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Clifton, Lucille

Lucille Clifton

1936—

Poet, writer, educator

Published extensively since 1966, Lucille Clifton is counted among America's most respected poets. Her canon includes more than 20 children's books, 11 volumes of poetry written for adults, and a memoir. Over the years, Clifton's poetry and prose have appeared in more than 100 anthologies, magazines, and journals. Characterized by a feminine sensibility rooted in the history of African-American women, Clifton's works treat children, family, domesticity, and the concerns of ordinary women. Her characters and speakers dwell mainly in urban settings—usually inner-city African-American neighborhoods and occasionally multicultural American neighborhoods. Affirmative, her works have a political agenda. They exude black racial pride and celebrate black womanhood.

The vision that pervades Clifton's works is summarized in her memoir Generations. Implicitly countering the cataclysmic vision of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Clifton proclaims in Generations, "Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept." The recurring theme in her works is that hope exists alongside despair and that personal or racial suffering does not necessarily translate into individual or collective defeat. Consistently hopeful, her works posit that humans determine their own fates and can conquer evil if they are strong and if they have the support of their families. As her frequent recourse to biblical allusions implies, Clifton's hopefulness is rooted in Christian optimism.

Inspired by Family History

Born to Samuel Louis Sayles, Sr. and his second wife, Thelma Moore Sayles, on June 27, 1936, in Depew, New York—a small, primarily Polish town 12 miles from Buffalo, New York—Clifton was named Thelma Lucille Sayles by her father. She is a descendent of Caroline Donald Sale, a Dahomey woman who was "born free in Africa" in 1822 and who "died free in America" in 1910, and of Sam Louis Sale, who was born a slave in America in 1777 and who died a slave in America around 1860. Clifton appears to have been guided through much of her life by the mantra of her foremother Caroline, who, Clifton says in Generations, urged her family, "Get what you want, you from Dahomey women." Owned by the Sale family of Bedford, Virginia, Clifton's ancestors changed their name to Sayle after the Civil War so that they could be distinguished from the white Sale family. After the war, her grandfather Gene Sayle was born to Harvey Nichols, a white man from Connecticut, and Clifton's namesake, Lucille Sayle, whose distinct place in family history was won when as punishment for killing Nichols, she allegedly became the first black woman hanged legally in the state of Virginia. Clifton says in Generations that her father Samuel changed his surname from Sayle to Sayles "after finding a part of a textbook in which the plural was explained. There will be more than one of me, my father thought, and he added the s to his name." Lucille Clifton's father had three children in addition to Lucille: Josephine, an older daughter who was born to his first wife, Edna Bell Sayles; Elaine, a daughter born to a neighbor woman six months after Clifton's birth; and Samuel, Jr., a son born to his second wife, Thelma Moore Sayles, two years after Clifton's birth.

Neither of Clifton's parents completed elementary school. A coal miner and a laborer in the South, her father worked in a steel mill after he migrated to the North. Her mother worked in a laundry. The family was poor; however, because their love sustained them, they were not worn down by penury. She attributes her interest in writing and reading to her parents, both of whom were voracious readers. Her mother, who wrote verse during her spare moments, was her only role model as a poet other than the white male poets whose works were traditionally taught then in schools. Her mother's poetry was good enough to warrant acceptance by a publisher, but the family disapproved. In response, her mother burned her poems and ceased writing.

When Clifton was a small child, her family moved to Purdy Street in Buffalo. As her poetry and prose reflect, her childhood years there were happy—so happy that they are the foundation of her first book of poems, Good Times (1969). Academically talented, Clifton left Buffalo when she was 16 years old to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. Supported by a full scholarship provided by her church, she attended Howard from 1953 to 1955, a period during which Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), A. B. Spellman, Owen Dodson, and Sterling Brown were there. Pursuing a major in drama at Howard, Clifton appeared in the first performance of James Baldwin's The Amen Corner. In Generations, Clifton explains that when she went to college she was frightened. She had never been away from home before; she had little knowledge of what to expect, for neither of her parents and no one in her church had attended college. Seeing herself as a special person and believing that she did not have to study, she did not—a decision that in time cost her the scholarship that made her university education possible.

At a Glance …

Born on June 27, 1936, in Depew, NY; daughter of Samuel Louis Sayles (a coal miner and laborer) and Thelma Moore Sayles (launderer); married Fred James Clifton, 1958 (deceased); children: Sidney, Fredrica, Gillian, Alexia, Channing, Graham. Education: Howard University, Washington, D.C. 1953-55; Fredonia State Teachers College, New York, 1955.

Career: New York State Division of Employment, Buffalo, claims clerk, 1958-60; U.S. Office of Education, Washington, D.C., literature assistant for Central Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory, 1969-71; Coppin State College, Baltimore, MD, poet-in-residence, 1974-79; Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland, 1976-85; University of California, Santa Cruz, professor of literature and creative writing, 1985-89; St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Mary's City, MD, Distinguished Professor of Literature, 1989-91, Distinguished Professor of Humanities, 1991-; Duke University, Durham, NC, Blackburn Professor of Creative Writing, 1998-; American Academy of Poets, chancellor, 1999-2005. Visiting writer, Columbia University School of the Arts; Jirry Moore Visiting Writer, George Washington University, 1982-83; Woodrow Wilson and Lila Wallace/Readers Digest visiting fellowship to Fisk University, Alma College, Albright College, Davidson College, and others. Trustee, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore.

Awards: Discovery Award, New York YW-YMHA Poetry Center, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts awards, 1969, 1970, and 1972; Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland, 1974-85; Juniper Prize, University of Massachusetts, 1980; Pulitzer Prize nominations for poetry, 1980, 1987, and 1991; Coretta Scott King Award, American Library Association, 1984; named a "Maryland Living Treasure," 1993; Lannan Literary Award for poetry, 1997; inducted into National Literature Hall of Fame for African American Writers, 1998; Los Angeles Times poetry award, 1998; Phi Beta Kappa, 1998; Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Award, 1999; National Book Award for Poetry, 2000; Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, 2007. Recipient of several honorary degrees.

First Published by Langston Hughes

After returning to Buffalo, Clifton entered Fredonia State Teachers College (now the State University of New York at Fredonia) in 1955, where she joined a group of African American students who met to read and perform plays. During this period, she was coming into her own as a writer, but publication was not uppermost in her mind. Ishmael Reed, a member of the group, showed some of her poems to Langston Hughes, who included a few in his anthology Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970.

In 1958, Clifton wed Fred James Clifton (1935-1984), a philosophy teacher at the University of Buffalo who was also a member of the Fredonia State group of black intellectuals. In seven years, they had six children—four daughters (Sidney, Fredrica, Gillian, and Alexia) and two sons (Channing and Graham). A busy wife and mother during these years, Clifton was also writing. Additionally, she was employed from 1958 to 1960 as a claims clerk in the New York State Division of Employment in Buffalo.

During the late 1960s, more of Clifton's works began to appear in print. In 1966, she saw a prose dialogue, "It's All in the Game," published in Negro Digest. In 1969, her short story "The Magic Mama," parts of which appeared later in Generations, was published in Redbook; the focus of the story is Clifton's mother's epileptic seizures and their effect on the family. Later that year, a poem, "In the Inner City," appeared in the Massachusetts Review. Also in 1969, Clifton sent some of her poems to poet Robert Hayden, who showed them to poet Carolyn Kizer, who sent them, in turn, to the YW-YMHA Poetry Center in New York City. That year Clifton won the center's Discovery Award, presented annually to a promising but undiscovered poet, and Random House published Good Times, her first book of poems, which was subsequently cited by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year. She also received a National Endowment for the Arts grant. While winning accolades for her accomplishments as a published writer, Clifton began employment as a literature assistant at the United States Office of Education in Washington, D.C., where she remained until 1971.

In 1974, she became poet-in-residence at Baltimore's Coppin State College; she held this position until 1979. During her first year at Coppin, Clifton was selected as Maryland's poet laureate, a governor-appointed position that paid an annual stipend of one thousand dollars and that had as its only official duty the creation of new poems for specific state occasions. Widowed in 1984, Clifton assumed the position of professor of literature and creative writing in 1985 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she remained on the faculty until 1989. That year she returned to Maryland, where she assumed the position of visiting distinguished professor of literature at St. Mary's College of Maryland; she held the position for two years. Since 1991, she has held the rank of distinguished professor of humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Since fall 1994, Clifton has taught at St. Mary's College one semester during the academic year and at Columbia University in New York City one semester. She was named Blackburn Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in 1998.

Offered Poignant Children's Literature

Over the years, Clifton has written for two audiences—children and adults. According to critic Audrey McCluskey, in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980, Clifton's children's books are "her most prolific literary product, and no analysis of her work could ignore their overall importance." Her universe is one in which self-love and self-acceptance reign and self-abnegation is subordinated. It is a world in which children experience joy and pain and in which they learn to accept both emotions; it is a literary world that children visit and leave reassured. Characterized by Christian values, racial pride, and an affirmative perception of "uncelebrated man and woman," according to McCluskey, Clifton's vision in her works for children as well as in those for adults is akin to that of African American writer Gwendolyn Brooks, whose canon is grounded in a similar "racial and spiritual legacy." Also, states McCluskey, Clifton's Christian optimism resembles that of early twentieth-century African American women writers Effie Lee Newsome, primarily a children's writer, and Anne Spencer, a writer for adults.

Among Clifton's best-known children's books are those that focus on Everett Anderson, a young African American boy. The first book in this series, Some of the Days of Everett Anderson, published in 1970, was selected for the American Institute of Graphic Arts's Children's Book Show and was chosen as one of the School Library Journal's Best Books of 1970. The following year, the second Everett Anderson book, Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming, appeared. Additional books on Everett Anderson and other children followed in subsequent years. Having had six children of her own, who attracted other children, Clifton has indicated that she saw so many children that she got ideas from observing them and was thus inspired to write about them.

Her Everett Anderson books present stages in the title character's changing life. Rudine Sims in Language Arts, February 1982, quotes Clifton as saying the works in this series are not poetry in the purest sense but are instead "very good verse" that may serve as useful and valuable means of introducing poetry to children. Among the series' assets are the free-flowing rhythm of the lines and the succinct presentation of themes. A faithful adherence to African American vernacular, a straightforward manner, and an understanding and accurate depiction of children's psychology lend authenticity and immediacy to the works.

Clifton's other books for children include The Black BCs (1970), which teaches the alphabet from an Afro-centric perspective. In the tradition of Langston Hughes's A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, The Black BCs refigures American history by invoking black contributors such as cowboys, inventors, and musicians. Fostering black pride, Clifton's work clearly has a political agenda. Similar to The Black BCs are Clifton's children's books such as Don't You Remember? (1973); All Us Come Cross the Water (1973); The Times They Used to Be (1974); Good, Says Jerome (1974); and Amifika (1978). These books also celebrate the African American experience, proclaim the beauty of blackness, and insist that poverty need not mean a lack of love, warmth, or dignity.

In some of Clifton's children's books, including The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring, My Friend Jacob, and Sonora Beautiful, white children are the protagonists. However, most of her major characters are African Americans and have names children can associate with. According to Sims, the abundance of black protagonists in Clifton's works is consistent with her unequivocal proclamation that her "whole thing is geared to black children."

Adult Work Explored Social Issues

During the years when her children's books were being published steadily, Clifton was also writing for adults. Good Times, her first collection of poems for adults, was published in 1969. Described by Haki Madhubuti in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 as "unusually compacted and memory-evoking," the poems in this collection treat black lives that are rescued from desperation by love. Three years later, in 1972, her second volume of poetry for adults, Good News about the Earth, appeared. Good News is a group of brief, powerful, and simply expressed poems that place biblical stories in black and contemporary contexts.

A prolific writer, Clifton has published nine additional books of poetry for adults and one prose work for adults since Good News about the Earth appeared in 1972. The poems in An Ordinary Woman, published in 1974, celebrate everyday things—marriage, motherhood, sisterhood, continuity, and blackness. According to Madhubuti, it is in this work that Clifton achieves her promise as a writer. The major images in the poems are bones, which represent strength and connection among generations, and light, which represents knowledge, existence, and life.

Generations, Clifton's only prose work for adults, was published in 1976. An ode to the survival of the African American family, the memoir is indebted to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" for its inscriptions and its structure; Generations chronicles and celebrates Clifton's family history through five generations while also recording her own journey of self-discovery.

Four years later, in 1980, Two-Headed Woman appeared. It was the winner that year of the Juniper Prize, an annual poetry award given by the University of Massachusetts Press. Characterized by dramatic tautness, simple language, and original groupings of words, the poems are tributes to blackness, celebrations of women in general and black women in particular, and testimonies to familial love.

Both Good Woman and Next were published in 1987. Good Woman contains 177 poems and a fifty-three page memoir in which the writer "celebrates the beauty and strength of a creation that endures," according to the Christian Science Monitor, and "challenges her readers…to do more than grieve over life's inconsistencies." Among the major themes in Next, a collection of sixty-five poems, are women's strength and sisterhood, war's cruelties, the horrors of the African American experience, the deleterious effects of racism on African Americans' self-esteem, and death and dying. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the poems collectively denounce finality, denounce endings.

Ten Oxherding Pictures and Quilting were followed in 1993 by The Book of Light, in which light signifies creativity, spirituality, and love. As in her earlier writings, the work celebrates African American womanhood, here in poems such as "daughters" and "won't you celebrate with me." Also, in The Book of Light, the speaker pays tribute to dearly departed family members in poems such as "thel," in which the speaker describes her mother as a "sweet attic of a woman," and "sam," in which the speaker laments her father's being denied an opportunity to go to school, where "he would have learned to write his story and not live it." Additionally, The Book of Light has a social agenda; "move" and "Samson predicts from Gaza the Philadelphia fire" protest the 1985 bombing in Philadelphia of a house occupied by dreadlocked members of an Afro-centric back-to-nature group, while "seeker of visions" resurrects the destruction of Native Americans by white men, "the pale ghosts" of the Indian speaker's "future." As "brothers" indicates, Christianity is another major theme in The Book of Light; in this eight-part poem, an aged Lucifer explains God's silence in the face of change on Earth.

Clifton continued writing while actively advocated for poetry as chancellor for the American Academy of Poetry from 1999 to 2005. Her book Mercy published in 2004 explored such touchstone topics as gender and race and, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, terrorism. Clifton's exploration read as more universal than individual, as her earlier work had, according to Cortland Review contributor Teresa Ballard. Ballard went on to praise Clifton for reaching what she says the American psychologist Erik Erickson would have called "a state of wisdom."

Honored for Voice and Vision

Throughout her career as a writer, Clifton has won laurels. In 1987 she was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 1988 she received the Shestack Poetry Prize from the American Poetry Review. That same year she received the Woman of Words Award from the Women's Foundation. In 1992, she received the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and a year earlier she had won the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum Lannan Literary Award for poetry, 1997, and National Book Award nomination, both for The Terrible Stories. She was inducted into the National Literature Hall of Fame for African American Writers, 1998. Among Clifton's most notable achievements is the National Book Award for Poetry, 2000, for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000. Additionally, over the years, she has received honorary doctorate degrees from such academic institutions as the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, Towson State University, and Albright College. Yet, the greatest honor came in 2007: the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a prestigious honor for American poets granted by the Poetry Foundation.

These honors and awards have been acknowledgments of Clifton's vision and style that have made her works both meritorious and accessible. Regardless of their genres, her works have been characterized by a deceptively simple language, by frequent reliance on African American dialect, by understatement and subtlety, by concreteness, by wittiness, by economy, and by musicality. In the main, Clifton's major thesis has consistently been that African Americans have triumphed because of inner strength that has its genesis in familial love and self-love. Her works have consistently proclaimed that African Americans, even the most "ordinary," possess the stuff of greatness, for without this capacity they would not have triumphed—by surviving—in the Western world. Her efforts have made her "a powerful presence and voice in American poetry," as Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman said upon announcing Clifton as the winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize on the Poetry Foundation Web site. "Her poems are at once outraged and tender, small and explosive, sassy and devout. She sounds like no one else, and her achievement looks larger with each passing year."

Selected writings

Books

Things Fall Apart, 1959.

Good Times, 1969.

Poetry of the Negro, 1970.

The Black BCs, 1970.

Generations, 1976.

Good Women, 1987.

Next, 1987.

Quilting: Poems, 1987-1990, 1991.

The Book of Light, 1993.

The Terrible Stories, 1996.

Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, 2000.

Mercy, 2004.

Sources

Books

Clifton, Lucille, Generations, Random House, 1976.

Holladay, Hilary, Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton, Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Hull, Gloria T., "Black Women Poets from Wheatley to Walker," in Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, edited by Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Anchor-Doubleday, 1979.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed., Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Lupton, Mary Jane, Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters, Praeger, 2006.

Madhubuti, Haki, The Book of Light, Copper Canyon Press, 1993.

Madhubuti, Haki, "Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry," in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor-Doubleday, 1984.

Madhubuti, Haki, "A Simple Language," in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor-Doubleday, 1984.

Periodicals

The American Poetry Review, November 1, 1993.

The Antioch Review, Summer, 2000.

Booklist, August 1, 1996.

Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1988.

The Horn Book Magazine, March 1, 1993.

Journal of Negro Education, Summer 1974, pp. 380-400.

Mosaic Literary Magazine, Winter 2007, p. 13.

New York Times Book Review, December 5, 1971; March 14, 1976.

New Yorker, April 5, 1976, pp. 138-139.

The North American Review, May-August, 2001.

Poetry, March 1, 1994.

Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1991; February 1, 1993.

Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2006, p. 128.

Washington Post, August 9, 1979.

On-line

"Foundation Announcements," Poetry Foundation,http://www.poetryfoundation.org/foundation/release_050707.html (November 9, 2007).

"Lucille Clifton First Black Woman to Win Lilly Poetry Prize," U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs, http://usinfo.state.gov/xarchives/display.html?p=washfile-english&y=2007&m=May&x=200705101549401CJsamohT0.2856256 (November 9, 2007).

"Lucille Clifton: The Power of Mercy," Cortland Review Online Literary Magazine,http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/05/spring/lucille_clifton.html#top (November 9, 2007).

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Clifton, Lucille 1936–

Lucille Clifton 1936

Poet, childrens author, educator

At a Glance

Writers Works in Print

Works for Children Published

Works for Adults Published

Selected writings

Sources

An author of poetry and prose works for adults and children, Lucille Clifton has been published extensively since 1966. Her canon includes nineteen childrens books, nine volumes of poetry written for adults, and a memoir. Over the years, Cliftons poetry and prose have appeared in more than 100 anthologies, magazines, and journals. Characterized by a feminine sensibility rooted in the history of African American women, Cliftons works treat children, family, domesticity, and the concerns of ordinary women. Her characters and speakers dwell mainly in urban settings-usually inner-city African American neighborhoods and occasionally multicultural American neighborhoods. Affirmative, her works have a political agenda. They exude black racial pride and celebrate black womanhood.

The vision that pervades Cliftons works is summarized in her memoir Generations. Implicitly countering the cataclysmic vision of Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart, Clifton proclaims in Generations, Things dont fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept. The recurring theme in her works is that hope exists alongside despair and that personal or racial suffering does not necessarily translate into individual or collective defeat. Consistently hopeful, her works posit that humans determine their own fates and can conquer evil if they are strong and if they have the support of their families. As her frequent recourse to biblical allusions implies, Cliftons hopefulness is rooted in Christian optimism.

Born to Samuel Louis Sayles, Sr. and his second wife, Thelma Moore Sayles, on June 27, 1936, in Depew, New York-a small, primarily Polish town 12 miles from Buffalo, New York-Clifton was named Thelma Lucille Sayles by her father. She is a descendent of Caroline Donald Sale, a Dahomey woman who was born free in Africa in 1822 and who died free in America in 1910, and of Sam Louis Sale, who was born a slave in America in 1777 and who died a slave in America around 1860. Clifton appears to have been guided through much of her life by the mantra of her f oremoth-er Caroline, who, Clifton says in Generations, urged her family, Get what you want, you from Dahomey women. Owned by the Sale family of Bedford, Virginia, Cliftons ancestors changed their name to Sayle after

At a Glance

Bom June 27, 1936, in Depew, NY; daughter of Samuel Louis Sayles (a coal miner and laborer) and Thelma Moore Sayles (launderer)-both deceased; married Fred James Clifton, 1958 (deceased); children: Sidney, Fredrica, Gillian, Alexia, Channing, Graham. Education: Howard University, 1953-55; FredoniaState Teachers College, 1955.

Career: New York State Division of Employment, claims clerk, 1958-60; U.S.Office of Education, D.C, literature assistant for Central Atlantic Regional Educ Laboratory, 1969-71; Coppin State College, Baltimore, poet in residence, 1971-74; Columbia University School of the Arts, visiting writer; George Washington Univ Jerry Moore visiting writer, 1982-83; Univ. of California, Santa Cruz, professor of literature and creative writing, 1985-89; St. Marys College of Maryland, distinguished professor of humanities, 1989; Columbia University, professor of writing, 1994,

Selected awards: Nominated for Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1980, 1988; Univ. of MA, Juniper Prize, 1980; American Library Association, Coretta Scott King Award, 1984.

Addresses: Office-Distinguished Professor of Humanities, St Marys Collegeof Maryland, St. MarysCity, MD 20686.

the Civil War so that they could be distinguished from the white Sale family. After the war, her grandfather Gene Sayle was born to Harvey Nichols, a white man from Connecticut, and Cliftons namesake, Lucille Sayle, whose distinct place in family history was won when as punishment for killing Nichols, she allegedly became the first black woman hanged legally in the state of Virginia. Clifton says in Generations that her father Samuel changed his surname from Sayle to Sayles after finding a part of a textbook in which the plural was explained. There will be more than one of me, my father thought, and he added the s to his name. Lucille Cliftons father had three children in addition to Lucille: Josephine, an older daughter who was born to his first wife, Edna Bell Sayles; Elaine, a daughter born to a neighbor woman six months after Cliftons birth; and Samuel, Jr., a son born to his second wife, Thelma Moore Sayles, two years after Cliftons birth.

Neither of Cliftons parents completed elementary school. A coal miner and a laborer in the South, her father worked in a steel mill after he migrated to the North. Her mother worked in a laundry. The family was poor; however, because their love sustained them, they were not worn down by penury. She attributes her interest in writing and reading to her parents, both of whom were voracious readers. Her mother, who wrote verse during her spare moments, was her only role model as a poet other than the white male poets whose works were traditionally taught then in schools. Her mothers poetry was good enough to warrant acceptance by a publisher, but the family disapproved. In response, her mother burned her poems and ceased writing.

When Clifton was a small child, her family moved to Purdy Street in Buffalo. As her poetry and prose reflect, her childhood years there were happy--so happy that they are the foundation of her first book of poems, Good Times (1969). Academically talented, Clifton left Buffalo when she was 16 years old to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. Supported by a full scholarship provided by her church, she attended Howard from 1953 to 1955, a period during which Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), A. B. Spellman, Owen Dodson, and Sterling Brown were there. Pursuing a major in drama at Howard, Clifton appeared in the first performance of James Baldwins The Amen Corner. In Generations, Clifton explains that when she went to college she was frightened. She had never been away from home before; she had little knowledge of what to expect, for neither of her parents and no one in her church had attended college. Seeing herself as a special person and believing that she did not have to study, she did not-a decision that in time cost her the scholarship that made her university education possible.

After returning to Buffalo, Clifton entered Fredonia State Teachers College (now the State University of New York at Fredonia) in 1955, where she joined a group of African American students who met to read and perform plays. During this period, she was coming into her own as a writer, but publication was not uppermost in her mind. Ishmael Reed, a member of the group, showed some of her poems to Langston Hughes, who included a few in his anthology Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970 (1970).

In 1958, Clifton wed Fred James Clifton (1935-1984), a philosophy teacher at the University of Buffalo who was also a member of the Fredonia State group of black intellectuals. In seven years, they had six children-four daughters (Sidney, Fredrica, Gillian, and Alexia) and two sons (Channing and Graham). A busy wife and mother during these years, Clifton was also writing. Additionally, she was employed from 1958 to 1960 as a claims clerk in the New York State Division of Employment in Buffalo.

Writers Works in Print

During the late 1960s, Cliftons works began to appear in print. In 1966, she saw a prose dialogue, Its All in the Game, published in Negro Digest. In 1969, her short story The Magic Mama, parts of which appeared later in Generations, was published in Redbook; the focus of the story is Cliftons mothers epileptic seizures and their effect on the family. Later that year, a poem, In the Inner City, appeared in the Massachusetts Review. Also in 1969, Clifton sent some of her poems to poet Robert Hayden, who showed them to poet Carolyn Kizer, who sent them, in turn, to the YW-YMHA Poetry Center in New York City. That year Clifton won the centers Discovery Award, presented annually to a promising but undiscovered poet, and Random House published Good Times, her first book of poems, which was subsequently cited by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year. She also received a National Endowment for the Arts grant. While winning accolades for her accomplishments as a published writer, Clifton began employment as a literature assistant at the United States Office of Education in Washington, D.C., where she remained until 1971.

In 1974, she became poet-in-residence at Baltimores Coppin State College; she held this position until 1979. During her first year at Coppin, Clifton was selected as Marylands poet laureate, a governor-appointed position that paid an annual stipend of one thousand dollars and that had as its only official duty the creation of new poems for specific state occasions. Widowed in 1984, Clifton assumed the position of professor of literature and creative writing in 1985 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she remained on the faculty until 1989. That year she returned to Maryland, where she assumed the position of visiting distinguished professor of literature at St. Marys College of Maryland; she held the position for two years. Since 1991, she has held the rank of distinguished professor of humanities at St. Marys College of Maryland. Since fall 1994, Clifton has taught at St. Marys College one semester during the academic year and at Columbia University in New York City one semester.

Over the years, Clifton has written for two audiences-children and adults. According to critic Audrey McClus-key, in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980, Cliftons childrens books are her most prolific literary product, and no analysis of her work could ignore their overall importance. Her universels one in which self-love and self-acceptance reign and self-abnegation is subordinated. It is a world in which children experience joy and pain and in which they learn to accept both emotions; it is a literary world that children visit and leave reassured. Characterized by Christian values, racial pride, and an affirmative perception of uncelebrated man and woman, according to McCluskey, Cliftons vision in her works for children as well as in those for adults is akin to that of African American writer Gwendolyn Brooks, whose canon is grounded in a similar racial and spiritual legacy. Also, states McCluskey, Cliftons Christian optimism resembles that of early twentieth-century African American women writers Effie Lee Newsome, primarily a childrens writer, and Anne Spencer, a writer for adults.

Works for Children Published

Among Cliftons best-known childrens books are those that focus on Everett Anderson, a young African American boy. The first book in this series, Some of the Days of Everett Anderson, published in 1970, was selected for the American Institute of Graphic Artss Childrens Book Show and was chosen as one of the School Library Journals Best Books of 1970. The following year, the second Everett Anderson book, Everett Andersons Christmas Coming, appeared. Additional books on Everett Anderson and other children followed in subsequent years. Having had six children of her own, who attracted other children, Clifton has indicated that she saw so many children that she got ideas from observing them and was thus inspired to write about them.

Her Everett Anderson books present stages in the title characters changing life. Rudine Sims in Language Arts, February 1982, quotes Clifton as saying the works in this series are not poetry in the purest sense but are instead very good verse that may serve as useful and valuable means of introducing poetry to children. Among the series assets are the free-flowing rhythm of the lines and the succinct presentation of themes. A faithful adherence to African American vernacular, a straightforward manner, and an understanding and accurate depiction of childrens psychology lend authenticity and immediacy to the works.

Cliftons other books for children include The Black BCs (1970), which teaches the ABCs from an Afro-centric perspective. In the tradition of Langston Hughess A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, The Black BCs refigures American history by invoking black contributors such as cowboys, inventors, and musicians. Fostering black pride, Cliftons work clearly has a political agenda. Similar to The Black BCs are Cliftons childrens books such as Dont You Remember?(1973); All Us Come Cross the Water (1973); The Times They Used to Be (1974); Good, Says Jerome (1974); and Amifika (1978). These books also celebrate the African American experience, proclaim the beauty of blackness, and insist that poverty need not mean a lack of love, warmth, or dignity.

In some of Cliftons childrens books, including The Boy Who Didnt Believe in Spring, My Friend Jacob, and Sonora Beautiful, white children are the protagonists. However, most of her major characters are African Americans and have names children can associate with. According to Sims, the abundance of black protagonists in Cliftons works is consistent with her unequivocal proclamation that her whole thing is geared to black children.

Works for Adults Published

During the years when her childrens books were being published steadily, Clifton was also writing for adults. Good Times, her first collection of poems for adults, was published in 1969. Described by Haki Madhubuti in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 as unusually compacted and memory-evoking, the poems in this collection treat black lives that are rescued from desperation by love. Three years later, in 1972, her second volume of poetry for adults, Good News about the Earth, appeared. Good News is a group of brief, powerful, and simply expressed poems that place biblical stories in black and contemporary contexts.

A prolific writer, Clifton has published seven additional books of poetry for adults and one prose work for adults since Good News about the Earth appeared in 1972. The poems in An Ordinary Woman, published in 1974, celebrate everyday things-marriage, motherhood, sisterhood, continuity, and blackness. According to Madhubuti, it is in this work that Clifton achieves her promise as a writer. The major images in the poems are bones, which represent strength and connection among generations, and light, which represents knowledge, existence, and life.

Generations, Cliftons only prose work for adults, was published in 1976. An ode to the survival of the African American family that is indebted to Walt Whitmans Song of Myself for its inscriptions and its structure, Generations chronicles and celebrates Cliftons family history through five generations while also recording her own journey of self-discovery.

Four years later, in 1980, Two-Headed Woman appeared. It was the winner that year of the Juniper Prize, an annual poetry award given by the University of Massachusetts Press. Characterized by dramatic taut-ness, simple language, and original groupings of words, the poems are tributes to blackness, celebrations of women in general and black women in particular, and testimonies to familial love.

Both Good Woman and Next were published in 1987. Good Woman contains 177 poems and a fifty-three page memoir in which the writer celebrates the beauty and strength of a creation that endures, according to the Christian Science Monitor, and challenges her readers to do more than grieve over lifes inconsistencies. Among the major themes in Next, a collection of sixty-five poems, are womens strength and sisterhood, wars cruelties, the horrors of the African American experience, the deleterious effects of racism on African Americans self-esteem, and death and dying. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the poems collectively denounce finality, denounce endings.

Ten Oxherding Pictures and Quilting were followed in 1993 by The Book of Light (1993), in which light signifies creativity, spirituality, and love. As in her earlier writings, the work celebrates African American womanhood, here in poems such as daughters and wont you celebrate with me. Also, in The Book of Light, the speaker pays tribute to dearly departed family members in poems such as thel, in which the speaker describes her mother as a sweet attic of a woman, and sam, in which the speaker laments her fathers being denied an opportunity to go to school, where he would have learned to write/his story and not live it. Additionally, The Book of Light has a social agenda; move and samson predicts from gaza the Philadelphia fire protest the 1985 bombing in Philadelphia of a house occupied by dreadlocked members of an Afro-centric back-to-nature group, while seeker of visions resurrects the destruction of Native Americans by white men, the pale ghosts of the Indian speakers future. As brothers indicates, Christianity is another major theme in The Book of Light; in this eight-part poem, an aged Lucifer explains Gods silence in the face of change on Earth.

Throughout her career as a writer, Clifton has won laurels. As recently as 1992, she received the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America. In 1991 she won the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum. In 1988 she received the Shestack Poetry Prize from the American Poetry Review. That same year she received the Woman of Words Award from the Womens Foundation. In 1987 she was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Additionally, over the years, she has received honorary doctorate degrees from three Maryland institutions-the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, Towson State University, and Washington College--and from Albright College in Pennsylvania.

These honors and awards have been acknowledgments of a vision and a style that have made Cliftons works both meritorious and accessible. Regardless of their genres, her works have been characterized by a deceptively simple language, by frequent reliance on African American dialect, by understatement and subtlety, by concreteness, by wittiness, by economy, and by musical-ity. In the main, Cliftons major thesis has consistently been that African Americans have triumphed because of inner strength that has its genesis in familial love and self-love. Her works have consistently proclaimed that African Americans, even the most ordinary, possess the stuff of greatness, for without this capacity they would not have triumphed~by surviving-in the Western world.

Selected writings

Things Fall Apart, 1959

Good Times, 1969

Poetry of the Negro, 1970

The Black BCs, 1970

Generations, 1976

Good Women, 1987

Next, 1987

The Book of Light, 1993

Sources

Books

Madhubuti, Haki. Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry. In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor-Double-day, 1984.

. The Book of Light. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1993.

. A Simple Language. In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984.

Clifton, Lucille. Generations. New York: Random House, 1976.

Hull, Gloria T. Black Women Poets from Wheatley to Walker. In Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Edited by Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor-Doubleday, 1979.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Childrens Writers. New York: St. Martins Press, 1983.

Periodicals

Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1988.

Journal of Negro Education, Summer 1974, pp. 380-400.

New York Times Book Re view, December 5, 1971.

New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1976.

New Yorker, April 5, 1976, pp. 138-139.1

Washington Post, August 9, 1979.

T. J. Bryan

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