Lucille Clifton: “won't you celebrate with me”
The making of a poem is a lot like the making of a self: it requires awareness, understanding, and a willingness to consider how we’re shaped by our cultural context, our influences, and our language. A poem about the making of a self, like Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” gives us an even closer opportunity to consider these concerns—and the ways in which a poem, and a self, can be cobbled together.
“won’t you celebrate with me” begins with a question that seems part invitation, part plea:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
Her tone is almost timid and apologetic. Rather than ask us as readers to celebrate “the life” she’s made, the speaker asks us to celebrate “a kind of life” she’s shaped. That small qualification (“a kind”) suggests the differences the speaker sees between the lives of others and her own emerging self-consciousness, and offers a glimpse into the poem’s real concern: the process of developing self-awareness.
While she claims to have “no model” for the self she’s constructed, the poem draws on several sources to explore its themes of identity, race, and gender. One of these sources, the biblical Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon,” presents an illuminating parallel to Clifton’s poem.
A hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jews exiled by the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the psalm’s tone echoes Clifton’s own disbelief and indignation:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
Unlike the ancient Israelites exiled to Babylon, Clifton’s speaker was “born in babylon,” with no memory of a homeland:
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
For Clifton, to be “born in Babylon” is emblematic of the legacy of exile and difference she’s inherited. In the 1960s, when this poem was written, the struggles of the civil rights movement awakened a new sense of self-awareness for African Americans, generations of whom had experienced both an historical exile from Africa and a metaphorical exile from the so-called American Dream.
As an African American poet born in Depew, New York, in 1936, Clifton would have been keenly aware of these resonances, having experienced segregation and racism firsthand. The anger and humiliation she may have felt comes across in the way the speaker positions herself in relation to the world, as she offers reasons for her faltering sense of identity. She defines herself as both “nonwhite” (as opposed to the more affirmative term “black”) and a “woman,” which is to say identified by her gender, not character. Race and gender both become points of difference—and defiance—in the poem.
Another model for Clifton’s self-portrayal here comes from Walt Whitman, whose “Song of Myself” offers a quintessential portrait of American self-determination and individualism. Like Whitman, who proclaims, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume,” Clifton adopts a confident and declarative first-person stance:
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
Unlike Whitman, whose long lines allow him to stretch out and envision himself as part of the larger universe (declaiming “every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air”), Clifton sees her universe as contracting, not expanding. She’s almost earthbound, compressed “between / starshine and clay,” while becoming smaller (like her shortened lines), even down to the level of syntax. Clifton’s consistent use of the lowercase (a stylistic signature of all her poems) helps convey this sense of smallness. Without capital letters of any kind, it’s immediately clear that Clifton’s words and ideas aren’t bound by conventional rules. Her lowercase “i” is especially representative of a self-image whose confidence and independence are challenged. When she writes, “i made it up,” she’s speaking about her identity and her approach to writing.
Seen here, the poem’s first image (“this bridge between / starshine and clay”) also marks the beginning of a turn in the poem’s progression of ideas, not unlike the turn in a sonnet (another one of Clifton’s unspoken models). Like a sonnet, Clifton’s 14 lines move from rhetoric to image, argument to resolution. Her free-verse interpretation of the form, though, speaks back to the tradition and its studied history, by deviating from its norms. Clifton’s “between / starshine and clay,” for example, revises a line from Keats’s sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” in which he locates himself “Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay.”
As the speaker gathers strength from her experience and greater confidence in her ability to stand alone, Clifton’s language becomes more vivid, inventive, and lovely. Clifton’s spiritual (“starshine”) and worldly (clay”) understanding is now, literally, in her own hands:
my one hand holding tight
my other hand;
(Here, Clifton nods again to Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” riffing off a passage in which Whitman calls attention to his self-reliance: “I went myself first to the headland, my own hands carried me / there.”) Clifton, literally and metaphorically here, takes her life into her own hands.
The use of the semicolon (“my other hand;”) at this point in the poem arrests the flow of ideas and shifts the focus back to the reader, this time not with a question but with an imperative:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
This variation on the poem’s opening changes the tone of the celebration. Unlike Psalm 137, whose darkly ironic ending is bittersweet (“O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, / happy is he who repays you / for what you have done to us— // he who seizes your infants / and dashes them against the rocks.”), Clifton’s poem presents the speaker’s survival in the face of mortal danger as a triumph to be celebrated.
What was at first a tentative request (“won’t you celebrate with me”) is now an assertive demand. Knowing that “everyday / something” has tried to kill the speaker and failed, we have a new insight into the source of her pride, and also a guide to a particular process of self-understanding.
Robin Ekiss is the author of the poetry collection The Mansion of Happiness (2009), which won the Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize and was a finalist for the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Northern California Book Award, and the Commonwealth Club’s California Book Award. A resident of San Francisco, she received a 2007 Rona...