Lucille Clifton Biography

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles, daughter of Samuel L. Sayles and Thelma Moore Sayles, in Depew, New York, and grew up with two half sisters and a brother. Her father worked for the New York steel mills. Her mother was a launderer, homemaker, and aspiring poet but once had to burn all her poems because her husband told her, “Ain’t no wife of mine going to be no poetry writer.”

Ironically, both parents encouraged Clifton to be anything she wanted to be. She was named for her great-grandmother, who, according to her father, was the first black woman to be legally hanged in the state of Virginia. The first in her family to finish high school or consider attending college, Clifton entered college at Howard University at the age of sixteen, having earned a full scholarship. After majoring in drama and attending for two years, Clifton lost her scholarship. She told her father,I don’t need that stuff. I’m going to write poems. I can do what I want to do! I’m from Dahomey women!

After transferring to Fredonia State Teachers College in 1955, Clifton worked as an actor and began her writing career. While at Fredonia, she met novelist Ishmael Reed at a writers’ group, and he showed some of her poems to Langston Hughes, who was the first to publish Clifton’s writing.

In 1958, she married Fred James Clifton. They had four daughters, Sidney, Fredrica, Gillian, and Alexia, and two sons, Channing and Graham. In 1969, poet Robert Hayden entered her poems into competition for the Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center Discovery Award. Clifton won the award and with it the publication of her first volume of poems, Good Times, which was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times. Prior to 1971, when she became poet-in-residence at the historically black Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland, Clifton had worked in state and federal government positions. She remained at Coppin until 1974. From 1979 through 1982, she was poet laureate of the state of Maryland. From 1982 to 1983, she was a visiting writer at Columbia University School of the Arts and at George Washington University. Subsequently, she taught literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and later at St. Mary’s College. In addition to appearing in more than one hundred anthologies of poetry, her poems have come to popular attention through her numerous television appearances.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Lucille Clifton’s parents had little education but were avid readers, and she grew to love books. Her father’s stories steeped her in ancestral heritage, going back to Mammy Caroline, who was born in 1822 in Dahomey, Africa, seized as a child, and enslaved in the United States for much of her life. Caroline and other family members appear in Generations: A Memoir and in many of Clifton’s poems.

Clifton’s mother wrote and recited poetry. At age ten, Clifton became interested in writing, having learned from her mother that it is a means of self-expression. Being a writer never occurred to Clifton; she simply wrote. The first in her family to attend college, she had intellectual black friends, studied drama, and performed in plays—developing her voice and lyricism, and, in her writing, experimenting with sparse punctuation. In 1958, she married Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor. Continuing to write, Clifton did not attempt to have any poems published until her work was solicited. This happened when she was thirty-three, happily married, and with six children under the age of ten.

By then, Clifton had a wealth of education, experiences, and a growing family from which to draw for her writing. Her first published book of poetry, Good Times , focuses on difficulties in urban life. The book also celebrates strength and celebration in the face of adversity. In Clifton’s second volume, she turns away from “white ways” to affirm “the Black.” She celebrated her religious heritage and joined many...

(The entire section is 1,769 words.)