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Praising Her Voice

Maryland writers come together to read from and honor the late poet Lucille Clifton

Courtesy Pratt Library
Lucille Clifton

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/23/2010

Tribute to Lucille Clifton

Featuring local authors Cherrie Amour, Dennis Barnes, Melvin Brown, Linda Joy Burke, Virginia Crawford, Phoebe Stein Davis, Monalisa DeGross, Carla Du Pree, Clarinda Harriss, Daniel Imhoff, Rosemary Klein, Kamilah Aisha Moon, and Jadi Omowale

Enoch Pratt Free Library June 24 at 6:30 p.m. Visit prattlibrary.org for more details.

We will always have Lucille Clifton's poems on the page, those short columns of verse, all in lower case, all in the conversational language of the everyday. We will always be able to return to those pages and be surprised all over again at the way she could take that street-corner talk, that kitchen conversation, and pull it across the boundary into the realm of dreams and myths.

What we won't have, since she died February 13, is the sound of her voice. It was a big, warm alto, resonating in her broad frame and rising through her moon-round face framed in an unchanging afro and marked by a welcoming smile and a wary glance. Though she grew up around Buffalo, N.Y., and spent most of her adult life in Maryland, Clifton's voice still had the slow-drip gravy of her family's Virginia roots.

"Poetry doesn't just apply to the eye, it appeals to the ear," she told me in 2000. "There was poetry before there was type. If you listen to the poetry, you can hear the musicality of the language. You don't have to work at it that hard--you just have to let go of some things. We've gotten so caught up in print that we forget that poets were bards. A word is not just its definition. It has historical baggage, the way it's been used. It has sound and music--a lot of music."

In an effort to recover the sound of her voice, more than half a dozen Maryland writers read aloud from Clifton's poems, memoirs, and children's stories in a Tribute to Lucille Clifton at the Enoch Pratt Free Library June 24. One of those writers, Howard County's Linda Joy Burke, still credits Clifton for inspiring her own career as a poet.

"My first impression of Lucille, like most anyone you may speak with, was that she was like a mom or a great aunt, genuine, personable, funny," Burke says. "As we got to be friends over time, I came to know her grace under years and years of physical and emotional strains that many would have crumbled under. She taught me that when speaking truth it's best to distill the language to its purest form. Poems don't have to be pages and pages long to get to the center of the soul."

Grace Cavalieri, who taught with Clifton at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland for many years, still remembers her friend's poetry readings. "When she was reading at St. Mary's, she took over the college," Cavalieri says. "She was a benevolent, generous celebrity, but a celebrity and we were the audience. She had tremendous presence like an opera singer--she occupied a lot of space and you knew immediately this wasn't just any old space. I really miss her. I really don't like that I can't see her again."

You can hear Clifton reading the title poem from her very first book, 1969's Good Times, in the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society's 1991 video, The Writing Life: Lucille Clifton. Her afro had turned silver, but her voice still purred like a gospel singer's, rising from within her large purple blouse like a slow hymn from the choir loft.

my daddy has paid the rent
and the insurance man is gone
and the lights is back on
and my uncle brud has hit
for one dollar straight
and they is good times
good times
good times
my mama has made bread
and grampaw has come
and everybody is drunk
and dancing in the kitchen
and singing in the kitchen
oh these is good times
good times
good times
oh children think about the
good times

It's the final couplet--that injunction to youngsters to focus on the good times, because there will be plenty of bad--that lifts the poem beyond mere description of an inner-city scene. It's not easy to make what is left unsaid the center of a poem, but that's what made Clifton so special. She wrote about plenty of bad times--incest, lynching, cancer, poverty, celibacy--but even in those poems, what was left unspoken mattered as much as what was said.

"She was not afraid to confront illness, surgical mutilations, and death," says Clarinda Harriss, the Towson University poetry professor who also reads at the Pratt tribute. "Her 1996 book The Terrible Stories dealt with slavery in a way I had not read before--in a way most people hadn't. She took me into the hold of a ship and shackled me there. I felt it. Before I'd just 'known about it.' The sensuality and complexity of her language make her poems experiences, not mere words."

Clifton tried to capture her warm, lulling voice on the page by insisting that every poem be printed in lower case without punctuation, as if to invite the reader into the poem where they might discover its silent secret.

"What she's saying with this presentation is, I don't care if the academy doesn't think this is poetry--this is what I want to say and how I want to say it," Cavalieri argues. "She would purposefully take any archness down a notch. She very much identified with the average hairdresser or taxi driver. So she didn't want to have any form that might form a barrier."

Clifton started her poetry career as a Baltimore housewife, scribbling verse only after she'd put her six children to bed. Without academic credentials, she faced skepticism at every turn, but her need to be heard overcame every obstacle. She eventually published 11 books of poetry, 21 children's books, and a prose memoir. She served as Maryland's Poet Laureate from 1979-1985; she was nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and she won the National Book Award for her 2000 anthology, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, the best place to discover her work. She had finally joined the poetry establishment that had so often closed its door on her.

"I would like to write poetry that the most erudite person can feel and understand, but also cab drivers and whatever," she said in 2000. "The academy sometimes likes to believe that poetry is just for the elite, but now I'm in the academy and I don't. I believe poetry should appeal to all people."

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