When Lucille Clifton was a girl in the 1940s, she saw her mother burning poems in their furnace. A grade-school dropout who loved words and wrote traditional verse, her mother had an offer to publish her work in a book, but her husband and children scorned the idea of a poet in the family.

Their rejection was so stinging that she turned the cherished words to cinders in a fit of fury and sorrow that Clifton never forgot:

her hand is crying.

her hand is clutching

a sheaf of papers.


she gives them up.

they burn

jewels into jewels.

her eyes are animals.

each hank of her hair

is a serpent's obedient


she will never recover.

Clifton's drive to write, her "wish to persist," may have been born in that moment of witness. During a four-decade career, she produced 12 volumes of poems, three of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and one of which -- "Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000" -- won the National Book Award in 2000.

In 2007, she became the first African American woman to win the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Last month, the former poet laureate of Maryland and descendant of slaves added the Frost Medal of the Poetry Society of America to a long list of honors.

Known for elegant, spare poems that distilled the voices of African Americans and others, Clifton died Feb. 13 in Baltimore of a bacterial infection, according to St. Mary's College of Maryland, where she taught for 18 years until her retirement in 2007. She was 73.

Her death caught fellow poets by surprise. She was a poet who celebrated survival, a theme inspired by historic tragedies as well as personal ones, including molestation as a child, kidney failure, cancer and the deaths of her husband and two of their children.

These adversities informed her highly autobiographical poems, which flowed with what poet Elizabeth Alexander, writing on the New Yorker's website last week, called "a quiet, even woman's voice telling sometimes terrible truths." Or, as Clifton herself once said, "I am a black woman poet, and I sound like one."