Authors: Lucille Clifton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and novelist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Poetry:

Good Times, 1969

Good News About the Earth, 1972

An Ordinary Woman, 1974

Two-Headed Woman, 1980

Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980, 1987

Next: New Poems, 1987

Quilting: Poems, 1987-1990, 1991

The Book of Light, 1993

The Terrible Stories, 1996

Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000, 2000

Nonfiction:

Generations: A Memoir, 1976

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Black BC’s, 1970

Some of the Days of Everett Anderson, 1970

Everett Anderson’s Christmas Coming, 1971

All Us Come Cross the Water, 1973

The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, 1973

Everett Anderson’s Year, 1974

The Times They Used to Be, 1974

My Brother Fine with Me, 1975

Everett Anderson’s Friend, 1976

Three Wishes, 1976

Amifika, 1977

Everett Anderson’s 1-2-3, 1977

Everett Anderson’s Nine Month Long, 1978

The Lucky Stone, 1979

One of the Problems of Everett Anderson, 2001

Biography

Born Thelma Lucille Sayles to Thelma Moore Sayles and Samuel Sayles in 1936, Lucille Clifton was raised by her parents in Depew, a small town in upstate New York. The Sayles’s house was home to many relatives, and Lucille grew up in the midst of a large extended family. Living under the same roof as grandparents, aunts and uncles, two sisters, and her brother, Lucille learned early the value of family; throughout her literary career her family was the subject of many poems and her autobiography, Generations: A Memoir.{$I[AN]9810002022}{$I[A]Clifton, Lucille}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Clifton, Lucille}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Clifton, Lucille}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Clifton, Lucille}{$I[tim]1936;Clifton, Lucille}

While every family member was a source of inspiration for Clifton, none so stirred her creative impulse and imagination as did her great-grandmother Caroline Donald Sale. Mammy Ca’line, as Clifton refers to her, was born in Africa and brought to America as a slave. She escaped from slavery and obtained freedom while she was only a girl. Clifton revered Mammy Ca’line’s fortitude and paid homage to the woman and her accomplishments in several poems and in Generations: A Memoir.

Although the Sayles household was rich in love, the family was by no means affluent. Economic struggles and battles with the ghetto’s hostile environment were a part of daily life for Clifton. Despite these hardships, Clifton learned early, as Mari Evans notes, the lesson “that being very poor . . . had nothing to do with lovingness or familyness or character.” Clifton was able to transform her childhood, spent in a strong, loving family, into poetry. Drawing heavily on details from her early life, the poems in Clifton’s early collections, Good Times, Good News About the Earth, and An Ordinary Woman, convey the haunting sadness of ghetto life. These poems also honor those who have endured and triumphed despite adverse, even hostile, living conditions.

Clifton’s world, however, was not limited to the narrow sphere of the ghetto. In 1953 she became the first of her family to go away to college. She attended Howard University between 1953 and 1955, majoring in drama. She graduated from Fredonia State Teachers College in 1958. She married Fred J. Clifton in 1958, and by 1969 she was the mother of six children–four girls and two boys.

Being a wife and mother did not interfere with Clifton’s writing career; in fact, being responsible for a family may have actually been its impetus. In 1969, when all six of her children were still under the age of ten, she published her first volume of poetry, Good Times. Many of the poems found in this work deal with the problems of ghetto life–poverty, unemployment, substandard housing, and inadequate education. Throughout the volume Clifton laments these hardships, but she balances her despair with hope. Along with the trying circumstances of life, Clifton also records the joy found in this world. In later works Clifton continued to weave bits and pieces of her life into her poetry. In the poems in An Ordinary Woman she concentrates on exploring the different roles she plays in life as a writer, a wife, a mother, and a woman.

Motherhood directly influenced another facet of Clifton’s writing. Clifton’s literary range extended to children’s literature, and she published more than twenty books for young people. In these works she teaches self-reliance and self-acceptance. That she addresses the fears, joys, and pain of childhood without patronizing her audience suggests that Clifton not only tapped her experiences as a mother for literary material but relished them as well.

While domestic life, in addition to writing, absorbed much of Clifton’s energies, she also nurtured a professional life. She served as visiting writer at Columbia University and George Washington University and taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and Duke University. She was awarded National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1969, 1970, and 1972 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1980, 1987, and 1991. In 1998 she was inducted into the National Literature Hall of Fame for African American Writers. Clifton died on February 13, 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was 73.

BibliographyAnaporte-Easton, Jean. “Healing Our Wounds: The Direction of Difference in the Poetry of Lucille Clifton and Judith Johnson.” Mid-American Review 14, no. 2 (1994). This essay suggests that Clifton’s voice is distinctive because of her use of physical imagery, particularly of the body, in order to write a work that seeks to unite it with both mind and spirit.Bennett, Bruce. “Preservation Poets.” The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1992, pp. 22-23. Poet and critic Bennett discusses Clifton’s Quilting, noting that the first four sections are named after traditional quilting designs, yet the final section, “prayer,” consists of a single poem. He believes readers familiar with Clifton’s work will witness recurrent themes section by section: importance of history on the present and future, celebration of women, and life as a personal journey of spiritual growth and discovery.Cahill, Susan, ed. Writing Women’s Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by Twentieth Century American Women Writers. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. This collection of narratives, more than five hundred pages in length, provides extensive points of comparison as the careers of nearly fifty female writers are featured. The women included cut across cultures and span the century, but all are contemporaries of Clifton.Clifton, Lucille. “I’d Like Not to Be a Stranger in the World: A Conversation/Interview with Lucille Clifton.” Interview by Michael Glaser. The Antioch Review 58, no. 3 (2000): 310-328. In an extensive interview, Clifton discusses why she writes and explores the genesis of the topics about which she writes. She emphasizes the importance of family in her writing, particularly her heritage and the storytelling tradition, epitomized in her husband’s last words to her: “Tell my story.”Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. Devotes three substantial essays to Clifton and her work, including “Lucille Clifton,” written by Clifton herself. The other two selections are Audrey T. McCluskey’s “Tell the Good News: A View of the Works of Lucille Clifton” and Haki Madhubti’s “Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry.”Holladay, Hilary. “Black Names in White Space: Lucille Clifton’s South.” Southern Literary Journal 34, no. 2 (2002): 120-133. Looks at the representation of slavery in the African American experience in Clifton’s poetry.Holladay, Hilary. “‘I Am Not Grown Away from You’: Lucille Clifton’s Elegies for Her Mother.” CLA Journal 42, no. 4 (1999): 430-445. Examines the impact of her mother’s death on Clifton’s writing.Holladay, Hilary. Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. A study of Clifton’s work, including an interview with the poet.Jordan, Shirley, ed. Broken Silences: Interviews with Black and White Women Writers. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. 1993. In an interview format, Jordan and Clifton explore the differences in perception between black and white women and how that impacts how each approaches their writing. Focuses on Sonora Beautiful, one of the few works by a female African American writer told from the perspective of a white protagonist.Lupton, Mary Jane. Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. The first full-length biography of the poet. This in-depth exploration of Clifton’s life and work offers insight and analysis. Madhubuti, Haki. “Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984.Mullaney, Janet Palmer, ed. Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Woman Poets. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Includes an interview with Clifton.White, Mark Bernard. “Sharing the Living Light: Rhetorical, Poetic, and Social Identity in Lucille Clifton.” CLA Journal 40, no. 3 (1997): 288-305. An evaluation of Clifton’s presentation of her self-identity, especially focusing on the poems “An Ordinary Woman” and “Two-Headed Woman.”Whitley, Edward. “‘A Long Missing Part of Itself’: Bringing Lucille Clifton’s Generations into American Literature.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (2001): 47-64. An analysis of Clifton’s autobiography, showing how Clifton uses the memory of the dead to bring them into the present.
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