Poetry Fridays: Lucille Clifton

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

LUCILLE CLIFTON has said, “I don’t write to be admired. I write to be understood.” Yet, when we hear her read “When” and “Sorrows,” it is impossible not to admire her. Take a moment to listen.

Clifton might have said, “I write to understand.” These poems do not begin in received wisdom, or offer easily palatable resolutions. That final word, “then,” in “What Haunts Him” forces us right back into the center of the poem: How can the three soldiers sit in silence, even for an instant, in the face of such a hateful act? Especially when it is committed against a man they were willing to die beside? How can they endure such an act in the very country their fellow soldier, and all three of them, were willing to die to defend?

Decades after the event, these questions continue to haunt Wayne, as they do the speaker of the poem. How can they not? It is impossible to ask them without pondering ever darker questions about our history and our national character. With that small word, “then,” Clifton denies us an end to the poem. By suspending us in our unanswered questions, she leaves us haunted, too.

In “Sorrows,” she has created an image that clings to us, as sorrows do, long after we have heard the poem. Once again, she puts us inside the speaker’s experience. Yet the sorrows that we sense the speaker has known do not elicit pity. We feel somehow grateful that we have been included in this choir, even if it is to sing a lamentation. Perhaps Clifton’s poems invite us into the struggle to understand because she knows that she can’t, that no one can, do it alone.

The text of “What Haunts Him” and “Sorrows” can be found in Lucille Clifton’s newest collection, Voices. See Blessing the Boats, New and Selected Poems: 1988-2000 for a wider selection of poems that span her publishing career.  You can read a biography of Lucille Clifton by visiting our 2008 Festival Poet Pages.

Be sure to revisit us on upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Billy Collins, Martín Espada, Joy Harjo, Jane Hirshfield, Charles Simic and others.

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3 Responses to Poetry Fridays: Lucille Clifton

  1. Linda Ring says:

    I am struck by how many moments of racism I’ve witnessed or been told about came to mind when I heard Lucille Clifton read “What Haunts Him.” The poem is at the center of a collage of memories, stories, and images created in my mind after hearing it. I’m also thinking of Countee Cullen’s “Incident.” What role does poetry play in our shared experiences? Carrier, keeper, bearer, witness? This has given me something to chew on.

  2. Martin Farawell says:

    Dear Linda,

    It’s telling that you write your are “struck” by the images that came to mind when you heard Lucille Clifton’s poem. The sound of the human voice quite literally strikes us, and resounds in us in ways we can’t predict as it re-sounds in our bodies. In this way we are like a bell or perhaps a tuning fork that responds sympathetically to a tone that resonates in us. And to your question concerning poetry’s role, I want to answer that yes, it is all of these, carrier, keeper, bearer, witness and more. There are no limits to what a poem might be. The instant we begin asserting that poetry isn’t this or shouldn’t be that, we’ve become prescriptive and restrictive. Poetry, like Emily Dickinson, “dwell[s] in possibility.”

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments,
    Martin Farawell
    Program Director, Poetry

  3. Linda Ring says:

    Dear Martin,

    I agree with you that “the instant we begin asserting that poetry isn’t this or shouldn’t be that, we’ve become prescriptive and restrictive.” This is true of how the poem is made as well as what it can be. Sometimes I read poems to my husband that I want to share because they are so touching or moving, but then his response is frequently, “But it doesn’t rhyme.” It’s become a joke with us, but still I feel that he’s shutting out a world of wonderful poetry. The kind of poetry I enjoy reading has changed over the years, and can change from day to day. So I’m very happy that poetry has no limits and comes in all shapes, sizes, and styles as well as roles.

    Regards,
    Linda Ring

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