“The scream of an illegitimate voice”

“The scream

of an illegitimate voice

It has ceased to hear itself, therefore

it asks itself

How do I exist?” – Adrienne Rich

The most striking pattern of note from this passage is the repetition of the word “it” in the second stanza. The word choice of “it” rather than “he” or “she” indicates that the scream is coming from someone that feels inhuman – inhuman because of their (or “it”) inability to be heard not only by others, but also hear themselves. Despite not being able to be heard, the fact that Lorde serves as this being’s voice is significant to note as well. Lorde, in The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power notes the oppression of minority women that has resulted from the “exclusively European-American male tradition” (Lorde, 1978, 91). By serving as the voice of what presumably is a minority woman who doesn’t feel human, Rich is breaking down the doorframe of that male tradition. Rich not only hears this voice, she hears it as a scream. She serves, essentially, as a messenger for all who feel inhuman due to their inability to be heard – not just this particular being.

In terms of Rich’s poem overall, she touches on a number of key themes – one of which is the power of silence. In an earlier poem, she makes a key distinction. She writes about the difference between choosing to be silent and being silenced. There is a certain power associated with that choice – this can be seen in the real world with the significance of silent protests. Somehow, these silent protest seem more effective and powerful than louder, more outspoken forms of protest.

6 thoughts on ““The scream of an illegitimate voice””

  1. Being a woman, these lines also stood out to me, reminding me of the oppression I face every day. Reading this, I also noticed the use of the word “it” rather than other, more personal pronouns, as a way of detaching from oneself. It’s important to note, which this writer did, that she uses the word “scream”. This person is not simply trying to speak their mind, but scream it. They need to get something so important off their chest that it has to be screamed. These lines parallel across other poems she writes, because the theme of oppression and struggling is evident throughout many, if not all.

  2. Edmondsk,

    This is a great breakdown, as the word “it” is used in other poems Lorde has written. Possibly, like you said, the “it” refer to the voice that is being silenced therefore dominated by the male voice. The word “it” is also used repeatedly in Rich’s poem Final Notations. Within this poem there is similarity in that the “it” can stand for a human being but can also stand for feeling, feeling that has been deprived of being felt. I would also be interested in comparing the silence aspect of Lorde’s poem to Rich’s Final Notations poem.

  3. I saw the similarity between this poem and Audre Lorde’s, The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. The scream isn’t simply their voice. The scream is the pain and oppression that women deal with in their lives. Both Rich, in the poem Power, and Lorde in The Uses of the Erotic, encourage and challenge women to make their oppression and suffering known and to have a voice. Women share suffering and can grow from it together.

  4. I think you made a wonderful analysis of these few stanzas. I especially liked how you highlighted the use of “it” in lieu of he/she/they pronouns. It most certainly serves to dehumanize this voice which she is describing. I think this has a strong connection to the last stanza of your selection “How do I exist?” In this last stanza I believe she is making the point that this person she refers to as an “it” fails to exist since its voice is not being heard.

  5. I agree that Rich’s repetition of the pronoun “it” is significant, in that she is able to make the distinction that “it” is not a single person or even a single group of people, but “it” is rather referring to the voice of a person/group of people who have been oppressed, and whose screams have thus become “illegitimate.” I also think that this stanza depicts the type of normlessness and anomie that one feels when they don’t fit into the supposedly fixed and non-negotiable categories that make up modern society. One who does not fit these strictly defined categories such as “straight” or “gay” or “female” or “black” etc. is made to feel illegitimate. They are forced to question “how do I exist,” when their existence can’t be defined by the labels that presently subsist in society. As society ceases to hear them, they cease to hear themselves, their screams, as their identities are overshadowed by the social institutions that systematically oppress them.

  6. A focus that I think is necessary that you bring up is the use of the word “illegitimate” and its meaning. The connection between the word and the breaking down of the doorframe I believe is extremely appropriate. The idea of this voice attempting to break down ‘traditions’ is relatable to a lot of the work we have read. The word “illegitimate” is extremely universal and can be relatable to a lot of different groups of people. One of the readings that I think we can compare with this is “Queer and Now” by Eve Sedgwick. Sedgwick attempts to ask her readers to also redefine the doorframe tradition of what the word “queer” means. She tells her audience that it can only be understood fully as a statement that is explained by oneself. Lorde and Sedgwick seem to have parallel thoughts regarding this, specifically within Lorde’s lines, “I had answers but you could not use them/ This is useless to you and perhaps to others”, which is explaining how the illegitimate voice can only be understood by one’s own definitions.

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