Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Celebrating something really worth celebrating, the poetry of Lucille Clifton . . .

Lucille Clifton died this past February at the age of 73. She lived a hard, challenging life that turned her into a remarkable poet. Her deceptively simple free verse delves into what it means to be a woman, a part of a family, a person of color, have a questioning mind and spirit. And, over and over again, what it's like to grieve.

Ms. Clifton won many awards, among them the 2000 National Book Award for Poetry.

"My Mama Moved Among the Days" 
My Mama moved among the days
like a dreamwalker in a field;
seemed like what she touched was here
seemed like what touched her couldn't hold,
she got us almost through the high grass
then seemed like she turned around and ran
right back in
right back on in

Tonight at 7:00 in Wilson Hall Auditorium, JMU's Furious Flower Poetry Center presents, 73 Poems for 73 Years: Celebrating the Life of Lucille Clifton in honor of this remarkable poetic voice.

I don't often use this blog to promote specific events, but I'm using it this time, because poetry so often gets a yawning bum rap as booooooring. And Lucille Clifton's poetry is so completely not that. Nor are the poets and people gathering to read it: Joanne Gabbin, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove among them.

Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton gleaned her poetry from difficulty -- although "difficulty" seems an inadequate word for what this woman went through. She was born Thelma Lucille Sayles in Depew, New York, in 1936. Her childhood was hardly a childhood as most of us understand that phase of life -- her mother had epilepsy; her father sexually molested her.

Even so, Ms. Clifton managed to win a full academic scholarship to Howard University. She lost the scholarship because of poor grades, however, and came home again. At age 22 she married Fred James Clifton, a philosophy student at the University of Buffalo, and they had six children in quick succession. Her mother died before the birth of Lucille’s first child. Ms. Clifton's husband died of cancer in 1984. A daughter died of the same disease in 2000; a son of heart failure four years later. 

Her first book of poetry was published in 1969, two years after Lucille and her family moved to Baltimore, Maryland.  Good Times was well received and  named one of the best books of that year by The New York Times.
"Oh antic God!"
by Lucille Clifton

oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties   
leaned across the front porch   
the huge pillow of her breasts   
pressing against the rail
summoning me in for bed.

I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.

I can barely recall her song
the scent of her hands
though her wild hair scratches my dreams   
at night.   return to me, oh Lord of then   
and now, my mother’s calling,
her young voice humming my name.

About tonight, as one of my old bosses, Lucinda Lally, used to say, "Ya'll come!" Let an evening of poetry rekindle your own slumbering intensity, your own connection to life outside the office or the carpool or all those endless meetings. Come on! Let 73 Poems for 73 Years: Celebrating the Life of Lucille Clifton wake up your soul!

(Many thanks to Kristi Lee for the information about Lucille Clifton's life)


  1. Thank you, Martha, for the reminder. I just returned from the celebration, which was wonderful. The rhythm of Lucille's poems is so compelling. And the readers were fantastic.

  2. Oh Eva, I'm so glad to hear this. It sounded like such a wonderful treat for the ear and the soul-- my, my don't I sound gushy???

  3. I book marked this story about Lucille. It's inspiring and her poetry excerpts are touching. I see why even God used poetry to move people. That poetry is recorded in the Bible and stretches through millenniums.

    Naaman Hills