Audre Lorde wrote a poem called “Power” after learning about the acquittal of a white police officer for murdering a 10-year-old black child in 1973. The poem begins, “The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children.” While sitting with this poem in our current political climate, reading it over and over, I started to question why Lorde titled the poem “Power” and what exactly this first line means for someone who lives with no choice between the two.
In the face of gross corruption, poetry can feel insufficient, and yet rhetoric can feel tone-deaf. All great poets who see themselves as a part of a community grapple with the relevance of their poems to the material conditions of abuse, poverty, and injustice. What power do we have? And in the case of Lorde’s first line, what power does any person really have who is forced to choose between poetry and rhetoric, “being ready to kill yourself / instead of your children?” Power corrupts.
“In Justice,” my response to “Power,” attempts to address the nuance between poetry and rhetoric. Though we may feel powerless, each person has some relationship with and to power. It is a privilege, in a labor-driven society, to sit and write poems. And yet, it is difficult, necessary, and enduring work to delve into the emotional truths of poetry for the sake of wielding collective power. A poet’s power is in their abilities to tell the truth and use everything in their poetic arsenal to shift the conditions of the poor, abused, and oppressed to balance the scales of justice.
We must be able to “touch the destruction within,” in the words of Lorde, or else become corrupted. Poetry alone cannot change the material conditions of an unjust society, but I challenge anyone to name a substantive freedom movement that does not have poetry. Poetry is a tactic in the strategy for freedom, much like rhetoric, but it should never be our end goal. It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but what good is either in a gunfight?