"Poetry is Not a Luxury": Audre Lorde and Shelleyan Poetics

In prose both similar to and crucially different from the Romantic celebration of human wholeness, throughout the collection Sister Outsider (1984) the Black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde pursues an “impulse toward wholeness” to repair the divide between feeling and knowledge. For Lorde, poetry is an urgent resource and practice of imaginative experience rescued from oppression, not defined by its formal features, which she calls “sterile word play.” This conviction aligns Lorde’s poetics with Percy Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1821). This essay considers Shelley not only "juxtapolitically" with Lorde, but in a common imaginary space of networks of feeling and imagery with contemporary theorists of public feeling including Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, to establish a critical idiom for the world of public feeling and world-making. I show how the “harsh light of scrutiny” valued by Lorde resonates with Shelley’s critical reassessment of the poetic imagination set in opposition to calculative enlightenment reason. Yet I also argue that Lorde’s “quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives” helps us to make the difficult, necessary intervention into Shelley’s unresolved problematic — both theoretical and lived — concerning the relation of love to fear.