In my writing classes in college, one of the poets I often tried to imitate was Lucille Clifton. She had the wonderful ability to use as few words as possible to convey an idea beautifully and completely — by many definitions, that is exactly what poetry is, but so often length, rhyme, form, and complex wordplay clutter it up. Not in Clifton’s poetry. She wrote short lines, often adding up to just a few stanzas, using all lowercase letters and only necessary punctuation. Adjectives were used sparingly, and somehow metaphor was rarely necessary; these two loom so large in poetry in general, but after reading the few, perfect words Clifton chooses in each poem, you begin to wonder why we need them at all.
Clifton’s poems are funny, quietly poignant, intimate, inclusive. Reading poems like “blessing the boats,” you do actually feel a holy hand upon your forehead, the warmth of a sincere wish for safe passage across the unknown ocean of the future: “may you kiss/the wind then turn from it/certain that it will/love your back.” (And of course, this is the poem that is all metaphor, so okay.) Reading “here rests,” you delight in the picture of Clifton’s sister, who brought her pimp with her to read to her ailing father, getting her just reward after death: “may heaven be filled/with literate men/may they bed you/with respect.”
There’s no mistaking that Clifton grew up black in the Jim Crow era, that being a black woman informed much of what she wrote. Her eulogy for James Byrd Jr., lynched by white supremacists in 1998, echoes with the thousands of lynchings that came before and the fear of more to come: “why and why and why/should i call a white man brother?/who is the human in this place,/the thing that is dragged or the dragger?” Even “homage to my hips,” a joyous celebration of the particular curves of her body, doesn’t forget the wrongs done to bodies like hers for centuries in the United States: “these hips/are free hips./they don’t like to be held back./these hips have never been enslaved,/they go where they want to go/they do what they want to do.”
Clifton wrote about family, biblical characters, sensual encounters, the cancer she survived, the baby she had who didn’t. She often wrote about death and life and the shimmering, barely-there line between the two. She never wrote anything trite or superficial, but even her poems that grieve most openly about personal or historic tragedy are imbued with hope, a sense that there is always something in this world to celebrate — and to share with one another.