Lucille Clifton’s first collection of poetry was published the year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1969, Clifton was already over thirty and the mother of six children not even old enough for middle school yet. Once the New York Times singled Good Times out as one of the best books of 1969, Clifton was virtually assured of adding writer to a career that would also include teaching stints at such prestigious institutions as Coppin State, St. Mary’s and Duke. She also served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland through the first half the 1980’s
In 1988, Clifton managed to achieve an unprecedented distinction in the history of the Pulitzer Prize despite not winning top honors: she was the first poet to ever have two different volumes become finalists for the poetry award in the same year: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 and Next: New Poems. Although the Pulitzer has remained elusive, Clifton did earn the other big honor for poetry when she won a National Book Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 in 2000.
Although initially pigeonholed as a voice for the African-American experience, her legacy is now viewed through the wider lens of endurance, understanding and respect. Feminist themes wind through her strong female figures and their voices, but she stands apart from many of her peers who rose to prominence during the same period is presenting a most positive view of the role of the male in black families. While the effects of systemic racism are explored as an attempt at negation of the black male from a powerful position within the social structure, Clifton is not herself a poet of negation of the black male. Like her female voices, the male are far from perfect.
The overarching thematic conclusion to be reached from Clifton’s poetic celebration of race and gender is that regret is just another obstacle to get past in the continuing effort to commit to keep going on. Only those who do keep going on ever stand any chance of overcoming whatever mistakes in the past may inspire regret.