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Wild Blessings

The Poetry of Lucille Clifton

Hilary Holladay

Publication Year: 2012

Widely acclaimed for her powerful explorations of race, womanhood, spirituality, and mortality, poet Lucille Clifton has published thirteen volumes of poems since 1969 and has received numerous accolades for her work, including the 2000 National Book Award for Blessing the Boats. Her verse is featured in almost every anthology of contemporary poetry, and her readings draw large and enthusiastic audiences. Although Clifton's poetry is a pleasure to read, it is neither as simple nor as blithely celebratory as readers sometimes assume. The bursts of joy found in her polished, elegant lines are frequently set against a backdrop of regret and sorrow. Alternately consoling, stimulating, and emotionally devastating, Clifton's poems are unforgettable. In Wild Blessings, Hilary Holladay offers the first full-length study of Clifton's poetry, drawing on a broad knowledge of the American poetic tradition and African American poetry in particular. Holladay places Clifton's poems in multiple contexts—personal, political, and literary—as she explicates major themes and analyzes specific works: Clifton's poems about womanhood, a central concern throughout her career; her fertility poems, which are provocatively compared with Sylvia Plath's poems on the same subject; her relation to the Black Arts Movement and to other black female poets, such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonia Sanchez; her biblical poems; her elegies; and her poignant family history, Generations, an extended prose poem. In addition to a new preface written after Clifton's death in 2010, this updated edition includes an epilogue that discusses the poetry collections she published after 2004. Readers encountering Lucille Clifton's poems for the first time and those long familiar with her distinctive voice will benefit from Hilary Holladay's striking insights and her illuminating interview with the influential American poet.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Literary Studies

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xiii

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...

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pp. xv

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...


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pp. xvii-xxi


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pp. xxiii

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pp. 1-6

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...

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1. Light Years

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pp. 7-40

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”...

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2. Dark Blessings

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pp. 41-62

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...

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3. Song of Herself

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pp. 63-82

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...

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4. Plath, Clifton, and the Myths of Menstruation

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pp. 83-102

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...

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5. The Biblical Poems

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pp. 103-126

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...

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6. Diabolic Dialogism in “brothers”

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pp. 127-141

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'...

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7. Elegies for Thelma

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pp. 142-162

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...

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8. Concentric Circles of Selfhood in Generations

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pp. 163-180

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...

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9. Lucille Talks about Lucille: An Interview

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pp. 181-200

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...

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Epilogue: Last Words in Mercy and Voices

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pp. 201-220

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...


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pp. 221-234


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pp. 235-246

E-ISBN-13: 9780807144619
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807144602

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Southern Literary Studies