Lucille Clifton Essay - Clifton, Lucille

Clifton, Lucille


Lucille Clifton 1936–

American poet, autobiographer, and author of children's books. See also Lucille Clifton Literary Criticism (Volume 19) and Lucille Clifton Literary Criticism (Volume 162).

A prolific author whose works frequently concern the well-being of black families and youths, Clifton is highly praised for her strong affirmation of African-American culture. She is one of the most accessible poets to emerge from the generation of writers influenced in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Black Arts Movement's belief that artistic expression would assist Black Americans both in personal and social achievements. Her reputation has increased steadily since her first book of poems appeared. Her poems explore the African American experience, particularly the role and influence of matriarchy, providing strong, diverse social role models. Characteristically, and at her best, Clifton creates technically accomplished poems that use neither punctuation nor capitalization. Her strong and purposeful voice is expressed through common language, thus making her poetry available to a wide audience.

Biographical Information

Born Lucille Sayles in the Buffalo suburb of Depew, New York, in 1936, Clifton was the child of working-class parents whose storytelling kept alive a family history that connected Clifton to her Dahomey, West Africa, ancestors. While attending Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1953, she met and was influenced by dramatist and poet Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) and poet Sterling Brown. In 1955 she transferred to Fredonia State Teachers College, during which time she met her future husband, Fred, then a philosophy professor at the nearby University of Buffalo. While at Fredonia, she fostered her interest in drama and experimented with poetic forms, exploring lyrical and aural rhythms that would later characterize her work. In 1969, after nearly fifteen years of marriage and motherhood, she offered her first submission of poems to Robert Hayden, a respected African-American poet, resulting in her receipt of the YW-YMCA Poetry Center Discovery Award—an achievement that was followed by the publication of her first poetry collection, Good Times: Poems, which was hailed as one of the best books of 1969 by the New York Times. In 1976, Clifton produced Generations: A Memoir. This autobiography and family history brought wider attention both to her and to her work. It was later included with a selection of her earlier poems in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir. In addition to her poetry, Clifton has written more than a dozen children's books, all of which give depth and dignity to the lives of African-American children living in the

inner city and help these children to understand their world. A Pulitzer Prize nominee and recipient of National Endowment for the Arts grants, Clifton, a long-time resident of Baltimore, is Poet Laureate of Maryland.

Major Works

Clifton's first book, Good Times, garnered considerable attention from critics, especially African-American commentators, who lauded her strength and celebration in the face of social adversity. One of Clifton's most popular and best-received collections is Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980. It contains selections from her first four books of poems as well as her 1976 autobiographical study Generations: A Memoir, which traces her family line back to its African roots and shows how family, especially wise and strong matriarchies, have shaped the African-American experience. Next: New Poems has been praised for its range of subject matter, from terminal illness and suffering (both local and global), to poems of growth and change within both self and family. With Next, Clifton leaves behind her early manner of mythologizing herself and begins to become more human, more accessible to her reader. Showing Clifton as a poet at the peak of her art, Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 is a work that was constructed in sections derived from traditional quilting patterns (Catalpa Flower, Eight-pointed Star, and Tree of Life) and which praises matriarchy, feminine strengths, and the individual.

Critical Reception

Although some reviewers found her earlier books of poems overly critical of white society, her reputation has grown progressively and touched increasingly wider audiences. Her poems have continued to explore and expand upon themes of family, strong female models, religious influences and interpretation, and her consistent optimism and belief in human will when faced with adversities such as family illness, death, and the dynamics and tensions of social change. Clifton has been often compared to other African American women poets of her generation, such as June Jordon, Ai, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lourde, or Maya Angelou. The most striking comparison has been to Gwendolyn Brooks, who was Poet Laureate of her own state, Illinois. Both poets speak of family, matriarchy, children, and the value of both the artist and the individual in stylistically simple poems that use ordinary language spiced with speech patterns from folk songs, spirituals, and African-American idioms.

Principal Works


Good Times: Poems 1969

Good News about the Earth 1972

An Ordinary Woman 1974

Two-Headed Woman 1980

Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 1987

Next: New Poems 1988

Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 1991

The Book of Light 1993

The Terrible Stories 1996

Juvenile Fiction

The Black BCs 1970

Some of the Days of Everett Anderson 1970

Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming 1971

All Us Come Cross the Water 1973

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring 1973

Don't You Remember? 1973

Good, Says Jerome 1973

Everett Anderson's Year 1974

The Times They Used to Be 1974

My Brother Fine with Me 1975

Everett Anderson's Friend 1976

Three Wishes 1976

Amifika 1977

Everett Anderson's 1 2 3 1977

Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long 1978

The Lucky Stone 1979

My Friend Jacob 1980

Sonora Beautiful 1981

Everett Anderson's Goodbye 1983


Generations: A Memoir 1976


Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: A review of Good News about the Earth, in Poetry, Vol. 122, No. 2, May, 1973, pp. 107-08.

[In the following review of Good News about the Earth, Mills discusses Clifton's work as a poetry of reality and of affirmation.]

Those who found Lucille Clifton's Good Times an amazing volume marking the discovery of one of the best new black poets will surely not be disappointed by Good News about the Earth, which she has divided into three sections: "About the Earth," "Heroes," and "Some Jesus," the latter consisting of poems on Old and New Testament themes, beginning with Adam and Eve and concluding in a "Spring Song" which follows some Easter pieces:

the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible.

Here is Mrs. Clifton's deft, economical, poised lyricism moving with the directness of finely turned speech yet eschewing any sort of artificiality. Donald Hall has recently said that black poetry is "a poetry of reality", "of character, attending to qualities like courage, defiance and tenderness", and his words could find no better illustration than the work of Lucille Clifton. She focuses on the events of the day, the killings at Kent State, on black figures of prominence and tragedy, such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver; and a desire for and evocation of her African heritage, in all its natural luxuriance, fills several poems. But Mrs. Clifton's poetic range goes beyond matters of black pride and tradition to embrance the entire world, human and non-human, in the deep affirmation she makes in the teeth of negative evidence. She is a master of her style, with its spare, elliptical, idiomatic, rhythmical speech, and of prophetic warning in the same language:

After Kent State

only to keep
his little fear
he kills his cities
and his trees
even his children oh
white ways are
the way of death
come into the
and live

If, as Donald Hall suggests, black poets probably will write some of the most significant poetry in America in the last third of the century, Lucille Clifton will hold an enviable place among them.

Kossia Orloff (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: A review of Two-Headed Woman, in National Forum, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1982, p. 49

[In the follow review of Two-Headed woman, Orloff believes that Clifton's theme of spiritual unity is the unifying force of her work.]

in this garden
following strict orders
following the Light
see the sensational
two-headed woman
one face turned outward
one face
swiveling slowly in

The image and statement of this untitled poem, as well as its circular structure and its position in the collection define the cyclical nature of...

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Marilyn Nelson Waniek (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: A review of Two-Headed Woman, in Callaloo, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1983, pp. 160-62.

[Below, poet and critic Waniek reviews the visionary and transcendent nature of Clifton's poems in Two-Headed Woman.]

Lucille Clifton is a visionary poet. Her vision, however, is one of sanity, connectedness, light. She can write poems which are bright little gems of perceptive observation. As the mother of a large family (a fact important to much of her work) she may have been forced to work on small canvases. The result in her best poems, of which there are many, is similar to that of a laser beam. In Two-Headed Woman, her third collection of poetry, Clifton asserts her...

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Lucille Clifton (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "A Simple Language," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Double, 1984, pp. 137-38

[Here, Clifton describes her views of her role in society and the ideology and methods behind her poetry]

I write the way I write because I am the kind of person that I am. My styles and content stem from my experience. I grew up a well-loved child in a loving family and so I have always known that being very poor, which we were, had nothing to do with lovingness or familyness or character or any of that. This doesn't mean that I or we were content with whatever we had and never hoped tried worked at having more. It means...

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Haki Madhubuti (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry," Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 150-60

[In the following essay, poet, critic, and educator Madhubuti discusses the language and cultural sensitivity of Clifton's poetry]

In everything she creates, this Lucille Clifton, a writer of no ordinary substance, a singer of faultless ease and able storytelling, there is a message. No slogans or billboards, but words that are used refreshingly to build us, make us better, stronger, and whole. Words that defy the odds and in the end make us wiser.


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Andrea Benton Rushing (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Lucille Clifton: A Changing Voice for Changing Times," in Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century, edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalom, The University of Michigan Press, 1985, pp. 214-22

[Here, Rushing examines Clifton's relationship to the Black Arts Movement and comments on Clifton's poetic representation of women.]

Like all the other contemporary African-American women poets, Clifton was deeply affected by the Black Arts movement of the sixties and seventies. Although subsequent experiences like the women's movement and her own heightened religious consciousness have also left their imprint on her, we must consider that...

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Marilyn Hacker (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: A review of Next, in The Woman's Review of Books, Vol. 5, Nos. 10-11, July, 1988, p. 24.

[Poet and critic Marilyn Hacker calls Clifton's style in Next one of astonishing economy and her theme one of asserting the connecting spirit.]

Lucille Clifton's sixth book, Next, has been much better served by Boa Editions. Her spare, sometimes gnomic poems stand in the middle of their sufficient space, and can sink in. Clifton is a poet of astonishing economy: five or ten pared lines can tell volumes.

i am the sieve she strains from
little by little
every day

i am the rind

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Doris Earnshaw (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: A review of Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 and Next: New Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, p. 459.

[Earnshaw praises Clifton's constancy in speaking victoriously for downtrodden people.]

Like Nelly Sachs, whose O the Chimneys won a Nobel Prize for the German poet, Lucille Clifton arose from dreadful national experience to speak for all downtrodden people. Unlike Sachs, however, Clifton can speak victoriously about the survival through slavery of her family, although "even the good parts was awful." In Generations, a collection of autobiographical pieces published by Random House in 1976 and...

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William J. Harris (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "True Names," in American_Book Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, September-October, 1988, p. 7.

[In the following review of Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980, critic William Harris discusses the lyrical and textured style of Clifton's work.]

Lucille Clifton is a poet who has grown a great deal over the course of her career. In the late 1960s she began as a good poet of the New Black Renaissance, but she was in no way an equal to such accomplished artists of the period as Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, or Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti). Many of her early poems were too simple and easy; however, she stubbornly kept producing books of poems and they have...

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Liz Rosenberg (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Simply American and Mostly Free," in The New York Times Book Review, February 19, 1989, p. 24.

[Below, Rosenberg sees Clifton as a storyteller whose work is rooted in her own personal history]

The writer Clarence Major once noted that black American poetry is almost always, in some sense, a reaction to slavery—and therefore often concerns itself with the right to Being. Lucille Clifton is a poet who grapples mightily with such questions. Her poetry is direct and clear: full of humor and forthrightness, tenderness and anger. She has no sentimental hankering after the past: "'Oh slavery, slavery,' my Daddy would say. 'It ain't something in a book, Lue. Even...

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Bruce Bennett (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Preservation Poets," in The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1992, pp. 22-3.

[Below, poet and critic Bennett discusses Clifton's thematic exploration of cultural and personal history in Quilting: Poems 1987-90.]

Readers familiar with Ms. Clifton will find in Quilting, her seventh book of poetry, the kind of work they expect from her: poems of witness on racial themes; celebrations of women; personal poems of self, family and her vocation as poet; visionary poems taking off from the Bible. She is a passionate, mercurial writer, by turns angry, prophetic, compassionate, shrewd, sensuous, vulnerable and funny.

The title and...

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Leslie Ullman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Quilting: Poems 1987-1990, in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 178-80.

[Critic and poet Ollman discusses how Clifton's poems in Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 echo the speech patterns of African-American idioms, folk songs, and spirituals.]

Lucille Clifton's seventh collection [Quilting: Poems 1987-1990] offers a poet who lives multiple lives and is of multiple, often contradictory minds, as an African-American and a woman living the "inexplicable life" of a poet. The book's title and its sections named after quilt patterns ("CatalpaFlower," "Eight-pointed Star," "Tree of Life") supply a visual metaphor for the...

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David Kirby (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: A review of The Book of Light, in The New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1993, pp. 15-16.

[Here, poet and critic David Kirby applauds the humanity of Clifton's poetry in The Book of Light.]

Ms. Clifton finds beauty in actual people and places. In "thel" (uncapitalized, like the other poems in this collection), she speaks of someone who "was my first landscape," a "sweet attic of a woman. / 'repository of old songs." The speakers in Ms. Clifton's poems are usually heading home. In "the yeti poet returns to his village to tell his story," the speaker retreats from "the shrunken world / of hairless men" and makes his way back "to this wilderness / where...

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Alicia Ostriker (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Kin and Kin: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 6, November/December 1993, pp. 41-8.

[Here poet and critic Ostriker calls Clifton a minimalist artist whose small poems encompass grand themes.]

Lucille Clifton's writing is deceptively simple. The poems are short, unrhymed, the lines typically between four and two beats. The sentences are usually declarative and direct, the punctuation light, the diction a smooth mix of standard English with varying styles and degrees of black vernacular. Almost nothing (including "i" and beginnings of sentences) is capitalized. Some poems have titles, others do not, a fact which may...

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Jean Anaporte-Easton (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Healing Our Wounds: The Direction of Difference in the Poetry of Lucille Clifton and Judith Johnson," in Mid-American Review, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1994, pp. 78-82.

[In the essay below, Anaporte-Easton cites Clifton's thematic healing of the disparity between the mind, spirit, and the body.]

The distinctive quality of Clifton's voice comes from her ability to ground her art in an imagery of the body and physical reality. Through the Mary poems, Clifton reinscribes Christianity with the sacred wisdom of women's physical and emotional experience just as she expands the imagery of Judaism and Christianity to suggest African-American as well as white culture. Prior to...

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Further Reading


Review of Good News about the Earth. Booklist 69, No.1, (1 September 1972): 21.

Analysis of Clifton's use of structure in her books.

Carruth, Hayden. Review of Good Times. The Hudson Review 23, No. 1 (Spring 1970): 182.

Praises Clifton for her craftsmanship as a writer.

Johnson, Joyce. "The Theme of Celebration in Lucille Clifton's Poetry." Pacific Coast Philology XVIII, Nos. 1 & 2 (November 1983): 70-6.

Discusses Clifton's rejection of negative stereotypes in her portrayals of...

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