Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010

08LucilleClifton-thumb-300x207-25921Elizabeth Alexander in The New Yorker:

Clifton was born in Depew, New York, in 1937. She published her first book of poems, “Good Times,” in 1969, and in the early seventies began publishing what eventually amounted to twenty-two children’s books, most which imagined a boy named Everett Anderson. She taught for many years at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and from 1979 to 1985 was the state’s poet laureate. Among many prestigious awards, she won the National Book Award, for “Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000”; the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; and, just a few weeks ago, the Frost Prize, from the Poetry Society of America. Many readers were familiar with Clifton’s work from the Dodge Poetry Festival and from Bill Moyers’s “Life of the Mind” series.

No matter how elaborate the words they use, poets strive to tell elemental truths. As Clifton often reminded her acolytes, “truth and facts are two different things.” Time and again, she made luminous poems premised on clear truth-telling, but always with a twist, and with space for evocation and mystery. Her style was as understated as the lowercase type of her poems, a quiet, even woman’s voice telling sometimes terrible truths. Like psalms, koans, and old folks’ proverbs, Clifton’s poems invite meditation and return.

That pure distillation is one of the remarkable technical accomplishments of the work. She wrote physically small poems with enormous and profound inner worlds. Of great poets whose poems are kin to Clifton’s, I think of Emily Dickinson; to Dickinson’s intense compression Clifton adds explicit historical consciousness. And of Pablo Neruda: Clifton subtracts hyperbole from his elemental clarity.

Clifton’s poems are committed to truth-telling in the face of silence.