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"Poetry Is Not A Luxury:" A UU Remembrance

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I presented this at the Unitarian Universalist Church where I am a lay minister. The segment is also on YouTube. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning.")


'Poetry Is Not A Luxury' sign outside of UU church
(Image by Janet Mason)
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"Poetry Is Not A Luxury."

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This is a quote from Audre Lorde, the self-described "black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet," who dedicated her art and life to social justice. Audre lived from 1934 to 1992.

I first came across her work in the early 1980s. I was in my twenties and was a freshly minted lesbian-feminist. I was fortunate to come out in a diverse cultural and political women's community -- which is what we called it then -- which described a community based on the values of feminism and included lesbians, bisexual and heterosexual women and men of all stripes. I was fortunate to have seen Audre read in person several times, including in Philadelphia and at the Audre Lorde "I Am Your Sister" conference in Boston held in 1990 two years before she died of cancer at the age of 58.

Audre Lorde authored 15 books of poetry and prose. She was Poet Laureate of New York State from 1991 to 1992. She was a major poet. But because of racism, homophobia, and sexism, she was not taught in the 1970s in the public high schools when I was a student. Audre Lorde's work is powerful and is about empowerment. If she had been taught, I know for a fact that her work would have saved plenty of lives.

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When I read her book Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches first published by The Crossing Press in 1984, it became a kind of bible for me. All of her essays held resonance for me -- especially "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House" and "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power."

But I always returned to her essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury". I'm going to share a few excerpts with you:

....."it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are -- until the poem -- nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

.....

"For each of us .... , there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, 'Beautifully/and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness/' ... and of impotence.

These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The ... place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient and it is deep."

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"...poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives."

When I am lucky, I find myself coming full circle with that wonderment I experienced when young -- now combined with the wisdom of my years. Revisiting Audre Lorde's essay through a Unitarian Universalist lens was one of those experiences. While this essay could evoke any of the UU Seven Principles, to me it is particularly evocative of the first: "The inherent worth and dignity of every person."

Poetry is something that has always made me feel more fully alive. It sheds new light on our commonalities and differences. It enters the mystery and enlarges what is possible.

For this reason, " Poetry Is Not A Luxury."

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Janet Mason is the author of Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012). Her LGBT commentary on queer life and literature is aired on This Way Out, an international radio syndicate based in Los Angeles. A frequent contributor (more...)
 

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