The poet Lucille Clifton, one of the most distinct voices of the past forty years, and the former Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland (1979-1985), died on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010, in Baltimore.
Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles on June 27, 1936, in a small town called Depew, NY, to literary parents who wrote poems and stories. She attended Howard University from 1953 to1955, whe re she met the Black Arts poet LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) but returned to upstate New York. She married Fred James Clifton in 1958. She joined Coppin State College in Baltimore in 1971 as poet-in residence. After her husband died in 1984, Clifton moved to take a position as professor of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She returned to Maryland in 1990 and had been Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland since 1991.
Lucille Clifton’s poetry is generally described by scholars and fellow poets as concise, lean, spare, direct, unadorned, economical, deceptively simple, deceptively slight, and deceptively evanescent. Her deceit is in her brevity. Like Emily Dickinson, to whom she is often compared in style, though not subject, she astonishes with very few—and often very short—lines. Clifton refuses capital letters and often refuses punctuation. Her words sit quietly on the page even while the meanings of the words pounce on the unsuspecting reader. Her distinctive style rarely changed from the voice she established in her first published book of poetry, Good Times (1969), which was lauded by the New York Times as one of the year’s ten best books. Consider the last two stanzas of “Admonitions”:
first time a white man
opens his fly
like a good thing
we’ll just laugh
laugh real loud my
when they ask you
why is your mama so funny
she is a poet
she don’t have no sense
Clifton’s use of short lines and halting diction renders standard forms of punctuation unnecessary. Read out loud, the voice of “Admonitions” is unmistakably the voice of a black woman—a woman who despite the last line clearly has a great deal of sense. Unlike her literary forebear, the poet Countee Cullen (1903-1946), who famously wanted to be known as a poet, not a Negro poet, Lucille Clifton’s voice nearly always identifies itself as black, female, and quite often, a mother. There are very few abstractions in Clifton’s work.
Clifton’s more than a dozen collections of poetry after Good Times include Good News About the Earth (1972), An Ordinary Woman (1974), Two Headed Woman (1980), and Next: New Poems (1987). Next and her collection Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (1987) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1991 she published Quilting: Poems 1987-1990, which the New York Times called “angry, prophetic, compassionate, shrewd, sensuous, vulnerable, funny.” Blessing The Boats: New and Collected Poems 1988-2000 (2000) won her a National Book Award.
Clifton’s first volume of poetry emerged just at the beginning of the Black Arts movement, as dozens of books of new poetry anthologies were being published, praising and publicizing the new black voices rising in aesthetic opposition to traditional forms of poetry. Clifton’s work didn’t make it into Clarence Major’s 1969 The New Black Poetry or Stephen Henderson’s 1972 Understanding the New Black Poetry, but a handful of poems, including “Admonition” and “Good times,” appear in Dudley Randall’s influential The Black Poets (1971). Arnold Adoff’s 1973 anthology The Poetry of Black America features the heartbreaking “Miss Rosie,” which ends:
when i watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
i stand up
through your destruction
i stand up
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
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.