Clifton was determined to find pleasure in all the things in life we may not appreciate
I first heard about Lucille Clifton at a poetry reading run by Dead [Women] Poets Society, where local female poets are asked to resurrect the work of one dead woman poet in a kind of literary seance. The writer who they had asked to perform that night was the very much still living Sheffield local Warda Yassin (if you don’t know who she is, check her out – she’s brilliant). The dead poet she chose to resurrect was Lucille Clifton, and Warda perfectly carried off the self-aware, self-assured tone that Clifton’s poetry both inspires and deserves.
Born in 1936, Clifton grew up in Buffalo, New York, publishing her first book of poetry Good Times in 1969 at the age of 33. At this point she was already mother to her six children, and the breadth of her life experience can be felt in the knowingness that presides over all of her poetry.
In particular, the narrator of her poem wishes for sons embodies the kind of voice that could only belong to a woman who has lived through, and learned to laugh at, the experiences she describes within the poem.
Its first verse begins with a declaration:
i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.
Having expected from the poem’s title a serious, heart-felt, and sentimental contemplation of her relationship with her sons, these first few lines slapped a wide-eyed grin directly onto my face. Clifton was funny.
i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.
Pointing to a fear universally recognised (by 51% of the world’s population that is), her tenacious humour over the subject, wishing these experiences upon her sons so that they too can recognise their horror, can do little else but inspire joy in any woman reader.
There is nothing bitter or resentful about Clifton’s tone. She deals with difficult issues and topics, addressing injustice particularly in relation to race and her experiences as an African American woman, and though her poems contain a powerful sense of anger and indignation at social injustice, she never loses hold of her humour.
Within her 1987 poem homage to my hips Clifton reclaims autonomy over herself and her body through the power that she gives to her hips as a symbol of black femininity belonging to those past and present.
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.
The personification of Clifton’s own hips brings together the beauty, sexuality, and power that they embody throughout the poem, and she holds them up as an emblem to be carried through history, refusing enslavement.
This reinstatement of her own power as a black woman is a theme which runs throughout her poetry, and her grappling with dynamics of hierarchy recurs in many different forms. In a later poem won’t you celebrate with me Clifton asks the question:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
In asking this question she highlights not only the deficit of black role models for people of her generation and beyond, but more than this, she gives power to her own sense of identity and the strength of her selfhood, which she has had no help in constructing. And the power of Clifton’s individual identity is something that could never be denied.
The final lines of the poem...
with me that everyday
Something has tried to kill me
And has failed.
...give voice to her unrelenting conviction in herself and her capability as a black woman, pledging love and empowerment to the virtues of black femininity that have endured within a world that does not claim them as its own.
And this is precisely Lucille Clifton’s magic; she seeks, and is determined to find, the joy and pleasure in all the things we may look at and see nothing but the negative. In wishes for sons Clifton contemplates the cycle of fertility and the trials it may put a woman’s body through, but as a mother cruelly imagining how she would make her own sons suffer in her place if she could. homage to my hips sees her pridefully refuse the enslavement of her own black body, one which in her eyes is sensual, powerful, commanding. In won’t you celebrate with me she turns the melancholy reality that each day the world is against her, into a celebration of her survival in the face of adversity. Lucille Clifton’s laughter makes her strong, because within suffering she finds joy, and in place of humility she feels great pride. To her, womanhood is wonderful, and there could be much to learn from looking at the world through Lucille Clifton’s eyes. I’m sure she would agree.