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About this poet

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936. Her first book of poems, Good Times, was rated one of the best books of the year by the New York Times in 1969.

Clifton remained employed in state and federal government positions until 1971, when she became a writer in residence at Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she completed two collections: Good News About the Earth (Random House, 1972) and An Ordinary Woman (1974).

She is the author of  several other collections of poetry, including Voices (BOA Editions, 2008); Mercy (2004); Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 (2000), which won the National Book Award; The Terrible Stories (1995), which was nominated for the National Book Award; The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993); Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 (1991); and Next: New Poems (1987). 

Her collection Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (1987) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; Two-Headed Woman (1980), also a Pulitzer Prize nominee, was the recipient of the University of Massachusetts Press Juniper Prize. She has also written Generations: A Memoir (1976) and more than sixteen books for children, written expressly for an African-American audience.

Of her work, Rita Dove has written: "In contrast to much of the poetry being written today—intellectualized lyricism characterized by an application of inductive thought to unusual images—Lucille Clifton's poems are compact and self-sufficient...Her revelations then resemble the epiphanies of childhood and early adolescence, when one's lack of preconceptions about the self allowed for brilliant slippage into the metaphysical, a glimpse into an egoless, utterly thingful and serene world."

Her honors include an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a Lannan Literary Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shelley Memorial Award, the YM-YWHA Poetry Center Discovery Award, and the 2007 Ruth Lilly Prize.

In 1999, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She served as Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

After a long battle with cancer, Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010, at the age of 73.


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From the Image Archive

 

the lost baby poem

Lucille Clifton, 1936 - 2010
the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car       we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas        let black men call me stranger
always        for your never named sake

later i’ll say
i spent my life
loving a great man

later
my life will accuse me
of various treasons

not black enough
too black
eyes closed when they should have been open
eyes open when they should have been closed

will accuse me for unborn babies
and dead trees

later
when i defend again and again
with this love
my life will keep silent
listening to
my body breaking

Lucille Clifton, "the lost baby poem" from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted with permission of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936.

by this poet

poem
they thought the field was wasting
and so they gathered the marker rocks and stones and
piled them into a barn    they say that the rocks were shaped
some of them scratched with triangles and other forms    they
must have been trying to invent some new language they say
the rocks went to build that wall there
poem
hey music and
me
only white,
hair a flutter of
fall leaves
circling my perfect   
line of a nose,
no lips,
no behind, hey
white me
and i'm wearing
white history
but there’s no future   
in those clothes
so i take them off and   
wake up
dancing. 
poem
won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has