About Lucille Clifton
Jocelyn K. Moody
Lucille Sayles Clifton was born in Depew, New York, to Samuel L. and Thelma Moore Sayles. Her father worked for the New York steel mills; her mother was a launderer, homemaker, and avocational poet. Although neither parent was formally educated, they provided their large family with an appreciation and an abundance of books, especially those by African Americans. At age sixteen, Lucille entered college early, matriculating as a drama major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her Howard associates included such intellectuals as Sterling A. Brown, A. B. Spellman, Chloe Wofford (now Toni Morrison), who later edited her writings for Random House, and Fred Clifton, whom she married in 1958.
After transferring to Fredonia State Teachers College in 1955, Clifton worked as an actor and began to cultivate in poetry the minimalist characteristics that would become her professional signature. Like other prominent Black Aesthetic poets consciously breaking with Eurocentric conventions, including Sonia Sanchez and her Howard colleague, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Clifton developed such stylistic features as concise, untitled free verse lyrics of mostly iambic trimeter lines, occasional slant rhymes, anaphora and other forms of repetition, puns and allusions, lowercase letters, sparse punctuation, and a lean lexicon of rudimentary but evocative words.
Poet Robert Hayden entered her poems into competition for the 1969 YW-YMHA Poetry Center Discovery Award. She won the award and with it the publication of her first volume of poems, Good Times. Frequently inspired by her own family, especially her six young children, Clifton's early poems are celebrations of African American ancestry, heritage, and culture. Her early publications praise African Americans for their historic resistance to oppression and their survival of economic and political racism. Acclaimed by the New York Times as one of the best books of 1969, Good Times launched Clifton's prolific writing career.
In 1970 Clifton published two picture verse books for children, The Black BCs and Some of the Days of Everett Anderson. Everett Anderson, a small boy living in the inner city, became the protagonist of eight of the fourteen works of juvenile fiction she published between 1970 and 1984. One in this series, Everett Andersons Goodbye, received the Coretta Scott King Award in 1984. Another of her children's books, Sonora Beautiful (1981), represents a thematic departure for Clifton in that it features a white girl as the main character. Like her poetry, Clifton's short fiction extols the human capacity for love, rejuvenation, and transcendence over weakness and malevolence even as it exposes the myth of the American dream.
Clifton's prose maintains a familial and cultural tradition of storytelling. Adapting a genealogy prepared by her father, Generations: A Memoir (1976) constitutes a matrilineal neo-slave narrative; it traces the Sale/Sayles family from its Dahomeian ancestor who became known as Caroline Sale Donald (1823-1910) after her abduction in 1830 from West Africa to New Orleans, Louisiana. Most of the biographical sketches in Generations are written from a first-person perspective in which various family members are represented as narrating their own stories. In them, Clifton further honors African American oral and oratorical traditions with her use of black vernacular.
In 1987 Clifton reprinted her complete published poems in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, which, in addition to Generations, contains Good Times, Good News about the Earth (1972), An Ordinary Woman (1974), and Two-Headed Woman (1980), a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the Juniper Prize. The themes of these exceptional poems reflect both Clifton's ethnic pride and her womanist principles, and integrate her race and gender consciousness. Casting her persona as at once plain and extraordinary, Clifton challenges pejorative Western myths that define women and people of color as predatory and malevolent or vulnerable and impotent. Her poems attest to her political sagacity and her lyrical mysticism. Poem sequences throughout her works espouse Clifton's belief in divine grace by revising the characterization of such biblical figures as the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary, and in An Ordinary Woman she shows herself in conflict and consort with Kali, the Hindu goddess of war and creativity.
Good Woman also narrates a personal and collective history as it addresses the poet's enduring process of self-discovery as poet, woman, mother, daughter, sibling, spouse, and friend. Some of its most complex and effective poems mourn Thelma Sayles's epilepsy, mental illness, and premature death when Clifton was twenty-three. A persistent witness to America's failed promises to former slaves, Native Americans, and other victims of its tyranny, Clifton is nonetheless witty and sanguine as she probes the impact of history on the present. She testifies to the pain of oppression manifested in her parents' tormented marriage, in racism that undermines progressive movements for social change, in disregard for the planet Earth as a living and sentient being.
In 1987 Clifton published Next: New Poems, most of which are constructed as "sorrow songs" or requiems. Some lament personal losses--the deaths by disease of the poet's mother at age forty-four on 13 February 1959; of her husband at age forty-nine on 10 November 1984; and of a Barbadian friend, "Joanne C.," who died at age twenty-one on 30 November 1982. Other poems grieve for political figures or tragedies, including an elegy sequence for the American Indian chief, Crazy Horse, and a trilogy mourning the massacres at Gettysburg, Nagasaki, and Jonestown. The persona also testifies, to the crime and tragedy of child molestation, a theme developed in poem sequences featuring the mythical African shape-shifter in both Next and The Book of Light (1993). In the tradition of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Etheridge Knight, Clifton's heroic meditations in The Book of Light offer pithy and grievous contemplations of diverse epistemological and metaphysical questions.
Clifton served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1979 to 1982. Her achievements also include fellowships and honorary degrees from Fisk University, George Washington University, Trinity College, and other institutions; two grants from the National Endowment of the Arts; and an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Clifton is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Marys College in Maryland and has a position at Columbia University from 1995 to 1999.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.
Helen R. Houston
Clifton has been likened to Gwendolyn Brooks, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson in her style. Her poems are spare in form, deceptively simple in language, complex in ideas, and reflective of the commonplace, the everyday. As Evans remarks, her poetry reflects optimism, an emphasis on "the qualities which have allowed us to survive," and the belief that we have the ability to make things better. It is peopled with strong characters and historical and biblical figures. Her female characters represent known and unknown heroes who have taken responsibility and stands, and reflect the strength of the Dahomey woman who was the founder of Clifton's family in America. Her black males are strong, healthy, and treated with love and respect; this results from her positive male relationships and models, beginning with her father. . . .
Mari Evans observes that "the 'place' of her poetry and prose is essentially urban landscapes that are examples of most Black communities in this country." Her poetry "is often a conscious, quiet introduction to the real world of Black sensitivities."
Clifton's books for young people reflect the same themes, views, and landscapes as her poetry. Clifton addresses the fears, joys, and pain of children, reassures them, teaches them self-reliance, self-acceptance, and the assumption of responsibility for their actions. Her writing for children is honest and lacks condescension. Sharon Malinowski has written that these works "are designed to help them understand their world" and "facilitate an understanding of Black heritage specifically, which in turn fosters an important link with the past generally" (Black Writers, 1989). Her most sustained character is Everett Anderson, who always uses his entire name, is six or seven years old, and lives with his mother in an apartment in the city. These books include Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970), a book of nine poems; All Us Come Cross the Water (1973), which links Everett Anderson with his past; Everett Anderson's Year (1974), which celebrates one year in verse; Three Wishes (1976, 1992); Everett Anderson's 1-2-3 (1977), which details his mother's remarriage; The Lucky Stone (1979), stories; My Friend Jacob (1980), which describes a friendship with a retarded neighbor; Everett Anderson's Goodbye (1983), which details stages of grief after his father's death; Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming (1991), which are poems describing the five days before Christmas. Clifton celebrates life, emphasizes home, and remains positive.
From The Oxford Companion to Womens Writing in the United States. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.
The themes and language of Clifton's poetry are shaped by her concern with family history and relationships, with community, with racial history, and, finally, with the possibilities of reconciliation and transcendence. In Good Times she uses direct, unadorned language to capture the rhythms and values of African-American working-class life in the city, or, in her words, "in the inner city / or / like we call it home." Throughout this collection Clifton consciously pits her spare, economical language against the pervasive and negative images of black urban life, insistently reminding her readers of the humanity concealed underneath social and economic statistics. Like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, she sees virtue and dignity in the lives of ordinary African-Americans, giving them" faces, names, and histories, and validating their existence. In the face of the daily realities of urban life, Clifton records both the adversity and the small triumphs, always maintaining a strong-willed sense of optimism and spiritual resilience. One source of this equanimity, of this poise in the face of adversity and tragedy, derives from Clifton's strong sense of rootedness in the legacy of her family history--particularly of her great great-grandmother Caroline, a woman kidnapped to America from Dahomey and Caroline's daughter, Lucille, who bore the distinction of being the first black woman lynched in Virginia. These two women in particular conjure up images of survival and endurance on the one hand, and avenging spirits on the other. By locating herself within this family history Clifton not only lays claim to an African past--a recurrent feature of many of her poems--she also defines herself as a poet whose task is to keep historical memory alive. At the same time that Clifton accepts the weight of this history, however, she refuses to be trapped or defeated by it. Like a blues singer's lyrics, Clifton's poems confront the chaos, disorder, and pain of human experience to transcend these conditions and to reaffirm her humanity.
The optimism that shapes Clifton's poetry is nourished by her deep spiritual beliefs. While she often invokes Christian motifs and biblical references in her poems (as she does in the "Some Jesus" sequence in Good News About the Earth, for example) she draws freely upon other values and beliefs as well. "The black God, Kali / a woman God and terrible / with her skulls and breasts" often appears in her poems, as do references to African goddesses like Yemoja, the Yoruba water deity, and to Native American beliefs. More specifically, Clifton's invocation of the "two-headed woman" of African-American folk belief, with its overtones of Hoodoo and conjure, makes plain her commitment to other ways of knowing and understanding the world. "My family tends to be a spiritual and even perhaps mystical one," Clifton has written. Certainly the spiritual dimension of her poetry has deepened since the death of her husband, Fred Clifton, in 1984. Whether her poetry is exploring the biological changes within her own body or imagining the death of the Sioux chief Crazy Horse, Lucille Clifton's world is both earthy and spiritual. In her capacity as both witness and seer, she looks through the madness and sorrow of the world, locating moments of epiphany in the mundane and ordinary. And her poetry invariably moves toward those moments of calm and tranquility, of grace, which speak to the continuity of the human spirit. As she writes in her recent poem "Moonchild," "only then did i know that to live / in the world all that i needed was / some small light and know that indeed / I would rise again and rise again to dance."
From The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Third Edition, Volume 2. Copyright ©1998 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Jane Todd Cooper
Clifton gained national attention in l969 with her first volume, praised for its craft and its evocation of urban black life. Thus her early work is significant to the Black Arts Movement; however, four subsequent volumes demonstrate that hers is a poetry not of race but of revelation, in the manner of Denise Levertov. Characterized by brevity, simplicity of language, and polyrhythmical phrasing, her work celebrates the spiritual revealed in the ordinary. Many poems (e.g. the 'two-headed woman' and 'Lucifer' sequences) depend on voice for their dramatic situation, yet they are not dramatic monologues, like those of Gwendolyn Brooks, but rather voiced meditations. Clifton writes that she hears characters speak, including family members and mythic figures.
From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.
Return to Lucille Clifton