Poem Sampler

A List of Lucille Clifton Favorites

Lucille Clifton's longtime editor chooses six exemplary poems.

by Thom Ward
A List of Lucille Clifton Favorites

The editors at the Poetry Foundation asked me to select my favorite Lucille Clifton poems in honor of her receiving the Ruth Lilly Prize. As her editor for many years, it was an almost impossible task. To guide me, I thought of what she often says about her work: “In my poems I try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

“homage to my hips” from Good Woman (1987)
When asked once at a reading why she writes about so many body parts, Lucille responded (as close as I can recall), “Well, I have, and we all have, so many interesting body parts, and it seems appropriate to give them their own moment in the spotlight, don’t you think?” And though Lucille has written gems about fingers, hair, feet, and her uterus—“my estrogen kitchen / my black bag of desire”—the following poem about a body part is, undoubtedly, the most popular among her readers.

“sorrow song” from Next: New Poems (1987)
Many of the poems in Next address the litany of atrocities that humans have inflicted on other humans. Without flinching, Lucille’s Next poems address the ongoing physical and psychological atrocities people are forced to endure. The following lament for the world's children is one of the great 20th-century poems of witness and empathy.

“wishes for sons” from quilting (1991)
Family has always been central to Lucille’s poetics. She renders the lives of
parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and her sons and daughters with language from the gut. No euphemisms allowed. They would only dilute the ambiguities and ambivalences we feel toward those we love, even during those times when they anger us. Sometimes the best “revenge” is art, as Lucille shows in this playfully dark—“you’ll get yours, oh yes you will”—poem to her sons.

“1994” from the terrible stories (1996)
Some of Lucille’s strongest poems are her first-person and dramatic monologue sequences. She has reenvisioned stories from the Old and New Testament (most notably those of the prophets, King David, and Adam and Eve), the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, and the Deep South. In my estimation, her book the terrible stories features her most memorable dramatic monologue sequence, that of a healthy middle-aged woman who suddenly confronts the devastating reality of breast cancer.

“jasper texas 1998” from Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988–2000 (2000)
This book features poems from four of Lucille’s previous collections. It begins with 19 new poems that demonstrate Lucille’s penetrating vision—her ability, as Wordsworth said, “to see into the life of things.” However, sometimes that seeing must look at a particular horrendous death and not flinch.

“here rests” from Mercy (2004)
This collection features the much-celebrated sequence “september song: a poem in seven days,” which is about September 11 and the six days that follow its terrorist attacks. Lucille’s empathy reminds us that a certain grace is possible even in the midst of devastation: “what is not lost / is paradise.” From this collection, I’m attracted to another poem of pathos, one where Lucille remembers her older sister, known for her talents in “the world’s oldest profession.”

Originally Published: May 7, 2007

COMMENTS (7)

On May 8, 2007 at 12:45pm Grace Cavalieri wrote:
What a wonderful and deserved award for Lucille Clifton who has been a spiritual leader in poetry for so long. And Thom Ward is the kind of publisher who can see that and make it manifest. It is a pleasure to read this page.

Grace Cavalieri

On May 9, 2007 at 4:24pm Tim Upperton wrote:
Really? I'm all for a way out of the cul-de-sac of postmodernist ironic statement, but is this it? Do the victims of the 20th century's atrocities deserve to be memorialised in the treacle of "sorrow song"? Such an exercise in unembarrassed sentiment isn't empathy - it's the failure of empathy.

On May 18, 2007 at 9:05am Jacqueline Miller Byrd wrote:
Thank you Poetry Foundation for sharing Lucille Clifton's works and poems with us...long before she received the greatly deserved Lilly Award.

As a Marylander, I am so pleased that our former Poet Laureate continues to share her words of insight and inspiration with us and the world.

Thank you Thom Ward for editing the great works she has brought to us. Today, as always when I read the words of Lucille, I am uplifted and inspired to pour myself into words.

This Poetry Foundation page of your favorites of Lucille's art made my morning...and I will be sharing this page tonight with the monthly meeting of the Greenbelt Writers Group...and tomorrow with the Black Literature Discussion Group, as part of my set-aside Literary Weekend.

The Poetry Foundation website...is so informative and enriching to my life. I only signed on this morning to sign up and order Poetry Magazine...because I love the words and wit of the Poetry Foundation information and insights into American poetry and literature so much. I am grateful to the Poetry Foundation for sharing poetic words and essays...but I get so much more.

Jacqueline Miller Byrd

On June 25, 2007 at 2:32pm LaVon Berthelot wrote:
I wrote a poem about the shortage of bees after reading the article in the Sunday-last Los Angeles Times by Mausch.

Would you be interested in the poem, that contains a solution to the problem of bees dying off. Please let me know and I shall be happy to forward it to you.

Thank You,

LaVon Berthelot

New Orleans, La.

On October 15, 2007 at 7:49am Johannah Harris wrote:
Hello,

My name is Johannah, but you may call me Hannah- if you'd like. I am a senior at Holliston High School and in the middle of taking my second creative writing class. It is required for myself, as well as the other students in my class to research a poet. I have chosen Lucille Clifton because her poetry is beautiful. I'd like to get in touch with her if you could help me. Thank you for your time.

On December 3, 2007 at 9:34am Sarah Harig wrote:
if you could help me get Lucille Cliftons e-mail address i would like that cause i'm doing a major project on her casue i love her poems and a referance coul be from the poet so I would like it if I could find it. Thanks for giving me your time.

On May 14, 2008 at 2:04pm Sherry wrote:
I've loved Ms. Clifton's poetry from the first.

Coming through a difficult time in my life - one of my own making - I just reread "there is a girl inside" with renewed appreciation.

Thank you, Ms. Clifton, for your beautiful and strong words. They remind and inspire me.

POST A COMMENT

Poetryfoundation.org welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.

Related

Biography

Thom Ward is a poet and educator. His full-length collections of poetry include Small Boat with Oars of Different Size (2000), Various Orbits (2004), and Etcetera's Mistress (2011). His chapbook, Tumblekid (2000), won the Devil's Millhopper Award in 1998. He has also published a collection of prose poems, The Matter of the Casket (2007). A former editor at BOA Editions, over his 15 years with the press he helped edit more than . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.