Feminism is something that is too often misunderstood; common stereotypes of man-hating, self-righteous women misrepresent the movement’s intent, but Audre Lorde’s “Who Said It Was Simple” works to reveal what feminism actually means through numerous lenses. Lorde’s metaphor about the “roots to the tree of anger” is an image that represents years of oppression that fosters anger over generations, like a tree that grows over a span of many years, and in this way she empathizes with her audience’s anger. She seems to imply that this anger is necessary, by referring to the movement’s outcome as the “fruit” the tree would “bear”; though she advises the audience to be careful with the way in which they direct their anger, as the “branches” may “shatter” if their anger is more destructive than constructive. She goes on to highlight the amount of work that it takes to organize large-scale rallies (and the title iterates this as well, with the "It" being a large-scale movement that works to dismantle a system of oppression), like the scene she describes, where a biracial man is working alongside another man to host the women’s rally. The problem that she critiques here is the lack of intersectionality in the second-wave movement, as the women at these rallies fight for gender equality, but fail to fight for racial or queer equality. She explains the need for broader representation with a shift to an autobiographical sentiment:
“But I who am bound by my mirror
As well as my bed
See causes in color
As well as sex”
Lorde is alluding to herself, with the images of the mirror and the bed, because she faced numerous kinds of oppression for being a queer black woman, not just for being a woman. Her final stanza is the most powerful, as she ponders “which me” will survive; the “which me” refers to the different parts of her that marginalize her - the queer part, the black part, and the woman part – and this defines intersectionality. She wants to communicate that feminism cannot just work for women, but rather it must include and advocate for all marginalized groups, and she calls upon her audience to use their voices in order to survive.
IWhen Americans think of war, most of our understanding of what happens in combat is derived from heroic scenes in war films like American Sniper, which provide us with a very polished and pristine image of what war really looks like. Denise Levertov’s “Life at War” gives readers an uncensored glimpse at the true horror of war, with her graphic imagery and her powerful sentiments regarding the power humans have in both creation and destruction. The first thing she wants to highlight is America’s desensitization to violence; “The disasters numb within us” introduces us to “Life at War” quite bleakly, as Levertov points out the numbness Americans felt toward war, considering America’s extensive history of violence. She juxtaposes images of children with hard, heavy images, like “pebbles” and “weighing down,” to indicate a universal feeling of suffocation that was felt by Americans who didn’t support the war in Vietnam. She makes a sudden shift in the eighth stanza, and her language becomes much more violent; the images of tortured and mutilated women and children work to debunk the myth that only the men serving in the war were the victims of war-related violence.
In the final stanzas, she redirects her discussion from a specific image of violence to one that identifies a larger-scale problem that is to blame for the violence. “We are the humans, men who can make” refers to the human capability to create life, and she contrasts this with an image of “our own flesh” burning in Vietnam to point out that the “enemy” was not the only group being destroyed. Humanity, therefore, is capable of peace and creation, but we are also capable of mass destruction. Levertov leaves the reader to ponder how “love” and “joy” could possibly occupy the same mind that is plagued with violence, and she thereby implores readers to evaluate their own morality and consider what it really means to be patriotic.
Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” is well-known for its vivid and expressive characters, and part of what makes them so dynamic is their concern and conflict with freedom and truth. Blanche Dubois struggles with reality because she tells “what ought to be the truth;” she exists within a reality she has created, a world of delusion and deception. She is very aware of the lies she tells, though she doesn’t lie to be malicious; in fact, she explains to her fling, Mitch, that the reason why she lies is to hide a side of herself that she doesn’t appear to be very proud of. She is ashamed of so many things about herself, like her age, her being fired from her teaching job, the loss of her family’s plantation, and especially her sexual desire. She is only able to connect with men sexually after enduring the trauma of witnessing her husband Allan's violent death, so it makes sense that there is a clear sexual tension between Blanche and her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, a hyper-masculine, “brute” man who is only able to relate to women in a sexual context. I believe Blanche feels some jealousy toward her sister Stella, because Stella is granted a kind of sexual freedom as a married woman that Blanche hasn’t been able to experience since the passing of her husband. Stella can have sex with Stanley as frequently as she desires because she is married to him, but Blanche has to hide her “intimacies with strangers” because open promiscuity would have destroyed an unmarried woman’s reputation in the 1940s.
Stanley might be the only truly “free” character in “Streetcar,” because his race and gender both work to provide him with power that he uses to violently dominate the women in the play (see: “I’m the king around here, and don’t you forget it”). However, Blanche holds an irrefutable power over Stanley, which he is well aware of, because he acknowledges his frustrations with Blanche’s lies in a very particular way. He calls her out on her lying, but not to correct a moral fault; he exposes her lying to communicate that he is angry because she won’t allow him unfiltered access to herself, like Stella does. He tries to force this missing connection by raping her, but to no avail, because even after violating her, he still doesn’t know the person Blanche truly is. Blanche is not free, at least not in the overt way that Stanley is, because she is (literally) hiding her true self in the darkness; however, she is certainly a powerful character in that she is able to protect her vulnerability through her delusions.
Poems that highlight an intimate, microscopic experience of a universal system are usually the most powerful, because they give the reader a humanized perspective of the experience. Claude McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer” gives readers a glimpse into the harsh reality of being black during the Harlem Renaissance, as McKay focuses on the tensions between a black woman and white consumers in a Harlem nightclub. We are introduced to the vivid scene with an image of young white men, who are sitting with young black prostitutes, as they all enjoy the performance of a black dancer. The audience is applauding, laughing, and drunk; though they are not who everyone has devoted their attention to. Everyone’s eyes are on the dancing woman, who is described with very soft images, sounds, and sensations:
“Her voice was the sound of blended flutes
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm”
The speaker goes on to admire the dancer’s beauty, and not very romantically – but this isn’t a romantic poem. McKay’s choice to use the sonnet form seems offbeat at first, because its rhythm evokes a sadness that conflicts with his imagery. He does this intentionally, to show the reader how the restrictive nature of the sonnet form is comparable to that of the highly restrictive black experience in the mid-twentieth century. The structure of the poem makes sense because of the rhyming couplet, as McKay reveals the violence hidden behind the romanticized nightclub atmosphere:
“But looking at her falsely-smiling face,’
I knew her self was not in that strange place.”
McKay wants to point out the socioeconomic tensions at play here; he mentions the patrons “tossing coins in praise,” which refers to the reality that the black dancer is working only for a few coins that come from the pockets of people who were born with more financial and social privilege due to their gender and skin color. Although the young white men are surrounded by black women, they still hold a certain unwavering power over everyone in the room. In this context, there is a clearly violent relationship between the white men and the black women whose beauty and labor they “devour.” The emotion of just this small scene represents a much larger system of oppression that both black men and women faced in the twentieth century.
Modernist poets, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, were focused on creating highly expressive and oftentimes political pieces that spoke to the culture in which they lived. Millay’s poem “I, being born a woman and distressed” was published in 1923, near the beginning of an era that would redefine female sexuality, and that would ultimately pave the way for women to be granted rights that had historically been reserved only for men. In this poem, the speaker is immediately assertive; she makes it abundantly clear to the lover she is addressing that she is in total control of their relationship dynamic, and that she simply wants sex from him, with no strings attached. Of course, Millay’s poetry was shocking to readers at the time, due to its boundary-pushing and quite political nature. We all could have guessed that. However, her work differs from that of other modernist writers, such as T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams, because she is highlighting a universal experience that only women readers could identify with. Her word choice is key in connecting her poetry with the gender politics of the time period. “To bear your body's weight upon my breast” appears to be ambiguous, as it can be read as a reinforcement of her desire to have sex with her lover, or it can be interpreted as a critique of the way women were treated by men in the early twentieth century.
Historically, sex was often a tool used by men to reassert their power over the women they engaged with. I believe that Millay is implying that female sexuality during that time was suffocating; sex was an enormous burden for women to “bear,” because it was often a power struggle for women, and because whether a woman was a virgin or was sexually active, she would be identified and treated as such. The speaker’s assertive tone conveys Millay’s beliefs that women do not exist to be subservient, that they are not waiting to be saved by a man, and that women can have agency over their sexuality (or virginity) without being defined by it.