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.
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.
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.
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.