Lucille Clifton: “blessing the boats,” “homage to my hips,” and “won’t you celebrate with me”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

How lucky I am to be able to bring these poems to you this week, and I want to begin by expressing my gratitude for the generosity of those who gave their permissions, listed after each poem. Poetry Sunday’s mission is to feature the work of women poets over the age of 40, and one obstacle is getting permissions to reprint their poems. Before editing this column, I did not fully appreciate the complexity of copyright law, nor fully understand that poets often do not own the rights to their creative work. Behind each feature you see here lie many emails—to the poet and to the press or permissions company that controls the rights to her work—and when the poet is deceased, estate issues can complicate the task. Mostly I’ve been surprised at the generosity presses and others have shown in granting permissions. But if you are wondering why Poetry Sunday has not featured some well-known poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sylvia Plath, it’s most likely because I have not been able to figure out how to secure the reprint rights. Those poems should be represented here, and perhaps one day will be—I’ll keep trying. In any event, anytime we can feature a powerhouse poet like Lucille Clifton, it is cause for celebration.

I loved and wrote poetry as a child and young adult, right up until the time when a criminal law practice and raising three children pushed it firmly to the background. For about thirty years, I stopped writing poetry, and when I read it, tended to go back to the poets I studied in college—the canon—which at that time included few women and few poets not of European descent. (Sandra Gilbert’s The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women did not come out until 1985, a few years after I finished college and law school.) Lack of familiarity with contemporary poetry and narrowness of my knowledge base were important reasons for my decision to pursue an MFA in poetry. I wanted to get up to speed and to be able to understand the comments I was hearing in workshops. I also wanted exemplars by living poets, especially women, for my own writing. Warren Wilson’s rigorous program emphasized wide and deep reading and brought me from total illiteracy in contemporary poetry to, well, at least some level of fluency with the subject.

During the years when poetry was on hiatus in my busy life, one contemporary woman poet I did hear about and read was Lucille Clifton. These three poems, in particular, are ones I loved and still love for their fresh, fierce, and sassy voice; compression; deceptively simple diction; rejection of punctuation and other conventions; humor and honesty; and above all, their joyous message of female empowerment, agency, and strength. Clifton’s minimalist style and vernacular English are two sources of the powerful intimacy of her work, but these qualities may also have caused some critics to overlook or dismiss it. “Clifton was a poet of radical perspectives and a fiercely rigorous poetics. The fact of our common misinterpretation of her as mother figure, protector, ally, sweet old sage, only proves a lack of vocabulary in our culture for a woman visionary,” says Rachel Richardson in her review, “Lucille Clifton’s Expansive, Collective ‘i,’” Kevin Young, now the Poetry Editor for The New Yorker, praises Clifton’s “boldness cloaked in a quiet style.” [Source here.]

You can find a sample of Clifton’s poems on the Poetry Foundation and American Academy of Poets websites, and in “A List of Lucille Clifton Favorites: Lucille Clifton’s longtime book editor chooses six of her exemplary poems,” by Thom Ward.

Her impact on poetry, especially poetry written by women and poets from historically marginalized groups, was substantial, and I recommend that you read “Remembering Lucille Clifton,” a tender and moving tribute written by Elizabeth Alexander. It includes some wonderful material, such as commentary on Clifton’s ability to “elucidate[s] the ironies of history without using an ironic tone” and the fact that she “had six children and made poems not in ‘a room of one’s own’ but, rather, at the proverbial kitchen table, with family life proceeding around her,” one reason Clifton gave, tongue-in-cheek, for her poems being “short.” I wish I’d had the chance to meet her in person, or at least hear her read, but I’m grateful to be able to know Clifton now in her poems. If she’d been writing fifty years earlier, even that might not have been possible. How many other Lucille Cliftons were out there then, I wonder, writing for no one who cared or, finally, not seeing the point in writing at all? We’ll never know, and that is the tragic fallacy behind the idea that time is a sieve that will preserve the best literary work, leaving behind only the dross.

Elizabeth Alexander is also the source of one of my favorite quotes by Lucille Clifton: “With my poetry, I hope to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” [Source here] You probably know Alexander as the poet President Obama askedto compose and read a poem for his 2009 inauguration, and I am happy to say that we will be featuring that poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” in next week’s column by Contributing Editor Amanda Moore. I’d like to close today with a very moving poem written by Alexander, just a week after Clifton’s death.


One Week Later in the Strange

One week later in the strange
exhilaration after Lucille’s death
our eyes were bright as we received instructions,
lined up with all we were supposed to do.
Now seers, now grace notes, now anchors, now tellers,
now keepers and spreaders, now wide open arms,
the cold wind of generational shift
blew all around us, stinging our cheeks,
awakening us to the open space
now everywhere surrounding.


From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010. Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.

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