Lucille Clifton

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What literary devices are used in Lucille Clifton's "It Was a Dream"?

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The poem is about a speaker’s desire to be somebody else. The speaker describes her daily life in the first stanza, and then describes the better life she would have if only she could be “somebody different”. In the third stanza, she describes this new self which is like a whirlwind. She also tells us that she wants “to fly like a witch on a windy night” and that she longs to do this because it is such an amazing feeling to feel like you can do anything as long as you are “somebody different”.

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In this poem, Clifton pits a powerful (greater) dream self against her everyday self. She emphasizes the weakness and smallness of the this everyday self by using a lower-case "i" to describe it. This literary device of having a word function visually in a poem is called a calligram.

Clifton uses imagery, or description using the five senses (i.e., sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch) to describe her greater self. This self has an "extra" finger that "whirls" in a "gyre"—or circle of rage. We can visualize that finger: a shaking finger is what we associate with a parent or a teacher, adding a sense of authority to the greater self. Clifton continues to employ imagery to describe the intimidating presence of this greater self: she twists "wild" hair, has "wild" eyes that spark, and she screams.

Anaphora, or using the first word repeatedly at the beginning of successive lines, comes into play with the "and"s that repeat three times in a row near the end of the poem.

Clifton uses alliteration in the repeated "w" sounds throughout the poem that replicate the blowing sound of wind and, hence, the sound of the greater self. Finally, by using the title as both title and first line, the body of the poem appears to begin "in media res," or in the middle of the action.

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The most prominent literary devices used in this poem are repetition and parallelism.  The three lines beginning with "and" all use a parallel verb structure:  "twisted," "sparked," and "screamed."  The effect of this vivid imagery is chilling.  Clifton's alter-ego, her "greater self," is dissatisfied with "what [her] days had come to."  Much like Dickens's restless spirits of past, present, and future, Clifton's dream-self comes to warn her of all the things she could have, and perhaps should have, done with the repetition of the haunting word "This" three times in the final line.  This word gets special recognition as the only word capitalized in the poem.  Even the pronoun "I" is not capitalized, further emphasizing this final word.  "This" is symbolic of so many opportunities that pass by in one's lifetime that, upon reflection, might have made all the difference.   As a successful black female poet in a time of racism and sexism in America, her regretful tone might be viewed as surprising and possibly even ironic.

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