Remembering a poet whose best works do the two very different, and equally important, things that poetry can do best.
It seems to me that when we think about poetry, here in the early 21st century, we tend to think about it as a profoundly individual and intimate genre, an expression of personal experiences and perspectives that, if they are not explicitly the poet’s, at least feel as if they could be. That kind of confessional tone is indeed one of the styles and effects poetry is best suited to capture, and can create understanding of and empathy for identities and perspectives in very powerful ways. Yet if we date the origins of poetry back to texts such as the works of Homer or The Aeneid, then it’s fair to say that poetry has also been particularly strong as capturing communal historical experiences, at representing how groups of people are affected by and affect historical events and changes.
I don’t know too many poets who are equally adept at both of those elements, especially not in this era of more specialized genres and subjects. But then there’s Lucille Clifton. In her best confessional poems, such as the raw and heart-breaking “The Lost Baby Poem,” Clifton got as close to lived experiences and genuine identities as any American poet ever has; I don’t have any idea whether Clifton herself had to abort or otherwise lost a child in the complex and painful circumstances and moment which her poem describes, but the poem is equally honest, and its effects equally shattering and yet productive of connection and empathy, in any case. And the speaker’s final perspective, her promises to that lost child about the future she must and will make beyond, and through, that loss, is similarly as compelling and real as any poetic voice I know.
No less compelling and real, nor indeed any less intimate and personal, are Clifton’s historical poems. In a poem like “At the Cemetery, Walnut Grove Plantation, South Carolina, 1989,” Clifton within the first fourteen lines engages both with histories of slavery and race and with questions of collective and public memory as well as any history textbook could, capturing in a few lines both the identities of those distant historical ancestors (of us all) and their complex absence and presence at a historic site. And in the subsequent twenty lines, she makes a profound and powerful case for her own voice and role, in remembering these histories and identities, in telling and writing of them, and in bringing them to an audience that might otherwise have lost them. When she told Bill Moyers, in a conversation about this poem, that “the past isn’t back there, the past is here too,” she defined not only the poem’s historical vision, but the perspectives on experience and identity that both her confessional and her historical poems so perfectly capture.
This February (and beyond), share some Clifton with those around you, if you could. Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. Any inspiring folks—writers or otherwise—you’d like to nominate for inclusion in the series?
2/6 Memory Day nominee: Aaron Burr, certainly a controversial choice—I don’t anticipate any other nominees having been tried for treason or having killed another prominent American in a duel—but a voice and perspective that can, as Gore Vidal so brilliantly recognized, shed a very different and crucially important light on the Revolutionary and Early Republic era, on the Founders and their legacies, and on America’s origins and meanings.