by Sarah Browning
Poetic Ancestors: Volume 13:4, Fall 2012
When I was planning the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival, to take place March 2008 at the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, the first poet I invited to participate was Lucille Clifton. I had never met her. But her work had been so important to me, so crucial to my understanding of what it meant to be an American poet in the late 20th and early 21st century, that I knew I wanted her to be part of our gathering. We would be joining together, in our nations capital, to speak out against the dehumanizing power of militarism and fear that had gripped the land. The author of jasper, texas, 1998, I figured, knew something about dehumanization: who is the human in this place,/the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
Yes, Miss Lucille wrote me back. I would be happy to be part of such an important gathering.
The month before that first festival, she let us know that she was too ill to participate. We read her poems in her stead. We filled the auditorium with her spirit. We read her meditations on the body, on the enduring power of racism, on the violence exacted upon the body by these systems designed to keep us in line; these were her themes as a female poet, a Black female poet, a Black American female poet, an American poet, a poet.
Two years later we again invited her to feature at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, in March 2010. But on February 13, 2010, one month before the festival, she died suddenly of an infection, at the too-young age of 73. The world of literature is still paying tribute, still assessing the contributions she made to American poetry, to our understanding of ourselves as a nation, to our understanding of our history. In an interview she stated what has become a guiding axiom of Split This Rock (and here I paraphrase): I am not a subculture of anything. I am an American poet. This is what American poetry is.
Among other awards, Clifton won the National Book Award in 2000 for Blessing the Boats and was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for not just one, but an unprecedented two books: Good Woman, which combined poems and a memoir, and Next: New Poems. She won two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and one from the Academy of American Poets, a 1992 Shelley Memorial Award, the 1996 Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, and a 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She published 13 books of poems and 18 books for children. From 1979 to 1985, she served as Poet Laureate of Maryland, and from 1999 to 2005, she served on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets.
I was lucky to discover Lucille Cliftons book Quilting in a bookstore in Chicago in the early 90s. I was living in New England at the time and no one had introduced me to her work. I hadnt studied her poems in college. Picking up that book, I discovered a distinctive American voice. She called the names of those erased from the history books. She sang her own tune, but one that echoed the voices of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, her Black Arts Movement contemporaries. Often Cliftons poems are short. And yet they pack into themselves all of history. Heres one of my favorites, in its entirety:
spinning in their joy
keep them turning turning
black blurs against the window
of the world
for they are beautiful
and there is trouble coming
round and round and round
The story of the violence of America toward its Black men is all there, in eight lines, including the epigraph, or epithingy as Clifton called it. Spinning in their joy: we see the ecstasy of children as they fling their bodies through the world. And we know that as Black men, they will lose that sense of freedom, they will be conscious always of their skin, their male bodies, the risk to their beautiful bodies.
Thus in Cliftons poetry is politics written on the body: the sexual abuse of the child. The violence against Black people. Illness. And most often, our cultures ambivalence toward the female body, the fact of female desire, womens own complex regard for the architecture they walk through the world.
TO MY LAST PERIOD
well girl, goodbye,
after thirty-eight years.
thirty-eight years and you
splendid in your red dress
without trouble for me
now it is done,
and i feel just like
the grandmothers who,
after the hussy has gone,
sit holding her photograph
and sighing, wasn’t she
beautiful? wasn’t she beautiful?
In 1952, when Lucille Clifton was 16, she came to Washington DC, for the first time, to attend Howard University. She was the first of her family to attend college, she wrote in Generations: A Memoir, and it was her first time away from her family. She lasted two years. Being away from home, I didnt even know how to do it. I used to think I was going to starve to death. Nobody had any notion of what I needed or anything.
Later, when she lived in Maryland, teaching at St. Marys College and acting as Marylands Poet Laureate, she was a frequent visitor to Washington DCs literary world. E. Ethelbert Miller remembers that Clifton was the first poet with a major reputation to read in his Ascension Series, in 1974, a series dedicated, he later wrote, to restoring beauty to the world. She came down from Baltimore, Miller recalls, and didn’t even request an honorarium. I’ll always remember that. I think it might have been the first time she was invited to read poetry at the university she had once attended.
Clifton read at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her voice echoed in the halls of DCs schools and wherever our poets gathered. We paid tribute to her poetic vision and enormous heart at Split This Rock in 2010 and many of us wept. Whether we knew her personally as many did through her teaching at St. Marys, Squaw Valley, and Cave Canem or were deeply influenced as I was by the moral clarity, humor, despair and hard-won hopefulness of her verse, we claimed her as our own, this American poet.
Collected Poems, edited by Michael Glaser and Kevin Young, with a foreword by Toni Morrison, BOA Editions, 2012
Voices, BOA Editions, 2008
Mercy, BOA Editions, 2004
Blessing the Boats: New and Collected Poems 1988-2000, BOA Editions, 2000
The Terrible Stories, BOA Editions, 1996
The Book of Light, Copper Canyon Press, 1993
Quilting: Poems 1987-1990, BOA Editions, 1991
Ten Oxherding Pictures, Moving Parts Press, 1988
Next: New Poems, BOA Editions, 1987
Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980, BOA Editions, 1987
Two-Headed Woman, University of Massachusetts Press, 1980
An Ordinary Woman, Random House, 1974
Good News About the Earth, Random House, 1972
Good Times, Random House, 1969
Sarah Browning is the author of two books of poems: Killing Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017), and Whiskey in the Garden of Eden(The Word Works, 2007), and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology. Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation & Witness and an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. She is the recipient of fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, a Creative Communities Initiative grant, and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. Browning has been guest editor or co-edited special issues of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Delaware Poetry Review, and POETRY Magazine. To read more by this author: Sarah Browning: Summer 2004; Sarah Browning: Whitman Issue; Sarah Browning's Intro to The Wartime Issue, Spring 2006; Sarah Browning: DC Places Issue; Sarah Browning: Split This Rock Issue; Sarah Browning: Museum Issue; Sarah Browning on DC Poets Against the War: Literary Organizations Issue; Sarah Browning: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue; Sarah Browning: Floricanto Issue.
Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936 - February 13, 2010) is the recipient of a National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, a Coretta Scott King Award for children's literature, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Lannan Literary Award. She was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her fourteenth book of poems, published posthumously, is Collected Poems, edited by Michael Glaser and Kevin Young (Boa Editions, 2012).