Monday, February 15, 2010

For Lucille Clifton

Passing Through the Doorways of Life (photo taken by Qiyamah A. Rahman)

Former state poet laureate Lucille Clifton, a National Book Award winner whose work was lauded for its "moral quality," died Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital after a long battle with cancer and other illnesses. She was 73.

With a mix of profundity, earthiness and humor - amply evident in her 11 books of poetry - Ms. Clifton often defied conventional notions of poetic expression, but in many ways her themes were traditional, Wallace R. Peppers wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

"She writes of her family because she is greatly interested in making sense of their lives and relationships; she writes of adversity and success in the ghetto community; and she writes of her role as a poet," according to Mr. Peppers.

Ms. Clifton, a resident of Columbia, was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and was honored on many other occasions during her career. She was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Maryland and Towson University. She was the poet-in-residence at Coppin State College between 1971 and 1974.

She was the second woman and the first African American to serve as poet laureate of Maryland, a position she held from 1979 to 1985.

She was also the first black woman to win the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize award, in 2007, among the most prestigious awards that can be won by an American poet. It included a $100,000 stipend.

In 2001, Ms. Clifton won the National Book Award for "Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000."

A biography on the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Web site says that Thelma Lucille Sayles was born in 1936 in Depew, N.Y., a small town outside Buffalo. Her mother, a poet, encouraged her creativity, and she began to compose stories and poems as a child. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and, in 1953, she won a scholarship to Howard University, where she majored in drama. She left Howard after two years after deciding that she would rather write poetry, according to the Web site.

Her first poetry collection Good Times was published in 1969, and listed by The New York Times as one of the year's 10 best books. Her series of children's books about a young black boy began with 1970's Some of the Days of Everett Anderson. From 1971 to 1974 she was poet-in-residence at Coppin State College in Baltimore. From 1979 to 1985 she was Poet Laureate of the state of Maryland.[2] From 1982 to 1983 she was visiting writer at Columbia University School of the Arts and at George Washington University. From 1985 to 1989, Clifton was a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.[3] Since 1991, she has been Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland. From 1995 to 1999, she was Visiting Professor at Columbia University. In 2006, she was a fellow at Dartmouth College.

Ms. Clifton had been ill for some time with an infection, her sister, Elaine Philip, told The Buffalo News on Saturday. She had undergone surgery to remove her colon on Friday, but the exact cause of death remains undetermined.

The poet and her husband, Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor at the University at Buffalo, moved to Baltimore in the 1960s and had six children. Her husband died in 1984.

Besides her 11 poetry collections, Ms. Clifton published 20 children's books, and her poems have appeared in more than 100 anthologies, according to her biography.

Besides her sister, Ms. Clifton is survived by her three daughters, a son and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

For Lucille Clifton

You have to know
the world is colder tonight:
not because the snow drifts are piled
high and the roads frozen stiff
from winter's raging

we have known raging before

the tree limbs are brittle
from the whistling wind and ice
formed on the underside of dripping

but you know how easily life can break

my breath is visible like fog
in this moment, and you are silent
as breath has chosen
this day to leave your body,
to take you from us

I know how to rage, but not against this
death--was it a timely, one, Lucille?

i learned to value bleeding
monthly, timely, pain
and wanting breasts
in place of buds that never
seemed to bloom
and glory in wide hips
big bellies
collard greens
wild foxes
and tending to the past

you taught me these in your poetry
you taught me how to praise and to rage

but in this cold, crisp, clear
moment, I do not know
how your leaving and raging
belong together

may I say in your leaving
what I never had privilege
to say in your living here:

I love you mother-sister-warrior-poet
and it is a raging love

(C) Valerie Bridgeman
February 13, 2010

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