The Poetry of Lucille Clifton
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
Series: Southern Literary Studies
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
Lucille Clifton’s death at age seventy-three on February 13, 2010, precipitated a flood of tributes and fond remembrances. The New York Times pronounced her “a distinguished American poet whose work trained lenses wide and narrow on the experience of being black and female in the twentieth century.”1 Her friend and fellow poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote...
My colleagues and students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell helped bring this book to life through their interest in my work; I thank them all. I would especially like to thank William H. Roberts, chair of the English Department, for his encouragement and enthusiasm for this...
I first heard Lucille Clifton read her poetry in January 1992 when I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When Clifton took the stage in Greenlaw Hall, she gripped the unsteady lectern and said, “I suppose it wouldn’t be the end of the world if this fell over.” After a pause, she added, “And if it was the end of the...
1. Light Years
Lucille Clifton is among those time-traveling souls who Walt Whitman believed would “look back on me because I look’d forward to them.”1 In her sweeping, elegiac vision of the world, she is the Good Gray Poet’s descendant, his sister, his dark reflection in the waves. Her earnest voice bears witness to what she calls “the bond of live things everywhere”...
2. Dark Blessings
After Fred Clifton died of cancer in 1984, Lucille Clifton left Baltimore for a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a position she had secured before her husband’s illness struck. She did not publish another book of verse until 1987, when BOA Editions simultaneously...
3. Song of Herself
To read one of Lucille Clifton’s poems is to experience an epiphany, a swift flowering of personal observation into social insight. To read all of them is to apprehend a far-reaching, essentially hopeful vision of humanity. Clifton has dedicated her work and her life to “the celebration of the spirit and flesh of what is a whole human.”1 Starting with...
4. Plath, Clifton, and the Myths of Menstruation
The woman who menstruates receives a monthly message from her body. Written in blood, the menstrual message is rich in meaning and metaphorical possibility. Although the authors of The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation may be overstating the case when they say, “Men cannot enter or even entertain the language of menstruation, with its fluidic...
5. The Biblical Poems
Starting with Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in the eighteenth century, continuing through the slave narratives and spirituals of the nineteenth century, and taking on increasingly sophisticated and ironic significance in Harlem Renaissance works and later twentieth-century novels and poetry, the Bible has always been an inspiration and catalyst for African American literature. Lucille Clifton’s use of biblical narrative and metaphor...
6. Diabolic Dialogism in “brothers”
Lucifer, the light-bearing Prince of Darkness, appears to be Lucille Clifton’s favorite alter ego, a talkative angel with human flaws. The life of the primordial party, Lucifer brings Adam and Eve the glad tidings about sex in the “tree of life” sequence in Next. Lucifer’s role in the grand upheaval explains his appeal to Clifton, long fascinated by biblical characters'...
7. Elegies for Thelma
For Lucille Clifton, what Freud called the work of mourning has been a lifelong work in progress. She is naturally drawn to the elegy, a fluid form that enables her to meditate on both life and loss. Her memoir, Generations, and most of her poems are elegiac in nature. Her poems about deceased family members and assassinated black leaders are obvious...
8. Concentric Circles of Selfhood in Generations
Lucille Clifton published Generations: A Memoir in 1976, the year of the American bicentennial. During a time of widespread reflection on the nation’s past, Clifton focused on her African and African American ancestors’ lives in both slavery and freedom. She was, of course, not alone in this endeavor; in the same year that Generations came out, Alex Haley’s...
9. Lucille Talks about Lucille: An Interview
This interview took place April 11, 1998, on a brilliant Saturday afternoon at Lucille Clifton’s home in Columbia, Maryland. Serving as the William Blackburn Distinguished Visiting Professor at Duke University that spring semester, Clifton was home for the weekend with two of her daughters, Gillian and Alexia. After undergoing a kidney transplant the...
Epilogue: Last Words in Mercy and Voices
Although she was not a churchgoer and resisted religious categorization, Lucille Clifton was indisputably a poet of the spirit. It is difficult to read her many poems about the dead—such as “the light that came to lucille clifton” in Two-Headed Woman and “the death of fred clifton” in Next—without feeling that communication with the deceased is not just possible but...