"‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’: Audre Lorde and Shelleyan Poetics"
"Poetry is Not a Luxury": Audre Lorde and Shelleyan Poetics
“I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean—in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.” —Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”
Love is a word another kind of open—As a diamond comes into a knot of flameI am black because I come from the earth's insideTake my word for jewel in your open light.—Lorde, “Coal”
1. Throughout her essay and speech collection, Sister Outsider (1984), Audre Lorde, Black lesbian feminist poet, pursues–both by style and argument–an “impulse toward wholeness” to repair the divide between feeling and knowledge (8).  In doing so, Lorde’s poetic theory seeks new forms of understanding that “begin [ . . . ] to make knowledge available for use” (109). Lorde’s “use” in essays, such as "Uses of the Erotic," is deeply experiential (53–9): at once intimately personal, as well as communal and collective. Lorde’s measures of usefulness are “human need” and “the psychic and emotional components of that need” (55). Her sense of the necessary is not reducible to utilitarian calculus, as the turn toward erotic life as a resource might already suggest. In its fundamental orientation to value, her theoretical work scrutinizes and promotes human flourishing in all its possible forms, starting from her own situated being: opposing a Black queer woman’s life, in particular, to surplus and its logic of extraction. Kevin Quashie can thus write in Black Aliveness of Lorde’s “belief that a queer black mother’s body can thus be enough to conceptualize what it is to know” (11). Lorde thereby articulates a profoundly anti-capitalist mode of being, production, and critical self-examination.
2. As she made clear in a 1979 interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde self-identified as a writer who thinks in poems (83). This means that in her poems thought is inextricable from feeling and its expressive formalization. Sensuous and intuitive experience matter to her powers of ideation. We can begin to map Lorde’s philosophical poetics using this critical creative habitus. But Lorde also means more simply, if opaquely, that in her youth she thought only in poems. In the long period of her creative life before she began teaching and writing prose in the 1970s, she felt poetry was her sole means of effective communication. Not just her poetry, but also her remarkably rich and direct prose, read as if they were recurrently composed in the first moment of breaking free of a silence.
3. In what follows I want to suggest a surprising convergence between Lorde and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Lorde’s conviction that poetry is an urgent resource and practice of imaginative experience rescued from the oppressions of silence—and a shared philosophy that defines poetry not by its formal features, which she calls “sterile word play”—resembles the argument Shelley makes in A Defence of Poetry (1821). In particular, there is a resonance between Lorde’s poetics and Shelley’s view of the relation of knowledge to poetic imagination. Both Shelley and Lorde associate a rejection of the capitalist division of labor with a critique of the operations of managerial reason, from a vantage that celebrates affect, creation, and feeling.
4. Shelley writes: “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest” (530).  We can see the affinity between Lorde and Shelley in this passage, which announces an anti-utilitarian call for poetry’s vital use in making knowledge imaginable and drawing it into the realm of available action. If Shelley speaks from a place of authority and privilege, marked also by his exile, Lorde responds to the Romantic poet’s identification of real “want” with creative capacities and writerly impulses that share in focused abundance the resources of sensibility. Yet if I find in Lorde’s arguments and language something that reminds me of Shelley, shutting my eyes to hear something like their recombinant voice, I also know it is impossible to over emphasize how much Lorde situates her knowledge within the living practice of her own specific identities. These “Shelleyan” sentences lose their meaning and power if we isolate them from Lorde’s self-definitions as a feminist, Black, queer, and mothering author and her assertions of how much these identities have been deep resources for her poetic work.
5. Lorde’s affinity with Shelley also constitutes an act of transformative change upon the Romantic tradition of “high level” theorizing performed especially by male poets and philosophers. Difference, in the essays of Sister Outsider, is construed as “a dynamic human force” and “a creative force toward change” (45, 70). Indeed, difference provides the ground of the unacknowledged power that echoes back perhaps most undeniably from Lorde to Shelley (53). This is not a structural paradox, nor just an irony that follows from the exclusionary whiteness of “radical” authors in the Romantic canon, but a major event at the living border of the invaginated growth and unfolding of the non-linear, achronological history that most Romanticists would associate with a Shelleyan notion of poetry. No chapter in the linear history of ideas, this history is written and made legible in the flashes where Lorde and Shelley make anti-separatist allies; and in which Shelley’s Defence depends upon the meanings of "Poetry is Not a Luxury," as much as the other way around. My largest and longest-unfolding aim in this essay will therefore not only be to show how both poets understand expressive necessity in their championing of poetry; but more crucially, I want to voice a shift from poetic continuity to poetic difference (and ultimately gesture at the possibility of a commons-in-difference), arguing that Lorde’s corrective to Shelley’s Defence is a necessary imaginative act. Despite its constitutional commitment to openness, Shelley’s role of the legislator poet risks being either exclusionary or falsely universal in its assumed, not situated, identity. An encounter with Lorde’s writing makes possible what speech-act theorists call “felicity conditions,” in which the essential contribution of Shelley’s Defence, its poetics of radical futurity for which a context does not yet exist outside the capacity of creative acts, can be more fully examined and actually lived in the emergent present.
6. Why isn’t Lorde’s poetic theory more often and energetically taken up in critical interchange with Shelley—at least by Romanticists interested in contemporary poetry and poetics? It might be tempting, for example, to read Lorde’s 1977 essay, "Poetry is Not a Luxury," as a vital expansion of Shelley’s voice and position in A Defence into feminist and non-European lived experiences.  “For women,” Lorde writes, “poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence” (37). Lorde’s gendered conditions of creative experience simultaneously offer a frame around the moment that inspires my urge to make a connection but also a strong critique of that urge, attesting to the ultimate arbiters of specificity and difference. Race, sexuality, and gender mark the terms of that difference, though gendered codes also have been invoked to code Shelley’s own reception as a poet who refuses divisions of thought and feeling, content and manner. Shaped by the dismissals of modern writers like Eliot and Auden, do we still view Shelley as a male narcissist and, despite his ideals, as anti-Womanist and a danger to women? Shelley himself was often charged by mid-century male critics with a blurring of feeling and thought that is recognizably gendered. He was judged, for instance, “incapable of effective reasoning and the intellectual control of his emotional outpourings” (Harding 210). Lorde, I’ll concede from the start, would have viewed all the male English Romantic poets as numbering among the “white fathers” who wish “to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight,” to suppress rather than liberate the deep resources of discredited feeling, as her poem "Coal" imagines the embodied diamonds of earth, not the diamonds of translucent white light.
7. Lorde’s writings compel a long-delayed confrontation with the normative subject’s own “desperate wish” to exercise the imagination (and know its prestige) without risking any real illumination in poetry. If Lorde crucially reaffirms Shelley’s case for the vital necessity of poetry beyond the frameworks of economic calculus and rhetorical or aesthetic ornament, that fundamental alliance, and the challenge of an anti-separatist praxis it requires and promotes, can offer Romantic Studies a tool to engage more critically and creatively with Shelley’s damaging failures of imagination. We do not need to decide which of Lorde’s Black, feminist, and queer positionalities are most needed as critical expansions of Shelley’s writing. Lorde’s emphases on defining her own terms for vital work, and in searching for modes of survival that constitute both a philosophy and a praxis, impart a necessary corrective to even the most fruitful of Shelley’s contingent or constitutive failures.
8. Having introduced Lorde here and provided the core rationale for my purpose to read her writings with Shelley’s, the first section of this essay returns to A Defence of Poetry in the context of the recent collaborative theorizing of public feelings by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, to establish a critical idiom for the world of public feeling and the world-making practices of Romantic poetics. The essay then argues that Lorde’s critique of the poetic tradition offers an insight Shelley shared but tried desperately to cover. Lorde’s examination of the very light by which we think, write, and love participates in the critical reassessment of poetic imagination set in opposition to calculative managerial reason. By the essay’s close I show how Lorde’s “quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives” helps us to intervene in Shelley’s unresolved problematic—both theoretical and lived—concerning the relation of love to the ugly major feelings of anger and fear. Shelley feared (his own) anger and treated it as a force to disavow not work through. Lorde shows us how to properly situate Shelley’s repressed negative feelings and how to make such unaddressed negative feelings a poetic and political resource. Lorde’s writing actualizes the more livable conditions of a just, transformative community of poetic creation and exchange, that is only inchoate in Shelley’s defense of poetry.
PBS and Public Feelings
9. Lorde begins "The Uses of the Erotic" with an urgently compelling sentence that makes no display of its allusion to Shelley’s most famous pronouncement at the end of the Defence: “There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise” (53). The personal tone of acknowledgement here is reflective, not declarative and constitution-making. But Lorde’s mixing of these spheres of experience and voice, wrought by a feminist poet and thinker in the decades that gave the truth that the personal is the political, makes the point that many kinds of insight can be publicly transformative. Lorde’s scrutiny of what poetry means illuminates and shapes a heretofore “private” experience that is the basis of potential collective action: a poetry of life that is not an adjunct to living but of vital necessity. Brought forward into a future it welcomes but cannot anticipate or enclose, Shelley’s outsized conclusion in A Defence of Poetry that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World” enjoins difficult thinking about feeling and examining public feeling (535). Raymond Williams, originator of the influential concept of “structures of feeling,” locates in Shelley’s statement “the felt helplessness of a generation” at “the very moment when [poets] were being forced into practical exile” by the literary print culture of the novel and the economic structures of industrial capitalism (Culture, 47).  Williams’s decisive page on Shelley’s Defence in Culture and Society contains the judgment that “in the continuous pressure of living, the free play of genius found it increasingly difficult to consort with the free play of the market, and the difficulty was not solved, but cushioned, by idealization” (ibid.). Typically treated as aspirational hyperbole, Shelley’s famous sentence carries a counterfactual rhetoric by way of declarative grammar.  For Williams, this means “a description…, which, on the theory, ought only to be a fact to be accepted” but instead carries a collectively subjective and subjunctive mood of helplessness (ibid.).
10. As the rhetorical figure for a Romantic-era structure of feeling that with global capitalism and neoliberalism has only become more entrenched, Shelley’s exaggerated statement of poetic agency conveys and performs the mood of a collective helplessness, enacting the paradox of passive agency, and further implying that such an illegible mode of agency can be ubiquitously world-informing.  Its poetic legislative powers are claimed to motivate the history of human consciousness found beneath or encountered laterally beside the mainstream account of historical action. In this regard, Shelley’s poetic deconstruction of the idea of liberal individual “consent” and his unfolding of a project of plural being anticipates and opens up to Fred Moten’s project in Black and Blur, the first volume in the consent not to be a single being trilogy. Moten’s work musically churns in the collective yet fragmented poetics of all that comes by way of con-sent—a move which fractures and glides, marks crossings with violence (the middle passage), but also is stationed in the mood of receptive passivity (“The truth for poets wants them to be available” [Glissant, 45]).
11. Yet those legislative powers are eloquently expressive, most of all, of what Sianne Ngai positions as states of inaction (22). Where exactly should we locate the pivot of the effectuating/ helpless turn of counterfactual mood? Are poets a) everywhere the unacknowledged but effective agents behind larger values and institutions? Or do poets b) legislate, but not for the nation-state, rather, for the individual or for world spirit? The truth predicated is based not on a logical or arguably even historical analysis of linguistic agency, but upon an attitude the sentence models as an unacknowledged public feeling, or what Ngai calls an aesthetic emotion (5). This attitude shapes response to another difficult implied question: c) If poets are not the acknowledged legislators of public policy and governance, how can poetry effect change in a world at all that deserves the name in the cosmopolitan sense Shelley elsewhere endorses, a world held in common, one that is intelligible and public?  Disentangling the meaning of Shelley’s deceptively simple statement requires that we at once critically suspend, and poetically amplify, the universal import of each of the sentence’s key words: poet, legislator, and world.
12. Recent scholarship in affect theory and the writings of the loose collective of thinkers participating in the “Public feelings project” may help us to engage further with this critical dilemma of how a world may be held in common, without reverting to an enlightenment universalism that over-clarifies these issues of agency, intelligibility, and publicity (Berlant, viii). “Writing throws the world together,” Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart maintain in their recent work of “noetic collaboration,” The Hundreds (11, 8). The “thrown-together” world of Berlant and Stewart’s writing both fails to add up and exceeds the alternately grandiose and annihilative worldview of the individual Romantic author if we continue to view the latter as a figure who must either creatively legislate his imaginative world, or struggle in a wake of fragments to compose a catastrophe. Mingling the legacy of Shelleyan Romanticism with twentieth- and twenty-first century inflections of public feeling(s), this essay asks how it might be that the unpredictably collaborative, suspensive “world” of such a “Public feelings project” is answerable to and answered by Shelley’s conception of the world-making activity of poets. Can the minimally conditioned notion of unforeclosed experience, found in the writings of the “Public feelings” group, sustain the imaginative horizon of a dynamic and common world envisioned by Romantic poetry? Never quite organized or formalized, there is at least one kind of answer in terms of shared mental imagery: the prose poetry of contemporary “life in suspension” links in its circuitry, its charged and sagging zones, and in its varieties of the genre Berlant calls the impasse, to Shelley’s own charged dispersive poetics (Berlant and Stewart, 8).
13. The tradition of thinkers who radically apply David Hume’s critique of induction provides a background for my proposed reading. In A Defence of Poetry and elsewhere, Shelley follows the Humean skeptical critique of those unilateral constructions of agency and causality that are temporally as well as logically linear. This Romantic skeptical mobilization of Hume’s empirical argument holds that one cannot reason back up the line from an effect to its cause to posit the seat of some prior metaphysical origin. Causational force in itself has no ontological priority to the relational event in which it manifests. The creatively skeptical move Shelley develops from Hume thereby dissolves the hard idea of causality into what one might call the associative field poetics of constant conjunction and by analogy the domain of the socially “juxtapolitical” (Berlant 20).  (The scrambling of cause into a cloud-field of co-implicating events also means Shelley’s skeptical idealism is ever linked to the thinking of atmosphere: atmospheres of sleeping and breathing, as much as atmospheres of revolution and catastrophe.)  As Shelley writes in the Defence of the history of various Ancient Greek artistic media, in terms both of cause and of the assignment of credit: “[I]t is an idle enquiry to demand which gave and which received the light, which all as from a common focus have scattered over the darkest periods of succeeding time. We know no more of cause and effect than a constant conjunction of events: Poetry is ever found to coexist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection of man” (518).  It is hard to tell where theory of knowledge ends and where aesthetic theory and moral philosophy begin in such a passage, which includes the “civil habits of action” that prepare the ground for the final sentence’s reach toward “legislation”: “Language, colour, form, and religious and civil habits of action are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonym of the cause” (513). Shelley deploys Humean skepticism toward causation but realizes that its mitigated tenor in Hume is little more than a sociable choice. He freely diverts skepticism into the metaleptic commingling of “effects” and “instruments.”
14. With this critique of cause in mind, no wonder if Shelley, more than other poets, is judged ineffectual. In its role as a poetics treatise, A Defence of Poetry defines a poem as “the very image of life” in opposition to story, precisely by way of the dependence of the latter on cause and effect (515). Shelley reads the definitional reliance of storytelling on causation itself as a form of narrative poetics. He does so, however, not to establish a grounding philosophical relationship, but as evidence that “a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other bond of connexion than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect” (515). It is a wonderfully dissatisfied mood that can find disappointment in the small worldview wherein there is “no other” form of relationship than the Kantian categories: time, space, and cause! Shelley boldly rejects a normatively fixed version of cause and effect in order to create openings that promote other “bond[s] of connexion.” As Shelley says of “the promotors of utility,” actually rather attractively (as an author might to acknowledge a good partner or dean), “[t]hey make space, and give time” (529). His metaleptic critique of cause-and-effect thereby expands Hume’s tastefully mitigated skepticism, extending its reach beyond epistemology to other areas including ethics, love, and historical poetics. 
15. But in doing so, Shelley persists in his own version of what Lorde will call “the passing dreams of choice,” the privilege to harness this appropriately creative skepticism only to curative love, denying the reality (for himself and for others) of fearful confrontations. Humean skepticism thus requires modes of livable, poetic rewriting for the human subject whose own survival cannot be taken for granted. (Though as Kara Keeling writes in reply to Lorde’s concept of survival as “enduring as such”: “None of us survive as such; indeed, perhaps, freedom requires we give way to other things” [ix].) I draw Lorde’s powerful critical and poetic insight into a jagged arc with what is already a creatively critical swerve in Shelley’s Romantic revision of the Enlightenment. Lorde’s poem "A Litany for Survival" unforgettably marks this relay, beginning with Hume’s classic locus of the problem of skepticism, in terms of the historical experience of that problem for Black bodies: “And when the sun rises we are afraid / it might not remain / when the sun sets we are afraid / it might not rise in the morning.”
16. In light of the issue of causality in particular, the distinction between poetry and story closely resembles and shares elemental components with the distinction between affect and emotion. It is precisely on narrative and causal grounds that the protean realm of affect differs from the more fixed, organized, and symbolically pre-interpreted domain of emotion (Ngai 24–7).  The tradeoff comes in intellectual capital: as opposed to Ngai’s “ugly” affectively-laden feelings of irritation and envy, the classical emotional terms of anger, jealousy, the sublime, and even anxiety enjoy greater and more clearly activated and analyzed levels of intellectual prestige (9, 35). Shelley’s presentation of poets as the unacknowledged legislators implicitly worries the issue of the availability of this prestige to lyric as opposed to narrative modes. Though the strong analogy I’ve just presented holds between Shelley’s contrast (on the grounds of causality, as its foremost aspect) of lyric and narrative poetics and the contrast between affect and emotion, Shelley nonetheless departs in advance from recent cultural theory of affect in terms of the range of feelings his work privileges, or even allows. Shelley in his moral and political thought is particularly insistent on affirming the heroic and major emotions over ugly minor feelings. The preface to The Revolt of Islam outright rejects the politics of ugly feelings: “There is no quarter given to Revenge, or Envy, or prejudice. Love is celebrated everywhere as the sole law which should govern the moral world” (qtd. by McLane, 217–8). Similarly, the preface to Prometheus Unbound rejects Milton’s Satan as a result of this heroic character’s motivation by ambition, envy, and revenge (207).
17. In the “stretched present” of a constellated social poetics, Shelleyan creation and public feelings theory share an important mobilizing insight about the imaginative sensing of contemporaneity (Berlant, 5). The Defence’s prophetic mantle must not obscure its value as a tool to help make emergent life livable. Despite its idealistic pitch, the Defence affords many responsive forms of historical and social attunement. Berlant lays hold of this Shelleyan sympathetic insight in saying “the present is perceived, first, affectively” (4). She drops the vatic idiom. But is not Berlant claiming, like Shelley, that poets are hierophants of futurity? (And again, not even just narrowly poets: Berlant cites Marx that “the senses have become theoreticians” .) Presentness is first perceived poetically, that is to say; so long as we follow in the Shelleyan tradition of defining poetry as socially sympathetic formative making—not in rigid terms of traditional form and genre. In Shelley’s well-known binary of “mental action” between the faculties of reason and imagination, the first insight of the imagination is the perception of value (510).
18. Both Berlant and Stewart recurrently deploy Shelleyan imagery of electric charge, circuitry, and (especially in Berlant’s case) electrical infrastructure in their work on routes and energies of public feelings. Rather than using it as an idealistic symbol, electricity for these thinkers figures intersubjective and (occasionally) collective modes of thought that are invisible conceptually as low affects and wide infrastructures. Electrical (dis)charge is of course an unmistakable Romantic and Shelleyan image. The preface to Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound contrasts the “spirit” to the “forms” of the age by calling the spirit an “uncommunicated lightning” (207). In the same preface, he credits the influence of Milton to his republican age and sees that age of English revolution as a source of stocked energy for the ideals of outflowing energy in Romanticism. Shelley heralds: “The cloud of mind is discharging its collected lightning” (208). Writers in the public feelings group often use electrical grid imagery, crackling with potential energies but unyoked from sovereign—or any clear—agency as many of our public structures crumble. “The ordinary lives only in the moment of its surge” (Stewart 56). The Shelleyan “Spirit of the Age” in A Defence of Poetry anticipates and shares this field of charged, subjective but not individual, potentialities in its well-known image of the collective genius of the age as a gathering discharge of lightning. The uncontainable, unlocalized character of this figure and its agency offers indeed one handy symbolic means to distinguish the worldview of Romantic artists from the philosophes of European Enlightenment. Rejecting the “gross vice or weakness” in which tenuous historical values of heroic conduct, as he finds in Addison’s Cato, robe poetic forms, Shelley writes: “To such purposes Poetry cannot be made subservient. Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it” (520). 
19. New modes of imagination are required to make this feudal and phallic image resonate. The invisible and dispersively charged associative circuit of an electrical atmosphere culminates in the figure of the lightning flash that may do work, but at the same time empties and neutralizes the more expansive site of the common field (the latter being perhaps a more interesting and potentially generative locus, present for example in the figure of Asia in Prometheus Unbound). Public feelings thinkers align with Lorde’s conception of “the erotic’s electrical charge” when they refuse the consolidating patriarchal image (59). On one hand, Berlant’s work can be understood as a series of projects that reflect upon and construct the social-material infrastructures for this moving, charged atmosphere and its forms of lateral agency in contemporary “unraveled life” (Berlant 21).  On the other hand, Stewart and Berlant alike explore the latent, sagging, volatile, and live, yet not-insistently-actualized media, of electrical conduct. Theirs is a world without enlightening (and insistently phallic) flashes, in which the realization of public feeling “might feel like anything, including nothing” (Berlant 2). A world in which not privileged subjects but “rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary” (Stewart, 44). Unhoused and ungrounded, affective intensities haunt even the most domestic interlunations of ordinary life.
20. Romantic criticism has noted and celebrated Shelley’s dispersive poetics as part of a radically negative aesthetic, one not recoverable by instrumental politics.  Here I see Shelley’s annihilation of traditional agency not as an erasure of the voice that might speak toward public feeling, but in line with Berlant’s and Stewart’s suspended, unraveled, yet charged potential to foster something happening (or not) in the realm of the intimate collective. As opposed to the complex but philosophically clear grammar of the first two questions I have discussed—the question of the efficacy of action and the question of the scale of its duration, management, and governance—the last question asked poses a challenge to the very ideas of a nucleated individual agency and a publicity that might fix in place a world in common.  On this third question I turn back and forward to Lorde.
21. There is yet further room and provocation to think of Lorde’s essays on poetry, public life, erotics, and teaching as major contributors to the living thought of Romanticism and post-Romanticism. Lorde writes in "Coal" that “There are many kinds of open.” The rest of this essay is devoted to exploring a mode of openness unwelcome to Shelley, though not to a collective and intimate Romantic project moving from and beyond him. For the main instance of a textual provocation that arcs beyond chronological Romanticism, I take Shelley’s valuable insight in the Defence and in his short essay "On Love" that the outgoing structure of love and hope “beyond ourselves” also comprehends fear. I see this double insight and its necessary edge of vulnerability as an understanding that by himself Shelley is unable to effectively use. This aversion exposes him rightly to the harsh light of critique by Lorde: “But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford” (Lorde 54). It takes subsequent trajectories of poetic experience and expression, which I find in the thought of Lorde, to address this need for courage of insight and bring it to bear on “the image of life” and its creative and critical practice (SPP 515).  Understanding “luxury” not as hedonism nor as a fetishistic object-oriented surplus enjoyment, but as the inhibiting burden of carrying defensive illusions that do not supply any actual protection or substance for life—a privilege enjoyed only by those able to “afford” habitual inattention to need—Lorde thereby makes essential the forms of joyous creation, but also modes of fearful scrutiny. This effort represents a necessary new direction for the thought of poetry as the criticism of life, but not under the fixed conditions the nineteenth century so often imagined without insight. Something is yet worth recovering from the wreck of this patriarchal Arnoldian conception because it attests beyond its false universalism to the sensibility of human needs.
Poetry is Not a Luxury
22. Lorde’s and Shelley’s writings are particularly generative to think with and teach together because they share a fundamental argument about the necessity of poetry. Lorde and Shelley develop two of the strongest, fiercest, and most flexible articulations of the purpose and life of poetry without even a minimum of technical scaffolding—that is, without supportive reference to the traditional techniques of verse. Both resolutely refuse to take their bearings from the technical aspects of poetry as language enclosed in pattern. Their defenses of poetry are instead grounded in human capacities. And despite the individual notes of apology and negation in their titles, as makers of global arguments, Lorde and Shelley both also assume boldly non-defensive attitudes. Thinking primarily through the body, "Poetry Is Not a Luxury," redefines the essential transformative thesis of Shelley’s Defence concerning ideation, that poetry is not a recombinative exercise, or an adjunct to sense, but a necessity at the center and circumference of life at peril of social death. Thus, in Kara Keeling’s richly generative response to Lorde’s essay (an account which also references capitalism’s reproduction of fear in the body), for Lorde “poetry is a way of thinking the space/time of politics for those deemed disposable or socially dead” (xi). Though she never refers to Shelley and does not need his example—or seemingly the creative precedent of any other male canonical poets, alien if not hostile to her own situated body—nonetheless in my view, Lorde both supports and critically supplements Shelley’s resistance to the definition of poetry as a formal object. She does so in the name of lived specificity, as the means to envision human flourishing under a larger horizon of solidarity. Lorde rejects the reduction of poetry to verse as what she calls a “distillation of experience . . . to . . . sterile word play” (37). She feared that poetry and poets themselves had become the “promotors of utility” that Shelley despises. Equally, she despised the view of poetry as a civilized game, as in even the most flexible rendition we might give to R.P. Blackmur’s definition of poetry as “a game we play with reality” (1). 
23. Yet in the articulation of her own situated and specific dimension of a vitally Shelleyan poetics in the broadest sense, Lorde also formulates what is perhaps the deepest problem in this tradition and relates it in sharp terms, by assigning the institution of poetry to “the white fathers [who write] . . . in order to cover their desperate wish for imagination without insight” (37). Beyond even the irrefutable “white fathers” aspect of her critique, how much poetic production—how much literary theory and criticism—is rightly subject to this second accusation of whitewashing; that is, of the writer’s wish to court imagination without the work and the pain of delivering insight? “Insight,” in this reading, is not a quantum of new knowledge, or a projective vision, but a harsh and rich encounter with an ancient-emergent knowledge one must unearth and face. Romantic writings must remain uncomfortably open to Lorde’s statement in order to grapple with the kind of revelatory experience that comes only from painful self-examination. One of the aspects of Shelley’s privilege is his ability not to recognize the fundamental realities of suffering and pain—alike as a personal and as a political experience.
24. Maureen McLane expresses this differently when she preserves and reverses, in and with Shelley, the slogan of 1970s activist feminism: “For with Shelley the political is personal” (215). Rather than the courageous breakthrough of a feminist praxis, this inversion of the feminist motto for Shelley sounds brittle to me and suggests the potential elision of self-knowledge. As the title of her essay-address bears out, Lorde’s way of saying that language is vitally metaphorical, that the creation of poetry is the conduct and “very image of life,” and, furthermore, that life-making is a world-making practice, is to say that "Poetry is not a Luxury." If poetry is now typically thought to be a luxury good or a productively “useless” activity, in her essay Lorde mobilizes a compelling and atypical concept of luxury. In typical definitions “luxury” comprises an object that is desirable but inessential, marked by a differential symbolic prestige as well as being expensive and difficult to obtain. Lord deploys an alternative sense of “luxury” based on a lived concept of economies of spirit. It is important to note that the essay was written at a time when Lorde was awaiting a potentially terminal medical diagnosis for her first appearance of cancer. This personal reference bears on her characterization of waiting upon a time of fearlessness as the “final luxury” she could not afford. Lorde did not have the luxury of a conception of empty, extended time to expend on delays due to fear.
25. Lorde also presents a fundamental critique of the metaphysical idea of a separate time of enjoyment, the idea that luxury must come after and be thereby distinguished from necessity or even use value in temporal terms. I read this aspect of her work through Kristen Ross’s recent study, Communal Luxury [L’Imaginaire de la Commune], which makes available and recharges for public use the idea of a far-flung tradition of luxurious working in common. The argument of builds from the eponymous French communard manifesto regarding “transforming aesthetic coordinates” in the reliance of political and social transformation upon public art: “We will work cooperatively toward our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendors and the Universal Republic. –Federation of Artists Manifesto, April 1871” (Ross 39, 58). For Ross, appending the word “communal” to “luxury” changes the meaning of the latter term. After the model of the 1871 Communards, Ross breaks down the duality between necessity and luxury. Both Lorde and Ross insist that what is needed is to uncover previously submerged forms of living, in Ross’s words to maintain a vital prolongation, a “life beyond life” (6). Lorde and Ross both, too, are making an argument against the further misapplication of assigning inverted values from this binary: the wrongful designation of necessary things as luxury goods. 
26. Within her “project of making art lived—not superfluous or trivial, but vital and indispensable to the community,” Ross promotes the term luxury (59). Indeed, Communal Luxury maintains that it is the Malthusian calculus of modern capitalism itself that generates the model of economic scarcity through which the system is perpetuated (72, 127). In the urgency of Lorde’s project, necessity comes to the front. For her all luxury is what Ross calls “senseless luxury,” the privilege to suffer the illusion to be careless of need (63). Shelley, Lorde, and Ross align in their individual conceptualizations of the roles of value and imagination in relation to productive reason—to material and even to mental production. We don’t need more knowledge. For Lorde specifically, “there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women” (38). All three writers are committed to a different form of the analysis: “We want the creative capacity to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest” (530). Lorde, indeed, often construes the important new information to be gained by poetic creation and scrutiny as outside the domain of thought altogether. Rather, poetic practice makes deep and even pre-verbal knowledges available for living.
27. In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Lorde shares an idiosyncratic tactical definition of fear and fearlessness as the “final luxury.” She writes: “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of the silence will choke us” (44). Or again, in "Uses of the Erotic": “But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies” (54). In a passage from "The Transformation of Silence," Lorde says that “[w]e can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired” (44). The necessity of poetry and the sense of communal luxury that one finds so strikingly in Lorde and Ross and the livable habit of working and speaking “when we are afraid,”—seeking “our own needs for language and definition” by moving through, not halting in, fear—contrast to the final luxuries of fear and scarcity (of biological life, time, and socially necessary goods) that are senseless. These cannot be afforded.
28. The introduction to Sister Outsider presents Lorde’s writing as a contribution to “an impulse toward wholeness.” (Bereano 8). Such a presentation anticipates Lorde’s sentence from “The Transformation of Silence”: “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent” (42). This deep impulse to realize wholeness comes from the expression of resistance to an experience of alternately fragmented, managed, and administered life known so well by earlier Romantic writers. Lorde transmutes the two fundamental enlightenment figures of light and critical examination in "Poetry is Not a Luxury" and other essays. Like Shelley’s atmospheres of light in the Defence, in the opening paragraph on the fundamentally poetic act of valuation, she writes of “[t]he quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives”; this light we create and bring with us “has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives” (36). “And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love” (58). Giving a rich form of self-evidence to a haptic and erotic body of anti-enlightenment knowledge and helping to develop what Ferguson calls an eros of the critical imagination (297), Lorde’s writings perform an unanticipated but necessary inner transformation of Shelley’s critique of Enlightenment stockpiling of knowledge in the Defence, in which Lorde pursues “the felt above the ideational, affect above theory” (Mangrum 338).
29. This poetics develops fully in what remains the merely potentially human space of the contrasts Shelley implies in the Defence, between “practice,” “distribution,” and “poetry” on the one hand, and “wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “systems of thought” on the other:
Of a piece with the felt conviction and persuasiveness with which she writes, Lorde views the activity of thinking itself suspiciously. She even fears it.  Is fear an activist impulse? Or anger? In the passages I’ve cited above, drawing from multiple essays, Lorde does not allow her relation to fear to metastasize or describe regions of experience she will not open. Her language around fear is proportionate to the discussion of loving and nearly as rich. She analyzes the experience of living actively with fear as a part of a non-utilitarian practice of “feeling and working to capacity” in practical, ethical, and poetic forms of life.
30. Against the differentials of a “quality of light” which Lorde brings to scrutiny, stands the Enlightenment of Shelley’s account, with its concealed, congealed accumulations of knowledge burying poetry within systems. The gradual buildup of anger that differently embodied subjects may feel in being forced to enlighten those in privilege suggests the need for a politics of solidarity in fatigue, as much as a relational affirmation of love-politics.  In order to step into the erotics of light, the handling of anger in Lorde’s writings offers a profoundly necessary continuation and corrective for the disabling fear of anger, a relation to fear and anger shown throughout the career of Percy Shelley. Lorde’s range of affective and political investments in poetry point the way to a more productive relation to the emotions, thoughts, and insights we fear, using the very condition of the body as a means to go forward, asking courageously “Does it feel right to me?” As Lorde says caringly of her son in "Man Child": “I do not exist to do his feeling for him” (74). However, in Shelley’s distribution of feeling-in-thought, fear and anger are both philosophically and personally deprived working through. Denied metaphysical reality in Shelley’s utopian politics, anger and fear are thereby relegated to status of the demonic. Barbara Johnson captures this with cutting briskness as a primary fact of Shelley’s existence: “He was a vegetarian, but was trained as a skilled huntsman and harbored murderous feelings” (83). Similarly, James Chandler remarks that Shelley’s aristocratic identity by birth was the basis for a lifelong attitude of “self-renunciation” (344).
31. Disavowal is among Shelley’s deepest-rooted impulses. Politically this makes sense, while it seems to me at the same time to limit and distort Shelley’s relationship to the self-querying of the rightness of some of his uglier feelings. Shelley claims in the fragmentary essay "On Love," an essay only published at Mary Shelley’s discretion in The Keepsake of 1829, that:
In A Defence of Poetry, there is no fear in the parallel version of the statement: “The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own” (517). The “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” ends by enjoining the “SPIRIT fair” to “fear himself, and love all human kind” (96). These lines are often given the unwarranted, restrictive parsing of fear as self-respect. But they are based on a want of self-trust and inward examination in traversing “the chasm of an insufficient void.”
32. Colin Jager has written discerningly on Shelley’s philosophical poetics and the “adventures of human flourishing,” in a reading that elaborates the stakes and risks to the meaning of the poet’s atheism as an occupation (240). As part of this commentary, Jager observes, Act IV of Prometheus Unbound operates “on the far side of fear” (243). But this boundary marking of a dispensation after fear only makes the discontinuous handling—an Ariel-like vaulting over to the farther shore, not a culture of working through—that much clearer to view. The elisions of fear practiced by Shelley, and at times by his commentators, leave the dark and legitimate sources of their emotional power and need unaddressed. If Shelley at such moments is disabled by his own aversion to the processing of anger and fear, the repression is directed toward a fear, foremost, of his own responsive capacity for anger, and therefore instances a repression of susceptibilities and responsibilities that are inseparable from language and feeling as such.
33. Here Lorde can offer a strong and necessary comparative contrast in which we do not require sympathetically outgoing desires to be valued alone by the false innocence bought with disavowal, and thus we can risk the achievement of both integrity and experience. In her poem, "Between Ourselves," Lorde models the ossified psychic form of hatred so as to give opportunity to life outside the containment of the interlocking structure of a nested, negative conformity of self and other:
This poetics of a public feeling communicated “between ourselves” bears with great insight on Shelley’s desire, in "On Love," go decisively “beyond ourselves” by awakening a sort of community-in-harmonics with experience “within ourselves.” But Lorde’s love-politics does not seek the mirroring symmetry of that “same direction.” Rendered anew in the analogy with "Between Ourselves," Shelley’s geometry of a responsive sympathy looks instead like the orientation of bodies in the hold of a ship, or a cemetery full of headstones all levelled one way after a storm. To read Lorde’s "Poetry is Not a Luxury" back into and with Shelley, is to return to a felt and embedded, not mirroring, relationship of the public feeling of love, “going out” of the self, and to the working through of experiences of fear that cannot be expelled from “our own needs for language and definition,” an examination of the full value carried by imagination. It is also, as in the brief reading of "Coal" at the start of this essay, to examine and develop capacities that seem too occluded to bring to light; to go deeper into the densities of relation, in an inversion of the way Keats urged Shelley to mine concertedly for the sake of the extraction of beauty for poetry.  This would be a more luminous, but also a more textured and even opaque, light: a necessary energy force sought and expended for the sake of enlarging our scrutiny of a poetry of life that might not only be shared at the level of ideas but felt, tested, and trusted in bodies.
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Berlant, Lauren and Kathleen Stewart. The Hundreds. Duke UP, 2019.
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———. Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life. Translated by Anne Boyman, Zone, 2005.
Edelman, Lee. "The Pathology of the Future, or the Endless Triumphs of Life." Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism, edited by Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle, Fordham UP, 2016, pp. 35–46.
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 Unless noted, all page references to Lorde’s writing are from Sister Outsider. BACK
 Quotations from Percy Shelley are taken from Reiman and Fraistat’s Norton (second edition) of Shelley’s Selected Poetry and Prose. I cite this volume as SPP only where context may not be evident. BACK
 Benjamin Mangrum points back to the fact that the essay’s original title was “Poems are Not Luxuries,” and that it was written in Lorde’s first year of editorship of the feminist quarterly journal Chrysalis (337). Mangrum’s work is one source of my emphasis on administered culture. BACK
 For Williams’s concept of “structures of feeling,” see The Long Revolution, 48–71. BACK
 McLane writes on Shelley’s “counterfactual imagination” in My Poets, 226. BACK
 For passive agency, see Ngai, 1. BACK
 As Wolfson notes, the corresponding passage in A Philosophical View of Reform (1819–20) states that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (341). In this sense A Philosophical View of Reform does not merely anticipate and “repeat” in advance the more famous conclusion of A Defence but may seek to stabilize concepts beyond the flux of aesthetic emotion. BACK
 Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy from his early work on represents the most coherent and suggestive major attempt to cleave to the radical implications of Humean skepticism; see Deleuze (2005, 2011). Also, relevant and exciting here on a different philosophical trajectory is Morton, "An Object-Oriented Defense of Poetry." Morton’s essay pursues the idea of agency as inhering in the essences of all objects, as expressed in their “causal” aesthetic relations. BACK
 See Stout (171–86) and Ford. BACK
 For more passages that reflect Shelley’s “metaleptic” post-Humean approach to causation in A Defence, see Shelley’s Selected Poetry and Prose, page 511(“and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, so the child seeks…”); page 516 (“In the infancy of the world, neither poets themselves nor their auditors are fully aware of the excellency of poetry: for it acts in a divine and unapprehended manner, beyond and above consciousness; and it is reserved for future generations to contemplate and measure the mighty cause and effect in all the strength and splendour of their union”; page 534 (“Poetry, as has been said, in this respect differs from logic, that it is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind, and that its birth and recurrence has no necessary connexion with consciousness or will. It is presumptuous to determine that these are the necessary conditions of mental causation, when mental effects are experienced insusceptible of being referred to them.” But rather than simply annulling causation, Shelley also delineates effects that are mutual determinations, particularly upon poets and poetry: “Poets, not otherwise than philosophers, painters, sculptors, and musicians, are in one sense the creators and in one sense the creations of their age. From this subjection the loftiest do not escape” (208). BACK
 See Kuiken for a fuller account of metalepsis as a mode of imagination in A Defence. Shelley’s metaleptic deconstruction of causality and temporality thus is inherently open to queer affiliations he did not anticipate. For a complex, rhetorically negative reading of Shelley’s poem The Triumph of Life along these lines, see Edelman. McLane accounts for Shelley in terms of sex-positive 1990s queer poetics (231). BACK
 For Ngai, drawing from Brian Massumi, affect is feeling or intensity disconnected from meaningful sequencing — from narration. BACK
 “For the sword outwears its sheath,” laments Lord Byron in his 1817 lyric “So, we’ll go no more a roving.” Phallic as it is, the atmosphere of potentiality and latency in Shelley’s image of lightning should be contrasted to the much more grandiose anti-heroic image in Byron of lightning as a figure of potency and mortal fatigue. This image fixated Shelley and needed a counter. BACK
 For Berlant’s most explicit consideration of infrastructure to date, see “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times.” I am especially drawn to this essay’s project of “managing being in proximity in the awkward and violent ordinary” (395). BACK
 Forceful examples of this radically negative reading of Shelley, post-Paul de Man, include Pyle (esp. 29–65) and Faflak. BACK
 Ross calls this the “cellular regime of nationality” (11–38). BACK
 In Shelley’s The Witch of Atlas, another seriocomic poem of 1820, the mischievous and undesiring Witch kneads together a “sexless” hermaphrodite from “liquid love,” in order to help power her journeys in the boat refitted from the unwanted car of Venus, “too feeble to be fraught” with all of Venus’ sex in the back seat (376–7). This “living Image” of the career of Love indicates playfully just the extent to which Shelley in all seriousness needed to bring ordinary, lived, sexuality into his mythopoetic vision. BACK
 “[T]he game by history and training, the play by instinct and need,” continues Blackmur’s achieved formulation (1). BACK
 “Senseless luxury, which [William] Morris knew cannot exist without slavery of some kind, would be replaced by communal luxury, or equality in abundance” (Ross, 63.) BACK
 Prompted by her own past remarks, Lorde said the following in response to Adrienne Rich’s question about how thinking was for Lorde “a mysterious process that other people did and that you had to sort of practice? That it wasn’t something you just did”:
 I allude to Keats’s letter to Shelley of August 16, 1820. BACK