Clifton, Lucille 1936–
Lucille Clifton 1936-
(Born Thelma Lucille Sayles) American poet, autobiographer, and author of children's books.
For additional information on Clifton's career, see BLC, Ed. 1.
Attuned to and deeply concerned with African American history, culture, and family relationships, Clifton has written extensively about these issues in straightforward prose and simple, but not simplistic, poetry. She has published numerous children's books aimed at an African American audience. Her highly acclaimed and accessible poetry was influenced by the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a movement advocating the use of artistic expression to further the personal and social achievements of African Americans. The role of the matriarch is a primary concern in Clifton's poetry, as is family history and spiritual revelation.
Born in 1936 in Depew, New York, Clifton was the daughter of a steelworker and a laundress. Although not formally educated beyond elementary school, Clifton's parents taught their daughter much that would serve her well later in life. Her mother wrote poetry, which was read to Clifton and her three siblings. Her father told her stories about their ancestors, who were slaves, emphasizing their strength and courage. After graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, Clifton attended Howard University, in Washington, D.C., as a drama major. She transferred to Fredonia State Teachers College in 1955, and there she met her future husband, a professor at the University of Buffalo. At Fredonia, she continued to explore her interest in drama and poetry. Clifton and her husband had six children together. In 1959 Clifton's mother, Thelma Sayles, an epileptic whom Clifton helped care for, died at the age of forty-four. Clifton was twenty-two at the time and this loss was to leave an indelible mark on her poetry. Clifton was awarded the YW-YMCA Poetry Center Discovery Award in 1969, after submitting her poems to the African American poet Robert Hayden. The publication of her first volume of poetry Good Times followed later that year; the work was praised by the New York Times as one of the best books of 1969. Continuing to write, Clifton also has held various positions and professorships at such institutions as Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland; the University of California, Santa Cruz; St. Mary's College in Maryland; and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1979 through 1985. In addition to numerous literary and poetry prizes and awards, Clifton has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has won a National Book Award for Blessing the Boats, New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 (2000).
Inspired by the women in her own family, particularly her mother, Clifton's prose and poetry consistently touch on the theme of the matriarch's role in the Afri- can American family. The women she portrays are nurturing, strong, and heroic. She employs symbols and imagery from ancient mythology and from the Bible. Her first volume, Good Times, offers a series of poetic portraits of African American urban poverty. The characters she describes are strong and dignified—a stark contrast to the degradation in which they exist. In Good News about the Earth (1972), Clifton explores political events of the 1970s, offers poetic character studies of civil rights heroes, and depicts biblical stories through the filter of the African American experience. Using a violent, aboriginal Indian goddess as inspiration in the "Kali Poems" trilogy (in An Ordinary Woman ), Clifton portrays femininity and fertility in a forceful way. Womanhood is examined in a more personal, less metaphysical way in the volume Two-Headed Woman (1980), in which Clifton offers a confidential portrayal of the changing nature of motherhood. In Next (1987), Clifton deals with dark and often painful themes, including terminal illness, human suffering, and personal and familial changes. In her next two volumes of poetry, Clifton is inspired by visual images: twelfth-century images designed to aid in Buddhist meditation in Ten Oxherding Pictures (1988) and traditional quilting patterns in Quilting (1991). The poetry contained in The Book of Light (1993) is both spiritual and philosophical in nature and features mythological and biblical characters. The collection includes Lucifer's side of a dialogue between God and a humanized version of the angel of darkness. The National Book Award-winning Blessing the Boats is a collection of selections from Clifton's earlier works, along with nineteen new poems. Her 2004 volume of poetry entitled Mercy features such themes as mother-daughter relationships, racism, and the destructive power of cancer. The book also includes a seven-poem sequence about one woman's response to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In addition to her prose series of books for children, which focus on a young African American boy (Everett Anderson), Clifton has written one prose work for adults, entitled Generations (1976). This book is a memoir that traces Clifton's family through five generations.
Using vernacular English and a minimalist approach to structure and style, Clifton writes poetry that is consistently praised as straightforward and accessible. Her works at first glance appear simple but are stylistically lyrical and thematically rich and poignant. Her work is often intensely personal but is presented in a manner that encourages readers to identify with the experiences and emotions Clifton portrays. Hilary Holladay studies Clifton's poetry about her mother, Thelma, as well as an essay published in 1969 in Redbook entitled, "The Magic Mama." In these works, Holladay identifies the characteristics of the traditional elegy form. Holladay explores how these poems function as elegy, as the genre is understood within the parameters of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century verse. Through these elegiac stanzas, Holladay claims, Clifton regains, through memory and imagination, her dead mother and at the same time discovers and assesses her own identity. Just as Clifton's early poetry focuses on social issues such as civil rights, Clifton's later poetry continues to draw attention to the social problems of modern society. Adele S. Newson-Horst observes that in Clifton's Blessing the Boats, the poet uses a clear, lucid style to suggest that the problems plaguing modern society, including racism, drug abuse, and cancer, stem from the lack of a cohesive national identity. Through her account of public events from 1988 through 2000, Clifton calls into question the status of America's collective consciousness, Newson-Horst maintains. Holladay observes Clifton's references to and respectful challenging of Milton's Paradise Lost and traces the influence of African and African American religious and folklore elements in Clifton's rendition of Lucifer.
Good Times: Poems (poetry) 1969
The Black BCs (juvenile fiction) 1970
Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming (juvenile fiction) 1971
Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (juvenile fiction) 1971
Good News about the Earth: New Poems (poetry) 1972
All Us Come cross the Water (juvenile fiction) 1973
The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring (juvenile fiction) 1973
Don't You Remember (juvenile fiction) 1973
Everett Anderson's Year (juvenile fiction) 1974
An Ordinary Woman (poetry) 1974
My Brother Fine with Me (juvenile fiction) 1975
The Times They Used to Be (juvenile fiction) 1975
Everett Anderson's Friend (juvenile fiction) 1976
Generations: A Memoir (prose autobiography) 1976
Three Wishes (juvenile fiction) 1976
Amifika (juvenile fiction) 1977
Everett Anderson's 1 2 3 (juvenile fiction) 1977
Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long (juvenile fiction) 1978
The Lucky Stone (juvenile fiction) 1979
My Friend Jacob (juvenile fiction) 1980
Two-Headed Woman (poetry) 1980
Sonora Beautiful (juvenile fiction) 1981
Everett Anderson's Goodbye (juvenile fiction) 1983
Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (poetry and memoirs) 1987
Next: New Poems (poetry) 1987
Ten Oxherding Pictures (poetry) 1988
Quilting: Poems, 1987-1990 (poetry) 1991
The Book of Light (poetry) 1993
Terrible Stores: Poems (poetry) 1996
Dear Creator: A Week of Poems for Young People and Their Teachers (poetry) 1997
Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 (poetry) 2000
One of the Problems of Everett Anderson (juvenile fiction) 2001
Mercy (poetry) 2004
Hilary Holladay (essay date June 1999)
SOURCE: Holladay, Hilary. "‘I Am Not Grown away from You’: Lucille Clifton's Elegies for Her Mother." CLA Journal 42, no. 4 (June 1999): 430-44.
[In the essay that follows, Holladay explores the ways in which Clifton's poems to and about her mother function as traditional elegies, meeting the requirements for that genre as established by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century elegists, and serving the poet both as a way toward self-acceptance and as a vehicle for the expression of grief and loss.]
For Lucille Clifton, what Freud called the work of mourning has been an endless work in progress. The many emotions springing from loss are central to Clifton's creative enterprise. Whether writing about her own suffering or that of others, she often infuses her poems and prose with an elegiac strain. We see this in "The Magic Mama" (1969), an essay she published the same year as her first book of poetry and her first book for children. Recalling her mother's epilepsy, she writes:
The thing to do, then, is to watch her. Always, every move. And to be afraid if she should go out of the house until finally she stops going. And worry her all the time with Mama you okay and Mama what's the matter until she would stay home to get away from the children's fear and shame. Shame of Mama. At night, listening for the animal sounds and rushing in to hold her arms down and try to protect her tongue; lying awake and listening so that I can rush right in and let the Daddy and kids rest, not be disturbed. Then one night, hearing and turning over and pushing the arms against the ears and trying to go on to sleep anyhow, why don't she stop by herself, why don't she leave me alone. Pause. And oh, Lord, rushing up and in and being extra careful, extra gentle, crying, begging the gone-away-for-a-minute lady to forgive this daughter. Again.1
This fluid rendering of love, sorrow, and guilt reveals the depth and complexity of Clifton's devotion to her mother. Thelma Sayles had died in 1959 at age forty-four when Clifton was only twenty-two. The timing of the essay's publication, in the year that Clifton made her debut as the author of two books, suggests that she was weighing her abundantly promising life against her mother's foreshortened, constricted one. "The Magic Mama" is an elegy in prose, a precis for the poems Clifton would go on to write both for and about her mother.
Her lyric poems exude their own grace and vitality—the saving characteristics of the elegy, the sorrowful but resilient mode that best suits Clifton's worldview. "Elegy" comes from the Greek elegos, meaning "mournful song." As Eric Smith has argued, this highly self-conscious mode both recognizes a profound loss and validates the life and creative talent of its own author.2 Although the elegy has inevitably stretched and shifted in the hands of modern and contemporary poets, Smith's observations about canonical British elegists still apply to Clifton.3 The exploration of selfhood that is so central to her poetry depends largely on her ability to define and understand herself in relation to others. Her gender and African-American race figure prominently in her writing, as does her family origin. Like her father, she is preoccupied with family stories and proud of her ancestral roots in the Dahomey region of Africa; her memoir, Generations (1976), recounts her family history in what might best be described as an extended prose poem. Her lyric poems dwell on the sense of self that grows out of her relationships and connections with people of both the present and past. The elegy, concerned as it is with the speaker's relationship with the deceased, enables her to explore the concept of self within contexts that are personal, social, historical, and spiritual. Her mother is especially pertinent to this endeavor, because Thelma Sayles fits into all of the categories in which Clifton places herself. Thelma was even a poet, though an unpublished one. The two women are, in effect, overlapping selves, their stories inextricably linked together. In her elegies for her mother, Clifton not only recovers and reimagines her lost mother; she also excavates and evaluates her own identity.
Her first volume of poetry, Good Times (1969), contains only one poem about Thelma. In "My Mama Moved among the Days," she concludes that her mother "got us almost through the high grass / then seemed like she turned around and ran / right back in / right back on in."4 The oblique imagery suggests something of the fugitive slave or even the hunted animal. In this brief poem, the second one in the collection, the tone is one of dismay more than outright sorrow; it is as if the poet cannot bear to probe the matter any more than this. She appears to be not so much mourning a loss as she is truly at a loss for understanding why her mother had to die when she did. The poem's reticence contrasts sharply with the outpouring of grief in "The Magic Mama." Although she could express her many emotions in prose, Clifton had not yet come "out of my mother's life / into my own" as a full fledged elegiac poet (GW [Good Woman ] 159).
That was to happen eventually, however, thanks to a strange occurrence: Clifton has said that during the mid to late seventies, her long-dead mother began speaking to her from beyond the grave. Akasha Hull writes: "This unsought, unexpected supernatural contact with [Thelma] inaugurated Clifton's conscious recognition of the spiritual realm. Her next volume of poetry, Two-Headed Woman (1980), charts the turbulence of this awareness, but ends with a calm acceptance of the truth that she has come to know."5 Feeling that she was in direct contact with her mother opened the elegiac floodgates. As for her supernatural communications, she told Hull "that there was a progression for her from the slow Ouija board, to automatic writing, to not particularly having to write because she could hear—‘but writing and hearing were almost like the same thing.’"6 Since she was "hearing" from her mother and transcribing her mother's words, perhaps it was inevitable that Clifton would write back. Two-Headed Woman contains a series of poems directly addressed to Thelma: "To Thelma Who Worried Because I Couldn't Cook," "Poem on My Fortieth Birthday to My Mother Who Died Young," and "February 13, 1980." These brief, complex poems fulfill Peter Sacks's definition of the elegy "as a work, both in the commonly accepted meaning of a product and in the more dynamic sense of the working through of an impulse or experience—the sense that underlies Freud's ‘the work of mourning.’"7
In "To Thelma Who Worried Because I Couldn't Cook," the complicated title immediately places mother and daughter in relation to each other. By addressing Thelma by her first name, Clifton speaks as an equal rather than a deferential daughter. She is recalling one of her mother's concerns about her, which, in the context of this poem, is a metaphor for Thelma's fear that her daughter will have trouble attracting a man:
because no man would taste you
you tried to feed yourself
kneading your body
with your own fists. the beaten thing
rose up like a dough
and burst in the oven of your hunger.
madam, I'm not your gifted girl,
I am a woman and
I know what to do.
The first line immediately signals to us that cooking and eating will symbolize female sexuality. Whereas in "The Thirty Eighth Year," a 1974 poem, Clifton uses bread imagery to describe her own seemingly unexceptional female self—"plain as bread / round as a cake / an ordinary woman" (GW 158)—here, the bread-baking is at one with Thelma's sexual frustration. Thelma is both bread and ravenous baker, destroying herself even as she attempts to satisfy her cravings. The lines "kneading your body / with your own fists" pun on her need for physical affection while conflating self-gratification with self-loathing. The rejected female body is finally a "beaten thing," whose bloated size testifies only to Thelma's overheated, unmet desires, "the oven of your hunger."
The conclusion turns away from this pathetic image and makes three abstract declarations. Coolly addressing Thelma as "madam," the poet assumes a Miltonic formality before effectively disavowing her mother's hold on her. She can no longer countenance the affectionate label of "gifted girl," since she sees herself not as an intellectually precocious daughter but as a fully matured woman. She has learned from Thelma's example—but perhaps not what Thelma wanted her to learn.
The poem seems to be yearning toward the length and structure of a blank-verse sonnet. Its rhetorical development brings that form to mind—the beginning setting up a dilemma, the middle elaborating on it, and the last two lines providing closure—but this poem accomplishes in nine lines what a sonnet does in 14. In keeping with Thelma's abbreviated, misshapen life, it feels both sped up and truncated. The poem's brevity also comments on the poet's state of mind, the abrupt turn in line 7 marking her brusque rejection of her mother, and the exaggerated finality of the last lines suggesting a child's headstrong desire to be taken as a grownup. The repetition of "i"—literally, an "i" rhyme—further indicates her preoccupation with herself.
The other echoes and rhymes in "To Thelma" also contribute to our understanding of mother and daughter. The assonance of "feed," "kneading," and "beaten" gives these words a cumulative force, at one with Thelma's insatiable longing, and the explosive alliteration of "body," "beaten," and "burst" underscores Thelma's pained physicality. The end words in lines 1 and 5, "you" and "dough," identify Thelma with her implacable body. The rhymes of the first, middle, and concluding lines also dramatize the poet's desire to distance herself from her mother. Finally, ending the poem with "do"—the first two letters of "dough"—implies visually and aurally that the daughter has extracted what she needs from her mother in order to shape her own life: By her own estimation, she is a self-directed, grown woman who knows "what to do" rather than a pathetic mound of female dough.
This devastating portrait undercuts the characterization of Thelma in Generations, where Clifton reminiscences about her mother's baking skills and sympathetically recounts the sexual rejection that Thelma suffered at the hands of her husband, Samuel Sayles. But in this poem the insistent focus on womanhood recalls Peter Sacks's belief that
one of the most profound issues to beset any mourner and elegist is [her] surviving yet painfully altered sexuality. Although it is crucial for the mourner to assert a continued sexual impulse, that assertion must be qualified, even repressively transformed or rendered metaphorical, by the awareness of loss and mortality.8
The metaphorical rendering of Thelma as throbbing dough simultaneously represses and releases a sexual impulse. It is as if Clifton, confident of her own prowess, tries on the problem of sexual dysfunction and then quickly discards it. The bread imagery is not just a metaphor for thelma's sexual dysfunction, however; it is also a trope for her dying. Thus, in rejecting Thelma's model, Clifton champions her own life and sexuality. Just as her truculent claiming of womanhood presupposes the power of sexual repression, so does the embracing of life assume mortality's iron grip on us all. In its elliptical way, then, the poem exposes the pain of Clifton's loss even as it displaces that pain on Thelma.
The second poem in this sequence, "Poem on My Fortieth Birthday to My Mother Who Died Young," is another link in Clifton's elegiac chain. This is a self-consciously occasional poem, one that simultaneously commemorates the daughter's life and the mother's death. Since the poet has reached the age of forty, she is positioned to outlive her mother chronologically, and this prospect is the poem's real occasion. Whereas this poem is not as damaging as "To Thelma," it continues to set Clifton's strengths against her mother's frailties. The poem's conceit implies that Thelma, in dying young, literally fell short of her daughter's expectations:
well i have almost come to the place where you fell
tripping over a wire at the forty-fourth lap
and i have decided to keep running,
head up, body attentive, fingers
aimed like darts at first prize, so
i might not even watch out for the thin thing
grabbing toward my ankles but
i'm trying for the long one mama,
running like hell and if i fall
Written as one long sentence, this heavily enjambed poem is like a runner in its unwillingness to stop. Significantly, it is not a run-on sentence betraying a confusion of purpose, but a grammatically complete one evincing direction and order. This is commensurate with the poet's expressed determination. But Clifton says that she has "decided to keep running," as if she had misgivings about approaching the age at which her mother died. She is bound to fear that she, too, is headed toward a premature demise, and that would make the milestone fortieth birthday that much harder to face.
The poem's metaphor for death is a trip wire, a malevolent "thin thing / grabbing toward my ankes." Much more insidious than a cumbersome but clearly visible hurdle, the wire indicates that this particular race is designed to fell even the strongest competitors. Just as the runner who assumes the proper attitude and posture—"head up, body attentive"—is unlikely to notice wires in her path, the person who lives boldly does not typically anticipate misfortune. Of course, tenacity of will cannot stave off death forever, as the poem's ending acknowledges. The colloquial phrase "running like hell" obliquely conjures up thoughts of death and makes it sound, for the first time, as if Clifton is running away from something. No matter how much she throws herself into living, she cannot completely forget or ignore her own mortality. That, after all, is the opposition in this race. Yet, even if she were to block out morbid thoughts entirely, a huge paradox would remain, for the life lived bravely and joyfully still ends in death. Every "fall" into mortality is as inevitable as Adam and Eve's, an inevitability that the syllogistic "if I fall / I fall" makes abundantly clear.
Like "To Thelma," this poem has the skeletal structure of a sonnet. The problem of outliving Thelma is introduced and developed, and then the word "but" at the end of line 7 turns the poem toward its resolution. The last two lines function as a couplet, neatly drawing things to a close while contributing enormously to the poem's meaning. Although there is no set meter, the visual length of the lines draws our attention to key words. Because the first line is noticeably longer than all of the other lines, "fell" hangs precariously off the poem's right edge. Likewise, "thin thing" dangles at the end of a long line, evoking the danger of falling. In the last two lines, the word "fall" echoes "hell," causing us to perceive the one in the other, and the repetition of "i fall" gives these words extra weight. The conditional "if i fall," moreover, teeters above the truncated last line. There, the independent clause "i fall" huddles against the left margin. Graphically and grammatically, Clifton emphasizes the inherently conditional nature of life and the definitive nature of death.
Both "To Thelma" and "Poem on My Fortieth Birthday" purport to be about separation and coming into one's own, but they are also studies in separation anxiety. It is only in the sequence's poignant third poem, "February 13, 1980," that Clifton admits the degree to which her life is bound to her mother's. On the surface, this sorrowful confession undercuts the bravado of "To Thelma" and the panicky joie de vivre of "Poem on My Fortieth Birthday," but it is ultimately the sequence's most forthright expression of her feelings for her mother.
The title marks the twenty-first anniversary of Thelma's death. Like that of "Poem on My Fortieth Birthday," however, the occasion being marked is more of an ongoing process than a fixed moment in time. Having lived without her mother for twenty-one years, Clifton acknowledges that the loss is itself a growing presence in her life:
twenty-one years of my life you have been
the lost color in my eye, my secret blindness
all my seeings turned grey with your going.
mother, I have worn your name like a shield.
it has torn but protected me all these years,
now even your absence comes of age.
i put on a dress called woman for this day
but i am not grown away from you
whatever i say.
The poem has three distinct parts, each with its own unifying metaphor. In the first three lines, the metaphor of color-blindness conveys a dramatically altered worldview as Clifton admits how much Thelma's absence has affected her life. Her sorrow is no less real for having been kept private. In the next three lines, she alludes to her own name, Thelma Lucille, which literally allies her with her mother. The ambiguous description of the shield allows for a couple of interpretations. It may that the name-shield has torn—that is, Clifton has begun to move beyond an all-consuming identification with her mother even though she can still take refuge in that identity when she wants. It may also be that Clifton herself has felt torn between autonomy and a continuing dependence on her mother. The concluding lines allow for both of these possibilities. Here, as in "to thelma," Clifton asserts her own womanhood, which for her is always a statement of autonomy. She does so "for this day" as she marks the figurative coming of age of Thelma's absence. Like a child reluctant to leave home, Clifton admits for the first time in this sequence that she remains very much attached to her mother. Her autonomous appearance belies a soul still enmeshed in her mother's lost life.
As the last and most explicitly mournful of the three poems, "February 13, 1980" casts the whole sequence in a traditionally elegiac light. The contradictory impulses in the first two poems have given way to a conscious awareness of internal conflict. The concluding triple rhyme ("day," "away," "say") indicates that the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place. The now-familiar assertion of womanhood no longer obscures Clifton's attachment to her mother. And by declaring "i am not grown away from you" rather than "i have not grown away from you," she is zeroing in on her own complicated identity. Now we see that the poet's profound if ambivalent identification with her mother underlies all of her declarations, all of her poems—" whatever i say." This concluding phrase occupies only a fraction of the space filled by every previous line and, in its lonely brevity, it is like the last line of "Poem on My Fortieth Birthday." In the one, the white space following the words represents the silence following a death; in the other, it brings to mind the unspoken messages hovering around any utterance.
For Clifton, at the time these poems were published, much was still to be said—and left unsaid—on the subject of Thelma, whose death brought with it the pain of silence and, many years later, the shock of a seemingly supernatural communication. Hull has noted, "Clifton's communications with her mother have slackened in recent years, and the number of poems about her (never that large, considering her general impact on Clifton's life) has likewise decreased."9 Her later elegies for Thelma, however, are no less fervent than the ones appearing in Two-Headed Woman. They reflect Clifton's continuing relationship with her mother, a relationship that can be both nurtured and codified in poetry. Their increasing empathy continues the pattern begun by "February 13, 1980," and, together with her earlier poems for Thelma, they represent the longest running series in Clifton's body of elegiac verse.
The volume Next (1987) appeared the same year as Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, which includes Clifton's first four volumes of verse and concludes with Generations. Next was her first new volume of poetry in the seven years since the publication of Two-Headed Woman. In the intervening years, Clifton had lost other people (notably Fred Clifton, her husband of twenty-nine years), and her ever-increasing experience of loss—a natural by-product of growing older—is a pervasive theme in Next. Its multiple elegiac strands form a tapestry of mourning as Clifton writes about African slaves, contemporary and historical victims of war, and people close to her who died young. In her work of mourning, Clifton now juxtaposes an elegiac sequence about Thelma with sequences about Crazy Horse (one of Clifton's longtime heroes), Clifton's husband, and a young family friend who died of leukemia. These poems illustrate a desire not only to give voice to feelings of loss and longing but also to give the lost ones their own voices. Her assuming of Thelma's persona—perhaps the logical next step after automatic writing—enables Clifton to gain new insight into her living self.
Each of the four elegiac sequences begins with a poem announcing "the death of" the person under consideration and ends with one revealing "the message of" that person. The titles "The Death of Thelma Sayles" and "The Message of Thelma Sayles" carry a dramatic weight not found in the titles of the elegies for Thelma discussed thus far. These new poems, which seem quite aware of their status as elegies, are both for and, rhetorically speaking, by Thelma. Looking at the first in the three-poem sequence will illustrate the point:
The Death of Thelma Sayles
i leave no tracks so my live loves
can't follow, at the river
most turn back, their souls shivering,
but my little girl stands alone on the bank
and watches. i pull my heart out of my pocket
and throw it. i smile as she catches all
she'll ever catch and heads for home
and her children. mothering
has made it strong, I whisper in her ear
along the leaves.10
The poem captures Clifton's desire to stay in contact with her mother, even after her mother's death, and the mythological allusions to the underworld suggest that Clifton's relationship with her mother is not just personal but archetypal. Sacks notes that "the elegy follows the ancient rites in the basic passage through grief or darkness to consolation and renewal."11 We see that progression here, as Clifton reconciles herself to her mother's death and acknowledges, through the persona of Thelma herself, the powerful gift of maternal love. The poem pays glancing tribute to the Persephone myth, with the figure of the daughter accomplishing what Sacks calls "an initiate's descent to and ascent from a crisis of mysterious revelation."12 Thelma's heart symbolizes the continuing life of the family and the regenerating strength of motherhood. She lives on in her daughter's own mothering of children.
In her elegies, Clifton recognizes her mother not only as a forsaken wife and loving mother, but also as a thwarted poet. In "The Magic Mama," she writes:
A book of verse she wrote was accepted by a publisher but the family didn't approve; we don't want everybody reading about our Mama, you ain't no poetry writer, you a mother; and so she burned it. After that she wrote no more. Except after the arrogant daughter, the poet daughter, showed her some poems celebrating misunderstood youth, she said, I'm gonna show you how to write a poem, baby, that ain't no poem. And she wrote one.
Although no one forced Thelma to burn her poems, Clifton has belatedly assumed responsibility for her mother's rash act. She is "the poet daughter" who swiftly picked up the tradition her mother felt forced to drop. In the wake of her mother's death, she determines that her own writing—and all of her life-affirming acts—will be a form of penance: "Everything for her, everything, all poems, all movings-up, all goodnesses, everything begging, begging, Mama, Mama of Magic, forgive. Forgive. Forgive."14 Living her life in this way may assuage the guilt she feels for having outlived her mother and having outstripped her as a poet.
Even if Thelma had not been Clifton's mother, the dynamics of mourning a poet who died young would be complicated enough. "The death of the poet," Eric Smith writes, "cannot but bring to mind the poetic purpose and the future death of that other poet who is now writing."15 It follows that the death of a poet and mother would be even more profound, ineluctably heightening the daughter poet's consciousness of her own creative and procreative powers. We see this particular drama of mourning played out in the following poem published in The Book of Light (1993):
she is standing by the furnace.
glisten like rubies.
her hand is crying.
her hand is clutching
a sheaf of papers.
she gives them up.
jewels into jewels.
her eyes are animals.
each hank of her hair
is a serpent's obedient
she will never recover.
remember. there is nothing
you will not bear
for this woman's sake.16
In this retelling, we do not learn of the events leading up to Thelma's burning of her poems. Instead, the poem dwells on Thelma's pain, comparing the sacrifice of her writing to a literal destruction of the self from which "she will never recover." The complex image of her hair conjures up a woman who is part furious Medusa and part submissive spouse. The implication is that Thelma, no matter how much it enrages her to burn the written record of her selfhood, has willingly complied with her husband's wishes.
The directive to "remember" at the beginning and end involve the reader as well as the poet in the act of self-immolation. Although the dedication clarifies the relation between poet and subject, Thelma is described in the poem's body only as "this woman." To remember Thelma is to salvage and then reconstruct her sacrificed selfhood. Though only a substitute for the deceased, the poem is a powerful substitute, for it embodies the art central to the dead woman's identity. The poem's closing entreaty underscores this point. The line "remember, there is nothing" marks the absence where the mother poet's poems should have been. The sentence completed in the last two lines suggests that no amount of self-sacrifice will equal Thelma's, so the daughter poet must stoically bear her own burdens. Because the word "bear" can denote giving birth as well as withstanding pain, the last lines also imply that the daughter poet's creations—her poems and her own children—will pay tribute to Thelma. Coming nearly twenty-five years after the heart-wrenching avowals in "The Magic Mama," this declaration suggests that Clifton still believes that her lengthening life and well-received volumes of verse must somehow make up for Thelma's premature death, the ashes of her poems. Poignant because it can be neither proven nor entirely discounted, such a belief helps explain the elegiac nature of Clifton's poetry.
Along with those discussed here, Clifton has published other poems that clearly concern her relationship with her mother, including "morning mirror," "lives," "the message of thelma sayles," and "thel."17 All of the Thelma poems, significantly, are only one core sample of a largely elegiac oeuvre. We see a similar entwining of love and pain, pleasure and regret, in Generations as well as her lyric elegies for other family members and friends, for slain leaders, for the environment, for Native Americans as well as African Americans, and even for her own body. A short selection of titles reveals the range of her elegiac endeavor in verse: "After Kent State," "The Lost Baby Poem," "Malcolm," "A Visit to Gettysburg," "The Death of Joanne C.," "The Killing of the Trees," "November 21, 1968," "Poem for My Uterus," "My Lost Father," "Lumpectomy Eve." 18 Clifton herself seems to believe that the work of mourning is the work of her life and her art. In 1990 she wrote:
What will see me through the next 20 years … is my knowledge that even in the face of the sweeping away of all that I assumed to be permanent, even when the universe made it quite clear to me that I was mistaken in my certainties, in my definitions, I did not break. The shattering of my sureties did not shatter me.19
Her elegies show her searching for new certainties and new definitons of the unshattered self. Her poems for and about Thelma, accommodating so many moods and emotions, are an especially profound record of that search and its attendant anxieties. From varying perspectives and from different times in her life, these elegies collectively work toward self-understanding and self-acceptance even as they acknowledge the continuing sorrow of loss.
1. Lucille Clifton, "The Magic Mama," Redbook 134 (Nov. 1969): 89.
2. Eric Smith. By Mourning Tongues: Studies in English Elegy (Totowa, N.J.: Rowan and Littlefield, 1977) 10-12.
3. For an excellent critical study on modern and contemporary elegies, see Jahan Ramazani, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1994).
4. Collected in Lucille Clifton, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1987) 16. Clifton's first four volumes of poetry and her memoir, Generations, are available in this compilation. Subsequent references to her first four verse collections will cite pages in Good Woman, abbreviated GW, followed by the page number.
5. Akasha [Gloria] Hull, "Channeling the Ancestral Muse: Lucille Clifton and Dolores Kendrick," in Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Berkely: U of California P. 1997) 330.
6. Hull 341.
8. Sacks 7.
9. Hull 346.
10. Lucille Clifton, Next New Poems (Brockport, N.Y.: BOA Editions, Ltd. 1987) 51.
11. Sacks 20.
12. Sacks 20.
13. Clifton, "The Magic Mama" 89.
14. Clifton, "The Magic Mama" 89.
15. Clifton, "The Magic Mama" 11.
16. Clifton, Lucille. The Book of Light (Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1993) 45.
17. For "morning mirror," "lives," and "the message of thelma sayles," see Next (43, 52, 53); "thel" appears in The Book of Light 16.
18. For "after kent state" "the lost baby poem," and "malcolm," see Good Woman 57, 60, 80; for "the death of joanne c.," see Next 54. For "the killing of the trees," "November 21, 1968," "poem for my uterus," see Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 (Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1991) 39, 42, 58. For "my lost father," see The Book of Light 15, and for "lumpectomy eve," see The Terrible Stories (Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1996) 22.
19. Lucille Clifton, Autobiographical statement included in "Graceful Passages," Essence 21.1 (May 1990): 131.
Adele S. Newson-Horst (essay date autumn 2000)
SOURCE: Newson-Horst, Adele S. Review of Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, by Lucille Clifton. World Literature Today 74, no. 4 (autumn 2000): 817-18.
[In this review of Clifton's Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, Newson-Horst praises the poet's use of simple language as well as her clarity of vision and observes that the volume serves as an exploration of modern public events and social problems and at the same time forces the reader to reflect on the state of our national consciousness.]
With over thirty-one years of poetry writing upon which to stand, Lucille Clifton's new collection of verse, Blessing the Boats, reveals the poet's enduring command for rendering both the personal and public with resounding force. The collection, divided into five sections, reads as a chronicle of modern society's challenges and triumphs as the lives of myriad characters speak volumes for the mass of humanity. It features an accounting of public events which occupied our imaginations from 1988 to 2000 and begs the question: what has happened to our national consciousness?
Section 1, "New Poems," containing nineteen poems, invites introspection as the poet addresses both personal and public events which capture the times in which we live. Historical occurrences are juxtaposed to the present with the effect of suggesting that little has changed in our society. The poem "study the masters" finds art in the life of an ordinary woman, Aunt Timmie, who has been elevated to the status of model. The invisible work she did enabled more public people to be, yet "if you had heard her / chanting as she ironed / you would understand form and line / and discipline and order and / America." Aunt Timmie is evaluated as a poet's poet whose art grew in spite of her mundane existence.
"Jasper Texas" is a chilling account of the James Byrd tragedy, a powerful account of the victim's suffering as his body is dragged along the road. During the course of the tragedy the speaker queries, "who is the human in this place, / the thing that is dragged or the dragger?" The section ends with two poems of lamentation, "Grief" and "Report from the Angel of Eden." The mature poet evaluates the story of the origin of America and demonstrates with keen awareness both the folly of humankind and the myth of America. The origin story of America is not a glorious one, but one laced with greed, grief, and pain.
Section 2, "from Next," offers sixteen poems from the 1987 collection Next. Its title poem proclaims: "the one in the next bed is dying, / mother we are all next, or next." The immediate inclination would be to compare the voice, range, and timbre of the first section with this section and the other older poems featured in Blessing the Boats. Is there a progression toward greater sight and maturity? Yet another inclination might be to make a statement about the poems selected for inclusion in the present volume. What is the continuing story the poet wishes to advance? Whatever the inclination, the poems work well together to form a cohesive whole of society. The undisputed power of "sorrow song" resonates as clearly in 2000 as it did in 1987: "for the eyes of the children … / staring at us, // Amazed to see the extraordinary evil in / ordinary men."
Section 3, "from quilting," presents twenty-three poems from the 1991 volume of that title. The poet's preoccupation with forming a national story, a story of origin in verse, is clearly visible in this section. The volume's title poem "Blessing the Boats" invokes a blessing for ongoing innocence. The story of this section is reconciled in contradiction, as the contradiction that is America is reconciled in a national innocence.
Section 4, "from The Book of Light," containing fifteen poems from the 1993 volume of that name, concerns itself largely with physical perceptions of beauty, ability, and myths of power. In the poem "here yet be dragons" the poet observes that "so many languages have fallen / off of the edge of the world / into the dragon's mouth, / … who / among us can imagine ourselves / unimagined?" The power of the myth of beauty is such that the dragon renders the unaccepted into nonbeings.
The collection closes with section 5, eighteen poems from the 1996 volume The Terrible Stories. The opening poem, "Telling Our Stories," reminds readers of the ongoing quest to make public the private stories of the lives of ordinary people. The focus in this section is on the ravages of cancer and the toll it takes on our women. In the poem "1994" the poet reminds the reader, "you know how dangerous it is / to be born with breasts / you know how dangerous it is / to wear dark skin." The subtle connection between cancer and racism is made even clearer in the poem "Memory," where a childhood memory of a public racial initiation is made into a nonstory, an imagined event.
Blessing the Boats offers both a review and a promise of Lucille Clifton's enduring legacy of dedication to the erecting of a national consciousness. The power of Clifton's verse—its deceptive simplicity, its force, its penetrating lucidity—has weathered the test of time as we move into the new century. The story of the modern world continues to be plagued by drug abuse, cancer, incest, racism, violence, and contradictions. Yet these features of modern society are symptomatic of a larger national concern: the lack of a cohesive identity or story.
Hilary Holladay (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Holladay, Hilary. "Diabolic Dialogism in ‘Brothers.’" In Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton, pp. 127-41. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
[In the following essay, Holladay assesses the eight-part sequence of poems entitled "Brothers" in Clifton's collection The Book of Light, identifying references to African and African American religion and folklore, as well as to John Milton's Paradise Lost, and contending that "Brothers" provides a more detailed theological discussion, as well as more thought-provoking questions, than Clifton's other poems with a biblical focus.]
Lucifer, the light-bearing Prince of Darkness, appears to be Lucille Clifton's favorite alter ego, a talkative angel with human flaws. The life of the primordial party, Lucifer brings Adam and Eve the glad tidings about sex in the "tree of life" sequence in Next. Lucifer's role in the grand upheaval explains his appeal to Clifton, long fascinated by biblical characters' flaws and foibles. Her humanizing of Lucifer is in keeping with her belief that the human and the divine are intertwined, our understanding of the one contingent upon an awareness of the other. Although this is evident in all of her biblical poems, the theme is elevated to the level of theodicy—a defense of God's enigmatic silence—in "Brothers," the culminating eight-part sequence written from Lucifer's point of view in The Book of Light, the 1993 volume following Next.
A great deal of interesting context surrounds the Eden myth at the heart of "Brothers." J. Lee Greene has argued persuasively in Blacks in Eden: The African American Novel's First Century that a radical refashioning of this myth is integral to African American literature. Regarding Phillis Wheatley's "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Greene notes that "Wheatley uses biblical allusions to treat tropologically and dialogically African Americans' marginal status in American society."1 Like Wheatley and the later African American novelists Greene analyzes, Clifton writes with full awareness of an Anglo-American literary tradition begun during colonial times. "Building upon the image of America as a New Eden," says Green, "Anglo-Americans from the colonial period onward appropriated, transformed, and conflated passages from the Judeo-Christian Bible to justify their exclusion of Africans and descendants of Africans from the American family." Clifton, however, is among those black writers "who have proffered a view of American history that on the whole inverts the pervasive paradigm of Anglo-American literature."2 As Chapter 5 demonstrated, she repeatedly juxtaposes poems about African American life with portraits of biblical characters in order to expand our understanding of both.
Clifton is not just reimagining the figure of Lucifer as described in the Bible, though the Bible is her primary source. Nor is she merely retooling Paradise Lost, though Milton's epic poem is an important reference point. Explaining why she took on the Creation story in her poetry, she remarked, "If Milton can do it, so can I!"3 Clifton's jesting acknowledgment of her towering precursor indicates that the Bloomian anxiety of influence is alive and well among contemporary poets. But like Charles Chesnutt in the nineteenth century and Clifton's friend Ishmael Reed, Clifton honors Milton even as she challenges his authority. Though she does not regard him in the same worshipful way that Phillis Wheatley did—even in her last, impoverished years, Wheatley "did not sell her valuable edition of Paradise Lost; it was sold in payment of her husband's debts after her death"4—Clifton clearly respects his epic precedent even as she appropriates the story of the Fall. Her sequence of short poems about Lucifer ironically invokes Milton's lengthily described Satan,
Squat like a Toad, close at the ear of Eve;
Assaying by his Devilish art to reach
The Organs of her Fancy, and with them forge
Illusions as he list, Phantasms and Dreams,
Or if, inspiring venom, he might taint
Th' animal spirits that from pure blood arise.5
Clifton's eight-part meditation, "Brothers," comprises a mere 114 lines, a pithy rejoinder to the 258 pages of "English Heroic Verse without Rime" that make up Paradise Lost.6
In addition to the Bible, Paradise Lost, and the African American literary tradition responding to Anglo-American versions of the Eden myth, her portrayal of Lucifer has important antecedents in African and African American religion and folklore. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, African Americans' concept of the devil was not strictly grounded in Christian notions of sin and evil, perhaps because the idea of original sin was unknown to their African ancestors. As Dominique Zahan explains, "Traditional African religion is devoid of the notion of original sin…. The destiny of the African is linked neither to the original drama in which the primordial ancestor played the leading role nor to the tragedy of redemption in which the essential role is played by God himself."7
The devil that African American slaves and their descendants imagined was an intriguing trickster who could be inspirational at times. According to Melville Herskovits's account in The Myth of the Negro Past, the devil's good qualities can be traced to "that character in Dahomean-Yoruba mythology, the divine trickster and the god of accident known as ‘Legba’; the deity who wields his great power because of his ability to outwit his fellow gods."8 Since they had a vested interest in the abolition of slavery, it follow that the slaves would project their fondest desires on a trickster god capable of outsmarting his adversaries.
The myth of Legba enabled African American slaves to construct a devil more useful to them, allegorically speaking, than the evil Satan that white Christian ministers propagated. Zora Neale Hurston's anthropological research in the 1930s supports this notion. Among southern blacks, many of whom were descended from slaves, Hurston found that "The devil is not the terror that he is in European folk-lore. He is a powerful trickster who often competes successfully with God."9 The widespread belief that the devil was black no doubt heightened African American interest in this compelling figure. Many Europeans had long believed the devil to be "a blackfaced, clubfooted man with cloven feet, claw-like hands, and fiery red eyes, who had a ball and chain attached to his leg and a pronged fork in his hand."10 This racist fantasy, conjuring up a nightmare vision of a slave-beast, held sway in the United States well into the twentieth century. Such a horrifying image, mingled with the trickster influences of Africa, made the devil a tantalizing figure for African American ministers and musicians alike. "There is little question that the devil was a principal player in African-American religious belief and lore and therefore in the mythologies of the blues," Jon Michael Spencer writes in Blues and Evil, "and it is most probable that the emphasis on devil-lore among southern blacks was an early modern Europeanism dating back to the thirteenth century."11
Born at the end of the Great Depression, Lucille Clifton came of age in an era when devil tales were still an integral part of African American religion and culture. The devil was a common discussion topic at the Macedonia Baptist Church, which her family attended in Buffalo, and she also heard about the devil at home. According to Clifton, her father called the devil "the forky-tailed man."12
Her recurrent, often ironic, rendering of key episodes in the book of Genesis brings to mind the blues and its musical and cultural antecedents, and Clifton grew up listening to the music of Mamie Smith and Billie Holiday. 13 In the lyrics of Smith, Holiday, and other female blues singers, the sacred and the secular come together in a fusion of African and Christian perspectives. Sex, sexuality, and liberation are frequent subjects of blues songs by both men and women, but the religious consciousness found in the blues suggests the genre's connections to gospel music and its origins in African American spirituals. As Angela Davis explains, "Blues make abundant use of humor, satire, and irony, revealing their historic roots in slave music, wherein indirect methods of expression were the only means by which the oppression of slavery could be denounced. In this sense, the blues genre is a direct descendant of work songs, which often relied on indirection and irony to highlight the inhumanity of slave owners so that their targets were sure to misunderstand the intended meanings."14
Like the slaves' spirituals, Clifton's biblical poetry prior to The Book of Light brings together Christian doctrine and an African ethos in a liberating, African American message about self and universality and the divinity implicit in sexuality. In "Brothers," her previous meditations on the Bible provide a context and counterpoint for a poem of a different order. The sequence has elements in common with her other biblical poems, but it is more detailed in its theological intent and more probing in its questionings. Though it is not her last poem making use of the Eden myth, "Brothers" feels like a culmination, a summing-up of many years of spiritual searching.
The poems comprising "Brothers" are short lyrics, written in Clifton's characteristic lowercase style. The parenthetical note at the beginning of the sequence establishes the biblical frame of reference: "(being a conversation in eight poems between an aged Lucifer and God, though only Lucifer is heard. The time is long after)" (BL [The Book of Light ] 69). This minimalist description pays glancing tribute to the prose "Argument" preceding each book of Paradise Lost. But whereas Milton lays out the plot of the blank-verse poetry that will follow, Clifton only hints at the paradoxes to come. Although the Bible does not tell us much about the relationship between God and Lucifer "long after" the Fall of Man, Clifton imagines that Lucifer, at least, would want to keep the dialogue alive. As an "aged" character in this poem, Lucifer is immediately humanized, and, over the course of the sequence, he is a proxy for Clifton and her own questions about God. Unlike Milton, she is not so much telling a story as she is setting forth an age-old dilemma. Lucifer's one-sided conversation with God enables her to address the theological problem of God's silence in the face of human suffering. Through the figure of Lucifer, Clifton gradually comes to terms with this silence and affirms her faith in a higher power and the redemptive grace of poetry.
All of the poems in the sequence make imaginative use of archetypal Judeo-Christian imagery. At the outset, for instance, Lucifer recalls Eve's birth as a wondrously organic event: "the sweet / fume of the man's rib / as it rose up and began to walk" (BL 69). Alluding to the account in Genesis in which God creates Eve from Adam's rib, these lines emphasize the magic of Eve's supernatural transformation from inanimate rib to animated spirit. African American mysticism enters into the poem as the familiar outline of the biblical story gives way to what feels like a folk tale bubbling up from our collective subconscious mind. While the "sweet fume" brings to mind the feminine scent of perfume, there is also the zesty aroma of barbecue in the "fume of the man's rib." Clifton thus makes room for soul food in her Creation story.
The story in Genesis is further transformed in Lucifer's recollection of the animal kingdom: "the winged creatures leaping / like angels, the oceans claiming / their own." This polymorphic blurring of birds, fish, and angels allows for a variety of origin myths. A subsequent image—the "hum of the great cats / moving into language"—subtly alludes to scientific theories of evolution even as it acknowledges the biblical account of Man's giving "names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field" (Genesis 2:20). In those great purring cats, Clifton once again invokes African American history: maybe the lions and tigers of Eden were the original hep cats, African animals swaying to the beat and humming the prelapsarian blues.
We may also recognize colloquial African American speech in the sequence's title, which raises the intriguing possibility that God and Lucifer are true soul brothers. Through her intertexual identification with Lucifer and her use of a first-person persona in "Brothers," Clifton makes it clear that this is not only an African American version of the archetypal tale: it is her own version, and Lucifer, the so-called Prince of Darkness, is an ironically fitting conduit for a dark-skinned poet whose name means light. Clifton's humanizing of Lucifer suggests that he would be the logical character to pose the questions haunting everyone, perhaps even God. When Lucifer says to God, "let us rest here a time / like two old brothers / who watched it happen and wondered / what it meant," it is obvious that there is no other "brother" he would rather visit. The poem presupposes that they have now reached a point at which they can at last talk freely.
The second poem, "How Great Thou Art," continues to develop Clifton's personal mythos:
that rib and rain and clay
in all its pride,
its unsteady dominion,
is not what You believed
but it is what You are;
in Your own image as some
The poem thus implies that the language in Genesis may be more symbolically appropriate than its original author and subsequent translators and interpreters (i.e., the "lexicographer") realized. The point is not that Man literally looks like God, or that, for lack of a more appealing model, we imagine God in our own image. It is, rather, that man and woman are enfolded within our understanding of God or the universe or some all-encompassing self. A knowledge of the Earth has given Clifton's Lucifer insight into the divine. This is a distinctly human insight, one that we see frequently in Clifton's poetry, especially her biblical poems. The poem further implies that the human ambition and desire to know and understand "God" are also part of "God." Such a view may call to mind Emerson's Oversoul, a spiritually unifying concept absorbing and uniting all souls. But Clifton is making an epistemological point, distinct from Emerson's claims for the Oversoul's unifying properties, that becomes increasingly important to the sequence's overall meaning.
A look at Bakhtin's concept of dialogism is useful here. Just as dialogism "exploits the nature of language as a modeling system for the nature of existence,"15 so Clifton implies that the complementary relationship between language and silence parallels the relationship between the human and the divine. She uses grammar and syntax, moreover, to represent the plurality of the universe, the enfolding of the human within the divine. We are visually reminded, for example, in the assertion that human desire "is You. all You, all You," that the second-person pronoun can be plural as well as singular. The triple iteration brings the Holy Trinity to mind, but Clifton seems more interested in suggesting that the concept of God, defined in terms of both unity and infinity, accommodates the multiplicity of men and women, just as the idea of Lucifer embraces the reality of Lucille.
In order to make her argument work, Clifton must assert her own presence within the persona of Lucifer, and she does so in "as for myself," a title that deftly invokes both poet and persona. Here, Lucifer/Lucille identifies not only with God but with Eve as well. Establishing his humanity from the outset—"less snake than angel / less angel than man" (BL 71)—Lucifer initially seems perplexed by his own insight: "how come i to this / serpent's understanding?" He nevertheless manages to ally himself with both Woman and God. Likening himself to a pregnant woman, Lucifer announces, "i too am blessed with / the one gift you cherish; / to feel the living move in me / and to be unafraid." Just as a woman holds her unborn child within her and God holds the living within His universe, so does Lucifer in his guise as snake hold the living within him. The image has a literal basis because snakes can and do eat some creatures whole, and the victim may appear to be alive as it moves through the snake's body.
Symbolically, this image calls to mind the Hindu mythologizing of snakes, especially the figure of Ananta, an enormous snake representing eternity in its embrace of the globe. There is also a hint of the supreme Haitian snake god, Damballa Ouedo Onedo Tocan Freda Dahomey, whose name is linked to Dahomey, Africa,16 the birthplace of Caroline Donald, Clifton's great-great-grandmother. When seen in these non-Western contexts, Lucifer's claims in "as for myself" become more comprehensible and far-reaching: flexing his own Africanized, mythological muscle, Lucifer is a shape shifter on a grand scale, and his malleability expands "brothers" to include faiths other than the Christian one providing its narrative frame.
In the fourth poem, "in my own defense," Lucifer declines to take responsibility for Adam and Eve's introduction to sex and mortality. Not only does he absolve himself, but he absolves Adam and Eve as well: "they whose only sin / was being their father's children" (BL 72). It is God's responsibility, Lucifer declares, to rectify any damage done: "only You could have called / their ineffable names, / only in their fever / could they have failed to hear." This poem obliquely poses the central riddles of the Fall of Man: Why did God set up his human children for failure? Why did he allow the Earth to harbor evil, mischief, carnality, if He didn't approve of such things? At the very least, why didn't He guide Adam and Eve away from certain doom? What is interesting about "in my own defense" is that Lucifer does not try to explain his role in the Fall of Man. Instead, he defends his decision, and Adam and Eve's, to leave behind the idyllic pleasures of the Garden of Eden. Lucifer thus implies that the Fall of Man was about a fundamental breakdown in communication rather than mortal vulnerability to evil. As Lucifer tells it, there may still have been a chance for a human reinstatement in Paradise, but God did not call Adam and Eve back, and even if He had, they would not have heard. The story of the world since then, Clifton implies through her rhetorically savvy persona, has revolved in large part around frustrated human attempts to reestablish a conversation with God. Caught up in the "fever" of their mortal lives, people continue to have difficulty hearing what, if anything, God has to say.
But Lucifer is not at a loss for words. Picking up on the passage in Genesis in which Eve experiences "delight" upon eating the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, the next poem explores the beauty of the mortal, earthly world. The title sets up the beginning of the poem:
the road led from delight
into delight. into the sharp
edge of seasons, into the sweet
puff of bread baking, the warm
vale of sheet and sweat after love,
the tinny newborn cry of calf
and cormorant and humankind.
Then, alluding to God's punishment of Man and Woman and the serpent, Lucifer acknowledges "pain, of course," and "the bruising of his heel, my head, / and so forth." Lucifer nevertheless insists that suffering is not the whole story, and he asks, a bit truculently, for a chance to celebrate the sensuous joys of food and rest, lovemaking and life-making: "forbid me not / my meditation on the outer world." In this version of the Fall of Man, the emphasis is on domestic pleasures and the shared life cycle of man, beast, and bird. "The rest of it"—the pain and suffering forming the inevitable backdrop for all that is good—is dismissed as a topic for another day. By focusing on the beauty of the world and dismissing all of human suffering with a few offhand phrases, the poem attempts to restore balance to a story that dwells unfairly on sorrow and pain. In doing so, the sequence revisits a theme of the "tree of life" poems—that is, the pleasures accompanying the Fall of Man. Here, however, Clifton does not focus on sex alone. In a few phrases, Lucifer sums up earthly joy and beauty; the playfulness of the "tree of life" section has given way to a serene satisfaction with all the good things, all the sensual pleasures, of life on earth.
Clifton's luciferous alter ego has plenty of doubts and questions, however, as the next poem reveals. "‘The Silence of God Is God,’" draws its title from a line in Carolyn Forché's poem "The Angel of History."17 The Forché poem, also a sequence, is a meditation on the horrors of war. Clifton's Lucifer is likewise concerned with war, though her poem is sufficiently ambiguous to encompass trouble of all kinds, including racial and sexual oppression. The poem asks God to explain why He neither stopped nor ignored the devastation: "tell us why / You watched the excommunication of / the world and You said nothing" (BL 74). The word "excommunication," typically denoting expulsion from the Catholic Church, in this context implies that a world containing so much cruelty warrants divine censure, regardless of whether God actually articulates it. With the poem's emphasis on "tongues bitten through / by the language of assault," the term might be taken another way as well: Perhaps the very lack of communication—or, more precisely, the movement away from spiritual communion—is at the root of the world's troubles. The expression of cruelty (the "tongues bitten through") is itself excruciatingly painful, an assault on one's own being. In any case, Lucifer articulates an age-old complaint against God: Why doesn't He do something when things go so terribly wrong?
Yet God's silence does not necessarily mean that he is absent or uninterested. Lucifer comes to that conclusion in "still there is mercy, there is grace." As the sequence moves toward its denouement, this poem takes refuge in the thought of a merciful God. The poem, responding to its own title, begins, "how otherwise / could i have come to this / marble spinning in space / propelled by the great / thumb of the universe?" (BL 75). The marble imagery is playful, and the tone is much less dire than in the previous poem. Lucifer's question implies that divine grace had a hand, or at least a thumb, in placing him on Earth. The poem continues in the same rhetorical mode, "how otherwise / could the two roads / of this tongue / converge into a single / certitude?" Picking up on the familiar image of the serpent's forked tongue, which tradition tells us is a sign of the creature's deceitful ways, these lines move toward a self-reconciliation in which faith wins out over doubt. The poem's ending initially appears to be a question paralleling the others, but it quickly resolves itself into a statement of Lucifer's newfound certainty: "how otherwise / could i, a sleek old / traveler, / curl one day safe and still / beside You / at Your feet, perhaps, / but, amen, Yours." Here we see a domesticated Lucifer, more of a dog than a serpent, nestling close to his master. Though he may want to imply equality by saying he is "beside" God, he then admits that he is actually beneath Him, at His feet. The important thing for Lucifer at this juncture, it seems, is that he has found an identity within God's universe and within God's reach. His doubts have at least temporarily abated.
Clifton's all-too-human Lucifer is wrestling with issues that have special significance for African Americans. The resolution in "still there is mercy, there is grace" is hard won, especially when we see it in the context of Clifton's many poems about African American life. According to the theologian Major J. Jones,
For the Afro-American, hope has always been a kind of restlessness filled with protest. It seemed patient only on the surface; but it was ever a deep troubling beneath the calm that would not be stilled. Faith must not only be a consolation in suffering and times of evil but also a protest of divine promise against suffering and evil. For one to be sustained by hope in times of great stress, that person must be assured that God is fighting not only with the individual but also against evil and suffering, that God is able to help one overcome all odds.18
Although Lucifer might seem an unlikely mouthpiece for this viewpoint, voiced in "still there is mercy," he is an appropriate persona for "Brothers," since Clifton delights in the dialogic opposition between Lucifer and God. For Clifton, Lucifer speaks for human suffering rather than evil. Because of his once-privileged place in heaven and his fallen status, his perspective is longer and broader than anyone else's. Suffice it to say that a theodicy formulated by Lucifer will carry special weight.
That becomes clear in the concluding poem, which bears the enigmatic title ". . . . . . . . . . . . Is God." This alludes to Forché's line "The silence of God is God," but it opens up other possibilities as well. Maybe anything is God, or everything is God, or maybe God remains undefined or undefinable. As we read the poem, we see that for Clifton's Lucifer, God's ambiguous silence puts the onus of speech on everybody else. "Your tongue" is "splintered into angels," and Lucifer the light-bearing angel claims, "even i, / with my little piece of it / have said too much" (BL 76). The act of questioning is now dismissed as a sign of faithlessness: "to ask You to explain / is to deny You." The existence of this capitalized "You" is found in the silence preceding and surrounding human utterance. The concluding lines refer to John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." But that is not the only allusion. For Clifton's Lucifer, "before the word / You were. / You kiss my brother mouth. / the rest is silence." (BL 76). Lucifer's last words are Hamlet's last words as well. By giving this brief, profound line to Lucifer, Clifton not only allies herself with Shakespeare but also establishes her persona as a tragic hero who recognizes, belatedly, divine justice at work: God's silence calls human speech into being. That silence is the background on which human utterance makes its imperfect mark. Rather than questioning what appears to be an inexplicable void, Lucifer now knows that God is speaking through him. As an emissary of God, a questioner sprung from the ultimate, unknowable answer, Lucifer glimpses the divine page beneath the human poem and knows that their coexistence is what creates meaning. And it is out of that organically evolved meaning, not out of a complete knowledge of all God's ways, that faith emerges. Major J. Jones provides this helpful meditation on the subject:
If our knowledge of God were absolute, our choices would be limited and faith would not be free. An objective justification of faith, moreover, would have the same effect: Faith must be subjective, because if an objective proof of faith were possible at all, all free decisions made in faith-knowledge would be eliminated. Human beings would no longer be free to say "yes" or "no" to God, just as we do not say "yes" or "no" to gravity. If God could be proved, like a law of nature or a mathematical formula, but in the personal sphere, then faith in God would become a law and a formula and God would become a demanding master over his faith-slaves.19
The beauty of faith, as Clifton's Lucifer realizes, is that it is a supreme act of free will demonstrating knowl- edge of one's self. Faith is the means by which ordinary mortals can approach God.
The interdependence of language and silence, word and page, enables us to wonder about God and ourselves and to frame those wonderings into speeches, sermons, and poems. The kiss is a manifestation of brotherly love, a priestly yet sensual act bringing to mind God's love for all of humankind embodied in the New Testament's Jesus. That love is all-encompassing, all-forgiving—and all-silencing. In the face of such love, language finally yields. Interestingly, in a volume titled The Book of Light by a poet for whom light is a signature motif, Clifton's Lucifer never says that God is love, or that God is Light, but that is because the message is implied throughout the sequence. A unifying, clarifying love has been present all along, "before the word," and the attempts to fill the silence with words or imbue the silence with meaning are in themselves defining human activities.
Clifton's dialogue between a silent God and a talkative, aged Lucifer asks us to meditate on the mutually defining components of the human and the divine. By using the Bible's stories of Creation and the Fall of Man as the text of her "conversation," she seems to agree with Bakhtin that
there is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts of dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest past and the most distant future. Even meanings born in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue. At any present moment of the dialogue there are great masses of forgotten meanings, but these will be recalled again at a given moment in the dialogue's later course when it will be given new life. For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival.20
We see this enacted in "Brothers," in which God's silence is the explicit subject of two component poems and the implicit subject of the entire sequence. Clifton raises the topic of divine silence and then returns to it in the final poem, complicating it anew and confirming our intuition that this silence has been her main subject all along. The sequence is in itself a contribution to the endless, pancultural dialogue questioning God's character and will; in this reenvisioning of the Eden myth, the poet is creating a "homecoming festival" for all of the meanings attached to this myth.
The shifting meanings in this sequence of poems speak to the larger world that Bakhtin describes. The multiplicity of meanings and their inevitable, seemingly cyclical resurrection give credence to a host of redemptive mythologies. In "brothers" in particular and in Clifton's overall body of work, the language of poetry has a redemptive, life-affirming power. Poetry mirrors the organic relationship between mortal questionings and divine certitude; the lines of a poem and its surrounding white space are mutually defining, inseparable to the point of being a paradoxically self-contained but infinitely large whole: in short, the Universe.
Speaking through Lucifer in the closing sequence of The Book of Light, Lucille Clifton is herself a fallen angel addressing the ultimate Light source. Along the way, she is merging English, Anglo-American, and African American literary traditions in a poem that reclaims and revivifies the myth of Eden. The always-relevant story of Creation does not belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition alone, nor must its retelling by a contemporary African American woman merely refute the canonical version found in English and Anglo-American literature. In "brothers" Clifton is comfortable in the company of Milton and Shakespeare, her "brothers" in the art of writing poetry. Just as attuned to them as she is to the rich and dynamic legacies of African and African American literature and folklore, she writes in a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. She is never one to shrug off the importance of canonical white male poets—the epigraphs in Generations from Whitman's Song of Myself are a case in point—and in taking on the enormous problem of God's silence, she recognizes that this concern is not hers alone.
Her self-assurance enables her to address a profoundly enigmatic Supreme Being and make sense of the divine silence. When her persona says "even i, / with my little piece of it / have said too much," Clifton is weighing the meaning of her poem against the abundant mysteries of divine silence. Perhaps language, no matter how poetic, cannot do justice to God, and perhaps asking the questions that this poem asks amounts to a denial of God. But this poet's persona has been kissed by God, an indication that He loves the Lucifer in Lucille, and that kiss makes it possible for the Lucille in Lucifer to give God the last word.
1. Greene, 1.
2. Ibid., 1-2, 6.
3. See [Holladay, Hillary. Wild Blessings, Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2004] Chapter 9, 188. For an analysis of four other black authors (Phillis Wheatley, John Boyd, Charles Chesnutt, and Ishmael Reed) who respond to Milton, see Carolivia Herron, "Milton and Afro-American Literature," in Remembering Milton:Essays on the Texts and Traditions, ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson (New York: Methuen, 1987), 278-300.
4. Herron, 286.
6. Ibid., 210.
7. Zahan, 3.
8. Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (1941; reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), 253.
9. Hurston, 248.
10. Jon Michael Spencer, Blues and Evil (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), 21.
12. Conversation with the author, 24 June 2000.
14. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 26.
15. Eric Holquist, Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World (New York: Routledge, 1990), 33.
17. Carolyn Forché, "The Angel of History," in The Angel of History (New York: Harper-Collins, 1994), 5.
18. Jones, 36.
19. Ibid., 27.
Works by Lucille Clifton
Next: New Poems. Brockport, N.Y.: BOA Editions, 1987.
The Book of Light. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon, 1993.
Selected Secondary Bibliography
Other Works Cited in Wild Blessings
Forché, Carolyn. "The Angel of History." In The Angel of History, 3-21. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Greene, J. Lee. Blacks in Eden: The African American Novel's First Century. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
Herron, Carolivia. "Milton and Afro-American Literature." In Re-membering Milton, edited by Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, 278-300. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Herskovits, Melville J. The Myth of the Negro Past. 1941. Reprint, Boston: Beacon, 1958.
Holquist, Eric. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. 1935. Reprint, New York: Perennial Library, 1990.
Jackson, Blyden. A History of Afro-American Literature. Vol. 1, The Long Beginning, 1746-1895. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Jones, Major J. The Color of God: The Concept of God in Afro-American Thought. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1987.
Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. 1957. Reprint, Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1980.
Spencer, Jon Michael. Blues and Evil. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Zahan, Dominique. "Some Reflections on African Spirituality." In African Spirituality: Forms, Meanings, and Expressions, edited by Jacob K. Olupona, 3-25. New York: Crossroad, 2000.
Holladay, Hilary. "Black Names in White Space: Lucille Clifton's South." Southern Literary Journal 34, no. 2 (spring 2002): 120-33.
Studies Clifton's poetry and memoir in order to discern Clifton's attitudes toward the South, its role in her personal history, and the impact of southern institutions such as slavery on American history.
Kriner, Tiffany Eberle. "Conjuring Hope in a Body: Lucille Clifton's Eschatology." Christianity and Literature 54, no. 2 (winter 2005): 185-208.
Examines Clifton's poetry through the lens of eschatology, or the theology of hope, and maintains that such a reading of the poet's work reveals the significance of themes such as self-sacrifice and prophecy.
Lazer, Hank. "Blackness Blessed: The Writings of Lucille Clifton." Southern Review 25, no. 3 (July 1989): 760-70.
Argues that Clifton's poetry, while praised and anthologized, is often undervalued and not examined thoroughly, and that her children's literature is not viewed with an eye toward understanding its relationship to her poetry.
Whitley, Edward. "‘A Long Missing Part of Itself’: Bringing Lucille Clifton's Generations into American Literature." MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 47-64.
Demonstrates how Clifton navigates the obstacles of race and gender in order to incorporate her personal history and unique perspective into the milieu of American literature.
Additional coverage of Clifton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African-American Writers, Ed. 2; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:1; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 5; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 24, 42, 76, 97, 138; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 19, 66, 162; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 41; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules, Eds. MULT, POET; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Poetry Criticism Vol. 17; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 14; Something about the Author, Vols. 20, 69, 128; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; and World Poets.
Clifton, Lucille 1936–
Lucille Clifton 1936–
Poet, children’s author, educator
An author of poetry and prose works for adults and children, Lucille Clifton has been published extensively since 1966. Her canon includes nineteen children’s books, nine 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.
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, Clifton’s ancestors changed their name to Sayle after
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. Mary’s College of Maryland, distinguished professor of humanities, 1989–; Columbia University, professor of writing, 1994–,
Addresses: Office-Distinguished Professor of Humanities, St Mary’s Collegeof Maryland, St. Mary’sCity, 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 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.
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.
During the late 1960s, 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.
Over the years, Clifton has written for two audiences-children and adults. According to critic Audrey McClus-key, 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 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, 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 BC’s (1970), which teaches the ABC’s from an Afro-centric perspective. In the tradition of Langston Hughes’s A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, The Black BC’s 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 BC’s 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.”
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 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, Clifton’s only prose work for adults, was published in 1976. An ode to the survival of the African American family that 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 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 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 (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 “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.
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 Women’s 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 Clifton’s 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, 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.
Things Fall Apart, 1959
Good Times, 1969
Poetry of the Negro, 1970
The Black BC’s, 1970
Good Women, 1987
The Book of Light, 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. 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 Children’s Writers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
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
Clifton, Lucille 1936–
Clifton, Lucille 1936–
(Thelma Lucille Clifton)
PERSONAL: Born June 27, 1936, in Depew, NY; daughter of Samuel Louis, Sr. (a laborer) and Thelma (a laborer; maiden name, Moore) Sayles; married Fred James Clifton (an educator, writer, and artist), May 10, 1958 (died, November 10, 1984); children: Sidney, Fre-drica, Channing, Gillian, Graham, Alexia. Education: Attended Howard University, 1953–55, and Fredonia State Teachers College (now State University of New York College—Fredonia), 1955.
ADDRESSES: Office—Division of Arts and Letters, St. Mary's College of Maryland, Montgomery Hall #126, St. Mary's City, MD 20686. Agent—Marilyn Marlow, Curtis Brown Ltd., 10 Astor Pl., New York, NY 10003. E-mail—[email protected].
CAREER: New York State Division of Employment, Buffalo, claims clerk, 1958–60; U.S. Office of Education, Washington, DC, literature assistant for Central Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory, 1969–71; Coppin State College, Baltimore, MD, poet-in-residence, 1974–79; Jirry Moore Visiting Writer, George Washington University, 1982–83; 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–; Hilda C. Landers Chair in the Liberal Arts; Duke University, Durham, NC, Blackburn Professor of Creative Writing; visiting writer, Columbia University School of the Arts, 1995–99; visiting teacher, Memphis State University; visiting poet, St. Edward's University, School of Humanities (Austin, TX), 2000. 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. Has made television appearances, including The Language of Life, The Today Show, Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt, Bill Moyers' series, The Power of the Word, and Nightline.
MEMBER: International PEN, Academy of American Poets (chancellor, 1999–), Poetry Society of America, American Cancer Society, Global Forum Arts Committee, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Discovery Award, New York YWYMHA Poetry Center, 1969; Good Times: Poems was cited as one of the year's ten best books by the New York Times, 1969; Creative Writing Fellowships and awards, National Endowment for the Arts, 1969, 1970, 1972, and 1973; Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland, 1974–85; Juniper Prize, University of Massachusetts Press, 1980; Pulitzer Prize nominations for poetry, 1980, 1987, 1988, and 1991; Coretta Scott King Award, American Library Association, 1984, for Everett Anderson's Goodbye; Shestack Poetry Prize, American Poetry Review, 1988; Charity Randall Citation, International Poetry Forum, 1991; Shelley Memorial Prize, Poetry Society of America, 1992; named a "Maryland Living Treasure" and inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, 1993; Andrew White Medal, Loyola College of Baltimore, 1993; Cannan Literary Award for Poetry, 1996; National Book Award nomination, 1996, and Lannan Literary Award for poetry, 1997, both for The Terrible Stories; inducted into National Literature Hall of Fame for African American Writers, 1998; Lenore Marshal Poetry Prize and Los Angeles Times poetry award, both 1998; Phi Beta Kappa, 1998; Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Award, 1999; National Book Award for poetry, 1999, for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988–2000; Emmy Award, American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1999; selected as a Literary Lion, New York Public Library; recipient of honorary degrees from Colby College, University of Maryland, Towson State University, Washington College, and Albright College.
Good Times, Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
Good News about the Earth: New Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 1972.
An Ordinary Woman, Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
Two-Headed Woman, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1980.
Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969–1980, BOA Editions (Brockport, NY), 1987.
Next: New Poems, BOA Editions (Brockport, NY), 1987.
Ten Oxherding Pictures, Moving Parts Press (Santa Cruz, CA), 1988.
Quilting: Poems 1987–1990, BOA Editions (Brockport, NY), 1991.
The Book of Light, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1993.
The Terrible Stories, BOA Editions (Brockport, NY), 1998.
Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988–2000, BOA Editions (Brockport, NY), 2000.
Mercy: Poems, BOA Editions (Brockport, NY), 2004.
The Black BCs (alphabet poems), illustrations by Don Miller, Dutton (New York, NY), 1970.
Good, Says Jerome, illustrations by Stephanie Douglas, Dutton (New York, NY), 1973.
All Us Come 'cross the Water, pictures by John Steptoe, Holt (New York, NY), 1973.
Don't You Remember?, illustrations by Evaline Ness, Dutton (New York, NY), 1973.
The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring, pictures by Brinton Turkle, Dutton (New York, NY), 1973.
The Times They Used to Be, illustrations by Susan Jeschke, Holt (New York, NY), 1974.
My Brother Fine with Me, illustrations by Moneta Barnett, Holt (New York, NY), 1975.
Three Wishes, illustrations by Stephanie Douglas, Viking (New York, NY), 1976, illustrations by Michael Hays, Delacorte, 1992.
Amifika, illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia, Dutton (New York, NY), 1977.
The Lucky Stone, illustrations by Dale Payson, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1979, Yearling Books Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
My Friend Jacob, illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia, Dutton (New York, NY), 1980.
Sonora Beautiful, illustrations by Michael Garland, Dutton (New York, NY), 1981.
Dear Creator: A Week of Poems for Young People and Their Teachers, illustrations by Gail Gordon Carter, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1997.
Clifton's works have been translated into Spanish.
"EVERETT ANDERSON" SERIES; FOR CHILDREN
Some of the Days of Everett Anderson, illustrations by Evaline Ness, Holt (New York, NY), 1970.
Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming, illustrations by Evaline Ness, Holt (New York, NY), 1971, illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Holt (New York, NY), 1991.
Everett Anderson's Year, illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt (New York, NY), 1974.
Everett Anderson's Friend, illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt (New York, NY), 1976.
Everett Anderson's 1 2 3, illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt (New York, NY), 1977.
Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long, illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt (New York, NY), 1978.
Everett Anderson's Goodbye, illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt (New York, NY), 1983.
One of the Problems of Everett Anderson, illustrations by Ann Grifalconi, Holt (New York, NY), 2001.
(Compiler, with Alexander MacGibbon) Composition: An Approach through Reading, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1968.
Generations: A Memoir (prose), Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
Contributor to Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1970, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970; (with Marlo Thomas and others) Free to Be … You and Me, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1974; Free to Be a Family, 1987; Robert Kapilow's 03: This New Immense Unbound World (printed music), G. Schirmer (New York, NY), 2003; and other anthologies, including Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Coming into the Light, and Stealing the Language. Has made numerous additional sound and video recordings of poetry readings. Contributor of poetry to the New York Times. Contributor of fiction to Negro Digest, Redbook, House and Garden, and Atlantic. Contributor of nonfiction to Ms. and Essence.
SIDELIGHTS: Poet Lucille Clifton "began composing and writing stories at an early age and has been much encouraged by an ever-growing reading audience and a fine critical reputation," wrote Wallace R. Peppers in a Dictionary of Literary Biography. "In many ways her themes are traditional: she writes of her family because she is greatly interested in making sense of their lives and relationships; she writes of adversity and success in the ghetto community; and she writes of her role as a poet."
Clifton's work emphasizes endurance and strength through adversity. Ronald Baughman suggested in his Dictionary of Literary Biography essay that Clifton's "pride in being black and in being a woman helps her transform difficult circumstances into a qualified affirmation about the black urban world she portrays." A Publishers Weekly critic noted that Clifton "redeems the human spirit from its dark moments. She is among our most trustworthy and gifted poets." Clifton is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In addition to her numerous poetry collections, her work is included in many anthologies, and she has written many children's books. Not surprising, Clifton has won numerous literary awards and was the first author to have two books of poetry chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969–1980 and Next: New Poems. She served as the state of Maryland's poet laureate from 1974 until 1985, and won the prestigious National Book Award in 1999 for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988–2000. Her poetry has been translated into Norwegian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Hebrew, and other languages.
Clifton is noted for saying much with few words. In a Christian Century review of Clifton's work, Peggy Rosenthal noted, "The first thing that strikes us about Lucille Clifton's poetry is what is missing: capitalization, punctuation, long and plentiful lines. We see a poetry so pared down that its spaces take on substance, become a shaping presence as much as the words themselves…. She has chosen a minimalist mode that clears out human society's clutter, the mess we've made by identifying ourselves in contending genders, ethnicities, nations. Lightly, as if biting her tongue, with a wise smile, she shows us a radically egalitarian world where no one or no capitalized word lords it over others." In an American Poetry Review article about Clifton's work, Robin Becker commented on Clifton's lean style. "Clifton's poetics of understatement—no capitalization, few strong stresses per line, many poems totaling fewer than twenty lines, the sharp rhetorical question—includes the essential only."
Clifton's first volume of poetry, Good Times, which was cited by the New York Times as one of 1969's ten best books, was described by Peppers as a "varied collection of character sketches written with third person narrative voices." Baughman noted that the poems "attain power not only through their subject matter but also through their careful techniques; among Clifton's most successful poetic devices … are the precise evocative images that give substance to her rhetorical statements and a frequent duality of vision that lends complexity to her portraits of place and character." Calling the book's title "ironic," Baughman stated: "Although the urban ghetto can, through its many hardships, create figures who are tough enough to survive and triumph, the overriding concern of this book is with the horrors of the location, with the human carnage that results from such problems as poverty, unemployment, substandard housing, and inadequate education."
In Clifton's second volume of poetry, Good News about the Earth: New Poems, "the elusive good times seem more attainable," remarked Baughman, who summarized the three sections into which the book is divided: the first section "focuses on the sterility and destruction of 'white ways,' newly perceived through the social upheavals of the early 1970s"; the second section "presents a series of homages to black leaders of the late 1960s and early 1970s"; and the third section "deals with biblical characters powerfully rendered in terms of the black experience." Harriet Jackson Scarupa noted in Ms. that after having read what Clifton says about blackness and black pride, some critics "have concluded that Clifton hates whites. [Clifton] considers this a misreading. When she equates whiteness with death, blackness with life, she says: 'What I'm talking about is a certain kind of white arrogance—and not all white people have it—that is not good. I think airs of superiority are very dangerous. I believe in justice. I try not to be about hatred.'" Writing in Poetry, Ralph J. Mills, Jr., said that Clifton's poetic scope transcends the black experience "to embrace the entire world, human and non-human, in the deep affirmation she makes in the teeth of negative evidence."
An Ordinary Woman, Clifton's third collection of poems, "abandons many of the broad racial issues examined in the two preceding books and focuses instead on the narrower but equally complex issues of the writer's roles as woman and poet," according to Baughman. Peppers likewise commented that "the poems take as their theme a historical, social, and spiritual assessment of the current generation in the genealogical line" of Clifton's great-great-grandmother, who had been taken from her home in Dahomey, West Africa, and brought to America in slavery in 1830. Peppers noted that by taking an ordinary experience and personalizing it, "Clifton has elevated the experience into a public confession" which may be shared, and "it is this shared sense of situation, an easy identification between speaker and reader, that heightens the notion of ordinariness and gives … the collection an added dimension." Helen Vendler declared in the New York Times Book Review that Clifton "recalls for us those bare places we have all waited as 'ordinary women,' with no choices but yes or no, no art, no grace, no words, no reprieve." "Written in the same ironic, yet cautiously optimistic spirit as her earlier published work," observed Peppers, An Ordinary Woman is "lively, full of vigor, passion, and an all-consuming honesty."
In Generations: A Memoir, "it is as if [Clifton] were showing us a cherished family album and telling us the story about each person which seemed to sum him or her up best," described a New Yorker contributor. Calling the book an "eloquent eulogy of [Clifton's] parents," Reynolds Price wrote in the New York Times Book Review that, "as with most elegists, her purpose is perpetuation and celebration, not judgment. There is no attempt to see either parent whole; no attempt at the recovery of history not witnessed by or told to the author. There is no sustained chronological narrative. Instead, clusters of brief anecdotes gather round two poles, the deaths of father and mother." Price believed that Generations stands "worthily" among the other modern elegies that assert that "we may survive, some lively few, if we've troubled to be alive and loved." However, a contributor to Virginia Quarterly Review thought that the book is "more than an elegy or a personal memoir. It is an attempt on the part of one woman to retrieve, and lyrically to celebrate, her Afro-American heritage."
In a review of Clifton's work for Southern Literary Journal, Hilary Holladay remarked about how Clifton addresses her "ancestral South." "Although she does not have the intimate knowledge of the region that her father and mother had, her feelings about the region are nevertheless complicated and passionate. The South we encounter in her poems is a conceit enabling her to address two subjects, the first concrete and the second abstract, that have been equally important to her poetry for many years: 1) slavery and its seemingly endless impact on American life, and 2) the all-powerful role of language in determining our knowledge of ourselves and others. In her poems with southern settings, we don't see much of the region's landscape, but we do see how language … can either obliterate or validate one's identity."
Clifton's books for children are designed to help them understand their world. My Friend Jacob, for instance, is a story "in which a black child speaks with affection and patience of his friendship with a white adolescent neighbor … who is retarded," observed Zena Sutherland in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. "Jacob is Sam's 'very very best friend' and all of his best qualities are appreciated by Sam, just as all of his limitations are accepted…. It is strong in the simplicity and warmth with which a handicapped person is loved rather than pitied, enjoyed rather than tolerated." Critics felt that Clifton's characters and their relationships are accurately and positively drawn in My Friend Jacob. Ismat Abdal-Haqq noted in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin that "the two boys have a strong relationship filled with trust and affection. The author depicts this relationship and their everyday adventures in a way that is unmarred by the mawkish sentimentality that often characterizes tales of the mentally disabled." And a contributor to Reading Teacher stated that, "in a matter-of-fact, low-keyed style, we discover how [Sam and Jacob] help one another grow and understand the world."
Clifton's children's books also facilitate an understanding of black heritage specifically, which in turn fosters an important link with the past. All Us Come 'cross the Water, for example, "in a very straight-forward way … shows the relationship of Africa to Blacks in the U.S. without getting into a heavy rap about 'Pan-Africanism,'" stated Judy Richardson in the Journal of Negro Education. Richardson added that Clifton "seems able to get inside a little boy's head, and knows how to represent that on paper."
An awareness of one's origins figures also in The Times They Used to Be. Called a "short and impeccable vignette—laced with idiom and humor of rural Black folk," by Rosalind K. Goddard in School Library Journal, the book was described by Lee A. Daniels in the Washington Post as a "story in which a young girl catches her first glimpse of the new technological era in a hardware store window, and learns of death and life." "Most books that awaken adult nostalgia are not as appealing to young readers," maintained Sutherland in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "but this brief story has enough warmth and vitality and humor for any reader."
In addition to quickening an awareness of black heritage, Clifton's books for children frequently include an element of fantasy as well. In Three Wishes, for example, a young girl finds a lucky penny on New Year's Day and makes three wishes upon it. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in the New York Times Book Review, called the book "an urbanized version of the traditional tale in which the first wish reveals the power of the magic object … the second wish is a mistake, and the third undoes the second." Lehmann-Haupt added: "Too few children's books for blacks justify their ethnicity, but this one is a winning blend of black English and bright illustration." The Lucky Stone, in which a lucky stone provides good fortune for all of its owners, was described by Ruth K. MacDonald in School Library Journal as "Four short stories about four generations of Black women and their dealings with a lucky stone…. Clifton uses as a frame device a grandmother telling the history of the stone to her granddaughter; by the end, the granddaughter has inherited the stone herself."
Barbara Walker wrote in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin that Clifton "is a gifted poet with the greater gift of being able to write poetry for children." But in a Language Arts interview with Rudine Sims, Clifton indicated that she does not think of it as poetry especially for children. "It seems to me that if you write poetry for children, you have to keep too many things in mind other than the poem. So I'm just writing a poem," she said.
Some of the Days of Everett Anderson is a book of nine poems, about which Marjorie Lewis observed in School Library Journal: "Some of the days of six-year-old 'ebony Everett Anderson' are happy; some lonely—but all of them are special, reflecting the author's own pride in being black." In the New York Times Book Review, Hoyt W. Fuller thought that Clifton has "a profoundly simple way of saying all that is important to say, and we know that the struggle is worth it, that the all-important battle of image is being won, and that the future of all those beautiful black children out there need not be twisted and broken." Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming concerns Christmas preparations in which "each of the five days before Everett's Christmas is described by a verse," observed Anita Silvey in Horn Book. Silvey added: "The overall richness of Everett's experiences dominates the text." Jane O'Reilly suggested in the New York Times Book Review that "Everett Anderson, black and boyish, is glimpsed, rather than explained through poems about him." Everett Anderson's Year celebrates "a year in the life of a city child … in appealing verses," according to Beryl Robinson in Horn Book. Robinson felt that "mischief, fun, gaiety, and poignancy are a part of his days as the year progresses. The portrayals of child and mother are lively and solid, executed with both strength and tenderness."
Language is important in Clifton's writing. In answer to Sims's question about the presence of both black and white children in her work, Clifton responded specifically about Sonora Beautiful, which is about the insecurities and dissatisfaction of an adolescent girl and which has only white characters: "In this book, I heard the characters as white. I have a tendency to hear the language of the characters, and then I know something about who the people are." However, regarding objections to the black vernacular she often uses, Clifton told Sims: "I do not write out of weakness. That is to say, I do not write the language I write because I don't know any other…. But I have a certain integrity about my art, and in my art you have to be honest and you have to have people talking the way they really talk. So all of my books are not in the same language."
In her interview with Sims, she was asked whether or not she feels any special pressures or special opportunities as a black author. Clifton responded: "I do feel a responsibility…. First, I'm going to write books that tend to celebrate life. I'm about that. And I wish to have children see people like themselves in books…. I also take seriously the responsibility of not lying…. I'm not going to say that life is wretched if circumstance is wretched, because that's not true. So I take that responsibility, but it's a responsibility to the truth, and to my art as much as anything. I owe everybody that…. It's the truth as I see it, and that's what my responsibility is."
In Clifton's 1991 title, Quilting: Poems 1987–1990, the author uses a quilt as a poetic metaphor for life. Each poem is a story, bound together through the chronicles of history and figuratively sewn with the thread of experience. The result is, as Roger Mitchell in American Book Review described it, a quilt "made by and for people." Each section of the book is divided by a conventional quilt design name such as "Eight-pointed Star" and "Tree of Life," which provides a framework within which Clifton crafts her poetic quilt. Clifton's main focus is on women's history; however, according to Mitchell, her poetry has a far broader range: "Her heroes include nameless slaves buried on old plantations, Hector Peterson (the first child killed in the Soweto riot), Fannie Lou Hamer (founder of the Mississippi Peace and Freedom Party), Nelson and Winnie Mandela, W.E.B. DuBois, Huey P. Newton, and many other people who gave their lives to [free] black people from slavery and prejudice."
Enthusiasts of Quilting included critic Bruce Bennett in the New York Times Book Review, who praised Clifton as a "passionate, mercurial writer, by turns angry, prophetic, compassionate, shrewd, sensuous, vulnerable and funny…. The movement and effect of the whole book communicate the sense of a journey through which the poet achieves an understanding of something new." Pat Monaghan, in Booklist, admired Clifton's "terse, uncomplicated" verse, and judged the poet "a fierce and original voice in American letters." Mitchell found energy and hope in her poems, referring to them as "visionary." He concluded that they are "the poems of a strong woman, strong enough to … look the impending crises of our time in the eye, as well as our customary limitations, and go ahead and hope anyway."
Clifton's 1993 poetry collection, The Book of Light, examines "life through light in its various manifestations," commented Andrea Lockett in a Belles Lettres review of the collection. Among the poetic subjects of the collection are bigotry and intolerance, epitomized by a poem about controversial U.S. Senator Jesse Helms; destruction, including a poem about the tragic bombing by police of a MOVE compound in Philadelphia in 1985; religion, characterized by a sequence of poems featuring a dialogue between God and the devil; and mythology, rendered by poems about figures such as Atlas and Superman. "If this poet's art has deepened since … Good Times, it's in an increased capacity for quiet delicacy and fresh generalization," remarked Poetry contributor Calvin Bedient. Bedient criticized the poems in the collection that take an overtly political tone, taking issue with "Clifton's politics of championing difference—except, of course, where the difference opposes her politics." However, Bedient commended the more personal poems in The Book of Light, declaring that when Clifton writes without "anger and senti-mentality, she writes at her remarkable best." Lockett concluded that the collection is "a gift of joy, a truly illuminated manuscript by a writer whose powers have been visited by grace."
Political messages are present in other Clifton works, including "Jasper Texas 1998," about an African-American man who was dragged to death from the back of a truck by three white men in Texas, and "Stop," which calls on people to take action. Clifton recited and discussed these poems at a Folger Shakespear Library reading, which Adrienne Ammerman reviewed for Off Our Backs. Ammerman noted, as did Sims, that Clifton has a desire to be truthful, "even if it's not currently the 'correct' thing to do." Responding to a critic who was disappointed that Clifton "played the race card," the writer remarked, "It's not a game and I'm not playing." "Stop" is about Nkosi Johnson, the noted twelve-year-old South African victim of AIDS, in which Clifton "calls for people to stop what they are doing, to stop what they are not doing, to pay attention, and to act." Ammermen noted that Clifton takes you to that "sticky place where we are scared to face an exhausting reality, but where we know we can't reconcile ourselves to ignorance." Citing great respect for Clifton's work, the reviewer indicated that the poet "defies the mores of political correctness and is candid about her feelings on race in many of her poems. By putting voice to her experiences, Clifton creates a public space within which politics may take place. By putting voice to the experience of others, she exercises her verbal privilege as a talented writer by enabling others to weld their personal lives with the lives of those different from themselves."
The Terrible Stories and Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988–2000 shed light upon women's survival skills in the face of ill health, family upheaval, and historic tragedy. Blessing the Boats is a compilation of four other Clifton books, plus nineteen new poems, which, Becker noted in her review for American Poetry Review, "shows readers how the poet's themes and formal structures develop over time." Among the pieces collected in these volumes are several about the author's breast cancer, but she also deals with juvenile violence, child abuse, biblical characters, dreams, the legacy of slavery, and a shaman-like empathy with animals as varied as foxes, squirrels, and crabs. She also speaks in a number of voices, as noted by Becker, including "angel, Eve, Lazarus, Leda, Lot's Wife, Lucifer, among others … as she probes the narratives that undergird western civilization and forges new ones."
In a Booklist review of Blessing the Boats, Donna Seaman found the poems "lean, agile, and accurate, [with] a beauty in their directness and efficiency." A Publishers Weekly reviewer likewise concluded that the collection "distills a distinctive American voice, one that pulls no punches in taking on the best and worst of life." During the National Book Awards ceremony for this book, Renee Olson reported for another Booklist article that "Clifton was cited for evoking 'the struggle, beauty, and passion of one woman's life with such clarity and power that her vision becomes representative, communal, and unforgettable.'" In Mercy, Clifton's twelfth book of poetry, the poet writes about the relationship between mothers and daughters, terrorism, prejudice, and personal faith.
Speaking to Michael S. Glaser during an interview for the Antioch Review, Clifton commented about being inducted into American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Addressing her colleagues as "scholars of the mind, scholars of the heart, and scholars of the spirit," she remarked: "So often people think that intelligence is just about the mind, but, you know—especially in the humanities, you do have to explore both the mind and the heart. Nobody is just mind. Absolutely nobody. Balance is the law of the universe, to balance the inside and the outside of people. It's important." In relaying a story about a reading, Clifton quipped, "A guy came up and he said, 'I really enjoyed that. Of course, I'm not into poetry because I'm a historian, and so I study the history of people.' And I said, 'So do I. You study the outside of them. I just study inside.'"
In Clifton's interview with Glaser, the poet reflected that she continues to write, because "writing is a way of continuing to hope … perhaps for me it is a way of remembering I am not alone." How would Clifton like to be remembered? "I would like to be seen as a woman whose roots go back to Africa, who tried to honor being human. My inclination is to try to help."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Beckles, Frances N., Twenty Black Women, Gateway Press (Baltimore, MD), 1978.
Black Literature Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 5, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 9, 1981, Volume 66, 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets since 1955, 1985.
Dreyer, Sharon Spredemann, The Bookfinder: A Guide to Children's Literature about the Needs and Problems of Youth Aged 2-15, Volume 1, American Guidance Service (Circle Pines, MN), 1977.
Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday-Anchor (New York, NY), 1984.
America, May 1, 1976.
American Book Review, June, 1992, Roger Mitchell, review of Quilting: Poems 1987–1990, p. 21.
American Poetry Review, November-December, 2001, Robin Becker, review of "The Poetics of Engagement," p. 11.
Antioch Review, summer, 2000, interview by Michael S. Glaser, p. 310.
Belles Lettres, summer, 1993, Andrea Lockett, review of The Book of Light, p. 51.
Black Scholar, March, 1981.
Black World, July, 1970; February, 1973.
Booklist, June 15, 1991, p. 1926; May 1, 1997, p. 1506; August, 1996, Patricia Monaghan, review of The Terrible Stories, p. 1876; March 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988–2000, p. 1316; January 1, 2001, p. 874.
Book World, March 8, 1970; November 8, 1970.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, March, 1971; November, 1974, Zena Sutherland, review of Times They Used to Be; March, 1976; September, 1980, Zena Sutherland, review of My Friend Jacob.
Christian Century, January 30, 2002, p. 6.
Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1988, p. B3; January 17, 1992, p. 14.
Horn Book, December, 1971, Anita Silvey, review of Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming; August, 1973; February, 1975; December, 1975; October, 1977; March, 1993, p. 229.
Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Volume 5, numbers 7 and 8, 1975; Volume 7, number 1, 1976; Volume 8, number 1, 1977; Volume 10, number 5, 1979; Volume 11, numbers 1 and 2, 1980; Volume 12, number 2, 1981.
Journal of Negro Education, summer, 1974, Judy Richardson, review of All Us Come 'cross the Water.
Journal of Reading, February, 1977; December, 1986.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1970; October 1, 1970; December 15, 1974; April 15, 1976; February 15, 1982.
Language Arts, January, 1978; February 2, 1982.
Library Journal, April 15, 2000, Louis McKee, review of Blessing the Boats, p. 95.
Ms., October, 1976, Harriet Jackson Scarupa, review of Good News about the Earth.
New Yorker, April 5, 1976, review of Generations: A Memoir.
New York Times, December 20, 1976.
New York Times Book Review, September 6, 1970; December 6, 1970; December 5, 1971; November 4, 1973; April 6, 1975, Helen Vendler, review of An Ordinary Woman; March 14, 1976, Reynolds Price, review of Generations: A Memoir; May 15, 1977, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Three Wishes; February 19, 1989, p. 24; March 1, 1992, Bruce Bennett, "Preservation Poets"; April 18, 1993, David Kirby, review of The Book of Light, p. 15.
Off Our Backs, July, 2001, p. 11.
Poetry, May, 1973, Ralph J. Mills, Jr., review of Good News about the Earth; March, 1994, Calvin Bedient, review of The Book of Light, p. 344.
Publishers Weekly, July 22, 1996, review of The Terrible Stories, p. 236; April 17, 2000, review of Blessing the Boats, p. 71.
Reading Teacher, October, 1978; March, 1981, review of My Friend Jacob.
Redbook, November, 1969.
Saturday Review, December 11, 1971; August 12, 1972; December 4, 1973.
School Library Journal, May, 1970; December, 1970; September, 1974, Rosalind K. Goddard, review of Times They Used to Be; December, 1977; February, 1979, Ruth K. MacDonald, review of Lucky Stone; March, 1980.
Southern Literary Journal, spring, 2002, p. 120.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 30, 1987.
Virginia Quarterly Review, fall, 1976, review of Generations: A Memoir; winter, 1997, p. 41.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1982.
Washington Post, November 10, 1974, Lee A. Daniels, review of Times They Used to Be; August 9, 1979.
Washington Post Book World, November 11, 1973; November 10, 1974; December 8, 1974; December 11, 1977; February 10, 1980; September 14, 1980; July 20, 1986; May 10, 1987; February 13, 1994, p. 8.
Western Humanities Review, summer, 1970.
World Literature Today, autumn, 2000, Adele S. New-son-Horst, review of Blessing the Boats, p. 817.
Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (April 23, 2001).
Modern American Poetry Web site, http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/ (July 28, 2004), Jocelyn K. Moody, "About Lucille Clifton."
Poetry Society of America Web site, http://www.literature-awards.com/ (July 28, 2004), Jocelyn K. Moody, "About Lucille Clifton."
St. Mary's College Web site, http://www.smcm.edu/english/ (July 28, 2004), "Lucille Clifton, Distingished Professor of the Humanities."
University of Buffalo Web site, http://www.math.buffalo.edu/ (July 28, 2004), "Lucille Clifton."
University of Illinois English Department Web site, http://www.english.uiuc.edu/ (April 23, 2001), "Modern American Poetry: About Lucille Clifton."
Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (April 23, 2001).
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."
Things Fall Apart, 1959.
Good Times, 1969.
Poetry of the Negro, 1970.
The Black BCs, 1970.
Good Women, 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.
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.
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Madhubuti, Haki, "A Simple Language," in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor-Doubleday, 1984.
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Mosaic Literary Magazine, Winter 2007, p. 13.
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Poetry, March 1, 1994.
Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1991; February 1, 1993.
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"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).
Born Lucille Sayles in 1936, Depew, New York
Married Fred Clifton (died 1984); children: six
"What I knew was true about me was that I could breathe and I made poems," Lucille Clifton said about herself as a child, in a Belles Lettres interview with Naomi Thiers in 1994. But she never aspired to be a professional poet because, she said "I hadn't thought it possible…. The only poets I ever saw or heard of were… old dead white men from New England with beards." Today Clifton is a prolific, prize-winning poet and writer of children's books, who in recent years has been awarded Pulitzer recognition. Known for her simple verses and quiet, powerful tone, Clifton illuminates the ordinary with a life-affirming vision that is widely celebrated by critics.
Lucille Clifton was born in 1936 near Buffalo in Depew, New York, a place she described as "a small town, …all its life turned like a machine around the steel mill." Her parents were part of the Southern African-American migration north. Clifton explained: "We were poor but not downtrodden. We didn't have much money, but we had a lot of love." Her mother wrote poetry that she would read aloud to her four children. Clifton once said, "From Mama I knew one could write as a way to express oneself."
In her autobiography, Generations: A Memoir (1976), which was reprinted in a later book of collected works, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (1987), Clifton wrote, "When the colored people came to Depew they came to be a family. Everybody began to be related in thin ways that last and last " Jean Anaporte-Easton said that, thematically and spiritually, Clifton's work is shaped by a "vision of the web which connects us" and a strong rootedness in her ancestry. In particular, Clifton often cites her great-great-grandmother, Ca'line, who was captured in the Dahomey Republic of West Africa and brought to New Orleans as a slave in 1830, as an inspirational and mythical presence in her life.
Clifton attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. (1953-1955) and Fredonia State Teacher's College (now State University of New York at Fredonia) in Fredonia, New York (1955), where as a drama major she performed plays, developed a writing style, and first met and associated with an emerging class of black intellectuals that included LeRoi Jones, A. B. Spellman, and others. In 1958 she married Fred Clifton. They were married for 27 years and had six children together when he died in 1984.
One of the most important influences on Clifton's writing was the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which advocated the use of the arts as a means of overcoming racial oppression and actively promoted African-American cultural and political nationalism. Clifton's work expresses a strong affirmation of African-American experience and identity, consistently addresses the problems of racial injustice, and advocates for black children and families in the language, metaphors, and rhythms of black vernacular speech. As critic Haki Madhubhuti put it, Clifton is a "black cultural poet. We see in her work a clear transmission of values."
Clifton's style is spare: she uses little punctuation; her use of words and space is economical; the words and lines tend to be short, as do the poems themselves. She writes in free verse and frequently uses only lowercase letters. She deliberately uses simple words in her poetry because, she says, "I am interested in trying to render big ideas in a simple way. I am interested in being understood, not admired." Critics, including Madhubhuti often agree with her: "Clifton's style is simple and solid, like rock and granite." This apparent simplicity is belied, however, by the resonant imagery and lyrical rhythms that characterize her poems. Like other 20th-century black women poets, Clifton's verses have often been stylistically compared to black women's blues music. Audrey McClusky wrote that she takes a "moral stance" and is "guided by the dictates of her own consciousness rather than the dictates of form, structure and audience." The result is poetry that is often richly imagistic, emotive, and a clear expression of Clifton's perspective and integrity as a woman of color.
Clifton's first published collection, Good Times: Poems (1969), won the Discovery award and was cited by the New York Times as one of the best books of 1969. Like her second collection, Good News About the Earth: New Poems (1972), these early volumes reflect the political climate of their time. They pointedly examine racial issues, focusing on contemporary African-American public figures like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers.
At the same time she began publishing her poetry, Clifton was also the mother of six children under the age of ten and began to write children's books. She has often credited her children and her role as a mother as among her most important influences as a poet, saying, for example, "Having six children kept me human." In 1970 Clifton's first children's book, The Black BC's came out, followed by nearly 20 other books, including the well-known Everett Anderson series, which celebrates pride in black history and heritage.
While her first two books of poetry were critically successful, the critical success of the next two, An Ordinary Woman (1974) and Two-Headed Woman (1980), confirmed Clifton's place as a major "contemporary African-American poet." Coinciding in time with the women's movement, these two volumes turn away from broad racial issues to take up the more personal subject of Clifton's life as a woman of color.
Subsequent volumes of poetry follow the trajectory of Clifton's life as an aging poet, widow, and grandmother, and continue her commentary on contemporary life from her trademark life-affirming vision. Most recently, The Terrible Stories: Poems (1996) details her own experiences with breast cancer and mastectomy. Embracing the good with the bad and always reaching for wholeness and healing, she wrote, "All night it is the one breast /comforting the other." Madhubuti wrote, "She is always looking for the good, the best, but not naively so. Her work is realistic and burning with the energy of renewal." Clifton was the Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1989 to 1991 and in the late 1990s was the Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City, Maryland.
Anaporte-Easton, J., "'She Has Made Herself Again': The Maternal Impulse as Poetry" in 13th Moon 9 (1991). Belles Lettres (Summer 1994). Evans, M., ed., Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Metzger, L., et al, eds., Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors (1989). Middlebrook, D. and M. Yalow, eds., Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century (1985). WRB (Mar. 1997).
CA (1994). CLC (1991). DLB (1985). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
CLIFTON, Lucille. American, b. 1936. Genres: Novels, Children's fiction, Poetry. Career: Coppin State College, Baltimore, visiting writer, 1971-74; St. Mary's College of Maryland, distinguished professor of humanities, 1989-; Blackburn Professor of Creative Writing, Duke University, Spring 1998, 1999. Publications: POETRY: Good Times, 1969; Everett Anderson series, 7 vols., 1970-83; Good News About the Earth, 1972; An Ordinary Woman, 1974; Two-Headed Woman, 1980, 1984; Good Woman, 1989; Next, 1989; Quilting: Poems 1987-90, 1991; The Book of Light, 1993; The Terrible Stories: Poems, 1996; Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, 2000 (National Book Award); Dear Creator: A Week of Poems for Young People and Their Teachers, 2001. OTHER: The Black BC's, 1970; All Us Come Cross the Water, 1973; Good, Says Jerome, 1983; The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring, 1973; Don't You Remember, 1974; The Times They Used to Be, 1974; Three Wishes, 1974; Generations, 1976; My Brother Fine with Me, 1976; Anifica, 1978; The Lucky Stone, 1979; My Friend Jacob, 1980; Sonora Beautiful, 1981; Ten Oxherding Pictures, 1988; Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming, 1991; Everett Anderson's Friend, 1992; Everett Anderson's Year, 1992; Everett Anderson's 1-2-3, 1992; Three Wishes, 1992. Address: Division of Arts & Letters, Montgomery Hall, 126, St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Marys City, MD 20686, U.S.A. Online address: [email protected]