In a moving tribute of verse and song, a literary luminary has her name etched in stone at a cathedral.
On what would have been her 87th birthday, hundreds showed up on Thursday to celebrate poet, essayist and activist Audre Lorde, as she was memorialized at the American Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in their first virtual induction ceremony.
The 2020 inductee was elected last spring just as the pandemic grabbed hold of New York City, and was scheduled to be honored in a traditional in-person gathering at the landmarked Gothic cathedral in Morningside Heights in upper Manhattan.
“Normally, we come together on the second Sunday of November for service and induction ceremony, followed by a celebration of the inductee,” the Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniel III, Dean of the Cathedral said, as he greeted online attendees from the empty, dimly lit nave of the church. “The situation, of course, has been very different over these past months 12 months [and] I am so delighted that friends, close friends of Audre Lorde and members of her family are with us tonight. I hope very much that we could be together in November when we honor the 2021 inductee and then, in person, celebrate Audre Lorde.”
Born in Harlem in 1934, Lorde was a New York Poet Laureate and author of over a dozen volumes of poetry and prose, most written in fierce protest of society’s intersecting injustices. In being chosen for this honor, she joins more than 50 distinguished writers – including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin – who have been selected for a permanent place of recognition at the Cathedral. Established in 1984 after a similar tradition at the Westminster Abbey in London, the electors at St. John the Divine seek to ensure “the American Poets Corner memorializes the literature of our nation in all its surprise, wit and beauty.”
Cathedral Poet-in-Residence Marie Howe was host for the evening.
“Somehow on this snowy night, it seems like we have made a hearth together [online],” she said, noting the warmth she felt through the presence of so many gathered to honor the late poet’s legacy. She welcomed attendees, asking those who were willing, to share their location in the Zoom chat feature: writers, readers, friends, family and admirers were logged on from all over New York State; each region of the U.S. and several countries in Europe.
“It is Better to Speak”
To the backdrop of somber music, Marie Howe then walked over to the alcove of marble and surrounded by candles and yellow potted flowers, she formally inducted Audre Lorde into the Poets Corner of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Unveiling the stone at her feet, she read: “AUDRE LORDE 1934 – 1992. When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”
Those lines were taken from Lorde’s highly acclaimed poem, “A Litany for Survival” a call to speak up, act, demand and not be silenced by fear.
Daniel called Lorde “one of America’s most prescient voices. She dedicated both her life and creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices – of racism, sexism, classism, and capitalism,” he said. “Although she died 28 years ago, her words are relatively powerful and possibly, more so today, than they were in her lifetime.”
For the remainder of the evening, poets including Dante Micheaux, Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Aracelis Girmay, among many others, read from Lorde’s work, while friends, former colleagues and students also read or told anecdotes of time spent with the inductee. Singer/songwriter Elsa Saade, an admirer of Lorde, gave an impromptu musical rendition in song and guitar.
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in a pre-recording, called Lorde a mentor, a lifeline, and a warrior-poet, before proceeding to read “A Litany for Survival,” a poem she said has “kept her writing through many times.”
Dr. Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, Audre Lorde’s daughter, said she felt “completely blessed” and thanked the organizers of the ceremony. “Poetry is a lifeline,” she said. “It was for Audre Lorde and it was the line she threw to others. Her words of poetry are on the lips of people all over the world fighting for justice in this time – it’s everything she wanted.”