Clifton, (Thelma) Lucille

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CLIFTON, (Thelma) Lucille

Nationality: American. Born: Thelma Lucille Sayles, Depew, New York, 27 June 1936. Education: Howard University, Washington, D.C. 1953–55; Fredonia State Teachers College, New York, 1955. Family: Married Fred J. Clifton in 1958 (died 1984); four daughters and two sons. Career: Claims clerk, New York State Division of Employment, Buffalo, 1958–60; literature assistant, U.S. Office of Education, Washington, D.C., 1969–71; professor of literature and creative writing, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1985–89. Since 1989 distinguished professor of humanities, St. Mary's College of Maryland, and professor of writing, Columbia University, 1994–96. Visiting writer, Columbia University School of the Arts; poet-inresidence, Coppin State College, Baltimore, 1972–76; visiting writer, George Washington University, Washington, D.C. 1982–83; Distinguished visiting professor, St. Mary's College, Maryland, 1989–91. Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland, 1976–85. Awards: YMYWHA Poetry Center Discovery award, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1970, 1972; Juniper prize, 1980; American Library Association Coretta Scott King award, 1984; Lannan literary award for poetry, 1996, for The Terrible Stories. Honorary degrees from University of Maryland and Towson State University. Agent: Marilyn Marlow, Curtis Brown, 10 Astor Place, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A. Address: St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Mary's City, Maryland 20686, U.S.A.



Good Times. New York, Random House, 1969.

Good News about the Earth. New York, Random House, 1972.

An Ordinary Woman. New York, Random House, 1974.

Two-Headed Woman. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969–1980. Brockport, New York, BOA, 1987.

Next. Brockport, New York, BOA, 1987.

Ten Oxherding Pictures. Santa Cruz, California, Moving Parts Press, 1989.

Quilting: Poems, 1987–1990. Brockport, New York, BOA, 1991.

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

The Terrible Stories. Brockport, New York, BOA, 1996.

Recordings: The Place for Keeping (audiocassette), Watershed, 1977; Lucille Clifton (video), reading and interview with Lewis MacAdams, The Lannan Foundation in association with Metro Pictures and EZTV, 1989; Where the Soul Lives (video), from The Power of the Word with Bill Moyers, Public Affairs TV and David Grubin, 1989; Everett Anderson's Goodbye, American Printing House for the Blind, 1996.

Other (for children)

The Black BC's. New York, Dutton, 1970.

Some of the Days of Everett Anderson. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1970.

Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming [Year, Friend, 1–2-3, Nine Month Long, Goodbye]. New York, Holt Rinehart, 6 vols., 1971–83.

Good, Says Jerome. New York, Dutton, 1973.

All Us Come Cross the Water. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1973.

Don't You Remember. New York, Dutton, 1973.

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring. New York, Dutton, 1973.

The Times They Used to Be. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1974.

My Brother Fine with Me. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1975.

Three Wishes. New York, Viking Press, 1976.

Amifika. New York, Dutton, 1977.

The Lucky Stone. New York, Delacorte Press, 1979.

My Friend Jacob. New York, Dutton, 1980.

Sonora Beautiful. New York, Dutton, 1981.

Dear Creator: A Week of Poems for Young People and Their Teachers. New York, Doubleday Book for Young Readers, 1997.


Generations. New York, Random House, 1976.


Critical Studies: "The Theme of Celebration in Lucille Clifton's Poetry" by Joyce Johnson, in Pacific Coast Philology (Malibu, California), 18(1–2), November 1983; "Tell the Good News: A View of the Works of Lucille Clifton" by Audrey T. McCluskey, and "Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry" by Haki Madhubuti, both in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Garden City, New York, Anchor-Doubleday, 1984; "Lucille Clifton: A Changing Voice for Changing Times" by Andrea Benton Rushing, in Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century, edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalom, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1985; Four Contemporary Black Women Poets: Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, & Sherley Anne Williams (dissertation) by Doris Davenport, n.p., 1987; "Blackness Blessed: The Writings of Lucille Clifton" by Hank Lazer, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 25(3), summer 1989; "The Chronicling of an African-American Life and Consciousness: Lucille Clifton's Everett Anderson Series," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly (Battle Creek, Michigan), 14(3), winter 1989, and "Perspectives on Unity and the African Diaspora: Examples from the Children's Literature of Lucille Clifton and Rosa Guy," in Work and Play in Children's Literature: Selected Papers from the 1990 International Conference on the Children's Literature Association, edited by Susan R. Gannon and Ruth Anne Thompson, Pleasantville, New York, Pace University, 1990, both by Dianne Johnson; The Poetics of Maternal Affiliation in Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton and Judy Grahn (dissertation) by Andrea Susan Musher, n.p., 1990; "Kin and Kin: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton" by Alicia Ostriker, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 22(6), November-December 1993; "Healing Our Wounds: The Direction of Difference in the Poetry of Lucille Clifton and Judith Johnson" by Jean Anaport-Easton, in Mid-American Review (Bowling Green, Ohio), 14(2), 1994; "Poets against Marginalization" by Thomas Fink, in Minnesota Review (Greenville, North Carolina), 43–44, fall 1994-spring 1995; "The Poetics of Matrilineage: Mothers and Daughters in the Poetry of African American Women, 1965–1985" by Fabian Clements Worsham, in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1996; "Channeling the Ancestral Muse: Lucille Clifton and Dolores Kendrick," in Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, edited by Elizabeth Abel and others, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997, and "In Her Own Images: Lucille Clifton and the Bible," in Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry, edited by Yopie Prins and Maeera Shreiber, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1997, both by Akasha Gloria Hull; "Sharing the Living Light: Rhetorical, Poetic, and Social Identity in Lucille Clifton" by Mark Bernard White, in College Language Association Journal (Atlanta, Georgia), 40(3), March 1997; The Representation of the Female Subject by Three American Women Artists: Painter Alice Neel, Poet Lucille Clifton, and Filmmaker Claudia Weill, 1970–1980 (dissertation) by Denise Bauer, New York University, 1998; interview with Charles H. Rowell, in Callaloo, 22(1), winter 1999.

Lucille Clifton comments:

I am a black woman poet, and I sound like one.

*  *  *

Lucille Clifton creates a poetry of ideas in which the ordinary is revealed to be extraordinary, in which the indigenously commonplace yields universal truth. Two realities influence the mode and substance of her poetry: she is African-American, and she is a woman. "I write," she asserts, "what I know."

Early in her career, in "after Kent State," Clifton wrote, "white ways are/the ways of death/come into the/Black/and live." In a later volume, in a poem titled "To Ms. Ann" (a historically ubiquitous title and name applied derisively to white "ladies"), she wrote, "you have never called me sister/and it has only been forever and/i will have to forget your face." Thus, she turned from whiteness to affirm and celebrate blackness.

The optimism that pervades Clifton's poetry is rooted in her ethnic heritage and milieu. She teaches that black life is, indeed, fraught with danger and adversity: "i went into my mother as/some souls go into a church/& listen, eavesdroppers, there is no such thing/as a bed without affliction;/the bodies all may open wide but/you enter at your own risk." Still, one must take the risks: "I'm trying for the lone one mama,/running like hell and if i fall/i fall/i fall." The result is that

   i survive

One must see the beauties and lessons in the lives of forerunners, and, Clifton teaches, one must see the beauties and possibilities in one's own life. In "Last Note to My Girls" she says, "i command you to be/good runners/to go with grace."

In the autobiographical prose work Generations Clifton asserts, "Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lines become generations made out of pictures and words just kept." This heritage-inspired, almost mystical, faith and motivation are common in her poetry, as in the lines "someone calling itself Light/has opened my inside,/i am flooded with brilliance/mother,/someone of it is answering to/your name."

Clifton's sense of extended black family is especially strong in poems written from a female writer's or persona's point of view. Her feminism manifests itself neither in a strident voice of protest nor in concepts of fragile daintiness, shielded vision, protective seclusion, or cloying sentimentality. Hers is a dignified, active, poised, self-assured, insightful, and sensitive womanness. Poems such as "the lost baby poem," about an abortion, and "Conversation with My Grandson, Waiting to Be Conceived" obviously were written by such a woman. She sees her woman's strength, resolve, and independence in generations to come:

   sing the names of the women sing
   the power full names of the women sing
   White Buffalo Woman who brought the pipe
   Black Buffalo Woman and Black Shawl
   sing the names of the women sing
   the power of name in the women sing the name i have saved for my daughter sing …
   the name of my daughter sing she is
   They Are Afraid of Her.

The settings and situations that inform Clifton's poetry are those in which "little" people endure and function admirably, even heroically. The heroes who inspire or populate her poetry are public African-Americans such as Angela Davis, Little Richard, and, more important, unexpected and unsung people such as "Miss Rosie," a "wet brown bag of a woman."

That religion is a source of Clifton's optimism is evident in her poems. A number of them are built upon metaphorical constructs derived from the Bible. In one poem, immediately after confessing that "i am not equal to the faith required," the speaker reports that, although "i try to run from such surprising presence;/the angels stream before me/like a torch." Clifton's God, it might be said, can be perceived by black people. In one poem the biblical Mary speaks with syntax and grammar identified with African-Americans, and in "Palm Sunday" the people lay "turnips/for the mule to walk/on waving beets/and collards in the air." In keeping with African-American religious traditions, it is a beatific faith.

Consistent with the prevailing theme of survival in her work, Clifton's essay "A Letter to Fred" reflects poignant memories of the life she shared with her deceased husband and responds to the persistent question, posed by family and friends, of whether or not she will remarry:

Why shouldn't I? Why do they think that I wouldn't? Or shouldn't? After more than 30 years I know how to mate almost better than anything. Why would anyone learn something well, then promptly decide not to do it?

Poetically, Clifton shows resolution and insight as she clarifies death as new life. The male speaker in "the death of fred clifton" states that

   i seemed to be drawn
   to the center of myself
   leaving the edges of me
   in the hands of my wife
   and i saw with the most amazing
   so that i had not eyes but
   and, rising and turning
   through my skin,
   there was all around not the
   shapes of things
   but oh, at last, the things

The themes of womanness, history, and religion create a symmetry of survival in Clifton's Quilting: Poems, 1987–1990, where the shared and intertwined histories of women are replicated in sections named for traditional quilt designs: "log cabin," "catalpa flower," "eight-point star," and "tree of life." The opening poem, "quilting," is suggestive of that history:

   in the unknown world
   the woman threading together her need
   and her needle
   nods toward the smiling girl
   this will keep us warm.

In "at the cemetery,/walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989," Clifton celebrates the histories of unnamed slave women: "some of these dark/were slaves/some of these slaves/were women &/tell me your names." She acknowledges the dichotomies of women's unique gifts in poems such as "poem in praise of menstruation," "poem to my uterus," and "to my last period." The poet's wry humor is evident in "wishes for sons," in which the speaker announces that "i wish them hot flashes/and clots like you/wouldn't believe."

In several poems Clifton's religious optimism is tinged with ambivalence. In "wild blessings" she weaves her lyrical voice with biblical imagery to create an analogy of the dubious virtues of knowledge. The speaker is clearly discomfited with the gift of insight: "i am grateful for many blessings/but the gift of understanding,/the wild one, maybe not." In the section "tree of life" the speaker frets over the loss of innocence created by Lucifer's fall from grace and the resulting "perpetual evening" of carnal knowledge that has had an impact on the world:

   i the only lucifer
   created out of fire
   illuminate i could
   and so
   illuminate i did.

Ultimately Clifton's rock-like faith is clear. In "still there is mercy, there is grace" the speaker states, "how otherwise/could i & curl one day safe and still/beside You/at Your feet, perhaps,/but amen, Yours." The final section of the work, "Prayer," injects a note of quiet religious faith as the speaker suggests, "and may you in your innocence/sail through this to that."

In her work The Book of Light Clifton creates an extended metaphor of survival by suggesting that the light is the path to personal survival: "woman, i am lucille, which stands for light." In short signature poems she acknowledges heroes and antiheroes, but in the poem "final note to clark" there is a clear disclaimer of superheroes: "why did i think you could fix it?" Finally, in "she lived" the speaker accepts personal responsibility: "she walked away/from the hole in the ground/deciding to live. and she lived."

Clifton's poems are short, graceful, incisive. They continue to open as the reader contemplates or reexperiences them. Their under-stated yet insistent, and occasionally wryly humorous, endings often surprise. The best generic term to characterize their form and technique is free verse. Her lines are sinewy, lithe, rather matter-of-fact, and her diction is clear, precise, often in the idioms of black Americans.

In The Terrible Stories Clifton creates a mosaic of chilling places and events that stain the American landscape. The book is comprised of five parts, but it is in part 4, "In the Meantime," that the poet/narrator compresses the torment and frustration of a lifetime into a single unpunctuated question and seeks solace from her "dead once husband": why/cancer and terrible loneliness/and the wars against our people." Throughout the book Clifton builds on this theme and tackles the fear, pain, and loneliness of cancer; America's shameful history of enslavement and its dire aftermath; family lives; and, finally, in "From the Book of David," biblical history.

In the first part, "A Dream of Foxes," Clifton establishes the human terrain of unabated hunger and unresolved loneliness that threaten the contentment of both the speaker and her "sister fox." The speaker queries, "who/can blame her for hunkering/into the doorwells at night" with "her little bared teeth?" Yet the fox recognizes and understands the human hunger and "barks her compassion." In one of the most potent sections of the book, part 2, "From the Cadaver," the poet/narrator deftly examines the emotional and physical scars that result from cancer and a mastectomy. Breast cancer survivors surround the speaker in the poem as "amazons": "my sisters swooped in a circle dance/audre was with them and I/had already written this poem." The speaker also examines the terrible stories in a woman's responses to a lumpectomy, radiation, and loss. In "scar" the speaker articulates the finality of breast cancer surgery: "woman I ride/who cannot throw me/and I will not fall off."

In the third section, "Memphis," Clifton takes the reader on an emotional historical journey that includes black enslavement in America, the antebellum culture, and the continued pattern of contemporary human horrors. In "auction street" the speaker recalls the collective voices of those who feel slavery "throbbing up through our shoes," moved by the many African slaves "led in a [slave] coffle/to the [auction] block," in contrast to Moses, "who heard from the mountaintop:/take off your shoes/the ground you walk is holy." And in poems like "slaveships," "memphis," and "the son of medgar," the poet, still haunted by history, begins with African slaves who were "loaded like spoons" and later ruminates over the deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—and of the death of Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in front of his Mississippi home.

The work is powerful in its understated passion and persistently questioning tone. Clifton crosses poetic and historical boundaries as she unearths the calamities that have befallen humanity. And although the poet offers no startling conclusions, she has given life and voice to the terrible stories of human life that may confront and alarm us all.

—Theodore R. Hudson and

B.J. Bolden