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Poem Sampler

A List of Lucille Clifton Favorites

Lucille Clifton's longtime book editor chooses six of her exemplary poems.

The editors at the Poetry Foundation asked me to select my favorite Lucille Clifton poems in honor of her receiving the 2007 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.”

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  • 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...

Poem Sampler

A List of Lucille Clifton Favorites

Lucille Clifton's longtime book editor chooses six of her exemplary poems.

Related

  • 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...

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