Versed in Life Poetry: Lucille Clifton weaves loss and pain with threads of joy, like a National Book Award nomination. Come what may, her heart is always in it.

November 06, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

In her poem "amazons," Lucille Clifton writes of warrior women, each with one remaining breast, dancing fiercely in a circle of shared loss and survival.

In "the lost baby poem," she speaks to an "almost body" dropped in the sewers rather than born in the winter "of the disconnected gas and no car."

And in the chilling "shapeshifter poems," an abused little girl thinks that if she can lie in bed

still enough

shut enough

hard enough

shapeshifter may not

walk tonight

the full moon may not

find him here

Intensely personal and frightfully honest, Lucille Clifton's poetry can be read as a resume of her life, one lived quite literally as an open book. Childhood sexual abuse, abortion, breast cancer -- it's all laid bare in Clifton's poems, a remarkable body of work that has garnered her a nomination for a National Book Award. Clifton, who lives in Columbia and teaches at St. Mary's College in southern Maryland, will learn tonight whether she has won the poetry award for her latest collection, "The Terrible Stories."

But to know the terrible stories of Clifton's life is different from knowing Clifton. It is, to paraphrase Yeats, like telling the poet from the poem. Or, as Clifton herself distinguishes, the difference between fact and truth.

"Poetry shouldn't be pretty, it should be beautiful. It doesn't have to be factual, but it should be true," she says. She has intoned that dictum so often, she laughs, that it was starting to seem meaningless. "Lately, though, I've been thinking, maybe that is true. Maybe I'm right about this."

Good poets are like modern-day sages who seem to know more or feel more or somehow lived more than the rest of us. At 60, Lucille Clifton is a veritable wise woman.

Clifton, though, doesn't make you climb the mountaintop for her wisdom. She's right down here with the rest of us, warm and wry, as comfortably cushioned as a grandma of five should be, a beloved professor whom students hug and call by her first name.

In class at St. Mary's, where she is distinguished professor of humanities and students compete to take her class, she is less Great Poet and more fellow attempter of poetry. When students take turns reading their work aloud, she exhales an empathetic "ohhhhhhhhh" when one young woman ends her poem with a cry of loneliness. When another finishes reading a poem that lustily sings the praises of one fine specimen of manhood, Clifton jokes, "Does he have a father? An older brother?"

To Clifton, a poem is something of a separate being, with a voice and a life of its own. "You have to wait for the poem sometimes," she sometimes counsels students struggling with particular verses. "Try to hear what the poem is trying to say, be, do."

"I don't know if you can teach writing," she says later in her tiny office, where just outside the window one of the school's resident peacocks is sunning himself. "I know it can be learned."

Clifton doesn't know when she became a poet; she suspects she was born one in Buffalo, N.Y. "For me, I think I was born with -- what? -- the urge to express and the ability to learn how to do it."

The daughter of working-class parents who never got past elementary school, she received a scholarship to attend Howard University. She left without graduating, although she became part of a black intellectual class that was emerging as a force in the 1950s and '60s. Through such friends as the writer Ishmael Reed, she was introduced to a philosophy professor named Fred Clifton. They married in 1958 and had four daughters and two sons in 6 1/2 years.

In between all the diapers and bottles, she wrote poetry, as she had since her teens. Her mother wrote poems as well, but burned them all when her husband wouldn't let her publish them. Clifton remembers it this way:

the coals

glisten like rubies

her hand is crying.

her hand is clutching

a sheaf of papers.

poems.

she gives them up.

they burn

jewels into jewels

Clifton had been writing for about 20 years before she was finally published, in 1969, when she was 33. It was one of those fortuitous things -- she had given poems to someone who gave them to someone who invited her to read them at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Someone from Random House was in the audience and approached her about submitting a manuscript. That became the first of her nine books of poetry. She's also published some 20 children's books.

Her work has won praise from both critics and colleagues, not to mention just regular readers.

"Lucille Clifton is warmwisewoman," poet Gwendolyn Brooks has raved. "It is necessary to close those three words into one! Her talent is inclusive. It is intuitive and conducted. In continues to be adventurous and unafraid."

She loves that her poetry has found its audience. And yet, like a tree falling in an empty forest, a poem that is never published makes its mark nonetheless, Clifton believes.

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