Published originally in the 1976 collection of the same name, "Coal" is at its most basic level an assertion and celebration of blackness. More compellingly, however, it is a poem that resists attempts to close off its celebration of difference, allowing both poet and reader the opportunity to reframe our collective understanding of identity, race, and culture. Part of Lorde's first volume to be published by a major publisher, "Coal" was instrumental in bringing her work to a broader readership. The poem was also published as part of Undersong: Chosen Poems - Old and New in 1982 and again in the revised edition released in 1992. The latter was awarded the Lambda Literary Award.
The text used for this summary is from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, W. W. Norton, 1997, p. 6. Versions of the poem can be found on the following web pages: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171285 and http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/audre-lorde/.
"Coal" is composed of three irregular stanzas, with the opening stanza containing six lines, the middle stanza containing fifteen lines, and the closing stanza completing the poem with four lines (quatrain). Although the poem is void of any identifiable rhyme scheme, it does rely significantly on the presence of a controlling metaphor: coal, the mineralized form of fossilized carbon. Although the absence of a rhyme scheme creates an almost workmanlike tone to the poem, precluding it from flowing smoothly and elegantly, the implications of this shaping metaphor--common, stable, black--allows the poem to unfold as an incisive commentary on the essence of blackness as it is understood (and misunderstood) in contemporary culture.
The opening stanza creates a notable alignment between the core stability of coal, recognizable most obviously through its base blackness, and the voice of the poem, which self-identifies as the essence of another type of blackness that is grounded in race, history, culture, and language. Read at this level, "Coal" opens as a poem of struggle, as the poet/speaker attempts to speak through (and be heard above) the defining blackness.
At the same time, however, this stanza opens the poem outward to explore the potential for an almost open catalogue of transformations to redefine blackness in any number of ways. This stanza establishes coal (and its more sparkling extended family) as the essence of blackness itself. More specifically, this stanza alludes to the belief that under a specific and perfectly calibrated combination of time, pressure, and heat, coal as a base material can be transformed into something diamond-like, something that is perceived as more precious, more luxurious, more valuable than its base element.
The second stanza suggests that words, like base elements, are open holders of meaning, power, and influence. Like coal, which can be seen simply as fuel, words can be used to staple ideas to language, roughly and without elegance. Like coal transformed, words can also create richly textured spaces through which meaning can glow luminescent with the subtleties of cultural, racial, and sexual identities.
This is not to suggest that "Coal" idealizes or romanticizes language. This stanza points, too, to the struggles of the poet/speaker to control words, to shape their many corners in such a way as to reflect her reality, and to keep them from wandering to hurtful, uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) places. With openness and with transformation comes great potential for positive change but also for negativity, most often in the form of diminishing clarity and confusion.
The closing quatrain opens outward even more dramatically, allowing the energy of love most broadly defined (of self, of life, of blackness) to transform the base blackness yet again. Rather than being perceived as a challenge or struggle that has to be overcome, blackness in the final stanza is a point of pride both personal and communal. Reframing the complexity of blackness allows the poet/speaker to embrace an origin shaped by the elements (earth and fire) and defined by a sense of openness (and hence possibility) that was previously overlooked. From an almost stultifying and oppressive stability, through transformation driven by language and love, to a confident, self-assured acceptance and pride in identity, the poem loops back onto itself to celebrate the total blackness that is consistent and foundational to its message.