LECTURE: MICHAEL WATERS' "THE LIGHT OF LUCILLE CLIFTON "
"READING AN ENTIRE BOOK of Lucille Clifton's poetry may take as little as ten minutes," said Michael Waters to open his lecture, The Light of Lucille Clifton, "which may lead some to dismiss her work, believing that it has little substance..."
And over the course of the next hour, Waters would take on the task of illuminating the deceptive simplicity of the poetry of Lucille Clifton.While I was moderately familiar with Clifton's work, I will have to count myself as one among the 'some' to which Waters referred, one who at one point dismissed her work as a little too plain and a lot too uninteresting. It was only in the last five years, when I came to her collection, Blessing the Boats, that I, having matured as a reader, came to a greater appreciation of her aesthetic - of the power in the leanness of her work, akin to the novelist, Ernest Hemingway's. And so, already partially converted, I eagerly awaited what Waters had to say.
Quoting Lucille Clifton, Waters said, "I am a Black woman... and I sound like one." (Which took on an added dimension of humor coming from a White man’s mouth. The room chuckled.)
Waters demonstrated how this tone was an essential element in Clifton’s poetry - matter-of-fact and deceptively straightforward, which allowed her to be earthy while often engaging the most unearthly topics - directly addressing her Dahomey ancestors and conversing with her dead mother.
As examples, Waters provided Clifton’s "i was born with twelve fingers," "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989," "homage to my hips," "poem to my uterus," and "dreamchild."
"i was born with twelve fingers" and "at the cemetery…" demonstrated an aspect particular to Clifton’s poetry, which Waters called ‘spiritual vitality,' combining elements of conjuring and incantation, similar to the phrasings of a preacher in a Black church. To further demonstrate, Waters read aloud a section of "at the cemetery…" in call-and-response fashion:
WATERS: "Some of these honored dead…"
CONGREGATION: "…were dark"
WATERS: "Some of these dark…"
CONGREGATION: "…were slaves"
WATERS: "Some of these slaves…"
CONGREGATION: "…were women"
Incidentally, having grown up in a Black church, I can testify that it did indeed remind me of a Black church! (That is, of course, if you ignore the White leader.)
Waters also spoke on how Clifton’s poems are a call-and-response between the worlds of the living and the dead - again, in "at the cemetery" and also in "i was born with 12 fingers…" - with the use of nouns like "ghosts," "bones," and "blood" invoking the incantatory quality of which Waters spoke.
In discussing another aspect of Clifton’s poetry, Waters quoted D.H. Lawrence, "The best poetry is nobly disheveled," which is an interesting aesthetic premise, especially considering the atmosphere of the typical MFA poetry workshop where the attitude is to cut-cut-cut, until a poem is finally axed down and loses its life, decomposing into its most essential elements (do I sound bitter?) - where the very naturalistic notion of dishevelment would cause some workshop leaders to break out in hives. But in Clifton’s poetry, this intentional imprecision is part of what makes her poetry work - it’s what provides the earthiness that makes it ring with veracity.
Waters concluded the lecture with a moving anecdote regarding Clifton’s mother, who aspired to be a writer herself. As the story goes, the mother wrote poems and asked her husband if she could publish them. He forbade her, and so she threw the poems into a fire, never to write again. Which becomes intriguing when one considers the notion of lineage as a theme in Clifton’s work - from daughter to mother to grandmother unblinklingly descending into the grave and into the realm of the unliving. All in all, I enjoyed the lecture and can now count myself as one of the converted to the church of Lucillology!
This is an excerpt from a residency journal I was required to keep as part of the low-residency MFA in Poetry program at New England College