Hesitant to call herself a poet in spite of wide literary acclaim, Lucille Clifton has noted that poetry is her heart. She has unassumingly identified herself as a black woman, a wife, and mother who “makes poems.” Her poems celebrate all of life—its daily realities, its mysteries, and, most significantly, its continuity. She has claimed that celebrating life is what she is about; her poems validate the claim.
Beginning with Good Times, Clifton has capitalized on what she knows best. Virtually all her poems fall into one or more of three broad areas of focus: family, African American experience, and female sensibility.
Clifton is a lyric poet whose work is unpretentious and has little rhyme. She continually achieves her goal of rendering big ideas in simple ways. Through short poems of simple language she relates brief portraits, encounters, or disturbances that are neatly presented in a few lines. Clifton seems more guided by consciousness or heart than form or structure. Her use of precise, evocative images is masterful, as evidenced in “miss rosie,” which describes the title character as “a wet brown bag of a woman.” In that poem, and many others, what Clifton does not say is part of the poem’s power. Always significant are her use of spaces, few capital letters, and vernacular. In “homage to my hair,” the poet changes from standard English to a black dialect with great effect; in “holy night,” Mary speaks in a Caribbean dialect. Clifton’s use of metaphor is frequent, compelling, and nowhere better than in “lucy and her girls,” relating the power of family ties to natural phenomena. The contrast and tension Clifton achieves through frequent juxtaposition of concepts, as in “inner city,” is laudatory. Many of her lines are memorable, as “my mouth is a cave of cries” in “chemotherapy.” Only occasionally didactic, sometimes humorous, typically subtle or understated, Clifton’s poetry has emotion, conviction, moral stance, Christian tenets, and hope. It has changed little through the years, except to sometimes reflect aging and all that that implies. Always, Clifton defines and affirms the African American experience, politically and aesthetically, with originality, voice, dignity, and pride. She has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.