Unsparing Truths: On Lucille Clifton
A complete feeling is often two feelings set at sharp angles to each other. In “wishes for sons,” Clifton’s dream of relating women’s experience to some of the men she loves best involves a series of empathy lessons that start out difficult and only require more patience: the first stanza’s “i wish them cramps./ i wish them a strange town/ and the last tampon./ i wish them no 7-11” is easy compared with the last stanza’s “let them think they have accepted/ arrogance in the universe,/ then bring them to gynecologists/ not unlike themselves.” It’s the opposite of glib, of jive. It is a sincere wish for men to understand how important it is to just listen, and be decent. To feel.
If it is not universally agreed that feeling is the proper object of poetry, the confessional poets may be to blame, with their confusion of great drama with the sharing of an emotion, and the presumption that their unique experiences entitle them to some special status and claim on the world’s attention. Clifton is aware of this problem. She does not elicit pity. There is no untoward claim on the reader, no blame, no guilt.
There are tensions in Clifton’s work: between pride in being a “Dahomey woman” and awareness that she can’t really know what that means; between marveling at having been born, like her mother and one of her daughters, with six fingers on each hand, and being baffled and outraged by the constant barrage of suffering she endured. Clifton draws on this material without twisting drama out of it—she returns to the scenes of trauma to grieve and make peace with her losses: molestation as a child at the hands of her father, the death of her mother at the age of 44, the deaths of two of her children around their fortieth birthdays, the death of her husband in his 40s, and multiple battles with cancer. (Clifton died in 2010, at 73.) What is so valuable is that she goes directly and not without anger and confusion into these life-and-death matters, allowing the reader to empathize, and share, in her recognition that survival is a triumph. What is even more valuable is that she recognizes that the reader too survives, as in “1994,” in which, confronted with a cancer diagnosis, she finds an adequate metaphor for her shock and pain (“thin icicles hanging off/ the one mad nipple weeping”) but closes saying: “you must know all about this/ from your own shivering life.”
Perhaps the central tension in Clifton’s work is between declaring her gift for emotional acuity and knowing that it was a matter of luck that the gift chose her. In “the message from The Ones (received in the late 70s),” a series from Mercy (2004), Clifton heads into the spiritualist territory associated with James Merrill’s Ouija-board poems or Jack Spicer’s poems coming to him by way of dictation from Martians. Voices from beyond give Clifton the news about poetry, hers and in general:
are not chosen
Yet the tongue is a means of language. I’m reminded in this twenty-three-poem sequence, by its form and spooky forthrightness, of the best work of another oblique heiress of William Carlos Williams, Alice Notley.
In most cases, I’m underwhelmed by the academic writing (poems on well-known subjects, reworkings of scenes from the common inheritance—the Bible, popular culture, great literature) produced by writers in demand. In Clifton’s case, she’s not coasting when she name-checks the stories of Naomi and Ruth, of Lois and Clark, of Leda and the Swan. She’s using sturdy vessels to write about having a life after having lost so many—and from that safety, to be as unsparing with the truth as she is in her explicitly autobiographical work. As her Lois asks someone who may or may not be Superman in disguise, “do you know how hard this is for me?/ do you know what you’re asking?” and “what have you ever traveled toward/ more than your own safety?”
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Clifton does not seem to have been overly concerned with where she was placed, correctly or not, in the history of twentieth-century American poetry. Some accounts identify her as a fellow traveler of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, noting that she was a classmate of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) at Howard University and published her first collection, Good Times (1969), during the movement’s heyday. But at Howard, she was also a friend of Roberta Flack and Toni Morrison (then Chloe Wofford). In any case, in her recurring investigations of her family and articulations of her own insights and struggles, she never presents herself as a joiner.
Her work is well represented in Charles Henry Rowell’s anthology of contemporary African-American poetry, Angles of Ascent. Rowell has chosen three of her less personal series, poems about Lazarus, Leda, and a sequence in which Clifton imagines what it would have been like to join a convent. Rowell, a professor at Texas A&M and editor of the outstanding journal Callaloo, has divided the anthology into two halves with three parts each. The first half, “Precursors,” begins with the modernist trio of Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, then segues to a group of twelve poets belonging to the Black Arts Movement and concludes with eighteen poets “outside” it. The second half, “Heirs,” presents three waves of poets who began to publish what Rowell counts as their significant work after the 1960s.
As with any anthology, Rowell’s omissions and inclusions will surprise deep readers and casual observers alike. The choice to leave the work of Langston Hughes unremarked in the introduction—let alone to omit it entirely—could give a reader pause. Two of the writers who are mentioned, Brenda Marie Osbey and Stephen Jonas, have no work here. And at least one poem that figures prominently in the introduction, Rita Dove’s response to the Black Arts Movement, “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, in a Dream,” isn’t included in the ten pages allotted to her work.
In Rowell’s defense, he has an argument to make. In his view, African-Americans have made progress in poetry by identifying impossible conflicting demands and then sidestepping them. His modernists, for example, escaped the trap of being expected to write in plantation dialect, a language no black person ever spoke. Their success, though, led to a new conflict between, on the one hand, the demands of white critics that they prove their seriousness by writing more like the proclaimed great poets of the day (T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), and on the other, the demands of black readers who needed the poets to make immediate headway against racism and injustice. All three of Rowell’s earliest precursors did in fact make headway: Hayden served as consultant to the Library of Congress, a position now referred to as “poet laureate”; Brooks was the first African-American woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; and Tolson was the subject of a Hollywood film forty years after his death. Of the three, Brooks might have sooner received a greater share of posthumous acclaim had she not cut herself off from the increasingly corporate book-distribution network by self-publishing her collected poems, keeping them out of the hands of both reviewers and bookshop browsers. That volume, Blacks (1987), should be on the shelf of any reader or writer of poetry, and should come down at least as often as the collections of Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams.
Early in the introduction to the anthology, Rowell, having discussed the poetics statements of several of the youngest contributors, marvels that “unlike their earlier predecessors…these new poets consider it important to give voice to their processes of writing.” This observation is true, and one that bears reflecting upon. If younger writers have taken an interest in process statements, it’s likely because they have taken an interest in the grants, writers’ colonies, graduate programs and academic teaching jobs that require this form of self-promotion in their applications. How else to understand why one such poet, an apparently serious person, would declare that he wants “to trace a set of aesthetic instances where my body touches language”? But for Rowell, as Amiri Baraka points out in his unfair but not inaccurate review of the anthology in the May issue of Poetry, the point of writing poetry does appear to be to ascend to a tenured position in academia.
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