Lucille Clifton Essay - Clifton, Lucille (Vol. 162)

Clifton, Lucille (Vol. 162)


Lucille Clifton 1936-

(Full name Thelma Lucille Clifton) American poet, children's writer, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Clifton's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 66.

A prolific author whose works frequently concern the well-being of African-American families and youths, Clifton is widely regarded for her strong affirmation of African-American culture. She is one of the more accessible poets to emerge from the generation of writers influenced in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Black Arts Movement, which believed that artistic expression would assist African Americans in both personal and social achievements. Her poems explore the African-American experience—particularly the role and influence of the matriarchy—while providing strong and diverse social role models. In addition, Clifton has developed a reputation as a noted children's author who has been praised for providing both a realistic and positive look at African-American families. She has also written a highly acclaimed memoir, Generations (1976), which traces her family history throughout generations of slavery and racial oppression.

Biographical Information

Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles on June 27, 1936, in Depew, New York. When she was young, the family moved to Buffalo, New York. Clifton graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and won a scholarship to Howard University in Washington D.C. While attending Howard in 1953, Clifton 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. The couple had six children together and remained married until Fred's death in 1984. While at Fredonia, Clifton fostered her interest in drama and experimented with poetic forms, exploring lyrical and aural rhythms that would later characterize her work. In 1969 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 (1969), which was hailed as one of the best books of 1969 by the New York Times. Clifton has held positions at a number of U.S. colleges and universities, including poet-in-residence at Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1974 to 1979, professor of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from 1985 to 1989, Distinguished Professor of Literature and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College, Maryland, from 1989 to 1991, and professor of creative writing at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, beginning in 1998. From 1979 to 1985 Clifton, a long-time resident of Baltimore, served as the Poet Laureate of the state of Maryland. She has received numerous awards and accolades, including Pulitzer Prize nominations for poetry in 1980, 1987, and 1991, the Lannan Literary Award for poetry in 1997, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1997, the Los Angeles Times Poetry Award in 1997, the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Award in 1999, and the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 (2000) as well as a National Book Award nomination for The Terrible Stories (1996). She has also been awarded honorary degrees from Colby College, the University of Maryland, Towson State University, Washington College, and Albright College.

Major Works

Clifton's formal style and thematic focus have remained relatively consistent throughout her poetry and prose. She often employs urban, vernacular English to address themes that are individual to the African-American experience, particularly the role of women in African-American families. Clifton frequently explores issues through the perspective of African-American females, presenting women who are simultaneously fierce, heroic, and loving. Her symbolism and imagery are routinely drawn from ancient mythology as well as the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Clifton's poetry has been described as minimalist; outwardly simple in form yet rich and complex in its deeper meaning. Her poems are characteristically brief, free verse forms, consisting of fewer than twenty lines with two-to-four beats per line. She typically does not capitalize the titles of her poems and provides no title at all for many of them. Good Times, her first volume of poetry, is an ironic title for a collection that consists of a series of character sketches in verse portraying the struggles and degradations of African-American urban poverty. However, despite the brutal conditions, Clifton's characters evoke a sense of strength and celebration in the face of adversity. Good News about the Earth (1972) is comprised of three sections—“About the Earth,” “Heroes,” and “Some Jesus”—focusing respectively on political events of the 1970s, leaders of the civil rights movement, and biblical stories seen through the context of the African-American experience. Several of the poems in the “Heroes” section are dedicated to social activists, such as Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Angela Davis. In the “Kali Poems” trilogy in An Ordinary Woman (1974), Clifton evokes a metaphysical and forceful image of fertility through an aboriginal Indian goddess associated with blood, violence, and murder. Her next collection, Two-Headed Woman (1980), reveals a more personal exploration of womanhood. Many of the poems are written in a confidential tone, focusing on Clifton's changing relationship with her children as they mature. Next (1987) explores a wide range of subject material from terminal illness and suffering to growth and change within the self and the family. Quilting (1991) is organized by separate sections, each titled after the name of a traditional quilting pattern, such as “Log Cabin,” “Catalpa Flower,” “Eight-Pointed Star,” and “Tree of Life.” The poems celebrate the virtues of the matriarchy, feminine strengths, and the individual. Ten Oxherding Pictures (1988) is comprised of twelve poems, based on a series of pictures created in the twelfth century to aid in Buddhist meditation. The poems of The Book of Light (1993) focus on specific historical events and include references to several biblical and mythological stories and characters. Blessing the Boats contains selections from Clifton's previous volumes of poetry, as well as nineteen new poems.

Clifton's children's books are characterized by their lyrical language, realism, and use of African-American vernaculars. She has become best known for her Everett Anderson series, comprised of eight volumes focusing on the experiences of Everett Anderson, an young African-American boy living in a large city. The Everett Anderson books have been noted for their positive view of African-American heritage and their natural inclusion of city backgrounds—apartment living, single parents, working mothers, and busy streets—as a normal part of life. The series includes the titles Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970), Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming (1971), Everett Anderson's Year (1974), Everett Anderson's Friend (1976), Everett Anderson's 1-2-3 (1977), Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long (1978), Everett Anderson's Goodbye (1983), and One of the Problems of Everett Anderson (2001). Generations, Clifton's only prose work written for adults, is a family memoir tracing her ancestry through five generations—from freedom in Africa to slavery and freedom in the United States. Clifton's great-grandmother Caroline—referred to as “Ca'line” in the text—was abducted at a young age from her home in the Dahomey Republic of West Africa and was brought to New Orleans, Louisiana, as a slave. Caroline is described as a woman of almost mythical endurance and courage, reflecting Clifton's characteristic portrayal of women as strong and deeply nurturing. The book is broken into sections that focus on specific members of Clifton's family, such as her father Samuel and her grandfather Gene.

Critical Reception

Clifton's first poetry collection, Good Times, has garnered considerable attention from critics, particularly from African-American reviewers, who have praised Clifton's strength of character in the face of social adversity. Although some commentators have found her early poems to be overly critical of caucasian society, Clifton's reputation has grown progressively and has brought her work to increasingly wider audiences. Critics have praised Clifton's portrayal of the African-American experience and her ability to balance poverty and despair with optimism and joy. Ann Cathey Carver has characterized Clifton's poetry as “a microcosm of the black experience in all its complexity.” Her effective use of vernacular language has been praised by reviewers, though a few critics have objected to her using what they consider to be improper English in children's works. Commentators have consistently commented on the unique stylistic elements of Clifton's poetry, noting that her use of brief, simple forms effectively expresses the subtleties and complexities of her subject matter. Clifton's children's books, particularly the Everett Anderson series, have garnered positive reviews from reviewers for their simplicity and realism. Clifton has often been compared to several of the African-American poets of her generation, including Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde.

Principal Works

Good Times: Poems (poetry) 1969

The Black BCs [illustrations by Don Miller] (juvenilia) 1970

Some of the Days of Everett Anderson [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1970

Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming [illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist] (juvenilia) 1971

Good News about the Earth: New Poems (poetry) 1972

All Us Come 'Cross the Water [illustrations by John Steptoe] (juvenilia) 1973

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring [illustrations by Brinton Turkle] (juvenilia) 1973

Don't You Remember? [illustrations by Evaline Ness] (juvenilia) 1973

Good, Says Jerome [illustrations by Stephanie Douglas] (juvenilia) 1973

An Ordinary Woman (poetry) 1974

Everett Anderson's Year [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1974

The Times They Used to Be [illustrations by Susan Jeschke] (juvenilia) 1974

My Brother Fine with Me [illustrations by Moneta Barnett] (juvenilia) 1975

Everett Anderson's Friend [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1976

Generations: A Memoir (memoirs) 1976

Three Wishes [illustrations by Michael Hays] (juvenilia) 1976

Amifika [illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia] (juvenilia) 1977

Everett Anderson's 1-2-3 [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1977

Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1978

The Lucky Stone [illustrations by Dale Payson] (juvenilia) 1979

My Friend Jacob [illustrations by Thomas DiGrazia] (juvenilia) 1980

Two-Headed Woman (poetry) 1980

Sonora Beautiful [illustrations by Michael Garland] (juvenilia) 1981

Everett Anderson's Goodbye [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 1983

*Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (poetry and memoirs) 1987

Next: New Poems (poetry) 1987

Ten Oxherding Pictures (poetry) 1988

Quilting: Poems, 1987-1990 (poetry) 1991

The Book of Light (poetry) 1993

The Terrible Stories: Poems (poetry) 1996

Dear Creator: A Week of Poems for Young People and Their Teachers [illustrations by Gail Gordon Carter] (juvenilia) 1997

Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 (poetry) 2000

One of the Problems of Everett Anderson [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (juvenilia) 2001

*This work reprints Clifton's 1976 memoir Generations.


Dianne Johnson (essay date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Johnson, Dianne. “The Chronicling of African-American Life and Consciousness: Lucille Clifton's Everett Anderson Series.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14, no. 4 (winter 1989): 174-78.

[In the following essay, Johnson argues that Clifton's Everett Anderson series of books for young readers functions as a thoughtful exploration of African-American community, culture, and identity.]

Fortunately for the world of young people's literature, there are those authors who broaden our realms of experience by representing and exploring African-American culture. Lucille Clifton is one of the most prolific and accomplished of this number. In this context,...

(The entire section is 3359 words.)

Jean Anaporte-Easton (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Anaporte-Easton, Jean. “Healing Our Wounds: The Direction of Difference in the Poetry of Lucille Clifton and Judith Johnson.” Mid-American Review 14, no. 2 (1994): 78-82.

[In the following essay, Anaporte-Easton examines the thematic focus on Christianity and African-American culture in the poetry of Clifton and Judith Johnson.]

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 re-inscribes Christianity with the sacred wisdom of women's physical and emotional experience just as she expands the imagery of Judaism and Christianity to suggest...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

Akasha (Gloria) Hull (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Hull, Akasha (Gloria). “Channeling the Ancestral Muse: Lucille Clifton and Dolores Kendrick.” In Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, pp. 96-116. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Hull explores the spiritual connection to African-American female ancestors in the poetry of Clifton and Dolores Kendrick.]


One afternoon in 1975, Lucille Clifton and her two eldest daughters—then sixteen and fourteen years old—were sitting idly at home while the four younger children napped. After rejecting an outing to the movies, they pulled...

(The entire section is 7675 words.)

Mark Bernard White (essay date March 1997)

SOURCE: White, Mark Bernard. “Sharing the Living Light: Rhetorical, Poetic, and Social Identity in Lucille Clifton.” CLA Journal 40, no. 3 (March 1997): 288-304.

[In the following essay, White observes how Clifton's poetry can function as a rhetorical discourse on African-American identity.]

And I could tell you about things we been through, some awful ones, some wonderful, but I know that the things that make us are more than that, our lives are more than the days in them, our lives are our line and we go on.

—Lucille Clifton, Generations

That Lucille Clifton is one of the...

(The entire section is 4746 words.)

Lucille Clifton and Charles H. Rowell (interview date 2 August 1998)

SOURCE: Clifton, Lucille, and Charles H. Rowell. “An Interview with Lucille Clifton.” Callaloo 22, no. 1 (1999): 56-72.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on August 2, 1998, Clifton discusses the themes of African-American ancestry and identity in her poetry.]

This interview was conducted August 2, 1998, by telephone between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland.

[Rowell]: I would like to begin this interview with your memoir Generations, which was published in 1976. Why did you write Generations? What is its origin? What set you in motion to write it?

[Clifton]: Well,...

(The entire section is 9029 words.)

Cheryl A. Wall (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Wall, Cheryl A. “Sifting Legacies in Lucille Clifton's Generations.Contemporary Literature 40, no. 4 (winter 1999): 552-74.

[In the following essay, Wall examines Clifton's exploration of the past through the reconstruction of family genealogy in Generations.]

in populated air
our ancestors continue
i have seen them.
i have heard
their shimmering voices

Lucille Clifton, Two-Headed Woman

The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them, emptied them, And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”


(The entire section is 8729 words.)

Lucille Clifton and Michael S. Glaser (interview date 1999)

SOURCE: Clifton, Lucille, and Michael S. Glaser. “I'd Like Not to Be a Stranger in the World: A Conversation/Interview with Lucille Clifton.” Antioch Review 58, no. 3 (summer 2000): 310-28.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1999, Clifton discusses her creative process, the role of writing in her life, and her approach to the teaching of creative writing.]

The following conversation between Lucille Clifton and Michael Glaser was edited from a number of conversations recorded in late 1999.

Ms. Clifton is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Blessing the Boats: New & Selected Poems (2000). Her many awards...

(The entire section is 7550 words.)

Ned Balbo (review date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Balbo, Ned. Review of Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000, by Lucille Clifton. Antioch Review 59, no. 3 (summer 2001): 637-38.

[In the following review of Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000, Balbo calls Clifton “an American artist of the highest order” and praises her “generous and unflinching” vision.]

Winner of the National Book Award in poetry, former Maryland Poet Laureate Clifton here [in Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000] confirms her place as an American artist of the highest order. The book selects from four previous collections, adding to this glance at twelve years'...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Edward Whitley (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Whitley, Edward. “‘A Long Missing Part of Itself’: Bringing Lucille Clifton's Generations into American Literature.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 47-64.

[In the following essay, Whitley compares Clifton's Generations to Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself” in the context of the American literary tradition.]

Poet Lucille Clifton recently said that her early writings form part of a movement that “brought to American literature a long missing part of itself” (Rowell 67). Her 1976 memoir, Generations, traces her genealogy back to the African matriarch first brought to America and shows the obstacles Clifton personally must overcome...

(The entire section is 6585 words.)

R. D. Pohl (review date 6 January 2002)

SOURCE: Pohl, R. D. “Words of Comfort from The Book of Light.Buffalo News (6 January 2002): E6.

[In the following excerpt, Pohl comments on the significance of Clifton's poetry in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and highlights Clifton's life and works.]

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, there are certain poets whose words resonate with particular significance.

Consider, for example, these stanzas from Buffalo native Lucille Clifton's “Report from the Angel of Eden,” a selection from her National Book Award winning collection Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems,...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Further Reading


Becker, Robin. “The Poetics of Engagement.” American Poetry Review 30, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 11-17.

Becker argues that Blessing the Boats demonstrates the development of Clifton's poetic style over the course of her career.

Kirby, David. Review of The Book of Light, by Lucille Clifton. New York Times Book Review (18 April 1993): 15-16.

Kirby discusses the themes of beauty and humanity in Clifton's poetry in The Book of Light.

Ostriker, Alicia. “‘Kith and Kin’: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton.” American Poetry Review 22, no. 6 (November-December...

(The entire section is 248 words.)