may the tide / that is entering now /
. . . carry you out / beyond the face of fear . . . .
~ Lucille Clifton, from blessing the boats
February is National African American History Month in America, and every month is the best month to celebrate poetry. Today, I'm featuring the inspirational African American poet Lucille Clifton. Clifton, age 73, died Saturday, February 13, 2010, at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. She had cancer and other illnesses.
New York-born Lucille Clifton, winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Poetry, loved words all her life; her parents kept her and her siblings well-supplied with books and nurtured a deep appreciation for learning. Clifton took up poetry in the mid-1950s, while still a student, and began then to develop what became her signature style: free verse lyrics marked by use of allusion, repetition, minimal punctuation, puns, lowercase letters, and the most basic but evocative of words, a vernacular that celebrated her African American ancestry, history, and culture, as well as her own person.
In 1969, Clifton won the YW-YMHA Poetry Center Discovery Award for work that poet Robert Hayden submitted on her behalf; that led to publication of her first collection, Good Times, which in turn brought her critical acclaim. She enjoyed a long and prolific career, rewarding her readers with words that could jump off a page and often startle when heard aloud.
Clifton's 11 volumes of poetry include Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969 - 1980, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988 - 2000 (the National Book Award winner, the first for work by an African American), Quilting: Poems 1987- 1990, the terrible stories, Mercy, and Next: New Poems. She also was the author of picture verse books for children, juvenile fiction, and memoir. Her Two-Headed Woman was a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Maryland's Poet Laureate from 1979 to 1982, Clifton was awarded numerous fellowships, arts grants, honorary degrees, and other significant prizes, including the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
Clifton was distinguished professor of humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland, where she held the endowed Landers Chair until she retired in 2008.
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Poetry is meant to be read, and to be heard. When shared by the poet herself, you feel the words as you do not when you see them on the page. Listen now as Clifton reads her powerful and powerfully delivered "won't you celebrate with me" (from The Book of Light, Copper Canyon Press, 1993).
won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
A PBS profile of the poet, audio of Clifton reading a 9/11 poem, and resources on Clifton are found here.
A "Since You Asked. . . " video interview with Clifton, produced by WGBG, is here. I particularly like her statement that she wrote "with serious intent, which doesn't mean intending to be published; it means intending to try to do it well."
A broadside of Clifton's "aunt jemima" is here.
A Baltimore Sun obituary that appeared shortly after Clifton's death is here.
Go here for "Hand in the Water", a tribute from my friend Deborah at Slow Muse.