Wise Woman of Words

Lucille Clifton's truth in poetry has made her the first African-American woman awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

May 07, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

For Columbia poet Lucille Clifton, the act of naming - an object, a pet, a person - is an act of aggression almost akin to a declaration of war.

"There's a kind of arrogance in thinking that the name I give something is what it calls itself," she says.

"It's demeaning. Once we have given something a name, we expect it to be that thing. I don't know what the cow calls itself, nor what it calls me - nor, I suspect, would I want to."

It's unclear whether Clifton is referring to the cow jumping over the moon, the mad cow, the sacred cow or some other type of grass-muncher. Possibly, all three, and many more besides.

But that mix of profundity, earthiness and humor - evidenced not only in the above observation, but in her 11 books of poetry - has earned Clifton the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which will be announced today. It is among the most prestigious awards that can be won by an American poet and includes a $100,000 stipend, which will be presented to her during a ceremony in Chicago on May 23. Clifton is the first African-American woman to win the award since it was established in 1986.

Naming, she says, is just one of many activities that she does not understand and probes in her verse.

"I think that people are having kind of a nervous breakdown," Clifton says.

"Just read the newspaper. It's in the world, and it's in ourselves. Humans are intellect, but we're also intuition. Sometimes we overthink and forget who we are."

Nonetheless, adversity - whether political or personal - dims neither Clifton's zest nor her prolific output. In addition to her poetry, Clifton also has written a prose autobiography and 19 books for children.

Despite serious health problems - a kidney transplant and operations for two forms of cancer - the 70-year-old keeps an active teaching and writing schedule. In addition to her regular, weeklong stint each semester at St. Mary's College of Maryland, she also is scheduled to appear this fall at Stanford University and Bryn Mawr College. And those are just the commitments that she can remember off the top of her head.

"I am slowing down," she says. "This year, I have a week off between engagements."

The Lilly Prize is given annually by the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, the Holy Grail for versifiers. Previous winners include such literary luminaries as Adrienne Rich (who was born in Baltimore), Anthony Hecht, Maxine Kumin, Philip Levine and John Ashbery.

"It feels like a kind of validation," Clifton says.

"When I received the phone call telling me that I had won, I was very, very surprised. It never had occurred to me that I would win that award. Maybe I'm just tremendously humble. But I don't think so."

Clifton's verses fall on the ear with the transparency and inherent musicality of water tumbling over rocks.

"I like the short, distinctive music that the poems make," says Christian Wiman, Poetry's editor and one of the three judges who selected the winner.

"It's admirable how simple and clear the surfaces are. But when you study her best poems, they keep opening into depths of complexity."

In a prepared statement, the three judges also applauded the "moral quality" of Clifton's verse. "One always feels the looming humaneness around Lucille Clifton's poems," the statement says.

"Her poems are local and funny and have their own particular idiom; they speak big things in quiet ways."

Not that the Lilly Prize is the first time that Clifton, or her work, has been recognized.

She was born in New York in 1936 to a blue-collar family. Perhaps because neither of her parents had graduated from elementary school, it was a major coup when the teenage Lucille was admitted to college. She studied at both the old Fredonia State Teachers College (now State University of New York at Fredonia) and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

But the money for Clifton's education ran out, and she was forced to drop out before graduating.

A short time later, she married Fred Clifton, a writer, educator and artist.

Family and writing

Though Clifton was a new wife and mother, her compulsion to write was so strong that she kept crafting verses while giving birth to six children in 6 1/2 years.

1n 1969, Clifton's youngest child was born, and Clifton published her first book of poetry, Good Times - which was lauded by The New York Times.

She dexterously managed both halves of her life - family and writing - by developing a split mental consciousness.

"I write poems in my head while I'm thinking of something else," she says. "I can be working on a poem and talking to you at the same time. We all split our attention and think on more than one track at a time. We just don't admit it."

Clifton was Maryland's poet laureate from 1974 to 1985. In 1988, she became the first author to have two books of poetry chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the same year (Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir and Next) - though another writer, William Meredith, won.

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