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Lucille Clifton’s poetry is a gift. There is no question in my mind about this. Yet when I think of Lucille Clifton, I realize that I think of the two occasions when I had the chance to listen to her talk to a group of gifted black poets about poetry. The curious thing for me was that her talk reminded of someone who in many ways is as far away from Lucille Clifton as any writer I could think of. I remembered James Dickey. Not the Dickey of legend who has given anyone who has met him a colorful array of stories to tell and tell again. Not the heavy drinking Dickey, the arrogant Dickey nor the Dickey whose office was in the same building I worked in but who, despite my efforts, did not really think it a convenient or useful thing to meet me. There is the Dickey whose poetry at times stuns me with its technical force and its wonderful musicality and deep intelligence, but this is not the Dickey I was reminded of. I was reminded of the Dickey whose wavering voice I heard on a recording done not long before his death. On the recording he was talking about the poet as priest. He was speaking of the vocation of the poet and how important the poet is in human experience. Yes, you knew that this elevation of the poet was not unrelated to Dickey’s penchant for expressing his self-importance at any opportunity. If Plato could elevate the status and value of the philosopher by dumping all over the poet, then why could Dickey do the very same for the poet? But there was a lot that was not self-serving about his articulation. He spoke of the vocation of poetry, its place in human intelligence and its indispensable place in any civilized society. Any poet listening would find some comfort, some assurance in the idea, He was an old man, cynical about many things, and in a position to be cynical about poetry, but his faith in the art had not waned, had not be jaundiced by a world that seemed less interested in the heroism of the poet. I found something like inspiration in his words; and I was reminded that it was possible to draw truths from some of the most unlikely places.
With Lucille Clifton, I expected to be inspired, to be moved, and I expected to connect with what she had to say. But she was not pandering to anyone. She told her stories of survival, her stories of writing poems as a mother of many, turning to the shorter poem to match the kind of time and attention she had while raising children. She talked about the voices that speak to her, the mystery of how poetry reaches her and embraces her and how she is sometimes outside of the poem, feeling a greater sense of responsibility to the source of the poem than to herself as poet. It was like sitting in a room and being told the secrets of an artist—secrets that I felt I needed to cover in my heart and keep there. She told the story of her success as a Jeopardy champion in the sixties, and watching her smile, and even laugh at the telling, I could tell that she was proud of the accomplishment and amused at the impact that such a story would have on the people listening to her. She also spoke of friendships with people who would go on to be as famous as her, about her years at Howard, about the importance of remaining rooted in her community and in her art. When she read her poems, she would explain them with a wit that danced around the whole room, and yet you could tell the power of her inner strength and defiance. Her poems come at you as statements—simple and yet profoundly complex in their language play and clarity of thought. Above all, she, like Dickey, spoke of the act of writing poetry as a vocation, as a priestly act, as a mystery and as a necessary ritual for her.
At the end of the day it is her laughter—a low giggle that could sharpen into a gleeful shriek—continues to define her for me. But anchoring that laughter is a very unequivocal sense of what she does, why she does it and its importance. She knows what she is doing as a poet, and she knows how funny it is when she is underestimated by people who like to underestimate others; she also knows the value of her successes, the publishers who have accepted her work, and the awards that she has won. Yet as I left the room, I thought about the voices she could hear guiding her, telling her what to write. These voices were not voices, really, but people—people she could name, people she was very familiar with, and people who she related to with amazement, awe and a sense of comfort. If I think hard enough I could even say exactly who she said the voice often belonged to. But this is not the point. The point for me was thinking of her working through the pressure of the voice to put down what was said in a true way, and yet managing the ego of the poet at the same time. I thought it a beautiful metaphor for the poet even though I know that for her this was no metaphor.
Lucille Clifton has won the Ruth Lily Prize—another jackpot for a woman who deserves all the accolades. But I rejoice because Clifton reminds me always of why writing poetry is important and why it is good to believe this. She has taken many blows to her body through sickness and to her heart through the deaths of so many of those close to her, and yet she has managed to remain resilient, engaged and wonderfully ebullient through it all. Her poetry is a gift to us; that is the good news. But for me, that audience I had with her, and the opportunity to watch her embody the poet’s art, will remain with me for a really long time.
On another note, how could they vote Melinda off?