As National Poetry Month 2010 comes to a close, I think of this important voice that has gone from this life. Selfishly, indeed, I will miss her. I was originally going to post this in early February. Time got away from me and then poet, Lucille Clifton, passed away. That threw me for a bit. Now, as I’m getting back on track, I think it works to post this now.
For Lucille Clifton
birth: June 27, 1936 death: February 13, 2010
The poetry of Lucille Clifton influenced me greatly. Her wit and rhetoric, and rhythm in delivery are such that they keep me reading and returning to her work. This National Poetry Month, I think on her more often since there are no new words to come, since she is newly gone from us—from me.
Lucille Clifton embraced her gift for poetry, and fortunately we have it to relish, enjoy and learn from. Her poems are prayers, celebrations, indictments, remembrances, and observations. So much more and so moving. Her work embodies the life and times of an entire culture through the eyes of one who was born to see. And I am better for having read her accounts. As, her talent inspires me to strive to improve my skill for poetry.
I want to share with you one of my many favorites of her poems, from her award winning collection Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, © 2000. It has no capitalization, which is how Ms. Clifton writes them.
study the masters
by Lucille Clifton
like my aunt timmie.
it was her iron,
or one like hers,
that smoothed the sheets
the master poet slept on.
home or hotel, what matters is
he lay himself down on her handiwork
and dreamed. she dreamed too, words:
some cherokee, some masai and some
huge and particular as hope.
if you had heard her
chanting as she ironed
you would understand form and line
and discipline and order and
I first came across Blessing the Boats, thanks to my friend Kirk Byron Jones. I was so amazed by her writing and the way she was speaking to and teaching me, directly. I often write back to what I read—I believe that’s what margins are for. I am not a critic so much as I just like what I like. And when it moves me I’ll put it in the margin. In the margin of the above poem I wrote, WOW. That was all I dared write. Later, in the back of her book, I wrote:
After reading Lucille Clifton
I am awed and inspired
but first daunted. Before
inspiration to pick up my pen
takes over me,
the dauntingly simple profundity
And I am knocked speechless
from mouth and pen
to utter any word.
© 2003 Shari Lynne Smothers
Some years earlier, Bonnie Fastring gave me Clifton’s book Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980, © 1987, which I returned to with renewed interest. Since then I have read and loved several of her other collections too. Hers are verses I revisit in good and bad times, to be enthralled, consoled and inspired by her messages, and by her talent for weaving the words.
If you’ve never come across Lucille Clifton’s writing, I definitely recommend you get to know her poetry. If you like the poem above, do read more, and listen to her readings. Visit the links below to find out a bit more about the writer and her works. And always a good trip, visit your local library if you want to read more before buying a collection. Enjoy. And come tell me about it, if you get a chance.
Addendum: You can hear more from Lucille Clifton on YouTube. Here’s another I really like, “won’t you celebrate with me” from The Book of Light, © 1993.