Lucille Clifton Essay - Critical Essays


Distinguished by her minimalist style, Lucille Clifton is sometimes compared with poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Emily Dickinson. Clifton is usually considered one of the prominent black aesthetic poets, along with Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, who were consciously breaking with Eurocentric conventions in their work. The characteristics of Clifton’s craft—her concise, often untitled free verse, use of vernacular speech, repetition, puns and allusions, lowercase letters, sparse punctuation, and focused use of common words—became her trademark style, which is clearly unfettered by others’ expectations. Without worrying about convention, about boundaries—created either physically or emotionally—Clifton shares her perceptions of life by writing about the feelings humans share. Her rationale for writing poetry was to assert the importance of being human. In an interview with Michael Glaser, Clifton stated thatwriting is a way of continuing to hope. When things sometimes feel as if they’re not going to get any better, writing offers a way of trying to connect with something beyond that obvious feeling . . . a way of remembering I am not alone”

She further stated that she sees writing as a way to bear witness, to hold back the darkness by acknowledging the pain of the past and then choosing a more joyful future.

Good Times

Clifton’s early work was frequently inspired by her family, especially her children, and was often a celebration of African American ancestry, heritage, and culture. In the title poem of Good Times, Clifton reminds all children, “oh children think about the/ good times.” She juxtaposes society’s perceptions and her own in the opening poem of the collection—“in the inner city/ or/ like we call it/ home”—to honor the place where she lives. Believing in the humanity of all people, she calls on each person, regardless of ancestry, to take control of his or her life. Of Robert, in the poem by the same name, she states he “married a master/ who whipped his mind/ until he died,” suggesting through the image that the union was one of mutual consent. Her impatience with humans of all kinds who do not strive to improve their lot is a theme begun with this collection and continued throughout her life. Another theme that arises here is optimism, as in “Flowers”: “Oh/ here we are/ flourishing for the field/ and the name of the place/ is Love.”

Good Woman

One theme of the poems in Good Woman involves Clifton’s ethnic pride, as is reflected in “After Kent State”: “white ways are/ the way of death/ come into the/ black/ and live.” This volume also contains a section called “Heroes,” which directly extends this first theme, and ends the book with a section called “Some Jesus.”

I have learned some few things like when a man walk manly he don’t stumble even in the lion’s den.

Although the gender in this poem is male, Clifton would not limit the message to men. Overall, her early work heralds African Americans for their resistance to oppression and their survival of racism.

An Ordinary Woman

An Ordinary Woman includes poems divided into two sections, beginning with “Sisters,” a celebration of family and relationships. “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves” includes the following lines:

the leaves believe such letting go is love such love is faith such faith is grace such grace is god i agree with the leaves.

It is a...

(The entire section is 1647 words.)