Clifton remains one of the most beguiling poets of our time. She is a writer who everyone both loves and admires. Many of us have a strong personal relationship with a Clifton poem, but it is rarely the same poem. This is in part because there are so many Cliftons: the nurturing Clifton, the angry Clifton, the maternal Clifton, the feminist Clifton, the post–Harlem Renaissance Clifton, the humorous Clifton, the political Clifton, the confessionalist Clifton, the experimental Clifton, the historical Clifton, the philosophical Clifton, the celebratory Clifton, the horrified Clifton, the optimistic Clifton, the accessible Clifton, and the inscrutable Clifton, just to name a few. Virtually no American poet can boast this astonishing range of style, voice, tenor, mood, ideology, and skill.
To its credit, How to Carry Water manages to do an excellent job representing the wide spectrum of Clifton’s poetics. Drawing from 17 different books and covering roughly 45 years, the volume includes most (but not all) of the poems you expect, like “poem to my uterus,” “i am accused of tending to the past,” “poem in praise of menstruation,” “brothers,” “jasper texas 1998,” “my dream about the second coming,” and “blessing the boats.” Missing are some classics like “homage to my hips,” “wishes for sons,” “the message of crazy horse,” and the astonishingly powerful “slaveships.” Their absence is inexplicable to me, but at least all are easily available on the internet.
Intentionally or not, these lacunae do a different kind of work in that they allow equally strong (but lesser known) poems to shine. With fewer poems competing for a reader’s attention, it is easier to see patterns emerge across Clifton’s oeuvre. For example, I was struck how often Clifton goes meta, even early in her career. Consider these titles: “We Do Not Know Very Much About Lucille’s Inner Life,” “why some people be mad at me sometimes,” “the poet is thirty two,” “the light that came to lucille clifton,” “when i stand around among poets,” “poem beginning in no and ending in yes,” and “surely I am able to write poems.” Clifton’s ability to see herself as a text, to create distance between the author and the poem, goes against the grain of the persona that emerges from her more canonical pieces. For example, I love the darkly comic and brutally self-aware “in white america,” which opens:
i come to read them poems,
a fancy trick i do
like juggling with balls of light.
i stand, a dark spinner,
in the grange hall,
in the library, in the
smaller conference room
Calling out the “smaller” conference room and referring to her life’s work as a “fancy trick” are sly but discreet digs. Clifton is telling us she knows how white America sees her — more magician than artist, more entertainer than author — in part because she is put in the little room with the crappy chairs. So much of her work is about context. The poem closes with an indelible image:
it is late
in white america.
in the light of the
looking out toward
and for a moment only
i feel the reverberation
in white america
One can’t help but think of W. E. B. Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness here. Though for Clifton there is a triple or quadruple consciousness. Caught between two different but representative structures, the church and the convenience store, Clifton is aware of her identity as a poet, a woman, and an African American in new light. She sees herself, as Wallace Stevens might say, “more truly and more strange.” Which institution, religion or capitalism, is more alienating?
The ease with which Clifton refers to herself in the third person made me think of Frank O’Hara, as does the easy, talky celerity of her poems. In fact, Clifton’s work has a great deal of overlap with many of the poets of the New York School, like Barbara Guest or James Schuyler (think of his “Freely Espousing”). Like theirs, Clifton’s poems are witty, conversational, and self-reflexive. They reference contemporary issues and feel utterly spontaneous. Yet, despite the formal and tonal similarities between many of Clifton’s poems and those of the New York poets, it is as though the deep barriers of race, gender, geography, and elitism have kept Clifton and her poems from illuminating theirs. Put another way, influence and intertext does not move in only one direction. Reading Schuyler or Kenneth Koch through a Cliftonian lens makes Koch and Schuyler far more compelling. Similarly, intertext can and should move across racial and gender lines — why can’t Clifton and O’Hara be in conversation with each other?
Interestingly, one could also point to many commonalities between much of Clifton’s work and that of another group of elite white poets: the confessionalists — and in particular Anne Sexton. Consider Sexton’s “In Celebration of My Uterus” and “Menstruation at Forty,” which are translated and updated by Clifton into “poem to my uterus” and “poem in praise of menstruation.” I prefer Clifton’s versions. They are more wry. There is less spectacle. She also takes a cue from Sexton (and H.D.) in terms of rewriting myths. If you do not know Clifton’s stunning leda poems, “leda 1,” “leda 2,” and “leda 3” (each angrier and more lyrically savage than the next), you are in for a truly transformative reading experience. Clifton’s incredibly personal and revealing poems about her husband’s death, sexual abuse, her failing body, the deaths of her children, her fantasies and insecurities, reminded me of M. L. Rosenthal’s remark about Robert Lowell’s poems in Life Studies (1959) being a “series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.” Of course, Clifton was not publishing her work in 1959, and Rosenthal’s notion of “shame” (thank god) feels antiquated. But Clifton’s willingness to unveil, to make herself vulnerable — from an already vulnerable position — is remarkable. When she writes in “shapeshifter poems,” “who is there to protect her / from the hands of the father / not the windows which see and / say nothing,” I am enraged. Heartbroken. Deeply saddened. She takes a form that in my mind had largely been used to mythologize the self, to capitalize the I, and somehow make it about all of us. Hers is a lowercase i. Her trauma is less about her suffering than her perseverance. Her vision. Her empathy.
My point is not that Clifton’s poems gain significance because they may share some traits with well-known poetic movements that are a) largely white and b) largely male, but rather that her work is so rich, so diverse, so expansive that her work and the work of other poets benefit from wider intertextuality. Or, to put a Bakhtinian spin on it — what if we think about Clifton’s poems in dialogic terms? There may be no American poet from the second half of the 20th century whose work — intentionally or not — enters into conversation with more writers in more revealing ways.
I have always felt that Clifton is too narrowly read. But, Clifton’s friend and editor Toni Morrison makes a compelling argument for expansion: “[B]eing a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.” I would like to make a case for her as a crossroads figure in contemporary American poetry; a poet so varied in subject matter, tone, and style that one finds in her work traces and auguries of past and future voices.
Clifton was born in 1936 at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance — one reason it seems fitting that Langston Hughes was the first to publish her. Clifton was 10 years younger than the legendary poets born in 1926 and ’27 — W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, James Wright, A. R. Ammons, and Galway Kinnell. So, she doesn’t feel like part of that group born during Modernism. But, neither is she really affiliated with the major group of the next generation of contemporary American poets like Louise Glück, Yusef Komunyakaa, Michael Palmer, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Sharon Olds, Ai, C. D. Wright, and Billy Collins, who were all born in the 1940s and who earned elite MFAs and PhDs. To me, she bridges those two wings of recent American poetry better than her contemporaries, who included Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Michael S. Harper, Audre Lorde, and Mary Oliver — all of whom share poetic traits with Clifton. It is rewarding to read Clifton through a Lordean lens or a Barakian lens, but also somewhat fascinating to read her through an Oliverian lens. Consider the opening of “telling our stories”:
the fox came every evening to my door
asking for nothing. my fear
trapped me inside, hoping to dismiss her
but she sat till morning, waiting.
at dawn we would, each of us,
rise from our haunches, look through the glass
then walk away.
Or this from the final lines of “entering earth,” one of the recently discovered poems included in How to Carry Water:
hold your body
in your hands
the ground time here
drop your framework down
it has fed you
it will feed your friends
That ending might be more Mary Oliver than Mary Oliver; and yet, on the opposite page, one finds this provocative poem entitled “to black poets”:
just cause you don’t see me
don’t mean I ain’t there.
when you be together
and being together
and you feel something soft
rubbing you just like sisterskin
don’t turn off please,
Clifton’s greatness lies in her poems’ directionalities. Because we can read her work in reverse to the Harlem Renaissance, but also because we can read her forward, to now, to a day she did not live into. It is impossible to know exactly who she is talking to in “to black poets” — this, too, is one of the recently excavated poems — but I like to think she is addressing the great constellation of black poets writing now, from Tracy K. Smith to Major Jackson to Morgan Parker to Jericho Brown to Terrance Hayes to Rita Dove to Danez Smith to Patricia Smith to Roger Reeves to Aracelis Girmay, and on and on.
“[A] poet,” writes T. S. Eliot, “must take as his material his own language as it is actually spoken around him.” I dislike the ease with which Eliot uses “him,” but I like the sentiment, even if Eliot did not always take his own advice. It is a good way to think about the adaptability of Clifton’s poetics. On one hand, in a poem like “to black poets,” Clifton smoothly code switches; perhaps to contextualize, perhaps to satirize. But so too does she embody the discourse of the patient, as in “chemotherapy”: “my hair is pain. / my mouth is a cave of cries. / my room is filled with white coats / shaped like God. / they are moving their fingers along / their stethoscopes.” And this, from “cigarettes,” the voice of the survivor of abuse:
my father burned us all. ash
fell from his hand onto our beds,
onto our tables and chairs.
ours was the roof the sirens
rushed to at night
mistaking the glow of his pain
And this from “last note to my girls,” the mother:
my almost me
i command you to be
to go with grace
go well in the dark and
make for high ground
my dearest girls
my more than me.
That last line — “more than me” — is, to me, the secret to Lucille Clifton’s brilliance. Her confessional poems, her trauma poems, her poems on gender, her poems on race, motherhood, history, and even the self are always, always about more than her.
Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books.