All too often, as I’ve come to discover, it takes the death of a writer before I finally take a serious interest in his or her books.
Such was the case a few times in the past year or so. After hearing about the death of someone whose work I either knew in passing, such as John Updike, or had knowingly passed over, such as Jonathan Williams, I headed to the shelves, mine or the library’s, and began pulling out volumes.
Sadly it is the case again this week. Lucille Clifton, a prize-winning Maryland-based poet who held several high-profile positions, including the state’s Poet Laureateship, died on February 13 after a long battle with cancer.
However, unlike most of the authors I’ve discussed in this space, I had a personal connection to Clifton that outweighed my interest in her public output. In other words, though I am fairly uninformed about Clifton’s books and their contents, a near-encounter with her more than a decade ago left me feeling we were somehow linked.
In early 1995, Clifton chose me to participate in a literary event sponsored by HoCoPoLitSo, a highly respected arts organization in Columbia, Md. On a whim, and at the considerable urging of my mother-in-law, I had entered a poetry contest for which Clifton was the judge — and the prize. The group of winners, which included a dozen or more pretty well-known local writers (and me!), was invited to give a reading with Clifton in May of that year, in front of a large audience.
I was thrilled. It felt like a vote of confidence, a real Sally Field moment for my burgeoning career in the literary arts. Even though I had read very few of Clifton’s poems — in fact, I (ever so wrongly) confused hers with Maya Angelou’s — I knew who she was and sensed that she already had a place reserved in the poetry Pantheon. I couldn’t wait to stand next to her at the podium.
Unfortunately, I never got the chance. Although I participated in the reading and had a great time — and even befriended a few writers with whom I later helped form the Wineglass Court Poets workshop, which still meets regularly — I never read with Lucille Clifton. As it turns out, she had gotten a better offer for that day: to give a reading for the Academy of American Poets at The New School in New York.
(Ironically, as I found out later, through the Academy’s newsletter, Clifton’s reading buddy that day was Hayden Carruth, my former teacher, longtime mentor, correspondent, and friend! Here’s a picture of them together, presumably discussing the merits of my poems.)
Although none of us could blame Clifton for choosing to read at a hip New York venue, rather than an indifferent interfaith center in Columbia, I still felt a little cheated. I secretly hoped I’d have another opportunity to meet her and say thanks. But none materialized and, sadly, none ever will. Still, the news of Clifton’s death has afforded me the chance to remember that happy day in May, and it has given me an excuse to read, and reconsider, some of her poems.
Clifton published more than a dozen volumes of poetry in her lifetime, as well as a memoir and many books for children. What I picked up from the library, though, was Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, which seemed the most appropriate because it includes a selection of the poems she likely would have read at the HoCoPoLitSo event.
It’s a book I remember reading through when it was published in 2000, partly in honor of our “near miss” and because it won the National Book Award. But I didn’t remember much about its contents or my reaction to them until I opened it again last month.
What struck me immediately was how candid, emotionally raw, and confrontational many of her poems were. I had forgotten how inaccessible they had felt to me at the time, how alienating, because, though I tried, I just couldn’t relate to the subjects she celebrated (and, at times, railed against) — her working-class African-American heritage, her femininity and sexuality, her role as a wife and mother, etc.
With titles like, “poem to my uterus,” “poem in praise of menstruation,” “why some people be mad at me sometimes,” “slaveships,” and “my dream about being white,” these poems were almost too hard to read, let alone comprehend or enjoy, for a young man raised in a white, fairly affluent, privileged and protected world. Not that it should matter, but it did and, I’m afraid to admit, it kept me from delving much deeper.
But in rereading this book now, 10 years later, I have found a new appreciation for Clifton and her poems. Sure, I’m older and likely closer to the age she was when she wrote some of these poems. And I’ve also shared some of her storied experiences, namely aging and parenthood.
But, more to the point, what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not what she wrote about, but how she wrote it, that is most appealing. For one thing, she crafted her words in a spare, informal style, unadorned by traditional poetic trappings and often without punctuation or capitalization. And that honest simplicity is something I seek out in other writers (such as Li-Young Lee) and try to emulate in my own poems.
More important, what I see now is the fact that, in spite of her often combative tone, her poems couldn’t contain or conceal her humanity. In other words, in the face of even the harshest realities, Clifton maintains a warmth and kindness, and even a little humor, that disarms and delights. For example, among her “wishes for sons” are “cramps,” “a strange town / and the last tampon,” with “no 7-11” in sight. Most of all, she hopes (as only a mother could),
let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.
Here’s another example, from an untitled poem in her book Quilting, that I imagine was inspired by the many encounters she had, and readings she gave, with folks like my friend Carruth.
when i stand around among poets
i am embarrassed mostly,
their long white heads,
the great bulge in their pants,
i don’t know how to do
what i do in the way
that i do it. it happens
despite me and i pretend
to deserve it
but i don’t know how to do it,
only sometimes when
something is singing
i listen and so far
This is a sentiment that I think transcends its subject matter. Anyone who has accomplished a seemingly difficult task, one beyond all “certainties,” can understand and relate to this feeling of accidental triumph. Clifton’s gift, then, seems to be the ability to embrace her fears and harness them to solve the mysteries, large and small, she uncovers in life. And that’s a lesson that anyone — of any age, race, or upbringing — can learn.
I encourage you to get a copy of Blessing the Boats and read it all the way through. You may be surprised at what you learn and “hear.” As an incentive, I’ll leave you with the title poem from that collection. It seems like a fitting way to say thanks and farewell to a poet who, though I never met, nonetheless has become important to me — “despite me”:
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
As always, tell us what you think. Do you have memories of Lucille Clifton to share? Which poems or books of hers would you recommend to others? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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