Citation for the 2001 Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award
My fondest meeting with Lucille Clifton occurred in an unlikely place: a public lavatory. We were both guest poets at the biannual Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, a week-long celebration with readings, lectures, and workshops occurring in an open-air heritage museum called Waterloo Village. At any time during the day (or night, for that matter), a participant might stumble upon a panel discussion in the Weaving Barn Tent or a workshop on blankets down by the Gristmill, or a poetry reading in the Concert Pavilion. An enchanted setting, to be sure, but one that required walking from one event to the next via bridge and footpath, from one location to another as aspiring poets lurked behind bush and tree, waiting to snag a few words of wisdom from the hapless celebrity guests who passed by. I had just skirted the Olde Smithy and backtracked to my goal, only to find Lucille already standing at the sink, tossing cool water on her face. We exchanged a frazzled look; then she let out a deep sigh and said, "Lordy, Lordy—they won't even let you go to the bathroom!" We both burst into laughter.
Lucille's laugh is like her spirit—large and full, warm and open. And her poems, for all their surface compactness, burst at the seams with this generous spirit. There are the early ones whose revelations resemble the epiphanies of childhood, 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 more recent work has grown darker, yet even in the contemplation of illness and death, her taut and quietly fierce poetry achieves a Zen-like clarity of understanding which can guide us through tragedies that would otherwise prove overwhelming.
Lucille Clifton's palette embraces all the colors of life. She's the closest thing we still have to a griot: A trusted—and yes, infinitely wise—chronicler of our hopped-up age, a guide who shows us how to navigate with a smile and an open heart. We love you, Lucille, we need you—and today, we celebrate you!