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On Lesbian Poetry

Mary J. Carruthers

This essay chiefly considers four volumes of poetry, three published in 1978 and one the previous year. They are Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, Audre Lorde's The Black Unicorn (which includes poems published earlier in a chapbook called Between Our Selves), Judy Grahn's The Work of a Common Woman (a collection of poems previously published by the Feminist Press Collective of Oakland, California), and Olga Broumas' Beginning With O. Among them, these volumes articulate a distinctive movement in contemporary American poetry, the definition of which is the subject of this essay. I call this movement "Lesbian poetry," because the naming and defining of this phrase is its central poetic preoccupation. These poets choose to deal with life at the level of metaethics—its social, psychic, and aesthetic underpinnings, which are articulable only in myth; their metaethics takes its structure from a complex poetic image of lesbian relationship.

These four poets have voices that are bold, even arrogant, in their common, urgent desire to seize the language and forge with it an instrument for articulating women. Not all women writing today write this kind of poetry, not all poets who are lesbians are Lesbian poets, nor are all Lesbian poets always lesbian. I would like very much in this essay to keep separate the realms of life and art, except where in truth they do meet, in the alchemical laboratory of language. If we insist on applying to these poets the psychoanalytical interests and expectations of Confessional poetry, we will certainly misunderstand them because we will not properly hear them.

The word lesbian presents in paradigm the large issues of value in language, of women's psyche and of social transformation, of alienation and apocalypse, which these poets address. Rich has defined "the lesbian in us" as "a primary intensity between women, an intensity which in the world at large [has been] trivialized, caricatured, or invested with evil." She continues:

It is the lesbian in us who drives us to feel imaginatively, render in language, grasp, the full connection between woman and woman. It is the lesbian in us who is creative, for the dutiful daughter of the fathers in us is only a hack.

(On, Lies, Secrets, and Silence)

To think of the word lesbian in terms of male-excluding or man-hating is profoundly to misunderstand these poets. Their poetry does not arise directly from nor concern itself primarily with a response to men. Its energy springs rather from the perception that women together and in themselves have a power which is transformative, but that in order to recover their power women need to move psychically and through metaphor to a place beyond the well-traveled routes of patriarchy and all its institutions, especially its linguistic and rhetorical ones. That is the task of "the lesbian in us," a phrase whose meaning is a constant theme in virtually all the poems which appear in these four volumes.

In this poetry, the word lesbian encapsulates a myth of women together and separate from men. Broumas looks to Greek myth and especially to Sappho to seek it out, Lorde to the Yoruba Vodun of ancient Dahomey, Rich to the lives of extraordinary women about whom history has been silent or naive, and Grahn to that which is common and ordinary in all women. Lesbian is also the essential outsider, woman alone and integral, who is oppressed and despised by traditional society, yet thereby free to use her position, to reform and remember. She is a figure both of the satirist and the seer, a woman of integrity and power who is by nature and choice at odds with the world. Lesbian is also erotic connection, the primary energy of the senses which is both physical and intellectual, connecting women, a woman with herself, and women through time. Finally, lesbian signifies a change of relationships, radical internal transformation; it is a myth of psychic rebirth, social redemption, and apocalypse.

It is certainly true that some of the values espoused by this new myth are not new—indeed they are the values we used to call "humane." But the traditional myth-language systems which purported to incorporate them have proven unable to support them, and indeed have become actively hostile to them. Yet the solution, as these poets see it, is not the expected Modern one of revitalizing the old myths. As far as women are concerned, many myths are deservedly vitiated because they have always embodied a fundamental oppressiveness which has now fully revealed itself in violent, death-devoted modern society. Only a new myth altogether, conceived along new lines, can reclaim the world which is lost (or that which never existed but should have). That, I believe, is the artistic logic which lies behind these poets' choice of subject matter for their visionary poems.

A crucial re-vision in this new mythic system concerns the relationship of the muse to the maker of poetry. The myth of the muse is a myth which deals with the source and nature of imaginative energy. The muse traditionally is female and the poet male. He addresses her in terms of sexual rapture, desiring to be possessed in order to possess, to be ravished in order to be fruitful. The language of violent sexual encounter, of submission and dominance, describes a relationship both of possession and enslavement. She comes and goes, mysteriously; he is utterly dependent upon her, worthless without her, yet she speaks only through him. She is wholly Other and strange, to use Simone de Beauvoir's category, a higher being in classical and Renaissance myth, an ethereally beautiful young girl in the tradition of romance. But whatever guise she assumes throughout history, the basic relationship of dominance and possession is constant between her and her poet.

In the myth of the Lesbian poets, the muse remains female. This completely changes the relationship of the poet to her poetry. Because the muse is female, she is not Other but Familiar, maternal and sororal, a well-known face in the poet's immediate community. Their relationship is not one of possession but of communal bonding. This myth seeks to recreate and remember wholeness, not through the domination of an Other which complements a gap or lack in the Self (as in Plato's egg myth, or the Oriental myth of Yin and Yang), but through a meeting of familiars which recalls a completeness that is present but forgotten or suppressed by history. Motifs and metaphors drawn from archaeology are frequent in Lesbian poetry, and the reason for this is obvious. They bespeak the recovery of a self that is deeply buried, unwritten, but recoverable as the poet, aided by a series of images embodying her muse, re-members herself in selves "who are come to make our shattered faces / whole," as Audre Lord writes. By familiarizing the muse, Lesbian myth provides a way of seeing the poet in the woman, not as alien or monstrous, but as an aspect of her womanhood. It does not make the poetic calling any less difficult or special, but it focuses the difficulty where it really is—in the nature of her craft and individual talent, not her sex.


In summary, Lesbian poetry celebrates integrity as the metaethic of civilization. Virtually all its images—those of apocalypse, exile, fragmentation, re-cognition, familiarity, and bonding—are ingredients of a vision of personal wholeness and truth. Muse, mother, lover are familiars who come together in an integrated psyche, the Lesbian magic circle. More radical than this psychic myth, however, is their social one, the ethic of Lesbian civility, especially as it links themes such as exile and odyssey with apocalypse and redemption (the influence of Mary Daly may be crucial in defining this link, though her Gyn/Ecology is virtually contemporaneous with the volumes discussed in this essay). The Lesbian psyche is not simply reborn or rediscovered, it is redeemed and redemptive. Lazarus (often in disguise) is an important figure for Judy Grahn in "A Woman is Talking to Death" as well as for Audre Lorde in "Martha," and Broumas’ Greek deities are not merely reconstructed but transfigured. Marie Curie, the wounded heroine, is redeemed by the woman of "Transcendental Etude." Lesbian redemption is not transcendent, however; it never loses its historical embedding in the world of "fact" so important to Judy Grahn, the world of Harlem and islands of Manhattan. The epic dimension of their poetry distinguishes these four poets absolutely from their immediate "confessional" precursors, especially Plath and Sexton. Their lives and times are embodied in their work together with an apocalyptic "time-tension," the unspoken Lesbian past and the ineffable Lesbian future bearing continuously upon the present. In achieving their epic theme, the familiarization of the muse by the Lesbian poet is essential, for it is that crucial metaphoric relationship which makes the woman at home in the poet, able to create new worlds through the power an integrated self.

from "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." The Hudson Review. Summer 1983, 36:2.

Billie Maciunas

In 1983 Mary J. Carruthers published her important article "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." Carruthers' "Lesbian poetry" and the "poetic image of lesbian relationship" is metaphorically lesbian. Although Carruthers' article deals only with lesbian poets, she acknowledges that "not all poets who are lesbians are Lesbian poets, nor are all Lesbian poets always lesbian," laying the foundation for lesbian poetry.

In 1988 Farwell proposed an aesthetic based on the lesbian subject as a metaphor for women's writing. Outstanding features of this aesthetic were a break with the conceits of masculine and feminine and the importance of the reader's relationship with the text. Farwell says:

As a metaphor for creativity, lesbian . . . refuses many of the elements essential to the connection between heterosexuality and creativity: dualism, transcendence, ecstasy, reproduction, and a product. Instead it emphasizes the autonomy of the creative self, the community of readers and writers, and the diffuse physicality of the creative act and of the text itself. (110)

Farwell's essay led the way for a succession of metaphors that emphasized movement and the blurring of boundaries as a way of conceiving desire. Butler's Gender Trouble showed that gender can be a masquerade of many configurations. For Butler the lesbian represents the movement of these configurations unmoored from the heterosexist presumption of absolute gender dichotomy. The playful and knowing lesbian subject traverses gender and other boundaries for political purposes and for pleasure, privileging context and confounding entrenched identity categories.

from Maciunas, Billie. "Crossing Boundaries--Lesbian as Metaphor/Lesbian Poetry in Brazil and the United States." Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Billie Maciunas.

Linda Garber

At least since the early twentieth century, when the medical profession in Europe and the United States both pathologized and popularized the concept of homosexuality, poetry has been central to the self-conscious construction of European-American lesbian identity and community. The self-reflective possibilities of the lyric and the myth-making potential of the epic surely play a role here, but the importance of poetry for white lesbians rests largely in the historical figure of Sappho, poet of Lesbos. While Radclyffe Hall adopted the sexologists' terminology to plead for acceptance in her novel The Well of Loneliness, Renee Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney, Hall's contemporaries in the lesbian literary subculture of 1920s Paris, translated and rewrote Sappho. Vivien and Barney even attempted to create a community of women on the isle of Lesbos, geographically and symbolically linking lesbians and lesbian writing to the central figure of lesbian myth making. The idea of Sappho, whether or not the actual woman was what we would call a "lesbian" today, has been central to white lesbian identity and community because her presence in history provides a foundation on which lesbians could build a lineage—connection to the past (both mythic and historical), connection to others, and the possibility of surviving into the future. Some lesbians of color also look to Sappho as an ancestor, although many rely on the history and spiritual traditions of their own ethnic heritages. For example, Audre Lorde incorporates the African Yoruba tradition and names herself "zami," a Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers; Gloria Anzaldua writes about indigenous Mexican figures from Coatlicue to Malintzin/La Chingada and names herself "the new mestiza." Dominant white culture's name for all women-loving women comes, not surprisingly, from classical western culture rather than from any of the many cultures of people of color now living in Europe and the Americas.

In The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, Margaret Cruikshank explains that the desire to create a tenable lesbian/gay history is linked to "self-esteem. . . . Lesbians [throughout history] took great pride in the sixth-century poet Sappho" (28). In 1955, Daughters of Bilitis, which would later become the first national lesbian organization, took its name from Pierre Louys' Songs of Bilitis (Chansons de Bilitis, 1895), a book of poems about an explicitly lesbian, fictional character named Bilitis, supposed to have been a student of Sappho of Lesbos. In the 1970s, when lesbian culture flourished publicly on a large scale for the first time, Sappho's name was everywhere. In Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love presented "A Liberated View of Lesbianism." A short-lived newspaper in Brooklyn was titled Echo of Sappho; another was, simply, Sappho. Suggestive or creatively- reconstructed fragments of Sappho's poems were printed on posters for sale at women's bookstores. A political button proclaimed "Sappho Is Coming." In the mid-1980s, Judy Grahn traced a lineage of lesbian poets back to Sappho in The Highest Apple: Sapph and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition. Grahn names Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, H.D., and Gertrude Stein as ''historic foremothers of today's Lesbian poets," a multicultural group including contemporary writers Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Olga Broumas, Paula Gunn Allen, and Grahn herself (Grahn, 1985, xix).

Through poetry as a vital locus of cultural meaning, lesbians have self-consciously created lineage, history, and identity. I will argue that in this sense lesbian-feminist poetry is a social constructionist project. While some lesbian feminists in the 1970s undeniably tended to essentialism, early radical writers questioned the institution of heterosexuality and self-consciously worked to create lesbian identity and community.

[. . .]

The first lesbian press on the West Coast, The Women's Press Collective in Oakland, was co-founded in 1970 by Grahn and later included other poets as well. Seajay and Grahn recall that "the poetry and the grassroots organizations" came first, followed by a few newspapers, and then the boom in women's publishing generated by the establishment of women's presses and bookstores (Seajay, Part II, 56-7). Cruikshank emphasizes "the crucial importance of writing in gay culture" and notes the role of small lesbian- or gay-owned presses (128-9).

Within the lesbian literary and cultural boom of the early 1970s, poetry was particularly important. In "Culture Making: Lesbian Classics in the Year 2000?" Melanie Kaye [Kantrowitz] compares "women's poetry in the early seventies" to "shakespeare [sic] in his own time" or "the audience for rock in the late sixties"; in their own context, each was "extremely popular, the best . . . exploding with mass energy and creativity" (24). Cruikshank agrees, "Women's poetry readings have held a special place" in lesbian culture; she cites Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Judy Grahn as "among the most respected figures" (136). In her 1993 study of the political uses and institutionalization of lesbian poetry, Sagri Dhairyam elaborates on the poets' participatory role in the creation of communal lesbian identity: "[The lesbian] poet is not only the person who creates a literary text, but overlaps with the person who reads, who participates in a ritual for identity. . . . Poetry is an integral mode of willing communal identity in women's gatherings (Dhairyam, 1993, 47, 57).

Grahn herself has called poets the "map makers" of lesbian feminism, "going out first and laying down the dimensions of the terrain and what the landscape (and the future) could possibly look like" (Seajay, Part II, 61). Lorde makes a similar point in her essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury": "[Poetry] lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. . . . In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only poetry to hint at the possibility made real" (Lorde, 1977a, 38, 39). Grahn reports that "masses of women" attended lesbian-feminist poetry readings in the early days of the movement, and that "Fifteen years later . . . the movement still keeps one ear to the ground to hear what else its poets may be telling." According to Grahn, "The leadership exerted by Lesbian and feminist poets as the mass movement of women developed during the 1970s cannot be exaggerated" (Grahn, 1985, xviii, 71).

Grahn’s and Lorde’s assessments are more than mere self-aggrandizement. Critics—from academic journals to feminist newspapers—attest to the importance of lesbian-feminist poets in defining lesbian identity and lesbian community, that is, as I have contended, in self-consciously constructing and politically deploying the identity categories "lesbian" and "woman." Estella Casto, in her study of Sexton, Rich, Lorde, and Broumas, concurs that feminist and lesbian poetry "demonstrates how poetry can be a means of political agency" (17). In 1981, Jan Clausen went so far as to call feminism—including, but not limited to, lesbian feminism—"A Movement of Poets."

Contemporary Lesbian Identity Poetics:
A Brief Review of the (Scant) Literature

Like the work it sets out to describe, much criticism about lesbian literature—and especially about poetry—has been centrally concerned with questions of definition, identity, and community. This is poetics as a decidedly political pursuit, in which many critics and poet-critics consider the stakes too high to speak of lesbian poetry or fiction "dispassionately," solely in technical or aesthetic terms (Rich, 1983, 173). For some critics this takes the form of a preoccupation with defining the genre of "lesbian poetry," much as lesbian poets concern themselves with reclaiming lesbian identity and creating lesbian community. Nearly 200 studies of individual lesbian poets that discuss the poet’s lesbian identity in some way were published in nationally and internationally distributed periodicals between 1970 and 1990. However, only a handful of writers have attempted to put forth a contemporary lesbian poetics that transcends the study of a particular poet.

[. . .]

Rich’s statement, made at a Modern Language Association (MLA) convention, asserts the importance of naming lesbian relationships between women in history, because

Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language—this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable (Rich, 1976, 199, author’s italics).

Rich argues that it is the "lesbian" in every woman that is the creative force, opposing this figurative creative "lesbian" to the "hack" writer who is "the dutiful daughter of the fathers," the character whom all women are socialized to become (Rich, 1976, 201). Inevitably, and perhaps purposely, controversial, Rich’s deployment of the term "lesbian" provoked heated debate about the source(s) of female creativity and the meaning of lesbian identity. Some lesbians felt that using "lesbian" as a generic term robbed them of their historical and political specificity (Rich, 1979, 202), that "lesbian writ large essentialized and ahistoricized lesbian and female existence" (Farwell 67). Many straight women felt left out by the equation of oppositional voice with "lesbian. "Lesbian Imperative" (Ostriker, 1983, 121), an idea that Karen Alkaly-Gut took (too) literally in Contemporary Review, where she asserted (with a straight face, as it were), "Many women writing poetry today in America have come to the conclusion that the only way they can write as women is to reject men and write as lesbians" (209). . . .

Grahn is less concerned with the status of lesbian poets in the mainstream literary world than she is with their importance to a lesbian audience and to each other. In an interview with Kathryn Machan Aal published one year before The Highest Apple, Grahn emphasized the value of poetry that "can be maximally used" (Aal, Part II, 61). She described the way in which lesbian poetry readings "energize" poets and audiences (Aal, Part II, 57), transforming the experience and relevance of poetry readings as social institutions. Within this charged space, the unconventional content of lesbian-feminist poetry challenges stereotypes of poetry, women, and sexuality.

In The Highest Apple, Grahn credits lesbian poetry with reclaiming "loaded, stereotypic" language (Grahn, 1985, 70); providing "ethical guidelines" (Grahn, 1985, 71); literally building a variety of communities to replace the "island of centrality" that was Sappho’s Lesbos, "since we believe our work, and act on it" (Grahn, 1985, 71); and saving lesbian lives, at least figuratively: "More than once Lesbian has been kept from floundering on the rocks of alienation from her own culture, her own center, by having access, at least, to Lesbian poetry. We owe a great deal to poetry; two of our most important names, for instance: Lesbian and Sapphic (Grahn, 1985, xxi). In Grahn's schema, lesbian poets are accountable to and benefit from the communities they help to create (Grahn, 1985, 56), including communities of lesbian poets where "connections . . . are of vital importance to the growth of our ideas" (Grahn, 1985, 57).

In The Highest Apple Grahn acknowledges her reliance on Mary Carruthers' 1983 essay "The Re-Vision of the Muse," in which Carruthers draws a definition of lesbian poetry from her readings of Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, Lorde's The Black Unicorn, Grahn's The Work of a Common Woman, and Olga Broumas' Beginning with O. Carruthers writes that "among them, these volumes articulate a distinctive movement in American poetry. . . . I call this movement 'Lesbian poetry,' because the 'naming and defining' of this phrase is its central poetic preoccupation" (Carruthers, 1983, 293). Carruthers views lesbian poets, of all the poetry movements of the 1970s, as having "the moral passion of seer and prophet" (Carruthers, 1983, 299), which they bring to the task of establishing "a new civitas" (302) through the reinvention of mythologies in the creation of a new lesbian epic (Carruthers, 1983, 300). (Similarly, Grahn considers "mythic realism" the operant mode of most contemporary lesbian poetry [Grahn, 1985, 871]). Carruthers' "new civitas" is "predicated upon familiarity and likenesses, rather than oppositions"; it is troubling "to the general public" in its "use of the lesbian bond to signify that wholeness, health, and integrity which are minimized or negated by the death-devoted sickness of male-inspired civilization" (Carruthers, 1983, 304). Both in 'The Re-Vision of the Muse" and her earlier essay "Imagining Women: Notes Towards a Feminist Poetic" Carruthers opposes the anti-Romantic imagery and diction of much lesbian love poetry to the physically "alienated," "confessional" style of earlier woman poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

from Garber, Linda. "Lesbian Identity Politics: Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, and the Rise of Queer Theory." Diss. Stanford U, 1995. Copyright 1996 by Linda Garber.

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