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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Lucille Clifton
(b. 1936)

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.

The 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.

The 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 spirit.

James A. Miller
George Washington University

In the Heath Anthology
The Thirty Eighth Year (1974)
in white america (1987)
at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989 (1991)
I Am Accused of Tending to the Past (1991)
Reply (1991)

Other Works
Good Times (1969)
Good News: About the Earth (1972)
An Ordinary Woman (1974)
Generations (1976)
Two-Headed Woman (1980)
Good Woman: Poems and A Memoir 1969-1980 (1987)
Next: New Poems (1987)
Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 (1991)

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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.

Secondary Sources