Lucille Clifton Clifton, Lucille (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clifton, Lucille 1936–

Clifton, an American poet and writer for children, believes "the artist is supposed to tell the truth." She fulfills this commitment by celebrating her black heritage, the wellspring of her poems and of a family memoir called Generations. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)

Ramona Weeks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a slim volume entitled Good Times … a poet steeped in the black experience, Lucille Clifton, applauds the strength of the Negro woman that has preserved an instinct of pride and place among blacks uprooted out of Dahomey and transplanted into urban disruption.

Mrs. Clifton's poems about childhood seem airbrushed, retouched with bonuses of imaginative perception…. Mrs. Clifton is gifted with a sense of humanity, an instinct for consolation that overrides a cynicism. She needs now only to grasp other forms and subjects that do not smack of self-consciousness. (p. 295)

Ramona Weeks, "A Gathering of Poets," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1970, University of Utah), Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 295-301.∗

Ann Cathey Carver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lucille Clifton's Good Times poems communicate a microcosm of the black experience in America in all its complexity. And it is Miss Clifton's perfect control of the music/poetry of the spoken black language which gives her art a unique power and beauty.

Each brief poem is an individual black voice with its own cadence, pitch, and style communicating its experienced fragment of living black. Through transcribing with complete accuracy the rhythmic patterns, grammatical structures, and subtle tonal nuances of spoken Afro-Americanese, Miss Clifton makes a sensitive ear actually hear each voice. As the reader proceeds, the individual voices swell into the harmonious discord of the timeless black "survival motion set to music"—the collective black experience. (p. 272)

The distinguishing quality of her songs, which infuses all the poems, is a sense of the black woman-poet's strength—the deep, unshakable strength that emanates from her very being, from the wisdom of her blackness. It is the strength that touches her vision with a gentle humor born of true knowledge…. It is the strength that lends to her song an almost mystic or prophetic certainty of the ultimate victory of black humanism over white bestiality…. It is the strength that can live the black experience with tender compassion for those whom it destroys, unqualified joy for "the good times" it affords, and pity born of contempt for the self-destroying oppressor who "crying every which way" denies yet exploits it. Finally, it is the strength of the musician with perfect pitch who hears the music of her people's souls and reveals its beauty to them through her art. Her poetry flows back to capture the song of defiance her Dahomey grandmother sang as she "got old / in a desert country"—a slave but unenslaved…. Back and forth her blues/jubilee poems sweep until they crest in her triumphant admonitions to her boys and her girls, black men and women of the future: "children / when they ask you / why is your mama so funny / say / she is a poet / she don't have no sense." (pp. 272-73)

Ann Cathey Carver, "Black Music," in Prairie Schooner (reprinted from Prairie Schooner by permission of University of Nebraska Press; © 1971 by University of Nebraska Press), Vol. XLV, No. 3, Fall, 1971, pp. 272-73.

Norman Rosten

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Good News About the Earth is by a black poet, Lucille Clifton, whose urban world is a mini-Vietnam—a landscape of inner desolation. The book opens with a credo that sets the tone of a lyric poet confident of her own time and place. Referring to the Kent State tragedy: "… only to keep / his little fear / he kills his cities / and his trees / even his children oh / people / white ways are / the way of death / come into the / Black / and live."

I emphasize the word "lyric" in describing Ms. Clifton, for beneath her anger and the recounting of history is the saving (and soothing) grace of tenderness. love and hope spring like a scent from these pages. A simple religiosity abounds, not the cloying old-time religion or the frenetic Holy Rollerism. In "Palm Sunday," she moves from the divinity of a title to the image of man…. But lest the reader imagine it's all sweetness and light, she can flash the steel of conviction that goes straight to the bone….

This is a small book in terms of pages, but large in feeling and humanity. It's good to have such spirits as Lucille Clifton around. (p. 58)

Norman Rosten, "SR Reviews Books: 'Good News about Earth'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LV, No. 33, August 12, 1972, p. 58.

Angela Jackson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The poems in Good News About The Earth] makes a sister want to give witness…. [At] some or several points in the god/spell according to Sister Lucille any body must holler. This woman … this poet … knows Something Other. Something like a whole and crafted Blackself.

Each section of history (Heroes), today (Abt the Earth), and myth (Some Jesus) is as real and profound as the other.

"The Lost Baby Poem" is an unforgettable experience: a steel-drivin poem. (p. 77)

If I tried to describe in subtle or brazen magnificents how much this woman has affected me you probably would not believe. So do not believe. But read this book. Read this woman with reverence. She is no cheater. Lucille Clifton and Good News About The Earth will make you shake you head. Ain't nothing else to say. (pp. 77-8)

Angela Jackson, "Poetry: 'Good News about the Earth'" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1973 by the Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), in Black World, Vol. XXII, No. 4, February, 1973, pp. 77-8.

Ralph J. Mills, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Here [in Good News About the Earth] is Mrs. Clifton's deft, economical, poised lyricism moving with the directness of finely turned speech yet eschewing any sort of artificiality. Donald Hall has recently said that black poetry is "a poetry of reality", "of character, attending to qualities like courage, defiance and tenderness", and his words could find no better illustration than the work of Lucille Clifton. She focuses on the events of the day, the killings at Kent State, on black figures of prominence and tragedy;… and a desire for and evocation of her African heritage, in all its natural luxuriance, fills several poems. But Mrs. Clifton's poetic range goes beyond matters of black pride and tradition to embrace the entire world, human and non-human, in the deep affirmation she makes in the teeth of negative evidence. She is a master of her style, with its spare, elliptical, idiomatic, rhythmical speech, and of prophetic warning in the same language…. (p. 107)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., "Six Poets," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. 122, No. 2, May, 1973, pp. 105-10.∗

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Love," "grace," "mystery," "survive," "strong," "good" and "wise"—these almost ineffectual words blur too much of Lucille Clifton's new book with the endearing title "An Ordinary Woman"; but when this "ordinary woman" turns to Kali, who presides over the bloodier poems, the words rise and tug at their subjects…. Clifton's poems on herself and her mother are items from a continuing story of mothers and daughters that is only now just beginning to be told in verse (and may turn out to be as interesting as the old story of fathers and sons)…. Memories rise up of a conflict no less strong for being gently told…. More bluntly than other recent poets, Clifton puts into raw lines the peculiar body and feeling of daily female life, so inimical to ideology, "ideas," social "thought" and even the art of words:

                 the whole world of women
                 seems a landscape of
                 red blood and things
                 that need healing,
                 the fears all
                 fears of the flesh;
                 will it open
                 or close
                 will it scar or
                 keep bleeding
                 will it live
                 will it live
                 will it live and
                 will he murder it or
                 marry it.

These surgical alternatives, repelling embellishment, are yet undeniable. But they are hostile to the whole impulse of elaboration which is the launching of a work of art (however it may ultimately choose the spare and the plain). Will it live? Will he marry me? He loves me, he loves me not. Impaled on the basic, Clifton recalls for us those bare places we have all waited as "ordinary women," with no choices but yes or no, no art, no grace, no words, no reprieve. (pp. 5, 29)

Helen Vendler, "A Quarter of Poetry," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1975, pp. 4-5, 29-38.∗

Reynolds Price

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With "Generations" Lucille Clifton has] produced a short but eloquent eulogy of her parents. As with most elegists, her purpose is perpetuation and celebration, not judgment. There is no attempt to see either parent whole; no attempt at the recovery of history not witnessed by or told to the author. There is no sustained chronological narrative. Instead, clusters of brief anecdote gather round two poles, the deaths of father and mother….

First, her father…. His daughter's portrait is of a man who worked in a steel mill for 30 years, who took pride in an orally transmitted history of strong female ancestors, who spent his life strengthening female descendants of his own by leaning hard on two wives, several mistresses and daughters, and who is remembered by one of them at least not as callous and self-serving but as numinous with grace, generosity and power….

His second wife, Thelma, Mrs. Clifton's mother, was born in Georgia in 1914 and is shown here entirely as the servant-wife and sacrificial mother who is nonetheless happy…. (p. 7)

[The] form of this seemingly random collection of memories becomes apparent only at the end (a funeral oration), in a modification of the style and language of America's great orators, Negro preachers. The omissions of such a form leave me with considerable curiosity about the full lives of these heroes…. But for now [Lucille Clifton] has chosen a lyrical rapture, and the goodness of "Generations," its power to touch and move, is a function of her success as an instinctive and trained black orator. Its satisfactions, however—its power to hold and console—are functions of its large truth, made from half-truths. (p. 8)

Reynolds Price, "'Generations: A Memoir'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1976, pp. 7-8.

Carol Muske

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lucille Clifton, in her third collection of poems, An Ordinary Woman, plays on [a] collective sense of déjà vu, by using the power of everyday objects. She records the riddle of the ordinary with deliberate irony. In the first poem in the book, "In Salem," the "black witches know" that terror is not in weird phases of the moon or the witches' broom or the "wild clock face":

the terror is in the plain pink
at the window
and the hedges moral as fire
and the plain face of the white woman watching us
as she beats her ordinary bread.

This is an extraordinary "ordinary" poem, a...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Generations is more than an elegy or a personal memoir. It is an attempt on the part of one woman to retrieve, and lyrically to celebrate, her Afro-American heritage, Miss Clifton is one of the few for whom oral history has preserved a record of African descent. Her family traces its line back to the brave, unflinching "Mammy Ca'line … born among the Dahomey people in 1822." With controlled irony, she tells the tale of slavery as though it were part of a family album…. Through it all, the Dahomey women clutched to the roots of their ancestry. They kept their pride and their courage…. With Miss Clifton, we "witness and wait." And we celebrate the collective heroism of those who survived a century of bondage. (pp. 112-13)

"Notes on Current Books: 'Generations: A Memoir'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 112-13.