Unsparing Truths: On Lucille Clifton
Rowell comes to this position honestly as he tries to account for the sudden development of a large number of literary African-American poets “shortly after the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the decline of the Black Power Movement.” In his view, it was access to undergraduate and graduate creative-writing instruction, which has tended not to be offered at historically black colleges and universities, that caused the sharp increase in the number of African-American poets publishing. He credits the Black Power movement with reshaping university curriculums and faculties to provide aspiring writers with somewhat less Eurocentric courses of study and mentors, promoting the healing of a divided African-American consciousness, and leading a generation of writers out of the old struggles. No wonder he sees the university as a balm for literature, and that he prefers to ignore the possibility that writers who make a home in academia risk writing academic verse—publishing in quantities sufficient to make tenure, and publishing within an acceptable range of feeling or affect. He may be wagering that, as appears to have been the case with Clifton, tenure will do what it’s supposed to do: free the scholar to write exactly what is on her mind.
Rowell repeats that his is a collection of literary poets, but in his insistence on differentiating respectable work from performance, he sets aside the pejorative meaning of “literary”—work that is safely based on earlier models, that maintains the status quo, and that ultimately becomes so impoverished of reference to lived existence that you have to go to school to find out what it’s talking about. Relatedly, Rowell’s anxiety about work composed for performance is so severe that the words “rap,” “hip-hop” and “slam” appear nowhere in his preface and introduction. He describes the intensifying interest among young poets in writing from the interior of the self as analogous to music, but his points for comparison are no younger than Thelonious Monk, who died in 1982, at age 64. It’s not only time that Rowell would reset: in his vision of a sui generis literary African-American worldview, he creates a salon separatism that will confuse readers aware of the long conversations (and lulls in those conversations) between black and white writers. For example, he cites Harryette Mullen’s observation that critics have placed upper and lower boundaries of music and oral culture on African-American poets, without identifying the source of this remark as Louis Zukofsky’s “Lower limit speech/ Upper limit music,” by which Zukofsky meant that poetry can mean neither everything nor nothing. The problem Mullen identifies has specific ramifications vis-à-vis stereotypes and contemporary culture for African-American poets, but it is also a problem for poets, period.
All of which obscures the fact that for much of its length, Angles of Ascent is, in addition to being ideal syllabus-assignment bait, an excellent anthology, a page-turner. Rowell chooses as his central figures Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa, including the latter’s masterpiece on visiting the Vietnam War Memorial, “Facing It”:
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
Any anthology that gives pride of place to this poem deserves to be taken seriously. I was surprised to see which of the youngest poets Rowell chose to place bets on. Some choices are obvious. Gregory Pardlo’s “Double Dutch” is a phenomenal act of description: “Airborne a moment/ long enough to fit a second thought in,/ she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish/ as she flutter-floats into motion/ like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos/ thumbed alive.” And it would have been odd not to include recent Pulitzer Prize–winner Tracy K. Smith, whose selection features one of the anthology’s few poems explicitly discussing popular music: “When Zappa Crashes My Family Reunion.” But many of the poems in the final section are mostly preoccupied with sounding like poetry. Lines like “invisible behind the tree’s night shadow” or “And then the taking and the losing” or “Each piece locks up to the next, making sense only in his own mind” are typical of the risks of writing about interiority. Sometimes a writer gets so far inside herself that it’s hard to hear what she’s trying to say.
Clifton thought often about that problem, but her forays into both the interior and the public world always return to the problems of communicating some conflict and the feeling it brings:
whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
is there under that poem always
an other poem?
She sought that other poem not only to make sense of her life in her own mind, and not only to equivocate between taking and losing, but also to see what is at stake and then reach for it with all her strength:
when something difficult loves you,
how it is
when you begin to love it back,
how this can
cost you everything.