Monday, April 16, 2012

Lucille Clifton: Poetry and Truth

Following threads, breadcrumbs, or seeds can get you into trouble or take you somewhere you've never been. In this case, a treasure hunt with a pleasant surprise at the end. National Poetry Month inspired me to buy Poem in Your Pocket for Young Poets published in conjunction with the Academy of American Poets, and I found a poem that tugged at my heart by Lucille Clifton. The poem also happens to be one of the quotes embedded in the sidewalk on Library Way in front of the New York Public Library.
why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering

How often we are faced with other people longing for us to agree with them, feeling they know best, when our own hearts say otherwise. Clifton's other poems share that approach; she looks on knowingly, with a wink, or in surprise while people act in ways that make no sense to her, be it casually bulldozing trees or being afraid of differences. In an untitled poem that begins, "still," she writes about the scissors man sharpening in the "white folks' section" and later in the poem, "and our edges / and our points / sharpening good as anybody's".

The subjects aren't always easy, but she handles them with humor and heart, as well as with an edge. The contrast of funny/human/edgy pulls us in: we believe her. In an article in The New Yorker she is quoted as saying, "truth and facts are two different things." Truth lives: truth speaks. We can feel that truth in our faces and shoulders when we laugh and cringe. A quote from Clifton in the same article made me cry; she described her eventual afterlife as a "pissed-off Negro in heaven": "when I get to where I'm going I want the death / of my children explained to me."

Her voice is strong on the page and strong in the air. Listen to her read.


You can also find "why some people…" in her book Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000.  Other poems that moved me: "Blessing the Boats," "Sorrow Song," and "Sleeping Beauty." This book won a National Book Award for Poetry in 2000.

In her earlier collection, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980, the poems are short, she rarely uses capital letters, and she uses her own spellings when she needs to. She writes about connections between people; being African-American; being a woman; being born with twelve fingers; being proud and present in her body (listen to her read "homage to my hips"); her complicated relationship with a father who sexually abused her; spirituality; dreams; and forging her own way. There are poems that connect contemporary life with history, and poems that climb inside historical, literary, and biblical characters to talk about modern life. This was one of two books that were nominated for a Pulitzer prize in 1987 (the other was Next: New Poems). She won many fellowships and awards, including an Emmy for her writing contribution to the televised version of Free to Be You and Me.

Lucille Clifton died from cancer on February 13, 2010. She was 73. Four of her six children survive her. 

You can read an interview with Lucille Clifton here. In it, she says, "I don't say No to poems." By saying Yes to what comes to her and by embracing all subject matter and any forms, Lucille Clifton says Yes to truth and to life.

photos for this post were taken by the Wanderer at New Califorkian

1 comment:

Patricia Anne McGoldrick said...

Alison, thank you so much for sharing this topic of such a great poet along with the video link. I only discovered her voice when she died in 2010 as she was a great inspiration to one of my poet friends. Now I know why!