Poet Lucille Clifton: 'Everything Is Connected'
As a girl growing up in the 1940s on Lake Erie, Lucille Clifton never thought she would become a poet.
"The only poets I ever saw were the portraits that hung on the walls in elementary school in Buffalo, N.Y.," she said in 1993. "Old, dead white men, with beards, from New England."
Clifton did not look like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or John Greenleaf Whittier or Walt Whitman. She was a woman and an African-American, and later, a wife and a mother of six children.
But Clifton did become a poet — and after a long, successful career, she died on Feb. 13 at age 73 from complications from cancer.
Clifton cared deeply about American history and her own personal history. To her, they were connected.
"One thing poetry teaches us, if anything, is that everything is connected," Clifton said. "There is so much history that we have not validated."
According to Elizabeth Alexander, a poet who teaches at Yale University, Clifton was a brave poet.
"There are some poets who are interested in writing at the edge, and face-to-face with death," she said. "And Clifton is the bravest in that regard."
In her poems, Clifton reexamined the history of the United States. She bravely tackled tough subjects: injustice, racism, sexism and the apocalyptic.
"She said, 'With my poetry, I hope to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,'" Alexander said.
Just after Sept. 11, Clifton spoke with NPR's Susan Stamberg: "After the event, people turned to poetry," Clifton remarked. "They realized instinctively that there is something here that helps us with our insides."
Clifton could have — and often did have — a remarkably light touch, a penchant for humor.
Pulitzer Prize-wining poet Rita Dove, who teaches at the University of Virginia, said that Clifton's poetry was evocative, open to interpretation.
"She could state something very simply and still have a slightly ironic context to it, or subtext to it, that some people would get and some wouldn't," Dove said. "It was just a little wink."
In print, Clifton's poems look distinctive, with limited punctuation and few capital letters.
That spare style added to her work's powerful intimacy, says poet Kevin Young, who teaches in the English department at Emory University, in Atlanta. He helped the university purchase Clifton's papers.
"There is a kind of quietude in that lowercase, but also a boldness of speech," Young said. "She's just talking to you, but she's also sort of singing at the same time."
According to Dove, writing with the kind of concision Clifton mastered is challenging.
"It is so much more difficult to write simply than it is to write in a complex manner," Dove said. "What she did, to pare it down to the essential and still have it sing, that is hard."
Over the course of her long career, Clifton received Pulitzer Prize nominations and a National Book Award. In 2007, she received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, one of the highest honors in American letters.
According to Alexander, Clifton lived with serious illness for decades.
"Her life in her body was not comfortable," Alexander said.
Clifton leaves behind a long legacy. She published more than 30 books and influenced countless poets, including Young, Dove and Alexander, through her writing and teaching, at the Cave Canem poetry retreat and St. Mary's College of Maryland.
"She inspired not just respect and admiration, but very, very, very deep love," Alexander said. "I miss her profoundly."
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