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About this poet

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936. Her first book of poems, Good Times, was rated one of the best books of the year by the New York Times in 1969.

Clifton remained employed in state and federal government positions until 1971, when she became a writer in residence at Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she completed two collections: Good News About the Earth (Random House, 1972) and An Ordinary Woman (1974).

She is the author of  several other collections of poetry, including Voices (BOA Editions, 2008); Mercy (2004); Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 (2000), which won the National Book Award; The Terrible Stories (1995), which was nominated for the National Book Award; The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993); Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 (1991); and Next: New Poems (1987). 

Her collection Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (1987) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; Two-Headed Woman (1980), also a Pulitzer Prize nominee, was the recipient of the University of Massachusetts Press Juniper Prize. She has also written Generations: A Memoir (1976) and more than sixteen books for children, written expressly for an African-American audience.

Of her work, Rita Dove has written: "In contrast to much of the poetry being written today—intellectualized lyricism characterized by an application of inductive thought to unusual images—Lucille Clifton's poems are compact and self-sufficient...Her revelations then resemble the epiphanies of childhood and early adolescence, when one's lack of preconceptions about the self allowed for brilliant slippage into the metaphysical, a glimpse into an egoless, utterly thingful and serene world."

Her honors include an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a Lannan Literary Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shelley Memorial Award, the YM-YWHA Poetry Center Discovery Award, and the 2007 Ruth Lilly Prize.

In 1999, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She served as Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

After a long battle with cancer, Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010, at the age of 73.


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From the Image Archive

 

poem in praise of menstruation

Lucille Clifton, 1936 - 2010
if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon          if
 
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta             if there
 
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain         if there is
 
a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel          if there is in
 
the universe such a river          if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
water
pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave

Lucille Clifton, "poem in praise of menstruation" from Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.

Lucille Clifton, "poem in praise of menstruation" from Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936.

by this poet

poem
my sister Josephine
born july in '29
and dead these 15 years
who carried a book
on every stroll.

when daddy was dying
she left the streets
and moved back home
to tend him.

her pimp came too
her Diamond Dick
and they would take turns
reading

a bible aloud through the house.
when you poem this
and you will
poem
for j. byrd


i am a man's head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body.   the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.

why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the
poem
so
the body
of one black man
is rag and stone
is mud
and blood
the body of one
black man
contains no life
worth loving
so the body
of one black man
is nobody
mama
mama
mamacita
is there no value
in this skin
mama
mama
if we are nothing
why
should we spare
the neighborhood
mama
mama
who will be next and
why