Lucille Clifton, one-time poet laureate of Md., dies at 73

February 14, 2010|By Nick Madigan | nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Former state poet laureate Lucille Clifton, a National Book Award winner whose work was lauded for its "moral quality," died Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital after a long battle with cancer and other illnesses. She was 73.

With a mix of profundity, earthiness and humor - amply evident in her 11 books of poetry - Ms. Clifton often defied conventional notions of poetic expression, but in many ways her themes were traditional, Wallace R. Peppers wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

"She writes of her family because she is greatly interested in making sense of their lives and relationships; she writes of adversity and success in the ghetto community; and she writes of her role as a poet," according to Mr. Peppers.

Ms. Clifton, a resident of Columbia, was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and was honored on many other occasions during her career. She was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Maryland and Towson University. She was the poet-in-residence at Coppin State College between 1971 and 1974.

She was the second woman and the first African American to serve as poet laureate of Maryland, a position she held from 1979 to 1985.

She was also the first black woman to win the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize award, in 2007, among the most prestigious awards that can be won by an American poet. It included a $100,000 stipend.

In 2001, Ms. Clifton won the National Book Award for "Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000."

A biography on the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Web site says that Thelma Lucille Sayles was born in 1936 in Depew, N.Y., a small town outside Buffalo. Her mother, a poet, encouraged her creativity, and she began to compose stories and poems as a child. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and, in 1953, she won a scholarship to Howard University, where she majored in drama. She left Howard after two years after deciding that she would rather write poetry, according to the Web site.

Ms. Clifton had been ill for some time with an infection, her sister, Elaine Philip, told The Buffalo News on Saturday. She had undergone surgery to remove her colon on Friday, but the exact cause of death remains undetermined.

The poet and her husband, Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor at the University at Buffalo, moved to Baltimore in the 1960s and had six children. Her husband died in 1984.

Besides her 11 poetry collections, Ms. Clifton published 20 children's books, and her poems have appeared in more than 100 anthologies, according to her biography.

Besides her sister, Ms. Clifton is survived by her three daughters, a son and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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