The poetry of Lucille Clifton
By Major Jackson
Lucille Clifton (1936–2010), born in a western New York railroad town just outside Buffalo, made her poetry out of the everyday and extraordinary existence of being a black woman. Like most Americans, she was very proud of her heritage and, particularly, her African ancestry. This was the lens, first and foremost, by which she understood the world around her, and it was important to her that readers respected and appreciated the unique branch from which she sang her life, whether it was the blessedness of her body (“homage to my hips” and “song at midnight”) or the travesty of violence writ large all over American history (“slaveships” and “jasper texas 1998”). At the time of her death, Lucille Clifton was one of the most beloved and revered poets in America. Her popularity could have had something to do with how her poetry contains so much of contemporary life and American history, some of which we would rather look away from and forget; or it could be owed to the biblical and mythical valences which echo throughout, and are imbued in, her short, compact lines. Most likely, however, what makes Lucille Clifton an iconic figure in American literature is simply how, over thirteen volumes of poetry, she consistently and artfully elevates her identity and intellectual obsessions to make an allegorical enchantment of her life, one that is emblematic of all our journeys.
Some writers and critics believe suffering is a necessary prerequisite to becoming a first-rate artist; Lucille Clifton believed more in the precondition of writing itself as an act of overcoming hardships and a spiritual means by which to hone the self. And thus, her playful, quick-witted, and deceptively simple poetry seems to foreground themes of adversity and triumph and to amplify her wise and indomitable spirit. Her poetry accumulates into a portrait of a woman who is wise and perceptive; but, at times, one hears in her work a kind of perplexity and exhaustion at being so attuned to the world around her:
and I catch myself relieved that they are
white and i might understand except
that i am tired of understanding.
alphabet could speak its own tongue
it would be all symbol surely
Legions of fans have delighted in her lively, spirited, and sometimes feisty verse, which often celebrated female identity, while many admirers and poets alike have savored her nurturance and guidance. As someone who traveled frequently, sharing her poetry through readings and workshops, she was often in a position to advance her vision of the world. I was one of those fortunate souls to have had a few intimate exchanges that would remind me of the unstated social contract between poet and community. Her craft was poetry, but her high calling was celebrating human existence.
I first met Lucille Clifton in the summer of 1998. I was heading into my second year in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon. I had been temporarily hired as an assistant at the Mountain Writers Center in the Brooklyn neighborhood, off Powell Boulevard in Portland, Oregon. Lucille had agreed to meet with local poets for lunch. That Saturday streams of sunlight rivered through the narrow, Craftsman-style, bungalow home that had been turned into a community literary center, and the light shone across her almond-colored skin. A catered tray of vegetarian wraps and chicken salad on rye, a plate of chocolate cookies, and a few rows of Diet Coke, Sprite, and bottled water sat in the center of the workshop table. As eager participants filtered in and gathered around the table to load their paper plates, Lucille sat on the blue sofa beneath a window. She had read her renowned poetry the previous evening. I could observe she was slightly muted by her packed schedule. However, after about fifteen minutes of introductions and of participants filing in to greet her, she livened and labored to familiarize herself with everyone in the room.
As the only African American in the group, I perversely felt entitled to more of her time. I think, secretly, she was glad to see at least one person of color among the bunch; she happily indulged my sense of privilege and answered most of my questions, probably then about how she commenced writing or how she entered into a voice not her own, for she had written a number of persona poems, often of biblical figures, but also of popular cultural figures such as Aunt Jemima and Superman. She was a rock-star poet in my world, and here she was casually talking about her family, music, different parts of the United States, and poetry. I wish I could remember some specific advice she gave me that gorgeous afternoon, but what I took away most was the tone and pitch of the conversation, especially when I shared with her that my mother had died two years prior, at only forty-five years old. Lucille looked at me, knowingly, and understood the grief that had prefigured my life. Lucille’s mother, Thelma Sayles, had also died at a young age. She understood her passing as a gift to write candidly about her life and family, which she did with great brio and force, as in this example in her mother’s voice:
when you lie awake in the evenings
counting your birthdays
turn the blood that clots on your tongue
into poems. poems.
—“the message of thelma sayles”
Because Lucille Clifton behaved and spoke like one of my aunts or cousins, and because of our shared cultural heritage, our conversation had the feeling of familiarity and an ease we appreciated in the company of that largely white audience. In the word “familiarity,” of course, is the word family. The fact is, though, I watched her have similar interactions with the other participants in the workshop. She made all of us a part of her, and although some of us knew each other from attending readings or bumping into each other in the poetry section at Powell’s Bookstore, we looked at each other anew, for we were bonded by our communion with Lucille Clifton. She seemed to glory in her role: it is too bad she was never selected as poet laureate of the United States in her time, for she would have been a great ambassador of the art. After she took off for the next part of her itinerary, we talked about the quality of light around her, which she gave back to us, one by one. Her collection The Book of Light opens with simply a list of synonymous words for light that spill down the page in a single column: “ray / stream / gleam / beam. . . .”
The poet William Meredith states: “The vision of a serious artist is a very individual matter. Perhaps the most important thing he has to learn is, what am I clairvoyant about, what do I see into that other people simply see?” Some of Lucille’s best poems reveal her to be a splendid interpreter of our most cherished myths and stories. She is not a mere buyer, churchgoer, TV-watcher, or consumer of popular culture, but a woman who models exceptional critical thinking inside her imaginative works of literary art. One of my favorite poems by Lucille Clifton, “if I should,” speaks to Clark Kent, the fictional character who serves as the secret identity for Superman, and displays Clifton’s mastery of vision: use of an iconic image, biting humor, and a sweet sense of rhetoric and high quality of thinking, all to shed light on the risks of speaking truthfully and honestly as a woman about inherited pain:
enter the darkest room
in my house and speak
with my own voice, at last,
about its awful furniture,
pulling apart the covering
over the dusty bodies; the randy
father, the husband holding ice
in his hand like a blessing,
the mother bleeding into herself
and the small imploding girl,
i say if i should walk into
that web, who will come flying
after me, leaping tall buildings?
—“if i should”
A whole dissertation could be written on the potent symbolism in the poem. Yet, what we observe here is how Clifton disparages and mocks the classic image of a superhero while at the same time honoring and divining the heroic dimensions of the woman poet as witness. Clifton invites readers to recalibrate their notions of valor, bravery, and fearlessness to see that the true miracle is not leaping tall buildings, but facing our worst childhood and familial memories: walking into the dark room of our unconscious and making art and, though unsaid, simply living and healing.
This summer, I discovered another aspect of Lucille Clifton’s poetry in Dadaab, Kenya, the home of the oldest and largest refugee camp administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The camp was built for 90,000 refugees in 1991 as a consequence of the civil war in Somalia. By 2011 the camp was host to 380,000 people, and the famine in Somalia has swelled those ranks even higher. As part of a cultural diplomacy trip sponsored by the United Nations, the United States Department of State, and the University of Iowa International Writers Program, I visited Dadaab to conduct creative writing workshops, meet with aspiring writers within the camps, and witness the current crisis in the northeastern region of Kenya.
At the beginning of one workshop, I wrote Lucille Clifton’s poem “listen children” on the blackboard. Despite their rootlessness, the ongoing violence in their country, and the conditions in the camp, the Somali people in the refugee camp are proud and maintain great dignity. The room was filled with largely young Somali men in white shirts and dark pants, along with a few women dressed in burkas and hijabs who sat behind the men. Most of the young people showed deep appreciation for the poet who had come from the United States to talk poetry, but I would not be telling the truth if I were not to convey my own sense of doubt and skepticism about the impact (if any) of what I was doing, as well as my horror in witnessing the conditions in the camp and the struggles of the refugees to reach it: days of walking in the desert, surviving bandits and the scorching heat, with little food and water, in a quest to leave behind the violence that has wracked their country.
keep this in the place
you have for keeping
keep it all ways
we have never hated black
we have been ashamed
hopeless tired mad
we loved us
we have always loved each other
children all ways
pass it on
Of all the poems I went over those few days in the camp, none resonated more to the young Somali men and women than this poem by Lucille Clifton. They clapped at the end of my second reading, and when I inquired as to why the poem spoke to them, they said the violence in Somalia is disorienting and ever present, but that they possess a strong sense of family and kinship with their fellow countrymen, which, to them, is expressed in Lucille Clifton’s poem. They particularly identified the lines “we have never hated black” and “pass it on” as the strongest assertions in the poem; hope looms at the end of this poem. I felt a surge of elation to know that this poem written by our dear Lucille Clifton spoke to a demoralized people suffering violence and famine in the Horn of Africa. Recognizing the bridge the poem made between me and the students, I attempted to discuss the poem within the context of American racial politics. However, I was not ready to face one student’s remark that, prior to encountering the poem, he did not believe that black Americans loved themselves, based on what he observed through American popular culture. I recoiled, yet understood right then another dimension of Lucille Clifton’s poetry. Her poems work as a corrective to the misrepresentations and abuses within our collective humanity.
She was an enormous presence on earth. In addition to volumes of poetry, she wrote children’s books and a memoir, most of these while she raised her six children. Her voice on and off the page was distinguished by a singularity of ebullience, forthrightness, and yet, as one critic put it, a “subtly crafted ambiguity,” which I marveled at, for unlike the tide of the poetry written by poets of her generation, she sounded her own sound that struck one of my poet-friends, Crystal Williams, as prophetic. Williams told me, “We will return in the future to Lucille Clifton’s poetry when we most need poetry to console us.” In that case, we need her today and every day.
Lucille Clifton, “if i should,” The Book of Light. Copyright © 1993 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.
Lucille Clifton, “listen children” and earlier excerpts from “the times” and “the message of thelma sayles” from Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1987, 1988, 2000 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
Major Jackson is Richard Dennis Green and Gold Professor at the University of Vermont. His most recent book of poetry is Holding Company (Norton, 2010).