Lucille Clifton

Start Free Trial

How does Clifton use symbolism and imagery in "There Is a Girl Inside"?

Quick answer:

The imagery in "There Is a Girl Inside" is used to express the poet's sense of a "younger self" and to suggest that this female rejuvenating energy can transform the world.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Lucille Clifton’s poem “There is a Girl Inside” is rich with figurative language that symbolizes how the speaker’s youthful spirit lives on in her aging body.

Some powerful symbols in this poem include the wolf and the tree. The speaker compares the younger girl inside of her to a...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

wolf, which suggests that she still has the energy and the wild desires of an animal. This comparison shows that the speaker still has a zest for life and wants to engage in the active activities of youth.

The speaker also compares this inner self to a tree in a forest. This line holds a great deal of meaning. A tree is a strong structure, and this image immediately prompts the reader to envision a tree standing tall and upright, with roots planted firmly in the ground. Clifton specified that it is a “green tree,” which also symbolizes that this inner self is filled with life. She also mentions that this tree is one in “a forest of kindling,” which means that its wood will one day be burned for fuel. This symbolizes how the speaker still feels full of fiery passion.

Another beautiful image in this poem is in the last stanza. Now that the speaker has established that she still has passion and energy, she explains that this will make her lovers “harvest / honey and thyme.” Honey and thyme together make an aromatic, soothing, and nutrient-dense combination. This line thus symbolizes how in continuing to pursue love despite aging, the speaker is engaging in a healthy and satisfying way of life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One way to understand the poem is as the expression of an older woman who feels that her younger self is contained inside her. Youth is described as something wild and free. The imagery is pretty clear about this: the girl inside is "randy as a wolf," and, like a wolf, she will not abandon "these bones" to an "old woman," presumably her older self. In this case, the "bones" can be understood as symbolic of the life force. Later, she "is a green tree in a forest of kindling," or a young, growing thing surrounded by dead trees ready to burst into flame at any moment. Or, a "green girl in a used poet."

There is another sense in which we can read the poem as a more general commentary on the nature of life and aging. In this sense, the "girl inside" is a kind of spirit of female renewal or creativity that is at large in the world. Here, the operative image is that of breaking "into blossom" through the "gray hairs"—the body "blossoms," is transformed into something new and beautiful that will drive the woods "wild / with the damn wonder of it." The open-endedness of these images suggests the connection between the poet/old woman, her younger self, and nature. The procreative female energy that causes the "blossom," in other words, will come to permeate nature, and, perhaps, rejuvenate the world.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Imagery is when the poet uses language meant to convey sensory information; so it can be visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), tactile (touch), gustatory (taste), or olfactory (smell). The image of "a green tree in a forest of kindling" is a very clear visual image, as is the image of the speaker "break[ing] through gray hairs / into blossom."

The "girl inside" is actually a metaphor for the way the speaker, presumably a woman of advanced years, feels inside: she does not feel like an old woman on the inside. We can identify it as a metaphor and not a symbol, proper, because the speaker does not literally have a girl inside her (and a symbol must work both literally and figuratively).  Instead, she feels like a young woman, a woman who is "randy as a wolf," which is a simile used to convey the continuation of the speaker's sexual desire. She is a "green tree in a forest of kindling," which is a metaphor used to show the way her youthful insides seem to be surrounded by her aged exterior. Another simile in the quote "she has waited patient as a nun" is used to convey the speaker's faithful expectation that she will, someday, become or at least be recognized as young again. Also, the contrast between calling the girl "randy" but then comparing her to a nun is strange and unsettling, which leads up to the final image of "lovers . . . harvest[ing] / honey and thyme," presumably from this metaphorical tree. However, the words seem sexual here again, too, as if the woods will go wild as a result of the wonder that this older woman still has such passion to be "harvest[ed]," which is another metaphor.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Imagery is the use of words to create a mental picture--which Lucille Clifton was very good at doing.

This poem is about growing old in body but not in spirit. Clifton says there is a young girl inside her who "will not walk away/ and leave these bones/ to an old woman." She will not let the condition of her body make her mind and spirit old.

Clifton uses the image of a green tree in a "forest of kindling," meaning dried-out wood ready for burning, to symbolize the young spirit, the "green girl," inside her.

She uses the image of a nun waiting patiently for the second coming to symbolize her patience in waiting for that day, presumably after death, when she will have the new body promised to believers (I realize I'm reading a lot into this). She returns to the image of the green tree to symbolize that new, young body.

She turns from religious imagery to recall the metaphor of being "randy as a wolf" (meaning she's in "heat") from the first stanza. The wild growth of the woods after her lovers have "harvested" her "honey and thyme" symbolizes the sexual potency and fertility of her new body. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial