Lucille Clifton and the African American Poetic Tradition

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lucille Clifton a long time ago when I was writing a book about her poetry. Near the end of the interview, she said something that I’ve been thinking about lately.

We had been talking about Langston Hughes’s 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in which Hughes mentions a friend who said he wanted to be a poet, not a Negro poet. In response, Hughes writes, “This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”

I said it seemed to me that she had climbed the racial mountain and that her blackness was very much part of who she was in her poetry.

Clifton agreed and then remarked,

What the young man [in the essay] was probably talking about was not what he was, but what people saw him as. And I’m seen as that quite often. There’s the poets and there’s the subgenre and Lucille is in there. Because people see it that way, that does not make it so.… I’m not either American or black.

She is right, of course. But if we take her comments to their extreme, does this mean we abandon the study of African American poetry and teach poets like Clifton and Hughes only in broad surveys?

I would say no. The African American poetic tradition offers us too much to learn, too much to love, to set it aside. Without an understanding and appreciation of that tradition, it’s hard to make sense of eighteenth-century enslaved poet Jupitor Hammon’s long poem written to and for his contemporary, Phillis Wheatley.

Hammon wrote his poem to her in solidarity: they were both Christians, both enslaved, both accomplished poets. We need to see and understand them as part of a community and continuum of black poets.

Without some sense of the African American poetic tradition, furthermore, it would be hard to articulate why Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s wonderfully musical “When Malindy Sings” had to be written in the black vernacular to make its point about Malindy’s natural-born talent. And without that tradition, the vision of Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” would not be as deep or moving; the pain and rage of Lucille Clifton’s “to ms. ann” would be more opaque; the riddle of Audre Lorde’s “But What Can You Teach My Daughter” would make less sense.

But as we read these poets in the context of their times and their relation to African American culture, to this country and to one another, it’s worth keeping in mind, as Clifton said, that they don’t belong in a corner: they are not to be turned to only during Black History Month. As a scholar of African American poetry, I have put them at the center of my study of American poetry. Doing so has forever altered my perceptions of poets such as Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg and Mary Oliver. For me, the “white tradition” is not the universal one; it is not the fallback standard of what American poetry is.

African American poets have always known this. Lucille Clifton spelled it out for me at the end of our interview:

I aspire to be the poet that Marianne Moore was, that Langston [Hughes] was, that Richard Wilbur is. I aspire to be as much poet as Auden—whom I like, by the way—[Robert] Lowell, whom I like. I aspire to be all that. But that’s what American poetry is. Now, whether or not critics think so—they’re wrong, that’s all. I don’t mind. I don’t have a problem with that.

I am not an American poet who happens to be black. I did not happen to be black. My mother was black, my father was black. And so there I was. I was gonna be black! It didn’t just zap me. And that’s okay, that’s all right, that is not a subgenre of anything. I am an American poet; this is what American poetry is.

Earlier in the interview, Clifton mentioned Asian-American and Native American poets she counted among her peers. Her point was that American poetry is so much bigger than any one race or ethnicity.

Ever mindful of inclusion, she wrote poems in the voices of many different women and men. She also wrote with empathy about animals and trees and in one poem, a playful homage to her birth sign, even took on the persona of a poet crab.

Clifton died at age 73 on February 13, 2010. She was a great poet and a beautiful person, and I miss her.

Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton

Here’s my complete interview with Lucille Clifton: “She Could Tell You Stories.”