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Clifton has been likened to Gwendolyn Brooks, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson in her style. Her poems are spare in form, deceptively simple in language, complex in ideas, and reflective of the commonplace, the everyday. As Evans remarks, her poetry reflects optimism, an emphasis on "the qualities which have allowed us to survive," and the belief that we have the ability to make things better. It is peopled with strong characters and historical and biblical figures. Her female characters represent known and unknown heroes who have taken responsibility and stands, and reflect the strength of the Dahomey woman who was the founder of Clifton's family in America. Her black males are strong, healthy, and treated with love and respect; this results from her positive male relationships and models, beginning with her father. . . .

Mari Evans observes that "the 'place' of her poetry and prose is essentially urban landscapes that are examples of most Black communities in this country." Her poetry "is often a conscious, quiet introduction to the real world of Black sensitivities."

Clifton's books for young people reflect the same themes, views, and landscapes as her poetry. Clifton addresses the fears, joys, and pain of children, reassures them, teaches them self-reliance, self-acceptance, and the assumption of responsibility for their actions. Her writing for children is honest and lacks condescension. Sharon Malinowski has written that these works "are designed to help them understand their world" and "facilitate an understanding of Black heritage specifically, which in turn fosters an important link with the past generally" (Black Writers, 1989). Her most sustained character is Everett Anderson, who always uses his entire name, is six or seven years old, and lives with his mother in an apartment in the city. These books include Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970), a book of nine poems; All Us Come Cross the Water (1973), which links Everett Anderson with his past; Everett Anderson's Year (1974), which celebrates one year in verse; Three Wishes (1976, 1992); Everett Anderson's 1-2-3 (1977), which details his mother's remarriage; The Lucky Stone (1979), stories; My Friend Jacob (1980), which describes a friendship with a retarded neighbor; Everett Anderson's Goodbye (1983), which details stages of grief after his father's death; Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming (1991), which are poems describing the five days before Christmas. Clifton celebrates life, emphasizes home, and remains positive.


From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.