An Appreciation of Lucille Clifton

Praise for the poet of deceptive simplicity.


the time i dropped your almost body down

down to meet the waters under the city

and run one with the sewage to the sea

what did i know about waters rushing back

what did i know about drowning

or being drowned

“the lost baby poem” features uncharacteristically (for Clifton) long, iambic pentameter lines; it is a substantial poem, with heft and a deadly serious subject matter. The uncapitalized ‘i’s’ account for the poem’s alternatingly plaintive and insistent tone.

By 1980, Clifton’s place in the canon of American poets was fully established; her reputation among female fans was strengthened by the savvy Woman Power poem, “homage to my hips”:

these hips are big hips

they need space to

move around in.

they don’t fit into little

petty places. these hips

are free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

these hips are mighty hips.

these hips are magic hips.

i have known them

to put a spell on a man and

spin him like a top!

Even with the brief phrase “never been enslaved” in eighth line, the speaker could be any race, but she is clearly a woman. The poem appeals to all women everywhere. The speaker of “when i stand among poets,” from Quilting (1991), more coyly than usual identifies herself as woman (and not necessarily a black woman) by commenting on her difference from her poetic compatriots:

when i stand around among poets

i am embarrassed mostly,

their long white beards,

the great bulge in their pants

their certainties

i don’t know how to do

what i do in the way

that i do it. it happens

despite me and i pretend

to deserve it.

Hollis Robbins is a professor of humanities at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and teaches African-American poetry and poetics at the Center for Africana Studies.