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Lucille Clifton: A Life in Poetry

Chris has an MA in English Lit and has worked as an editor for numerous publications. He writes primarily on literary and historical topics.

In 2012, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton (1965-2010) was published by BOA Editions, Ltd. This book presents a backward glance over the career of the once-Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and renowned educator Lucille Clifton. It is a poetic testimony to both poetry of all styles and poets across the globe. Clifton has firmly planted herself alongside other greats of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.

The volume presents all the poems Clifton published in book form during her life plus previously unpublished and uncollected poems. The foreword is written by Toni Morrison, who describes Clifton’s poetry as “moving declarations of racial pride, courage, steadfastness…they are eloquent elegies for the vulnerable and prematurely dead. She sifts the history of African Americans for honor.” Clifton’s poetry is phenomenally varied and simultaneously of the moment – fresh and forward-looking.

In this article we take a sky-level look at Clifton's life and work, learning about the progression of her poetry across her life.

Who Was Lucille Clifton?

Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles on June 27, 1936 in upstate New York. She was a descendent of slaves and became the first person in her family to graduate from high school. A love of poetry was instilled in her by her mother, who encouraged her to write as a child. In 1953, Clifton received a scholarship to Howard University. She attended Howard for two years before enrolling at Fredonia State Teacher's College, where she pursued her poetry.

After working in state and federal government jobs for a number of years, Clifton published her first book of poems, Good Times, through Random House in 1969. The book was noted by the New York Times as one of the year's best books. In 1971, she won a writer-in-residency at Coppin State College in Baltimore. She finished her next two poetry manuscripts during this residency.

Clifton was a visiting writer at Columbia University and George Washington University in the early 80s. After these appointments she began teaching literature and creative writing, first at the University of California at Santa Cruz and later at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

She married Fred Clifton in 1958, with whom she had six children.

She was also an author of children's books, novels, and a memoir. Her career is littered with awards. She won the Charity Randall Prize, the Jerome J. Shestack Prize, an Emmy Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and the National Book Award for Poetry.

Discovering A Voice: Early Years

Much of Clifton’s early work focuses on “The Man", or the oppressive nature of the United States in which she lived. She was writing this poetry during the Civil Rights Movement, during the Vietnam War, during JFK, Dr. King, and Malcom X’s assassinations – it seems only appropriate. However, this work was part of her search for a unique poetic voice, and she did not remain entirely focused on these themes throughout her career. She eventually turned to writing about the family and the unification of humanity, among other topics. A sparkling piece from her early period (prior to her first book’s publication) is “Black Women”:

America made us heroines
not wives,
we learned the tricks
to keep the race together
but had to leave our men
to find themselves
and now they damn
what they cannot forgive.
Even ol massas son
lives in a dream
remembering a the lie
we made him love.
America made us heroines
not wives.
we hid our ladyness
to save our lives.

A powerful poem of remarkable clarity for a young poet.

When Clifton shifted to more private (and, in a sense, more universal) themes, her poems remained just as clear and striking. A good early example of her move to the private life and the inner life can be seen in “ad monitions”, published in her first book:

boys
i don’t promise you nothing
but this
what you pawn
i will redeem
what you steal
i will conceal
my private silence to
your public guilt
is all I got

The poem is both polemic and musical; there is a message within the song. This is an early glimpse at what Clifton had to offer to the world in her art. Her first books are a remarkable epic of the ordinary and every day, including several key sequences that still seem as vital to life as when they were composed. Much of her early work is angry (a reasonable pathos, given the context in which it was written), but Clifton doesn’t draw her power completely from anger itself, but also from nature and the world:

being property once myself
i have a feeling for it,
that’s why I can talk
about environment.
what wants to be a tree,
ought to be he can be it.
same thing for other things.
same thing for men.

Wishes and Wishful Thinking: The Middle Period

Clifton moves on in her middle period to speak on spirituality and faith, as well as loss – loss anticipated, remembered, refused:

in the thirty eighth
year of my life,
surrounded by life,
a perfect picture of
blackness blessed,
i had not expected this
loneliness.

The poet puts the reader on edge, seemingly toppling expectations of blackness and blessedness, until the poem ends with the rhyme on “loneliness.” Clifton expresses in her middle period both a wish and wishful thinking: to be “ordinary” is a way of staking a daily poetry that brings the extraordinary within reach.

Clifton also engages in poetic mask-making in her middle period, or the practice of creating different aspects of herself that are sometimes imagined, sometimes realistic, and sometimes an amalgam of both. Clifton’s third book ends with the evocation of the poet as “lucy one-eye”:

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i was born in a hotel,
a maskmaker.
my bones were knit by
a perilous knife.
my skin turned around
at midnight and
i entered the earth in
a woman jar.
i learned the world all
wormside up
and this is my yes
my strong fingers;
i was born in a bed of
good lessons
and it has made me
wise.

Near the end of her middle period, Clifton moves into a poetry of “history,” characters, disease, dreams, and shapeshifters. There is a sequence of poems in her fifth book that all begin with the phrase “my dream of”; probably the most engaging is “my dream of being white.” Clifton also ushers us into the discarnate mind of her then-recently-deceased husband, Fred, in “the death of fred clifton”:

there was all around not the
shape of things
but oh, at last, the things
themselves.

This is not just a description of the afterlife, but the life Clifton’s poems seek; a poetic life that moves inward and upward.

Dark Musings: Later Poetry

Clifton’s sixth book, Next: New Poems, marks the beginning of her final phase as a poet, and ruminates on womanhood. One of my favorites from this book is “wishes for sons," from which the following two stanzas are taken:

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.

I’ve read this poem numerous times and am always caught off guard by its generosity and humor, something easily lost sight of in Clifton’s directness, in her bravery to say what's often left unsaid.

In the last ten years of her life, Clifton produced some remarkable work. It became explicitly spiritual, manifested in such poems as “blake” (i.e. William Blake, the English Romantic visionary):

saw them glittering in the trees,
their quills erect among the leaves,
angels everywhere. we need new words
for what this is, this hunger entering our
loneliness like birds, stunning our eyes into rays
of hope. we need the flutter that can save
us, something that will swirl across the face
of what we have become and bring us grace.
back north, i sit again in my own home
dreaming of blake, searching the branches
for just one poem.

This poem is a masterstroke. Clifton deftly describes the experience of finding that small voice that haunts the depths of loneliness. The voice that reminds us of our larger dreams and desires and brings them rushing back, as if an alien hand has suddenly restored us to our earlier selves. Only Clifton could achieve this so nonchalantly.

Clifton’s poetry grew conscious of her life’s end in her last two books. She both contemplates her own end and philosophically questions the enigma of death. Despite these dark musings, she also returns to earlier themes of race, family, and femininity. After her last book, Voices, was published in 2008, Clifton didn’t stop writing. She kept on going although she knew the end was immanent. Her final unpublished poem (which was also untitled) gives a striking account of facing death with vigor, as well as a wonderful close to an extraordinary life in poetry:

In the middle of the Eye,
not knowing whether to call it
devil or God
I asked how to be brave
and the thunder answered,
“Stand. Accept.” so I stood
and I stood and withstood
the fiery sight.

After a lengthy battle with cancer, Lucille Clifton passed away at the age of 73 on February 13, 2010. Two of her books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry — Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir: 1969–1980 and Next: New Poems, both published in 1988. Her 2000 book Blessing The Boats: New and Collected Poems 1988–2000 won the National Book Award. She received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation in 2007. Clifton is survived by a son, three daughters, and three grandchildren.

References

Clifton, Lucille. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965 - 2010. BOA Editions, 2012.

"Lucille Clifton." Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lucille-Clifton. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.

"Lucille Clifton." Maryland State Archives, https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/clifton.html. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

"Lucille Clifton." Poets.org, https://poets.org/poet/lucille-clifton. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.

"Lucille Clifton." Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lucille-clifton. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.

Comments

Chris Gorrie (author) from San Diego, CA on April 25, 2021:

Thanks a lot, Jasmine. I appreciate you reading!

Jasmine Hanner from Maui, Hawai'i on April 22, 2021:

Beautiful article. I especially love her quote, "You might as well answer the door..."

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