worked side by side as teachers and friends to survive in an era of violence and erasure for queer women. Through poetry they captured the sentiment of isolation, the feelings of being erased from history, and the desire to survive felt by many lesbians in this era. In this blog post I will discuss the ways Lorde and Rich used poetry, writing, and teaching as methods of survival. I will discuss the impact of both women in feminist history and analyze the poetry they used to make that impact.  

            Audre Lorde was a black, feminist, lesbian, poet, warrior and teacher who grew up in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. Lorde wrote poetry about the racism, sexism, and homophobia she experienced and later went on to write prose revolving around the same subjects. Beyond being a poet, Lorde was also a teacher at several New York universities and even took trips to Germany for teaching opportunities. She wrote poems like “A Litany for Survival,” “Power,” and “Coal” which explored the intersections of racism, sexism and homophobia that she experienced. Adrienne Rich, who also wrote and taught poetry in New York, had her own experiences with isolation as a lesbian in a deeply homophobic society. She expressed these feelings in her poem “Diving into the Wreck.” Beyond their poetry, both women recognized the importance of teaching. It was not enough just to capture these sentiments through poetry, but it was important to teach other women to imprint their experiences in history with writing. In an interview with Rich, Lorde said, “I know teaching is a survival technique. It is for me and I think it is in general; the only way real learning happens. Because I myself was learning something I needed to continue living” (Lorde, 88). That something Lorde needed to continue living could be boiled down to creating art of survival.   

            The conditions which Lorde and Rich were writing in were nothing short of crippling. Homophobia was deeply ingrained in American society and aided in the structural isolation of queer people. As Bonnie Morris writes, “it would not be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as an “illness” classification in its diagnostic manual. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, gay men and lesbians continued to be at risk for psychiatric lockup as well as jail, losing jobs, and/or child custody when courts and clinics defined gay love as sick, criminal or immoral” (Morris). To be openly gay in America resulted in being ostracized or worse. This enforced isolation had drastic and sometimes destructive consequences.  

           So, what is a “lesbian survival artist” and why were they necessary? The desire to survive was felt by lesbians far and wide during the 1950s and 1960s and the sense of isolation was devastating for many. In an interview from A Litany for Survival, the documentary about Lorde’s life, she had this to say, “we lost a lot of women to isolation, to alcohol, to suicide, there were not enough of us. And we didn’t know a lot of things.” Here she remembers the lost lives of lesbians who did not survive. The harsh reality of being a lesbian during this era was that survival did not come easy, if at all for some. Lorde understood this deep need for survival because of the destruction that came about as a result of isolation. The result of this knowledge inspired poetry that revolved around the lesbian experience in a society where they were “never meant to survive.” This poetry provided a space that previously did not exist for lesbians in the realm of poetry. Reflecting on Lorde’s lesbian love poem “Pirouette,” Adrienne Rich noted, “it’s very much the kind of lesbian love poem that people were writing in the 50s. Because there was no space for overtly lesbian love poetry, or overtly lesbian poetry of any kind” (Lorde, 1995). This absence of space for lesbian artists contributed to the deeper sense of isolation and loneliness. Lorde and Rich used poetry to bring light to this issue and in essence, provide ground for future lesbian artists to stand on.

           In Lorde’s poem “A Litany for Survival” she addresses the themes of loneliness, fear and desire for survival felt by the lesbian community. As the title of the poem makes clear, survival is at the forefront. As defined by the Oxford English dictionary “survival” means: “continuing to live after some event (spec. of the soul after death); remaining alive, living on” (OED). Lorde in this poem is expressly referring to living on in a culture that was violently intolerant of differences, specifically in terms of race, gender and sexuality. The poem uses pronouns like “we” and “us” to establish a collective whole that can invite or disorient the reader. As Lorde writes, “For those of us who live at the shoreline // standing upon the constant edges of decision // crucial and alone” (Lorde, lines 1-3). It seems almost contradictory that, when referring to a collective “us”, there can still be a pervading feeling of loneliness. The painful truth lies in that contradiction however, because the gay community was not the united front we now recognize as the “LGBTQ+ community.” Feelings of loneliness pervaded for those who, as Lorde wrote, “love in doorways coming and going // in the hours between dawns” (Lorde, lines 6-7). The doorway imagery is reminiscent of the “in the closet” phrase, Lorde here is directly referring to queer tropes. This continued use of liminal spaces (shoreline, doorways, between dawns) reflects the way lesbian women were caught between the oppressions of sexism and homophobia.

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           In her poem “Diving into the Wreck,” Rich provides a vivid visual of a diver exploring the mysterious depths she has heard tales of. As she writes in her opening lines, “First having read the book of myths, and loaded the camera” (Rich, lines 1-2). The book of myths could be seen as a direct metaphor for history or society that has been lost to time, only the remnants and stories remain. The presence of the camera suggests that she is looking to record evidence, perhaps as proof of the myths. She reminds us this is a solo mission at the end of the first stanza, “not like Cousteau with his// assiduous team// aboard the sun-flooded schooner// but here alone” (Rich, lines 8-12). The transition at the end of the poem is complicated when Rich addresses a “we” in the poem. Much like in Lorde’s “Litany for Survival” it forces the reader to question who “we” refers. It becomes very clear in the final lines of the poem as she writes, “the one who find our way// back to this scene// carrying a knife, a camera// a book of myths// in which// our names do not appear” (Rich, lines 90-95). The absence of the names echoes the harsh reality of erasure from history that the LGBT community faced. It was a mutual goal of both Lorde and Rich, to establish more than just myths of a lost civilization, but to capture the soul of artists both living and dead.

           Lorde and Rich will have their names forever remembered, beyond the book of myths, and still live on as lesbian survival artists. Their work in the lesbian literary world continues to be some of the most impactful contributions since Sappho herself. Like explorers discovering new land, Lorde and Rich stamped a flag in the sand and said “we are here, we have always been here, even if we were never meant to survive” and the impact of that declaration can still be felt today. Their teachings live on, their poems continue to inspire, and their lessons of survival remain as crucial today as they did decades ago.  In conclusion, Lorde and Rich wrote ground breaking poetry and taught other women to do the same and in doing so they created a Sapphic survival guide for artists and teachers. As the final lines of “A Litany for Survival” remind us, “it is better to speak // remembering //we were never meant to survive” (Lorde, lines 45-47). These two women demonstrated how important it was to speak and how that speech can become poetry, and that poetry can become the art of survival.

Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. “A Litany for Survival.” 1978. Poetry Foundation, Accessed 10 April 2020.

Lorde, A., Griffin, A., Parkerson, M., Fisher, H., & Pieratos, K. (1995). A litany for survival : the life and work of Audre Lorde . New York, N.Y: Third World Newsreel.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider Essays and Speeches. Ten Speed Press, 2016.

Morris, Bonnie J. “History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association,

Rich, Adrienne. “Diving into the Wreck.” 1978. Poets, Accessed 10 April 2020.

“survival, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2020, Accessed 23 April 2020.

3 Replies to “Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and the Lesbian Art of Survival”

  1. Hi Sam, I loved your blog post! One of my favorite poems that we read this year was “Diving into the Wreck”. I think when Rick writes, ““not like Cousteau with his// assiduous team// aboard the sun-flooded schooner// but here alone” (Rich, lines 8-12), is symbolizing to the reader that this is a solo journey. Cousteau had a whole team behind him that supported his journey, but Rich was alone in a time where the LGBTQ+ community was not welcomed.

  2. Hi Sam,
    I loved the term “lesbian survival artist” I think that really encapsulates the larger work Lorde and Rich were doing. They used every aspect of their lives (writing, teaching, life experience, etc.) to inform and advocate. Your conclusion was just the icing on the cake of a well thought out post! The legacy you bring up I think is well written and sums everything up.

  3. Hey Sam! I really enjoyed your blog post and thought you did such a good job connecting the two authors to a common message. Personally, these two poems “A Litany for Survival” and “Diving into the Wreck” were my two favorite poems we read in class. I loved the messages that these two poems brought. I think that bringing out a message as important as the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community needs to be done in such a way as to move other people, in this case, the beautiful poems that these two women wrote. I think that in our society there is so much hatred toward the LGBTQ+ community and for no reason other than homophobia. These two poems do such a beautiful job putting into perspective their experiences as people of the LGBTQ+ community and proving that they deserve to survive just as much as people who are outside of this community.

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