Wise Woman of Words

The Baltimore Sun

For Columbia poet Lucille Clifton, the act of naming - an object, a pet, a person - is an act of aggression almost akin to a declaration of war.

"There's a kind of arrogance in thinking that the name I give something is what it calls itself," she says.

"It's demeaning. Once we have given something a name, we expect it to be that thing. I don't know what the cow calls itself, nor what it calls me - nor, I suspect, would I want to."

It's unclear whether Clifton is referring to the cow jumping over the moon, the mad cow, the sacred cow or some other type of grass-muncher. Possibly, all three, and many more besides.

But that mix of profundity, earthiness and humor - evidenced not only in the above observation, but in her 11 books of poetry - has earned Clifton the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which will be announced today. It is among the most prestigious awards that can be won by an American poet and includes a $100,000 stipend, which will be presented to her during a ceremony in Chicago on May 23. Clifton is the first African-American woman to win the award since it was established in 1986.

Naming, she says, is just one of many activities that she does not understand and probes in her verse.

"I think that people are having kind of a nervous breakdown," Clifton says.

"Just read the newspaper. It's in the world, and it's in ourselves. Humans are intellect, but we're also intuition. Sometimes we overthink and forget who we are."

Nonetheless, adversity - whether political or personal - dims neither Clifton's zest nor her prolific output. In addition to her poetry, Clifton also has written a prose autobiography and 19 books for children.

Despite serious health problems - a kidney transplant and operations for two forms of cancer - the 70-year-old keeps an active teaching and writing schedule. In addition to her regular, weeklong stint each semester at St. Mary's College of Maryland, she also is scheduled to appear this fall at Stanford University and Bryn Mawr College. And those are just the commitments that she can remember off the top of her head.

"I am slowing down," she says. "This year, I have a week off between engagements."

The Lilly Prize is given annually by the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, the Holy Grail for versifiers. Previous winners include such literary luminaries as Adrienne Rich (who was born in Baltimore), Anthony Hecht, Maxine Kumin, Philip Levine and John Ashbery.

"It feels like a kind of validation," Clifton says.

"When I received the phone call telling me that I had won, I was very, very surprised. It never had occurred to me that I would win that award. Maybe I'm just tremendously humble. But I don't think so."

Clifton's verses fall on the ear with the transparency and inherent musicality of water tumbling over rocks.

"I like the short, distinctive music that the poems make," says Christian Wiman, Poetry's editor and one of the three judges who selected the winner.

"It's admirable how simple and clear the surfaces are. But when you study her best poems, they keep opening into depths of complexity."

In a prepared statement, the three judges also applauded the "moral quality" of Clifton's verse. "One always feels the looming humaneness around Lucille Clifton's poems," the statement says.

"Her poems are local and funny and have their own particular idiom; they speak big things in quiet ways."

Not that the Lilly Prize is the first time that Clifton, or her work, has been recognized.

She was born in New York in 1936 to a blue-collar family. Perhaps because neither of her parents had graduated from elementary school, it was a major coup when the teenage Lucille was admitted to college. She studied at both the old Fredonia State Teachers College (now State University of New York at Fredonia) and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

But the money for Clifton's education ran out, and she was forced to drop out before graduating.

A short time later, she married Fred Clifton, a writer, educator and artist.

Family and writing

Though Clifton was a new wife and mother, her compulsion to write was so strong that she kept crafting verses while giving birth to six children in 6 1/2 years.

1n 1969, Clifton's youngest child was born, and Clifton published her first book of poetry, Good Times - which was lauded by The New York Times.

She dexterously managed both halves of her life - family and writing - by developing a split mental consciousness.

"I write poems in my head while I'm thinking of something else," she says. "I can be working on a poem and talking to you at the same time. We all split our attention and think on more than one track at a time. We just don't admit it."

Clifton was Maryland's poet laureate from 1974 to 1985. In 1988, she became the first author to have two books of poetry chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the same year (Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir and Next) - though another writer, William Meredith, won.

But Clifton went on to receive the 2000 National Book Award for Blessing the Boats.

'Music everywhere'

For Clifton, poems usually are triggered by sounds.

"Recently, I was doing an interview for the Poetry Foundation, and I found myself riveted by my clock," she says." I had never really heard it before. I suddenly did, and I don't quite know why. There's music everywhere, if you listen."

When asked her musical influences, she mentions J.S. Bach, Aretha Franklin and the Four Tops.

As befits a poet who writes so adroitly for the ear, Clifton has a distinctive speaking voice. The words come out slowly, in a kind of smooth flow. But little bits of grit lodge in her listener's ears, as though she were gradually spilling a handful of sugar or of sand.

For the past dozen years, Thom Ward has been Clifton's editor at BOA Editions Ltd., a literary press based in Rochester, N.Y. He admires Clifton's poetry for its formal qualities.

He enthuses over her "marvelous, spare language and deft line breaks." Clifton, he says, "gets more muscle and more volume out of silences than any poet in America."

Ward also appreciates the fearlessness with which Clifton tackles emotionally fraught or controversial topics.

One poem, "Donor," is a meditation on Clifton's daughter, Lex. When the poet was pregnant with the girl and worn down from caring for her large family, she tried to abort the developing fetus. She failed, and Lex grew up to donate a kidney to her ailing mother, thus saving her life.

Other poems deal with the lynching of Clifton's great-great-grandmother for shooting the man who raped her (she was the first African-American woman to be hanged in Virginia), the deaths of the poet's husband and two of her children, and her own near-fatal illnesses.

"Lucille personally confronts all the serious images of our times and brings them to the forefront," Ward says. "But she's never polemical and she's never condescending. She balances gravitas with levity."

Clifton also seems to be curious about absolutely everything. Take the act of naming - the subject of a book of dramatic monologues, tentatively titled Voices, that BOA is scheduled to release in 2008.

"I'm fascinated with the labels that we give things in our culture that allows us to put them away somewhere," she says.

So, one poem will deal with Pluto and the ruckus over whether it can be considered a planet.

Another deliberates about the significance of the man on the cover of a box of Cream of Wheat cereal.

"Aunt Jemima has a name," Clifton says. "Uncle Ben has a name. But the Cream of Wheat man doesn't. And it made me wonder why."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Lucille Clifton

Age:

70

Residence:

Columbia

Birthplace:

Depew, N.Y.

Occupation:

Poet

Education:

Attended Howard University, received numerous honorary degrees

Publications:

11 books of poetry, 19 children's books, an autobiography

Awards:

2007 Ruth Lilly Prize, 2000 National Book Award. In 1988, she was the first person to have two books of verse as Pulitzer Prize finalists in the same year.

Personal:

She had six children with her late husband, Fred Clifton.

'homage to my hips'

these hips are big hips. they need space to move around in. they don't fit into little petty places. these hips are free hips. they don't like to be held back. these hips have never been enslaved, they go where they want to go they do what they want to do. these hips are mighty hips. these hips are magic hips. i have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top

Lucille Clifton

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