writer of poetry and children's books, Lucille Clifton has had a long and distinguished career. She was first published in the 1960s, her early work was influenced by the BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT, especially by poets Amiri BARAKA (LeRoi Jones), Ishmael REED, and Gwendolyn BROOKS. But the themes of spirituality and self-acceptance that infuse her later work also show the influence of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and, most importantly, the culture and stories of African-American women passed down from mother to daughter (see female voice, female language).
Born in Depew, New York, Thelma Lucille Sayles and her parents moved to Buffalo when she was a child. When she was 16, she received a full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1955 she returned to Buffalo and studied at Fredonia State Teachers College (now the State University of New York at Fredonia). She married Fred James Clifton in 1958 and had six children within seven years. Clifton juggled writing with the demands of being a wife and mother, and her first poem, "In the Inner City," was published in 1969 in the Massachusetts Review. Clifton has taught at a number of schools, including the University of California at Santa Cruz. Returning to Maryland in 1989, she joined the faculty of St. Mary's College of Maryland, where in 1991 she became a distinguished professor of humanities. Clifton received her first National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1970 and a grant from the American Academy of Poets in 1973. She was named poet laureate of Maryland in 1976, a post she held until 1985. Her book Two-Headed Woman was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. In 1988 she became the only author to have two books of poetry as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize at the same time: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 and Next: New Poems. In 1992 she received the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Prize. Her book The Terrible Stories was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995. In 1996 she received the Lannan Foundation Award for poetry, and in 1999 Clifton was named a chancellor by the American Academy of Poets. In 2000 her book Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 received the National Book Award.
A primary strength of Clifton's work is her ability to express themes of great depth—spiritual strength, self-affirmation, sexuality, African-American history—using everyday diction. "I use a simple language," she has said. "I have never believed that for anything to be valid or true or intellectual or 'deep' it had to be first complex" (137). In a voice ranging from African-American idiom to Caribbean dialect, Clifton writes about her family and, especially, about the lives of women. She explores the linkage between generations, within the African-American culture, and in the church, with family, community, and religion as equal sources of spiritual strength and optimism. But it is the women she writes about—whether they are wives, mothers, homeless, saints, or goddesses—who stand out in her poems. Clifton "has written more poems about women's lives than any other African-American poet except Gwendolyn Brooks" (Rushing 218). Among Clifton's ancestors are Caroline Sale, a Dahomey-born woman and former slave who died in 1910, and her great-grandmother and namesake Lucille Sayle, who was hanged after shooting the white man who made her pregnant. Rather than write bitterly about these women's lives, Clifton honors their strength: "and I come from a line / of black and going on women" ("For deLawd" ). The simple phrase going on women speaks volumes about the courage and endurance of black women in a culture that has, until recently, little valued them.
Clifton's poems often have a strong narrative thread (see narrative poetry), similar to stories told by women around a kitchen table, a quality that makes Clifton's work accessible to readers of all ages and backgrounds. She "gives identity and substance to the everyday people in her poems by giving them names, and therefore a history" (McCluskey 143). She writes of women like Miss Rosie, a "wet brown bag of a woman / who used to be the best looking gal in georgia" ("Miss Rosie" ) or Aunt Nanny, who sat "humming for herself humming / her own sweet human name" ("Slave Cabin, Sotterly Plantation, Maryland, 1989" ). Poems such as these provide a keen insight into the lives of black women, for whom "[r]age and shame and grief must be acknowledged and harnessed for life-saving purposes" (Ans-porte-Easton 119). Clifton's themes of healing, self-love, and self-affirmation are also evident in her many children's books.
Was this article helpful?