| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Thelma Lucille Sayles Clifton was born in Depew, New
York, and educated at Fredonia State Teachers College, Fredonia, New York, and
at Howard University. Although she began writing at a young age, Clifton
devoted her early adult life to raising her family. In the midst of her life
with her husband, Fred, and six children under the age of ten, she published
her first collection of poetry, Good Times, in 1969. Since that time, she has
published eight additional collections of poetry, a memoir, a compilation of
her early work, and more than sixteen books for young readers—including the
popular Everett Anderson series. Presently Distinguished Professor of
Humanities at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, Clifton has taught at Coppin
State College, Goucher College, American University, and the University of
California at Santa Cruz, among other colleges and universities. Her awards and
distinctions include the University of Massachusetts Press Juniper Prize for
Poetry; two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships for creative writing; a
nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Two-Headed Woman and a second
Pulitzer Prize nomination for both Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969–1980 and
Next: New Poems; an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and
Sciences; Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland; and a 1996 Cannan Literary
Award for Poetry.
themes and language of Clifton’s poetry are shaped by her concern with family
history and relationships, with community, with racial history, and with the
possibilities of reconciliation and transcendence. In Good Times she uses
direct, unadorned language to capture the rhythms and values urban of African
American working-class life. Throughout this collection Clifton consciously
pits her spare, economical language against the pervasive and negative images
of black urban life, insistently reminding her readers of the humanity
concealed underneath social and economic statistics. Like Langston Hughes and
Gwendolyn Brooks, she sees virtue and dignity in the lives of ordinary African
Americans, giving them faces, names, and histories, and validating their
existence. In the face of the daily realities of urban life, Clifton records
both the adversity and the small triumphs, always maintaining a strong-willed
sense of optimism and spiritual resilience. One source of this equanimity, of
this poise in the face of adversity and tragedy, derives from Clifton’s strong
sense of rootedness in the legacy of her family history—particularly of her
great-great-grandmother Caroline, a woman kidnapped to America from Dahomey,
and Caroline’s daughter, Lucille, who bore the distinction of being the first
black woman lynched in Virginia. These two women in particular conjure up
images of survival and endurance on the one hand, and avenging spirits on the
other. By locating herself within this family history, Clifton not only lays
claim to an African past—a recurrent feature of many of her poems—she also
defines herself as a poet whose task is to keep historical memory alive. At the
same time that Clifton accepts the weight of this history, however, she refuses
to be trapped or defeated by it. Like a blues singer’s lyrics, Clifton’s poems
confront the chaos, disorder, and pain of human experience to transcend these
conditions and to reaffirm her humanity.
optimism that shapes Clifton’s poetry is nourished by her deep spiritual
beliefs. While she often invokes Christian motifs and biblical references in
her poems, she draws freely upon other values and beliefs as well. “The black
God, Kali / a woman God and terrible / with her skulls and breasts” often appears
in her poems, as do references to African goddesses like Yemoja, the Yoruba
water-deity, and to Native American beliefs. More specifically, Clifton’s
invocation of the “two-headed woman” of African American folk belief, with its
overtones of Hoodoo and conjure, makes plain her commitment to other ways of
knowing and understanding the world. Certainly the spiritual dimension of her
poetry has deepened since the death of her husband, Fred Clifton, in 1984.
Whether her poetry is exploring the biological changes within her own body or
imagining the death of the Sioux chief Crazy Horse, Lucille Clifton’s world is
both earthy and spiritual. In her capacity as both witness and seer, she looks
through the madness and sorrow of the world, locating moments of epiphany in
the mundane and ordinary. And her poetry invariably moves toward those moments
of calm and tranquillity, of grace, which speak to the continuity of the human
James A. Miller|
George Washington University
In the Heath Anthology
The Thirty Eighth Year
in white america
at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989
I Am Accused of Tending to the Past
Good News: About the Earth
An Ordinary Woman
Good Woman: Poems and A Memoir 1969-1980
Next: New Poems
Quilting: Poems 1987-1990
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A Quiet Poet Gains the Spotlight
An article/interview by Steven Gray for the Washington Post.
Lucille Clifton Page
Provides a biography, bibliography, and several poems.
Modern American Poetry
Provides a brief biography, criticism on a few of her poems, book jacket scans, and links.
The Academy of American Poetry
A biography, links, and four poems including an e-text and audio file of Homage to My Hips.
Voices from the Gaps
A biography, criticism, complete list of works, selected bibliography, and links.