James Miller: About Lucille Clifton

The themes and language of Clifton's poetry are shaped by her concern with family history and relationships, with community, with racial history, and, finally, with the possibilities of reconciliation and transcendence. In Good Times she uses direct, unadorned language to capture the rhythms and values of African-American working-class life in the city, or, in her words, "in the inner city / or / like we call it home." 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 (as she does in the "Some Jesus" sequence in Good News About the Earth, for example) 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. "My family tends to be a spiritual and even perhaps mystical one," Clifton has written. 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 tranquility, of grace, which speak to the continuity of the human spirit. As she writes in her recent poem "Moonchild," "only then did i know that to live / in the world all that i needed was / some small light and know that indeed / I would rise again and rise again to dance."

From The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Third Edition, Volume 2. Copyright ©1998 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Criticism Overview
Title James Miller: About Lucille Clifton Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author James Miller Criticism Target Lucille Clifton
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 Jun 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Third Edition, Vol. 2
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