Lucille Clifton (1936)
Contributing Editor: James A. Miller
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Clifton's poetry is generally very accessible, so accessible that careless readers may overlook the way she often achieves her poetic effects. Her poetry is best read aloud and students should be encouraged to read and hear her poems first, then to explore issues of language, form, and theme.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Clifton is deeply concerned with the ways in which the weight of racial memory and history extends into the present, with family and community history, and with the possibilities of transcendence and reconciliation. A deeply spiritual vein shapes much of her poetry, which conveys a sense of wonder and mystery as well as optimism and resilience.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Clifton's poems seem guided by the dictates of her own experience and consciousness rather than by any a priori sense of form or poetic conventions. Her primary commitment is to economical, everyday language, and to the rhythmic and musical qualities of the language that shapes her poems.
Clifton's first collection of poems, Good Times, was published during the heyday of the Black Arts Movement and her early work in particular owes important debts to the mood and outlook of that period, particularly in her celebration of the ordinary life of African-Americans.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Clifton can fruitfully be compared with other African-American women poets who emerged out of the same historical moment--Mari Evans, June Jordan, and Sonia Sanchez, for example--but she can also be read in conjunction with Amiri Baraka and Etheridge Knight. Her poems can also be compared with those of her predecessors like Langston Hughes, Sterling A. Brown, Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks. And intriguing relationships can also be established between her works and the poems of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Discuss the domestic images in "The Thirty Eighth Year" and "I Am Accused of Tending to the Past." How do images of nurturing function in these poems? What is the relationship of these images to the consciousness which shapes the poems?
2. Discuss the function of history in Clifton's poems. What, for example, is the poet seeking "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989"? Is there any relationship between this poem and "Reply"?
3. Discuss the relationship between "I" and "Them" in "in white america." Trace the development of the poem through the final stanza and comment upon the resolution the poem achieves.
Evans, Mari, ed., Black Women Writers 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, 1984, 137-161.
Harris, Trudier and Thadious Davis, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, 1985, 55-60.