Homage to My Hips
Homage to My Hips
Lucille Clifton's "homage to my hips" first appeared in the book Two-Headed Woman (1980), a collection of poems written between 1960 and 1980. Although Clifton was publishing both poetry and children's books during this period, Two-Headed Woman, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, established her as a major American poet. Clifton calls the opening section "Homage to Mine" and includes several "homage" poems; "homage to my hair" is the poem that immediately precedes "homage to my hips." In both cases, the poet is celebrating a part of her body that has traditionally been demeaned.
In "homage to my hips," Clifton provides a sometimes playful (but always mighty) expression of African American womanhood. In just seventy-eight words, she frees herself from both the dominance of Caucasian ideals of beauty and from masculine notions of femininity. The poem has been widely anthologized in collections such as Twentieth-Century American Poetry (1994), and it is also available in Clifton's important collection Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir,1969-1980 (1987).
Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936. Her parents were Samuel and Thelma Moore Sayles. Her father was a steelworker, her mother a laundress and homemaker. Clifton was born with six fingers on each hand, a trait she shared with her mother and later with her daughter. This trait becomes a significant motif in Clifton's poetry.
Neither of Clifton's parents finished elementary school; although her father could read, he never learned to write. Her mother, on the other hand, was a poet herself, producing verses in traditional iambic pentameter. Life was not pleasant in the Sayles household, even after their move to Buffalo, New York, when Lucille was seven years old. Her father was a womanizer and was cruel to her mother, who also suffered from epilepsy. In addition to Lucille, her parents, and her younger brother, Sammy, the family also included a daughter, Josie, from Samuel Sayles's first marriage and a daughter, Elaine, born to Sayles and a neighbor woman a few months after Lucille's birth. Money was tight, and Sayles drank, at times heavily. He sexually molested Lucille, and this early abuse is reflected in many of her later poems.
In 1953, Lucille left home to begin study at Howard University as the recipient of a prestigious scholarship. While at Howard, she encountered some of the finest minds of her generation. Her professor, the noted poet Sterling A. Brown, invited her to join a writers' group that included James Baldwin, Owen Dodson, and Joe Walker, as well as Lucille's friend LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka). She also became friends with fellow students Toni Morrison, who would later win a Nobel Prize in Literature, and Roberta Flack, who would become a famous singer and composer.
Lucille left Howard in 1955 and attended Fredonia State Teachers College briefly. While at Fredonia, her friend Ishmael Reed introduced her to a Buffalo State University student named Fred James Clifton, an educator who later helped to found the department of African American studies at Harvard University. In 1958, the young couple began a marriage that would flourish through the births of six children in the first seven years and last until Fred Clifton's death of cancer at age forty-nine in 1984. Sadly, Lucille Clifton's mother died in 1959 at age forty-four.
In 1967, the Clifton family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where Fred Clifton worked on educational reform in the city's schools. Meanwhile, Clifton herself continued to write poetry and children's books, just as she had during the years in Buffalo. She longed to have a wider audience for her work, however, and thus sent some of her poems to Langston Hughes and Robert Hayden, both highly regarded African American poets. Hayden in turn showed the poems to another important poet, Carolyn Kizer, who in turn showed the poems to some friends at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City, which sponsored one of the most prestigious writing contests in the country; as a result of poets sharing Clifton's work with other poets, she ended up receiving the 1969 New York Young Women's and Young Men's Poetry Discovery Award. This award led to a reading in New York attended by an editor from Random House who asked Clifton to submit a manuscript. The book became Good Times, published in 1969. In addition, Clifton also began her long career as a writer of illustrated children's books with Some of the Days of Everett Horton.
During the next two decades, Clifton continued to produce both poetry and picture books, and her work was included in several prominent anthologies. She served as the poet laureate of Maryland from 1975 to 1985. Generations, Clifton's memoir, appeared in 1976. In 1980, her poetry collection Two-Headed Woman, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, won the Juniper Prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It was in this collection that "homage to my hips" was first published.
In 1984, with the death of her beloved husband, Clifton wrote the children's book Everett Anderson's Goodbye, a volume that won the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Award. Her 1987 publications, Next and Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (including "homage to my hips"), netted her another Pulitzer nomination, as did her 1991 work Quilting. Clifton was named a Maryland "Living Treasure" in 1993; she was finalist for the National Book Award, the Lenore Marshall Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, all in 1996; and she won the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence from the Lannan Foundation in 1996. She was also elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets and named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999. Clifton won the National Book Award for Poetry for Blessing the Boats in 2000 and the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cleveland Foundation in 2004.
Following the death of her husband, Clifton endured breast cancer in 1994 and kidney failure in 1997. She received a kidney transplant from her daughter Alexia. Clifton lost her daughter Frederica to a brain tumor in 2000 and her son Channing to heart failure in 2004.
Throughout her life, Clifton has continued to teach creative writing across the country at small and large universities alike. Although she retired in 2005 from St. Mary's College of Maryland, where she held the Hilda C. Landers Chair in the Liberal Arts, as of 2007 she still returned to teach for at least part of each subsequent year. She counts among her friends some of the most important writers of the twentieth century, including Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Ishmael Reed. Her name is familiar to children, students, adult readers, and scholars alike.
In lines 1 through 3, Clifton asserts that her hips are large and that they must have adequate room for movement. From the start, the sounds and rhythms employed by Clifton mimic the swaying of hips. In line 4, Clifton says that her hips cannot squeeze into small spaces. Perhaps the expansiveness of her hips transcends the narrowness of the culture—as if white American culture in particular, with its obsessive concerns with women's weight, is too constraining for the magnificent hips Clifton pays homage to. Clifton places a comma in the middle of line 5, signaling a turn to a new thought. In the second half of line 5, Clifton attaches the notion of freedom to her hips.
The notion begun in the second part of line 5 continues through line 10. She touches on the topic of slavery in this section, asserting that her hips are not slaves. Her hips have the freedom to be where they will and to do whatever she would like them to do. Her hips, then, become symbolic of emancipation, a word that resonates with both racial and gender inequalities of the past. Emancipation, on the one hand, describes the freeing of slaves during the American Civil War; the Emancipation Proclamation is an important and significant national document. In addition, the term emancipation can also refer to voting rights. African American men were given the right to vote in 1870 with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Women, both black and white, on the other hand, did not become enfranchised until much later with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
Line 12 is nearly identical to line 11, with only one word different between them. In addition, the two differing words begin with the same initial sound. The similarity of the lines draws attention to the differing words while at the same time creating the effect of an incantation. That is, the words of these lines, when read aloud, sound like words of magic, designed to enchant. Indeed, as the poem continues, Clifton ascribes supernatural qualities to her hips. She also speaks of her hips as if they have existence independent from her. She says that in the past, her hips have enchanted a male and completely confused him. The final five lines of "homage to my hips" move the poem from one in which the speaker's concern is with claiming space for her hips (and by extension, her whole body) to one in which the hips are powerful tools of supernatural strength.
- The Academy of American Poets maintains an audio clip of Clifton reading "homage to my hips" on their website at http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/79.
- A video recording of Clifton reading "homage to my hips" and other poems was made on March 17, 1988. The Library of Congress website has posted this recording as a webcast at http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/ feature_wdesc.php?rec=3656.
Cultural Notions of Beauty
In "homage to my hips," Clifton makes a statement about culturally held notions of beauty. For decades, majority American culture has prized slender hips and overall thinness. Top models such as Twiggy, from the 1960s, and more recently Kate Moss have provided the iconic waif-like look found on the covers of fashion magazines. The bodies of these models resemble that of a young boy rather than that of a fully developed woman. In addition, the excessively thin women who grace the covers of women's magazines typically have little in common with the women who read the magazines.
Clifton asserts in her poem that her large hips have much more power than do small hips. By extension, she calls for women to free themselves from the self-limiting notions of beauty foisted upon them by media and culture. Rather than worrying about dieting and trying to make her body conform to some impossible, externally imposed idea about beauty, she celebrates her own large hips, equating their largeness with the largeness of the life she wants to live. Moreover, she seems to be saying that her choice to have large hips frees her from all limitations. Culture enslaves women by requiring that they look a particular way in order to be deemed attractive; Clifton, on the other hand, asserts that her hips have always been free. As such, they belong to no one but herself.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- In addition to "homage to my hips," Clifton wrote several other poems about her body including "homage to my hair," "i was born with twelve fingers," and "what the mirror said." Read a wide selection of these poems, then write several poems to various parts of your own body. What would you like to celebrate? Why? How is your celebration of your own body different from or similar to commonly held cultural views? Write a brief essay addressing these questions.
- Clifton counted among her friends some of the most important writers of the black arts movement. Research the movement, and find representative pieces of art, music, and literature. Using what you learn and collect, develop a multimedia presentation on the black arts movement and present it to your class.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, a close friend of Clifton and the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, wrote a very famous poem called "the mother." This poem is often compared and contrasted with Clifton's "the lost baby poem." Read both poems carefully, along with interviews with both writers, then write an essay comparing and contrasting the position the two poems seem to take on the subject of abortion.
- The poet Sharon Olds published a volume of poems about her father called The Father in 1992. Likewise, one of Sylvia Plath's most famous poems, "Daddy," is about the poet's relationship with her father. Read these poems along with Clifton's many poems that concern her father and write an essay comparing and contrasting the poets' views of fatherhood.
- Ideals of feminine beauty change across time and across culture. Collect copies of paintings and photographs of women from a wide variety of time periods and countries. Can you make a list of what features were considered beautiful in each time period and in each culture?Make a collage of these images and write a report about the changing perceptions of feminine beauty.
In "homage to my hips" Clifton is also associating herself with the "Black Is Beautiful" movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the period when this poem was written. This movement urged African Americans to reject western European notions of beauty and to instead embrace Afrocentric features as their standard of beauty. As the poet Alicia Ostriker notes in the AmericanPoetry Review, "Clifton began writing during the explosive Black Arts movement of the late 1960's and early 1970's," and she "records her womanly conversion from bleaching cream and ‘whiteful ways’ to the love of blackness."
Liberation from Expectation
Ajuan Maria Mance, writing in a chapter from Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women, argues, "In ‘homage to my hips,’ Clifton continues her pursuit of a new and emancipatory vision of the black female corpus." The word emancipate means to free from slavery or other restraint; an emancipationist is someone who favors or advocates emancipation from some legal, social, or other restraint. Another term for an emancipationist is a liberationist. In "homage to my hips," Clifton foremost plays the role of a women's liberationist. She remarks on the pettiness and arrowness imposed by patriarchal and societal expectations of women. She demands space—space to move her large hips in a dance to her own expansive soul. She also asserts that her hips have more strength than a man's. Revealing a second role, Clifton's assertion that her hips are free, never having been contained by slavery, reminds the reader that Clifton is not just a woman but a woman of color, a woman whose own great-great-grandmother was captured in Africa and brought to North America. She celebrates her freedom in making a negating reference to an institution that turned proud people into chattel by depriving them of the most fundamental of all human rights, the ownership of their own bodies. Her statement that her hips have freedom of movement and freedom of intention embodies the abstraction of liberty itself. Nothing will impede the forward progress of these powerful hips, and by extension, the progress of a powerful people.
Transformation from the Mundane to the Supernatural
By the end of "homage to my hips," Clifton's hips have assumed more than just the power of a free, individual woman of color. They have grown to large and supernatural proportions, capable of overpowering and confusing a man. Clifton refers directly to her hips being capable of casting magical enchantments over a man. The reference to magic suggests that Clifton may be referring to juju, the magic of an object or fetish believed by West Africans to hold supernatural power. Clifton's hips, with their freedom and their strength, have not only natural human power but also the juju power of the supernatural and of Clifton's female ancestors. In this brief poem, then, Clifton invokes the spirits of the women who went before her, women who were under the cruel reign of slavery as well as those who were free in Africa, to endow her hips with supernatural power.
Alliteration and Repetition
The poem "homage to my hips" consists of only seventy-eight words organized into fifteen lines. As with many of Clifton's poems, "homage to my hips" does not have capital letters, although it is punctuated. The poem does not have regular rhyme or meter, but strong sound and rhythmic qualities are created by the use of repetition, both of whole words and of sounds. The repetition of initial sounds is called alliteration, and Clifton uses this device throughout the poem. The repetition of sounds and words serves to emphasize Clifton's themes. In addition, through the repeated sounds and words, the poem itself takes on the rhythm of an incantation or magic spell. Thus, both the meanings of the selected words and the sounds of the words work dynamically to convey the sense that the speaker is a woman of power and possibility.
Synecdoche is a literary figure of speech in which one part signifies the whole. For example, when a sailing captain calls out, "All hands on deck!" he or she does not literally mean that everyone on board should place their hands on the boat deck. Rather, the captain is using the term "hand" to represent the whole sailor. For a synecdoche to work well, it should use an important part of the whole, and it should be a part that is directly connected to the topic. Thus, in the above example, "hands" is a good choice as a synecdoche for sailors for two reasons: first, sailors perform most of their work with their hands, and second, when a captain calls for all hands to come on deck, there is work to be done. If the captain wanted the sailors to be on the lookout for an enemy vessel, on the other hand, he or she might instead call out, "All eyes to starboard!" A bad or unclear synecdoche would be if the captain called out, "All elbows down below!" The appropriateness of the synecdoche contributes to the clarity of the figure of speech.
Mark Bernard White, in an article in the CLA Journal, asserts that Clifton's use of hips in "homage to my hips" is a form of synecdoche. He writes, "Hips become a synecdoche, even a theme or motif, in Clifton, to suggest her own womanliness, the power of the feminine form, and especially to celebrate the aesthetics of black women's bodies." The rightness of White's statement is obvious on reflection. When Clifton argues that her hips are free and do not belong to anyone else, she of course also means that her whole body is free. It would be a logical impossibility for it to be otherwise. In addition, the synecdoche is clear for the two important reasons noted above: first, hips are an essential part of a woman's body, and second, hips are directly related to the topic under discussion, a woman's beauty and sense of self. Clifton, therefore, uses the literary device of synecdoche to provide a concrete visual image in the form of her hips to stand in for the abstraction of the free female body.
Minimalism is a movement in visual, architectural, and literary arts characterized by a striving to reach the essence of an idea with a minimum of words or detail. In minimalist literature, each word resonates with significance, such that only a few words can carry the theme. Well-known minimalist writers include Raymond Carver and Anne Beattie. An examination of Clifton's poetry as well reveals this aesthetic function. Alicia Ostriker, in the American Poetry Review, comments on why this is such an effective technique for Clifton: "The work of a minimalist artist like Clifton makes empty space resonate. A spacious silence is not mere absence of noise, but locates us as it were on a cosmic stage." That is, the carving away of words to reveal the essence of a poem results in space in which the poem can move, in much the same way that Clifton revels in space for her hips. Writing in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A CriticalEvaluation, Haki Madhubuti likewise praises Clifton for being "an economist with words" who "is effective because, despite consciously limiting her vocabulary, she has defined her audience…. She is communicating ideas and concepts." Thus, Clifton's minimalist style focuses attention on her ideas and concepts rather than on a large or academic vocabulary. By using language common among her audience, she writes poetry that speaks directly to those she wishes to address.
Civil Rights and the Black Power Movement
Clifton was born in 1936, a time when African Americans were excluded from many of the amenities of American life. Particularly in the southern states, African Americans were legally segregated into their own schools, neighborhoods, and recreational facilities. So-called Jim Crow laws established that segregation was legal so long as facilities were separate but equal. Conditions, however, were scarcely ever equal, and generations of young African Americans struggled with inferior schools and education.
The return of African American soldiers from World War II in 1945 began a decades-long struggle to achieve civil rights for African American citizens. In 1954, while Clifton was a student at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that it was the right of African American children to attend school with all other children. Over the next few years, civil disorder broke out as schools began the long process of desegregation.
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans and their white allies worked tirelessly to establish equal rights for all citizens. Led by leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights activists engaged in voter registration drives and civil disobedience, sometimes at the cost of their own safety. In spite of the successes the civil rights leaders achieved in securing legal civil rights, discrimination in many forms continued to plague the country.
By 1966, the tenor of the civil rights movement began to change. Groups of militant African Americans, such as the Black Panthers and the followers of Malcolm X, rejected King's non-violent approach to integration, preferring to focus on African American self-sufficiency and self-determination. Leaders such as Stokely Carmichael and Robert Williams called for a new racial consciousness represented by the slogan "Black Power." The black power movement asserted that self-esteem and self-determined standards of beauty were necessary to bring the imbalance of power between African Americans and whites into line. A subsidiary of the black power movement was the "Black Is Beautiful" initiative. African Americans were encouraged to embrace a new appreciation for their own physical characteristics and for their own artistic creations, rather than use cosmetic products such as hair straighteners and skin bleach or adopt literary genres and styles borrowed from European writers.
Clifton's poems in Two-Headed Woman were composed between 1969 and 1980. The poem "homage to my hips" in particular demonstrates the celebration of African American beauty and womanhood growing out of the black power movement.
The Black Arts Movement
The black arts movement was the cultural corollary to the more political black power movement. The black arts movement called for a black aesthetic that would connect the worlds of art and literature with the world of African Americans. The purpose of such an aesthetic would be to use black experience as a vital and necessary component of art. Only through the celebration and valuing of black experience could African Americans reforge a common culture from those that had been nearly destroyed over the centuries among the black diaspora after African peoples were kidnapped and sold into slavery all over the globe.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1970s: Anorexia nervosa, a potentially deadly eating disorder in which victims starve themselves to become thin (sometimes resulting in death), comes to public attention.
Today: Some researchers estimate that the incidence of anorexia has doubled in the United States since 1970, yet at the same time an ever-growing segment of the population has become obese.
- 1970s: Women struggle to attain equal status with men in all segments of society, including the workplace.
Today: Although women still find it difficult to break through the "glass ceiling" (a term indicating the limitations in career advancement for women), many more women serve as presidents and executives of large companies than ever before.
- 1970s: Through the black arts movement, the artistic corollary to the black power movement, writers such as Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed argue that art, particularly among African Americans, must not be just art for art's sake but rather should have a moral, ethical, and political purpose.
Today: African American writers and artists produce work in all genres of art; while their work often reflects African American experience, their audiences include all segments of the culture.
The black arts movement found expression with writers such as Clifton's friend, Amiri Baraka, who founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S). Baraka believed that artists are by necessity political activists. Members of Baraka's school performed plays on street corners and wherever they could find an audience. Other important writers of the period included Larry Neal, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Betye Saar, Jeff Donaldson, Ishmael Reed, and Haki Madhubuti, among many others. The literature of the movement was often written in black vernacular and addressed issues such as interracial tension, the African diaspora, and politics. Clifton was well acquainted with many of these writers, and she and her husband were also deeply involved in issues concerning African Americans. Written between 1969 and 1980, poems such as "homage to my hips" and others of Two-Headed Woman demonstrate many of the aesthetic qualities called for by the movement.
Literary historians and critics vary in their assessment of the importance of the black arts movement. An increasing number of studies, however, suggest that the movement not only was revolutionary for African American artists but also shifted the course of American literature.
The Feminist Movement
At the same time that African American citizens were growing increasingly vocal about their civil rights, women of the United States also began to reexamine their roles in American society. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1948; translated 1953), Betty Friedan's The Feminist Mystique (1963), and Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1970) were all important texts that led to women asserting civil, political, and social equality. Like the writers of the black arts movement, feminist writers called for women artists to write their experiences as women rather than imitate the genres and styles of male writers. Indeed, one of the central tensions of the feminist movement was one of similarity or difference: Should women be judged against the same criteria as men, since as people they should be inherently equal? Or, on the other hand, should women be judged as women, determining for themselves what criteria constitute success?
During this period, feminists called for equal pay for equal work and fought against the unspoken assumptions about women that kept women from achieving success in their careers. For Clifton, a wife and mother of six children, the demands of running a house while attempting a full-time career as a professor and writer illustrated the very issues feminists were attempting to highlight. Many of Clifton's poems from the 1960s and 1970s illustrate her growing need to value her womanhood in addition to valuing her blackness.
Clifton's 1980 poetry collection Two-Headed Woman won the Juniper Prize, sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Press, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Poems from this collection such as "homage to my hips" received special mention. The poet Marilyn Nelson Waniek (who is mostly known as Marilyn Nelson), for example, writing a 1983 review of Two-Headed Woman in Callaloo, calls Clifton "a visionary poet. Her vision, however,is one of sanity, connectedness, light. She can write poems which are bright little gems of perceptive observation." Likewise, Haki Madhubuti, writing an early critical evaluation of Clifton's work in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, comments on the poems of Two-Headed Woman. Madhubuti states that Clifton "understands that precise communication is not an easy undertaking; language, at its root, seeks to express emotion, thought, action."
By the mid-1990s, critics were noting Clifton's particular ability to write about the body. Jean Anaporte-Easton, for example, writing in the Mid-American Review, comments, "The distinctive quality of Clifton's voice comes from her ability to ground her art in an imagery of the body and physical reality." Likewise, a few years later, in a chapter from Recovering the Black Female Body: Self Representations by African American Women, Ajuan Maria Mance comments, "In many ways Clifton's Two-Headed Woman … marks the beginning of her interest in depicting the transgressive black body."
Other critics, such as Mary Jane Lupton in Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters, began to compare Clifton to a variety of writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Ann Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Hilary Holladay, writing about Clifton in the essay collection titled The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, argues that Clifton's "mastery of the lyric recalls the stylistic pleasures of imagism and the visceral emotion of confessional poetry. Like William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Wallace Stevens, Clifton is capable of the stunning miniature." That Holladay connects Clifton with such highly regarded modernist poets suggests that by the mid-1990s, Clifton's work was transcending narrow categorization as work by a woman of color. A few years later, in one of the first book-length studies of Clifton's oeuvre, Wild Blessings: ThePoetry of Lucille Clifton, Holladay argues that Clifton's focus on female uniqueness places her "in the long tradition of poets mythologizing womanhood."
Clifton's reputation seems likely to increase in the coming years. Mark Bernard White asserts in the CLA Journal, "That Lucille Clifton is one of the most engaging, gifted, and significant of contemporary poets is a critical evaluation more and more commonly held." Equally complimentary about Clifton's work is her biographer Lupton, who writes that "Lucille Clifton is a major figure in contemporary American poetry, a woman whose intense exploration of her body and psyche has helped make possible a new honesty, a new perspective." The first full-length critical studies of Clifton's work appeared in the early years of the twenty-first century, some twenty years after the publication of "homage to my hips." It is likely that more will follow.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor of literature who writes widely for educational publishers. In the following essay on "homage to my hips," she analyzes Clifton's undermining of traditionally held assumptions about racial and patriarchal power.
The poem "homage to my hips" appears in Lucille Clifton's 1980 collection Two-Headed Woman, in a segment titled "Homage to Mine." This collection is an important one for Clifton; it garnered her first Pulitzer Prize nomination, and she chose to include the entire collection of poems in the 1987 volume Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980. Many readers will recognize "homage to my hips" as well as its sister poem, "homage to my hair," as two of Clifton's most frequently anthologized works. In her biographical work Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters, Mary Jane Lupton asserts that it is Clifton's "intense exploration of her body" in poems such as these that has led to "a new honesty, a new perspective" in poetry. Certainly, "homage to my hips" offers a new and honest perspective on the sources of feminine power.
In this poem (as well as in the other poems from Two-Headed Woman), Clifton asserts her right to speak of her own body and to claim her own physical nature. Such a claim might seem unnecessary; everyone is, after all embodied. No mind can live independently from the physical body. Moreover, few contemporary readers would doubt that each person owns his or her own body.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Gwendolyn Brooks's Blacks (1987) is a comprehensive collection of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's best work. Brooks was a close personal friend and role model to Clifton.
- Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) is a memoir of a young African-American woman who was sexually abused as a child. Her memoir complements the autobiographical detail of Clifton's poetry.
- Clifton's Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (1987) remains the essential text for any student wishing to become better acquainted with Clifton's work. The volume includes all of the poems of Two-Headed Woman as well as Clifton's memoir Generations.
- The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005), by James Edward Smethurst, offers a historical assessment of the movement that nurtured writers like Clifton. Smethurst traces the connections between the black arts movement and the black power movement and argues that the black arts movement changed the way that Americans viewed the connection between art and popular culture.
However, for Clifton, the great-great-granddaughter of a woman taken from Africa and brought to North America as a slave, such an assertion cannot be taken lightly. Her own genetic and ancestral histories demonstrate that the ownership of one's body is something that must be guarded and proclaimed. Further, as a woman, she has inherited long histories of misogynistic law, medical theory, and religion that have complicated the female body. As Lupton notes, "Like many of her metaphors, the idea of enslavement refers both to woman's bondage and to racial bondage." In the fifteen lines of "homage to my hips," Clifton undertakes nothing less than the recapture of the inherent strength of her race and of her womanhood, to thus free herself from white ideas about black bodies and from patriarchal assertions about female weakness.
Ajuan Maria Mance, in a chapter in Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women, argues that "homage to my hips" offers an "emancipatory vision of the black female corpus," a vision that allows Clifton to free herself from conventional assumptions about beauty, a project she continues in "homage to my hair." The blue-eyed, blond-haired princess of Euro-American fairy tales does not hold a candle to the hip-swinging, wild-haired enchantress of these two poems. Rather than succumbing to white standards of beauty requiring the African American woman to imitate Caucasian features, Clifton defines her own criteria of beauty in these two poems, locating these standards in features that are stereotypically black physical attributes. She rejoices in her hair and revels in her hips. As Mance asserts, "Clifton reinterprets the outrageousness and excess associated with the African American female body as a source of power and a point of pride."
Likewise, Clifton unravels centuries of Western patriarchal misogyny, or hatred of women, as it has been codified in the teachings of law, medicine, and religion. Legally, women were typically under the control of first their fathers and then their husbands until very recent history. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, for example, laws regarding rape were located not in criminal codes but rather in property law. A rape, therefore, was a crime against the man to whom the woman "belonged," not against the woman. In addition, women were not granted the right to vote in the United States until 1920 (some fifty years after African American men were granted the same right). Before that time, virtually all legal decisions concerning women were handled by men. If a woman was charged with a crime, for example, she could not expect a jury of her peers, since women were prohibited from sitting on juries.
Similarly, medical texts and traditions from Aristotle onward through the early twentieth century perpetrated a construction of the female body that suggested that women were inferior members of the species. In fact, many medieval medical writers argued that women were perhaps not even of the same species as men. Aristotle's influential teachings perpetuated the notion that all fetuses start out male, but then because of some error in development, some fetuses become female.
Clifton clearly rejects both legal and medical traditions, claiming that her hips are her own, not her father's, nor her husband's, and that her strength is even greater than that of a man. She is perfection in her own right, both as a woman and as an African American; she is neither an imperfect male nor an imperfect human being.
Clifton also takes on masculine, patriarchal preaching about the dangers and lewdness of the female body. As far back as the early Middle Ages, Christian church fathers taught women to hide and be ashamed of their bodies. After all, Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden, according to early biblical interpretations, led to the downfall of all mankind. Clifton vehemently rejects this construction. At the same time, she also rejects the Western religious and philosophical position of binary opposition. That is, Western thought has traditionally and conventionally divided reality into pairs of opposites, such as man/woman, right/left, white/black, mind/body, religion/magic, Christian/pagan. In each of these pairs, the first term is in a position of privilege in relation to the second, such that the second term is often defined by negation. For example, a woman can be defined as not a man. Thus, in a discussion of the differences between men's and women's sports, for example, women are often deemed inferior because they do not have the size or strength of some men; they are judged by what they do not have rather than by what they do have. Put another way, the unspoken assumption is that the first term in each pair above is the normative term, while the second can be defined by its deviation from the norm. Western thought has traditionally privileged logic, science, and authority over intuition, magic, and experience.
Clifton's project, then, constitutes nothing less than an overturning of this entire tradition. Instead of allowing herself to be defined by what she is not, Clifton asserts what she is: a woman of fair proportions, a woman who can destroy both racial and patriarchal injustice through the power of her words. She does this in part through the invocation of magic. According to Mance:
When Clifton assigns to her black female subjects fantastic traits and mythical capabilities that exceed the boundaries of traditional womanhood, their flagrant disregard for the roles that would limit their function and meaning challenges the positionality of those institutions and identity groups whose visibility depends upon the preservation of blackness and womanhood as opposing categories.
The "positionality" that Clifton challenges is the position of privilege. Without the ability to impose rules or standards on Clifton's magical women, privileged groups can no longer sustain the myth that their position of privilege is inherent in their being. Rather, it becomes clear that their position of privilege has been maintained only through the acquiescence of those who accept their power. Once women accept their own magical nature, they can emancipate themselves from those who would bind them. With the introduction of magic in the last four lines of "homage to my hips," Clifton associates herself with African, feminine, intuitive, supernatural power, and with a long line of spell casters. She is capable of directing her magic at a man and utterly confusing him, setting his head and his body spinning.
Clifton also defeats the powers that would bind her by turning their own language against them. A closer examination of the title of the poem reveals that Clifton has engaged in a linguistic pun. In contemporary English, the word "homage" means respect and reverence. This is a generalization, however, of a term that had a very specific meaning in the Middle Ages: homage was the term used for the acknowledgment by a vassal that he owed his lord loyalty and service. Indeed, the vassal pledged his very body to his lord. This was not an abstract concept but rather the very real and very concrete promise of one man to another that he accepted the lord's superiority and that he would die for the lord. In exchange, the vassal could expect protection and provisions from the lord. The word homage itself can be traced back to the Latin word for man.
Thus, the title of Clifton's poem can be read in two ways: In the first and most common reading, the poet herself pays respect and reverence to her hips in a playful, alliterative gesture. That she uses a word associated with men renders the title even more clever. In the second reading, Clifton demands homage to her magical hips, and by extension to her magical body, and by even further extension to the magical bodies of all women of color—and even further, to all women. The homage she demands is not that of a vassal to a lord or that of a slave to a slave-holder. Rather, the homage she demands is the free acknowledgment from human brothers that she and her hips have assumed their rightful position in the family of humankind. Clifton's "homage to my hips" is an expression of liberation and empowerment.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on "homage to my hips," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Michael S. Glaser
In the following excerpt from an interview, Clifton talks about her memories and the role her memories play in her writing.
… Michael Glaser: Lucille, you often state that writing for you is linked to being human, to your own staying awake and your desire that the world stay awake.Would you talk a little bit about that? Why do you write?
Lucille Clifton: Well, it always seemed to be something that came very naturally to me, to write things down. I like words a lot, as you know. I have always been very fond of words, and the different sounds they make. But, for me, I think the real question is, Why do I continue to write? Because, for me, I think that writing is a way of continuing to hope. When things sometimes feel as if they're not going to get any better, writing offers a way of trying to connect with something beyond that obvious feeling … because you know, there is hope in connecting, and so perhaps for me it is a way of remembering I am not alone. And the writing may be sending tentacles out to see if there is a response to that.
Michael: So writing is a way of being connected?
Michael: But part of that connectedness for you is also bearing witness, isn't it?
Lucille: Yes. If you bear witness, you remain rooted in some way. You continue to feel what you see matters. What you hear matters. It's a way to connect fully, instead of just intellectually.
See, I believe in energy. I believe there is energy. It exists, and it continues to exist. And I believe it exists in humans, and it's sort of like if someone says, "Oh, everything is going to hell, I have seen it." Well, I have seen something other, and if that first message is out there, then the other message should be out there too.
You know, I have seen other. The worst has never happened to me. Because even in my imagination, even when it seems like something really, really bad has happened, I can imagine something worse than that. And it's not an either/or. What it means is that even in the face of this madness, there still is, "it could have been even beyond that," but it wasn't.
Michael: Do you feel that writing toward that positive energy is a necessary thing to counter-balance the negative?
Lucille: I think that you recognize the negative. You have to mention it when you see it. I believe in mentioning that which is negative.
Michael: But if we didn't acknowledge it, if we didn't mention it, if we didn't write over against it, that would create more space for …
Lucille: For IT. Right. For its energy to expand.
Michael: So part of the act of writing is a way of keeping back the darkness?
Michael: When you talk to your students about writing, what do you encourage them to do?
Lucille: Well, one does not write to be famous, you know? First of all, how famous is a writer, when you think about it? And I don't write because I have a mission to heal the world. My mission is to heal Lucille if I can, as much as I can. What I know is that I am not the only one who has felt the things I feel. And so, if what I write helps to heal others, that's excellent, but my main thing is for me not to fall into despair, which I have done on occasion and could do at any time.
Michael: So, your sense for young people is to write because …
Lucille: To write because you need it. It will somehow help you get through a difficult life. Don't just accept the surface as the reality. You know, there is form and there is substance. Choose substance, mostly. You can't do it all the time, I suppose. I certainly don't. But at least be aware of the difference. Pay attention.
Michael: You do an awful lot, Lucille, probably too much: you write regularly, you teach, you give way too many readings, you sit on boards and panels, you serve as a major competition judge once or twice a year. You work too hard. You don't have to do all these things you do. So what's that about? Is it compulsive, are you a missionary in your own way? Every time you're in front of an audience, every time you're in front of the classroom, you are trying to not just be a good woman but to encourage other people to be good. What's involved there?
Lucille: I don't know. I think that I would have been a good preacher [laughs]. I think that sometimes some of it is feeling that I have to prove that I am a good person. But also I have always been someone who was very affected by injustice, by what seems unfair. And sometimes I feel that maybe I can help.
Michael: Whatever it is that causes that, it's what I see as a calling of yours. You call others forth to be their best selves, and you inspire others toward that. I hope you realize what a gift that is to your students. They don't see many professors in front of them who are sharing their own struggle to be their best self, to fight against injustice, to fight against discrimination without becoming bitter.
Lucille: And I think, I really do think, that one of the things people ought to do in classrooms is model being a whole human. And you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable … to pain, to hurt, so that you can love. Otherwise …
Michael: We don't take those risks?
Lucille: No! We use the word, but we don't take the risks.
Michael: A while ago, you told me that someone had mumbled that you had played the race card when you read the poem about James Byrd, the black man who was dragged to his death by the truck in Texas. And you said you were happy to know that people respond that way. Why is that?
Lucille: Because it made clear to me what I suspect sometimes: that for me, who has to some degree been accepted in the world, people don't expect me to talk about race or think about it. Except in a positive kind of way.
Michael: That's your dues for being accepted?
Lucille: Yes, yes. It's like, because I can speak about race, and because I have friends who are not African American, it must be that I think everything is OK, that I don't feel racism because, after all, I'm OK. But I've got a cousin who's not OK, you know what I mean? And I have friends who are of my race who are not OK, and I am not always OK.
Michael: You're also part of a human family.
Michael: Which is something that poetry, and your poetry especially, is about.
Lucille: Absolutely. My poetry is not about "how does it look." It's about "how does it feel." You know?
Michael: Talk about that …
Lucille: Well, it's not about the surface of things. I hope it's more than that. I hope it is about humans who are deeper than that. And it's certainly not about forgetting—it's about remembering, because memory is what we have. I've started writing a poem about what so often happens with memories. I was thinking about that because I was beginning to forget some things about my mother. Now, she's been dead forty years, and I'm forgetting some things about how it felt when her hand touched my hair. I know that she touched it, I've seen the pictures of it, you know what I mean?
Michael: You don't remember how it felt?
Lucille: Once the sensation of it, the feeling of it goes, the photo becomes the memory. And that's not good because the photo isn't the memory.
Michael: I was thinking about your mother the other day and the poem that you wrote about her burning her poems. I've heard you talk about your father forbidding her to publish, and how you watched your mother go to the basement and burn her poems in the furnace, but I've never heard you talk about how that felt and how that impacted on you, watching that. You were sitting on the steps …
Lucille: I was standing on the steps of the basement, and I don't even know if she knew I was there. I was a young girl, and to me this was just another strange thing that was happening in that house. You know?
Michael: Did you hear what your father had said to her?
Lucille: Yes. Well, I don't remember that conversation, but I had heard that, "Ain't no wife of mine going to be no poetry writer." And I think that it did impact on me. I think it had something to do with the reason I never stopped writing, and I've been writing since I was a little girl. I think maybe that's where that came from, as I think back.
Michael: And your mother knew that you wrote?
Lucille: Oh yes. She would …
Michael: She encouraged that?
Lucille: Oh yes. Well, they both encouraged me, believe it or not, to do whatever I wanted to. They thought I could do whatever I wanted to. Clearly, that wasn't true [laughter]. And I knew that it wasn't true. But it was very nice of them.
Michael: They believed in you.
Lucille: They did, very much.
Michael: So here's your mother burning her poems, and your context is, this house is always crazy …
Lucille: I knew that she was an unhappy woman. I used to think that she was the most unhappy person I had ever seen in my life. But I'm not that sure now … What was it Camus said? "In the midst of winter I found myself in a wonderful summer," something like that. There are moments of great joy. I have known those moments too.
Michael: Moments of happiness?
Lucille: And perhaps if we allow them to be, they'll be enough, you know? Why do we think that we need to be so favored in the universe that we are guaranteed tremendous happiness at all costs?
Michael: Lucille, when I think back over the last several years, I'm really astonished by what you have been through and how well you have survived.
Lucille: You know, sometimes I think that too!
Michael: You have come through cancer and chemotherapy, kidney failure, dialysis, kidney transplant—you've been looking at death for five years. How do you deal with that?
Lucille: Well, I think about death a fair amount. But what I'm saying to myself is, I'm not going to go out like this. And I'm beginning to do things that I used to do when I was younger, like listening to jazz, going to the Blue Note. I haven't done something like that in so many years. All those things, and suddenly I think, "I enjoyed life very much as a young woman." I just enjoyed fun, and I want to enjoy it again.
Michael: You never really had a chance to get back to that …
Lucille: No, no.
Michael: After Fred died you were too busy being a mother and a poet?
Lucille: I think it wasn't until I went to the book fair in L.A. last year that I found myself suddenly feeling like I was doing things that Lucille did. I'm really enjoying doing these things again …
Source: Michael S. Glaser, "I'd Like Not to Be a Stranger in the World: A Conversation/Interview with Lucille Clifton," in Antioch Review, Vol. 58, No. 3, Summer 2000, pp. 310-28.
Charles H. Rowell
In the following excerpt from an interview, Clifton discusses her life and her poetry.
ROWELL: I want to make a confession to you.
ROWELL: And it has to do with one of your early poems,"miss rosie."
CLIFTON: Oh, uh-huh.
ROWELL: I have carried Miss Rosie in my head all of these years. She personally represents our ancestors, our common past. When I think of her, I am given strength to move forward on the shoulders of those who went before us, those who prepared the way for us—the ancestors who struggled, survived, and prevailed. I want to read the complete poem.
… I think Miss Rosie's is one of those "terrible stories" that you referred to earlier. And our standing on her shoulders—and those of so many of the ancestors like her—signifies many more of those "terrible stories."
CLIFTON: It is terrible …
ROWELL: Throughout your collections, you've been telling these terrible stories. Yes, I want to confess to you that I have carried Miss Rosie with me all of these years and that she has been very important to me.
CLIFTON: But she is important to us all. You know, the whole idea that, "Look, I'm where I am because somebody was before me, and that somebody suffered so that I might get here. And whether or not they suffered so I could be here is irrelevant. The fact that that happened is what has helped me to be here." It seems important for us to remember that. Well, for me it's important to remember that I never in my life have worked as hard as my mother did. Never. And my mother did not work as hard as her mother did. A lot of people have said to me in the early years that they thought I didn't like Miss Rosie; and I can't understand why they would think such a thing, when I honor her and recognize my debt. And there was a lady who was Miss Rosie. There're a lot of ladies who are or were. And I honor them. Because I can't drive, when I was in Baltimore, I had a man who drove me around all the time. He was in his 70s. He wasn't a very good driver, but he was so interesting. He would drive me and my kids. One time he said, "You know what I don't understand?" and I said, "What?" and he said, "I don't understand why these young kids"—this is in the 1960s—"are so mad. I'm the one what took the stuff." And I thought, "Now that's really interesting, isn't it?" That he was mad but he didn't feel himself enraged in the same way. What he also felt was that they ["these young kids"] weren't mad about him. They were mad about themselves. And he saw them as having it better than he did.
ROWELL: Will you talk about the 1960s? You also wrote during that period.
CLIFTON: Yes, I did.
ROWELL: And yet you, as far as I can tell, did not subscribe to what, at that time, was referred to as the Black Aesthetic. Neither did you subscribe to the politics of the Black Power Movement. I was never convinced that your poetry was part of the Black Arts Movement.
CLIFTON: It did not reflect it. At the time I didn't even know what that was.
ROWELL: You are right. Your poetry does not reflect the mainstream of that movement. But we were all influenced by the new concept that "Black is beautiful," which suggested possibilities and self-affirmation.
CLIFTON: Let me tell you what I think. Well, during the 1960s, I was pretty much pregnant. I have six kids, and they're six and a half years apart in age, from the oldest to the youngest. The Black Aesthetic. I am a black person; everything I write is a black thing. How could I not? But, on the other hand, it's always struck me as strange that all of a sudden people discovered that when somebody said "nigger" they were talking about them. Charles, I've been knowing that. Do you know what I mean? I had known that a long time. The inequities and all of that! I knew that. So what was new? At that time, I thought, well this must have to do with going to college. [Laughter] That's terrible. But I'm talking about my young self. I had not done that. I had come from poor folks in Buffalo, New York, which was not an interesting city at the time, and had seen that my parents were not even elementary school graduates. My grandparents—I don't know if they'd seen a school. So the kind of struggles and things that were happening were not things that I had suddenly discovered involved me too; I had been knowing that. I also think that in trying to see things wholly—which I've done all my life, tried to see what is whole—I could see some possible repercusions of some of the things that were said and that happened that were not positive for our race. That was for me something I had to think about. In those days, I lived a very regular life, the life of a poor black person. I'm the only poet I know who's been evicted twice in her life. In my family we have some of everything, even a lot of relatives in jail. So these things people were talking about were not new to me. But I was trying, I think, to see if I could live a life of courage—which I admire greatly—and a life that did not fill my head with white people, positively or negatively, so I could go on, because my family's quite short-lived. My mother died at 44. My father was a youngish man; he was in his early 60s. My husband died at 49. Somebody had to remember. I also thought that there had been in history some people who were positive people. I thought that there had been some black people that I knew were negative. And I didn't see why I should pretend that was not so. But that doesn't mean I did not notice and that I do not notice what goes on in the world, because I do. I know what the person looks like who has generally offended people who look like me; I know what that person looks like. I am not crazy. I don't know if that explains it or not. I also am not a person to pretend. Well, I talk about being human all the time. But I'm not a person who does not notice that I'm a black person; that would be ridiculous. My children, for instance, because they've never got anything about black history in school, got it at home. I know that black is beautiful; they know it too. I knew I was cool. [Laughter] My mother was beautiful. Even though I know he was a challenging and difficult man, I saw my father's strengths, many of which I inherited.
ROWELL: Will you look back for a moment and think about the Black Arts Movement, which was a part of the Black Power Movement? What did the Black Arts Movement do for our literature?
CLIFTON: Well, I think it brought to American literature a long missing part of itself. I think it made a gateway for younger non-white people to come into American poetry, into American literature. And I think that's important. When I was young, I didn't see a gate through which I could come, so it didn't occur to me that I could be a part of American literature, or part of what is read, etc. But I think the Black Arts Movement … to tell the truth, when I was a young woman I didn't even know what that was. I didn't know what was meant. One day, I got a letter from Hoyt Fuller who was editing Negro Digest (you know it latter [sic] became Black World). He told me that he was grateful that when I mention when I was first published, I always said it was in Negro Digest. He said some people forget. [Laughter] I didn't forget. I think that allowed there to be a gate through which I could come, certainly, though I was a little older than some. But people have a tendency, I think, to believe that if you don't say "black" in every other line, you must be somehow not wishing to be part of Black. But as Gwendolyn Brooks has said, "Every time I walk out of my house, it is a political decision." And I think that's true.
What was the effect of the Black Arts Movement on our literature? Given the above, how can we know? What I do understand is that it is better to speak our stories than to keep silence. It is better to try and define ourselves than to remain defined by others. A better question might be this: What was the effect of the movement on our lives? There is a tendency in our literature, in the American tongue, to write with an eye on how the critics and intellectuals receive us. Are we writing for them? Poetry is a human art. It is about being human, whatever gender or color or class. My cousins have never heard of any movements much. Do we not write for them also?
ROWELL: Good Times, your first book of poems, was published in 1969, and others followed. Good Woman: New and Selected Poems was published in 1987. The Terrible Stories followed in 1997. Why did you omit Ten Oxherding Pictures: A Meditation from the list of your volumes of poems?
CLIFTON: Ten Oxherding Pictures—because it's a different kind of thing. Ten Oxherding Pictures is twelve poems. It was privately printed in Santa Cruz, California. It's based on a series of pictures done as a Buddhist Meditation aid in the 12th century. I've always had a kind of—well, I say I'm not religious—I've always had a spiritual dimension in my life. When I saw the names of the pictures, I had been reading something about children's books, and this one author had these pictures in her house. The last one of the pictures is called "Entering the City with Bliss Bestowing Hands." When I heard that, something just sparked in me, and I quickly wrote, just based on the caption of these pictures—which I had not seen at the time—poems about this spiritual search. The ox is metaphorized as the spiritual goal. That was different. So I didn't think it'd fit in the regular bibliography. The book is hand-made of handpaper and a leather binding. It is an expensive book, and it's still around. It must cost a lot now, quite a lot.
ROWELL: What do you think of Ten Oxherding Pictures? I like it very much. It is an extraordinary text.
CLIFTON: I like it. As I said, it's just different from most of my books. But I like it. It's part of who I am. I do a lot of things with the Christian Bible people, Biblical things, which I know well. But I've always had a kind sixth sense—especially when somebody talks about hands. Yes, a sixth sense—if you want to call it that—that deals with spirituality and with the sacred. These are poems that came from that part of me. But remember that it's not either/or for me. That's part of who I am too. I am one who can feel the sacred, sometimes, and the one who's profane at other times—[Laughter] I like Bach. Everybody knows I like Bach a lot—and I also think that Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops is really fabulous. I also love Aretha [Franklin]. I am that kind of person: complex, like other people. I have some other poems that deal with the sacred, not with religion but with the sacred. Some have not been published.
ROWELL: Will you talk about your new work, that which follows The Terrible Stories? I heard you read some of your new poems last January  at Xavier University in New Orleans. Like Ten Oxherding Pictures, the new work you read there was different from the work in Good Woman. I heard a different Lucille Clifton in them.
CLIFTON: Well, I think that people have said these poems seem darker, but you know, I've had cancer, I've had kidney failure, I've been on dialysis, I had a kidney transplant. I've had many losses, and in those new poems I'm exploring some of the more obviously terrible things. I also feel a kind of urgency in our culture, in the United States, to—what the old people say—"get right or get left," a feeling of great need to balance itself. I feel that strongly. And writing about some of the signs—I think this book is going to be called Signs—some of the feelings of negativity, and self-servingness, and greed, etc. All of these I feel in the air. I think somebody needs to write about that. And I may as well since I'm one of the ones, I'm sure, who can feel that.
I don't think that critics, and perhaps readers as well, have ever quite known where to put me. [Laughter] I suppose I'm not sure where to put myself. [Laughter] But I know that I write poems, and I also know, Charles—this is true, I know—that what I'm doing is what I'm supposed to be doing. Whatever it is, whatever is next. I have a poem that says "What is coming next? I don't know." But I know that I accept what is coming next, and I will try to do it.
ROWELL: It's interesting that people say they don't know where to put you. That is probably a good thing. You don't sound like any of your contemporaries that I have read. But some of your poems remind me of Langston Hughes.
CLIFTON: Now, people have said that. I don't think I sound like Langston Hughes. I read him more after I started writing than before.
But I did at one point know him, and in fact I received a letter from him about a week before he died, because he had gone to Paris—they were doing a thing from Hughes' Semple stories, and he was going to come to the house when he came back. But he had died. I think maybe the idea of language in that I always wanted to use language to its fullest possibility. And so I think of my poetry as many-layered. You know, that you can understand it on a lot of layers; and I certainly, purposefully, wish to be read and understood in some way by literary critics and theoreticians, and also by my Aunt Timmy and my Uncle Buddy. [Laughter] I always wanted to be understood and to speak to and for, if possible, people in a whole lot of levels—I guess you'd say, of whom we all are. I have been told that I have been compared to so many people: Langston [Hughes], quite a lot, but often to Langston because of our color; Emily Dickinson, and that's often because we write short poems. Who else? H.D., somebody said, which I didn't see at all, but somebody said that I wrote like the French something and the African griots. I've been compared to a lot of people. But I think I sound pretty much like myself. And somebody said they could always tell a poem of mine; they said because it's musical. Some people are triggered by the eye. I am triggered by the ear. I need to hear a poem, and I do read them aloud and hear them in my head. But maybe it's because I had to learn and to learn my own voice. This is what I sound like. Now who else sounds like that, I don't really know. I give honor to Gwendolyn Brooks for many things, and one of them is her poem "the mother" because it is after reading that poem that I could write the poem called. "The Lost Baby Poem." I give honor to Gwendolyn Brooks not only for her wonderfulness but for that poem, which allowed me to write a poem.
ROWELL: What do you mean when you say "I had to learn my own voice"?
CLIFTON: Well, I had to learn that poetry could sound like me. When I was a girl writing, I wrote sonnets. [Laughter] Isn't that great? That's sort of the kind of poems I read in books. And that was form, that sort of thing. But the first poem I ever wrote that I remember—I thought "Now, I don't know if this is a poem or not but this is what I sound like"—was a poem that—I don't think it has a title—the poem that opens my first book, the first poem in Good Times.
… And I thought "Now that's what I want to say in the way I would say it. That's what I'm going to do. I don't know if it's going to be a poem or not. I don't know if others will call it that. But I know that's what I'm supposed to do."
ROWELL: People have commented also on the deceptive simplicity of your lines. Take that very ending, for example, of the poem you just read: "like we call it / home." Simplicity, yes, but so much history, so much meaning. One reality implied against another …
Source: Charles H. Rowell, "An Interview with Lucille Clifton," in Callaloo, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 1999, pp. 56-72.
Anaporte-Easton, Jean, "Healing Our Wounds: The Direction of Difference in the Poetry of Lucille Clifton and Judith Johnson," in Mid-American Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1994, pp. 78-82.
Clifton, Lucille, "homage to my hips," in Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke, McGraw-Hill, 1994, p. 874.
Holladay, Hilary, "Song of Herself: Lucille Clifton's Poems about Womanhood," in The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin, University Press of Virginia, 1999, p. 281.
———, Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton, Louisiana State University Press, 2004, p. 65.
Lupton, Mary Jane, Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters, Praeger, 2006, pp. 1-3, 7, 87.
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 Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 150-60.
Mance, Ajuan Maria, "Re-locating the Black Female Subject: The Landscape of the Body in the Poems of Lucille Clifton," in Recovering the Black Female Body: Self Representations by African American Women, edited by Michael Bennett and Vanessa D. Dickerson, Rutgers University Press, 2001, pp. 123-34.
Ostriker, Alicia, "Kin and Kin: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 6, November/December 1993, pp. 41-48.
Waniek, Marilyn Nelson, Review of Two-Headed Woman, by Lucille Clifton, in Callaloo, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1983, pp. 160-62.
White, Mark Bernard, "Sharing the Living Light: Rhetorical, Poetic, and Social Identity in Lucille Clifton," in CLA Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3, March 1997, pp. 288-304.
Brownmiller, Susan, Femininity, Ballantine Books, 1985.
Brownmiller's book offers a historical look at the features that have been used to define femininity. In accessible language, she articulates how women have responded to various definitions of beauty across time.
Collins, Lisa Gail, and Margo Natalie Crawford, eds., New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, Rutgers University Press, 2006.
The essays in this well-illustrated collection cover the important figures of the black arts movement and provide additional information concerning the political and artistic concerns of the generation.
Harper, Michael, and Anthony Walton, eds., Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945, Little, Brown, 1994.
This volume includes chapters on thirty-five important contemporary African American poets, including Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and Robert Hayden.
hooks, bell, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, South End Press, 2000.
An important African American critic and essayist, hooks examines the history of gender oppression in patriarchal society and follows the development of the women's movement.