Biography of Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles in 1936 in upstate New York. One of the postwar United States' most prominent poets, she was treasured by both critics and popular audiences for her spare style, her humane outlook, and her attention to the experiences of African American life. Over the course of her career, Clifton was awarded an array of honors and prizes, including 2007's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations, a National Book Award, and the poet laureateship of Maryland from 1979-1982.

Clifton briefly attended Howard University, where she studied drama, before shifting her focus to poetry. She finished her education at Fredonia State Teacher's College, and went on to have an illustrious and prolific career as a poet. In 1958 she married the artist and professor of Philosophy Fred Clifton. The couple would go on to have six children together, with family life appearing as a frequent theme in Clifton's poetry. The Cliftons, meanwhile, were artistic partners and friends of the writer Ishmael Reed, who introduced Clifton's work to the poet Langston Hughes. Hughes, an integral figure of the Harlem Renaissance movement, included a selection of Clifton's poetry in his 1970 anthology The Poetry of the Negro.

Clifton's first collection of poems, Good Times, was named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 1969. In 1972 she published her second collection, Good News about the Earth: New Poems, followed by An Ordinary Woman in 1974 and Generations: A Memoir in 1976. This was followed by Two-Headed Woman (1980). Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir: 1969–1980 (1988) included the text of her earlier memoir Generations, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The 1987 collection Next: New Poems was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The volume Quilting: Poems 1987–1990, (1991) uses quilt design as a guiding metaphor, while 1993's The Book of Light stirred attention with a poem about the United States Senator Jesse Helms, an opponent of progressive causes including civil rights and integration. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988–2000 (2000) earned a National Book Award. This was followed by Mercy (2004) and Voices (2008).

In addition to these volumes, Clifton published works for children, often focusing on African American history and daily life. These included such books as Three Wishes (1976) and All Us Come Across The Water (1973), although her most famous children's books belonged to the Everett Anderson series. These books focused on the experiences of a young African American boy, drawing acclaim for their sensitive depiction of children's emotional lives. The book Everett Anderson's Goodbye won the 1984 Coretta Scott King Award.

Clifton also worked as a teacher, with posts at Coppin State College, Columbia University, George Washington University, The University of California Santa Cruz, St. Mary's College of Maryland, and Dartmouth University. Later in her life, Clifton was diagnosed with cancer, and her later poems incorporate this experience, dealing with themes of illness and mortality. She died in Baltimore in 2010.

Though her output was large and wide-ranging, throughout her career Clifton was noted for expressions of hope and resilience, and for a direct, stripped-down style often compared to that of Emily Dickinson. Thematically, she consistently focused on African-American history and culture, womanhood, the joys and pains of inhabiting a body, family life, and the American political issues of her day. She continues to be popular among readers, fellow poets, and critics alike. The poet Elizabeth Alexander, describing Clifton's widespread appeal, wrote in The New Yorker that "Clifton invites the reader to celebrate survival: a poet’s survival against the struggles and sorrows of disease, poverty, and attempts at erasure of those who are poor, who are women, who are vulnerable, who challenge conquistador narratives. There is luminous joy in these poems, as they speak against silence and hatred."

Study Guides on Works by Lucille Clifton

"homage to my hips" is a work by the twentieth-century American poet Lucille Clifton. Originally published in her 1980 collection Two-Headed Woman, the poem uses the symbol of its speaker's hips to explore the experience of Black womanhood. The...

homage to my hips is a poem written by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Lucille Clifton. The poem is a message of empowerment, celebrating both the female body and mind.

Clifton used the poem to draw upon the physical attributes of black women,...

"won't you celebrate with me" is a poem by the American writer Lucille Clifton. One of Clifton's better-known works, "won't you celebrate with me" was published in Clifton's 1993 poetry collection Book of Light. Like much of her work, it explores...