Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)
MSA SC 3520-13587
Winner of the National Book Award and former poet laureate of Maryland, Lucille Clifton ranked among the most productive poets of her time. As a poet, a writer of children’s books, and a professor, Clifton strove to represent her experiences in sparse, evocative language. To create such work, Clifton spoke of poetry as a distinct entity: “Poetry is everywhere. . . I remain open to hear it. I remain available to poetry. It will come to me." 1
Lucille Sayles Clifton was born in 1936 in Depew, New York and began life in humble but literary surroundings. Her father, Samuel L. Sayles, was a steel mill worker who could read but could not write. In addition to raising a large family, her mother, Thelma Moore Sayles, worked as a launderer; however, she still found time to write her own poetry.2 Thelma’s poetry even caught the eye of a magazine editor who pressed her to publish. Yet, her husband would not allow it, and, in frustration, Thelma burned all her manuscripts. Lucille Clifton vividly remembered the incident: “It is one of the reasons I keep writing. . . I wish to persist because she did not.”3 Lucille was the first in her family to go to college; she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C. at the age of sixteen. There she met fellow writers and intellectuals including Sterling A. Brown, A. B. Spellman, and Toni Morrison.4 She began her studies as a drama major and appeared in the production “Amen Corner” written by a young James Baldwin.5
After two years at Howard, Clifton transferred to Fredonia State Teachers College in 1955. In California, she continued to pursue her love of the theater by working some as an actor. She also kept writing poetry. In a writer’s group, she met Ishmael Reed, who liked her worked and passed it on to Langston Hughes. Hughes debuted her poetry in his anthology, Poetry of the Negro.6 Like so many women writers, Clifton had to balance the demands of her family and her vocation. She married Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor, in 1958, and the two had six children. When her first book, Good Times, was published in 1969, her children were 7, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. She composed much of it in her head because there was no time to sit down at a typewriter.7 Fortunately, her methods worked; she continued to publish prolifically while juggling her career and family. In addition to her poetry, Clifton has written almost twenty children’s books, including a series centered around the young character, Everett Anderson.
Lucille Clifton continued to work and write after Fred Clifton was hired by the Job Corps center in Baltimore in 1967 and moved the family to Maryland. Thirteen years later, in 1979, Clifton was appointed to the post of Poet Laureate of Maryland by Governor Harry R. Hughes. She was the second woman and the first African American to hold the largely ceremonial post. Created by the General Assembly in 1959, the position has no official duties and offers only a $1000 annual stipend. She succeeded Vincent Burns, a colorful man who penned poems about the state bird and tried to become president of a state poetry society in an effort to use poetry to fight communism. Originally appointed for three years, Clifton held the post until 1985.8 While the office of the Governor envisioned Clifton writing poems for state occasions, Clifton had different ideas. In an interview, she responded: “You don’t go around asking poets to write verse on request. That’s not poetry – that’s greeting cards. You don’t write a poem for the governor or a new mall opening on assignment . . . Poetry doesn’t happen that way, it’s something beyond assignment."9 While Clifton did not compose poems for official purposes often, she did concede for the state’s 350th birthday.10
No critic has classified Clifton’s work as “greeting card” poetry. Instead, she is hailed for her hard, sparse vocabulary, inventive free verse and sly wit. Her early works are compared favorably with other Black Arts Movement poets like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Her later volumes center on issues close to women, such as childbirth and menstruation, and universal themes including family history and mortality. Critic James Miller sums up her body of work elegantly: “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 tranquility, of grace, which speak to the continuity of the human spirit.”11 Clifton’s ability to blend the mundane and the sublime keeps her work accessible to even casual readers and delightful to more jaded critics. An excellent example of Clifton’s ability to draw insight from prosaic materials occurs in her poem “wishes for sons”: “i wish them cramps. / i wish them a strange town / and the last tampon. / i wish them no 7-11.”12 While the poem opens with her signature wit, she ends the poem by blending that wit with a more thoughtful tone: “let them think they have accepted / arrogance in the universe, / then bring them to gynecologists / not unlike themselves.” Her final lines comment both on the difficulty of empathy and the complexity of gender dynamics.
In her later years, Clifton resided in Maryland, where she taught as a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City. Known as “an affectionate teacher,” she taught there for close to fifteen years.13 Along with honorary degrees from Fisk University, George Washington University, Trinity College and others, Clifton is the only writer to have had two books nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in one year (1987). She also received two grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and an Emmy for her contribution to the television show, “Free to Be . . . You and Me.” After being inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, Clifton’s highest honor came in 2000 when she won the National Book Award for her volume, Blessing the Boats. She was also committed to the arts in Maryland; Howard County honored her with an Artist of the Year Award for her contribution to the county’s public schools and her leadership at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Sadly, she also faced personal tragedy. Her husband passed away in 1984, a daughter died of brain cancer in 2000, and Clifton herself had serious health problems which resulted in the removal of a kidney and a mastectomy. Through her difficulties, Clifton continued to write, bringing a new richness and depth to work. Her most recent volume, Mercy (2004), addressed the themes of her life’s ambitions with style and grace.
Clifton continued to gain recognition for her work. In 2007, the Poetry Foundation awarded her the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious honors for American poets. She became the first African-American woman to the receive the award since its establishment in 1986.14 On February 28, 2008, Clifton was honored by Governor Martin O'Malley, Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, and the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland with the Maryland Living History Award.
Lucille Clifton passed away February 13, 2010, at the age of 73.
1. Qtd in Linton Weeks, “Poetry’s Persistent
Listener,” The Washington Post, 18 November 2000.
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2. Jocylen K. Moody. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997). return to text
3. Linton Weeks, “Poetry’s Persistent Listener,” The Washington Post, 18 November 2000. return to text
4. Moody. return to text
5. Weeks. return to text
6. English Department, University of Minnesota.
Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, September 18, 1998.
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7. Ibid. return to text
8. Maryland State Archives. Maryland Manual On-Line, “Maryland at a Glance: Literature,” March 19, 2004. http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/mdmanual/01glance/html/poet.html. return to text
9. Dennis Kneale, “A New Kind of Laureate,” The Washington Post, 9 August 1979; Timothy Phelps, “Lucille Clifton, Prominent Black Writer, Named to Curious Job of Poet Laureate,” The Baltimore Sun, 8 August 1979. return to text
10. Maryland State Archives. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS (Papenfuse Topic File Collection) Clifton, Lucille, 350th Anniversary Poem, MSA SC 1916-B29-F548. return to text
11. James Miller, “Lucille Clifton,” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Third Edition, Volume 2. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. return to text
12. Ibid. return to text
13. Steven Gray, “A Quiet Poet Gains the Spotlight,” The Washington Post, 23 November 2000. return to text
14. Mary Carole MCauley, "Wise Woman of Words," The Baltimore Sun, 7 May 2007. return to text
Biography written by 2004 summer intern Amy Hobbs.
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