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.
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.
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.
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.