10 Poems by Lucille Clifton, Chronicler of African-American Experience

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton (1936 – 2010) was a poet, teacher, and children’s book author whose life and career began in western New York. Her poetry is recognizable because of its purposeful lack of punctuation and capitalization. Here is a selection of 10 poems by Lucille Clifton, a small sampling of her prolific output.

Clifton’s widely respected poetry focuses on social issues, the African-American experience, and the female identity. Her poetry has been praised for its wise use of strong imagery, and lines that have even given the spacing of words meaning.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander praises Clifton’s use of strong language in her poetry, which was often spare and brief. Robin Becker of The American Poetry Review states that Clifton emphasizes the human element and morality of her poetry that’s amplified by the use of improper grammar.

Clifton was devoted to expressing the painful history of African-Americans. Yet she also expressed ideas of beauty and courage, addressing themes of women’s issues, everyday family struggles, and health. Read more about Lucille Clifton and her poetry at Poetry Foundation.

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Lucille Clifton quote

 

Learn more about Lucille Clifton
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homage to my hips (1987)

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,   
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

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Lucille Clifton quote

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the lost baby poem (1987)

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned
you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car       we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things
if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas        let black men call me stranger
always        for your never named sake

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1994 (1996)

i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when a thumb of ice
stamped itself hard near my heart
you have your own story
you know about the fears the tears
the scar of disbelief
you know that the saddest lies
are the ones we tell ourselves
you know how dangerous it is
to be born with breasts
you know how dangerous it is
to wear dark skin
i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when i woke into the winter
of a cold and mortal body
thin icicles hanging off
the one mad nipple weeping
have we not been good children
did we not inherit the earth
but you must know all about this
from your own shivering life

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adam thinking

she
stolen from my bone
is it any wonder
i hunger to tunnel back
inside desperate
to reconnect the rib and clay
and to be whole again
some need is in me
struggling to roar through my
mouth into a name
this creation is so fierce
i would rather have been born

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eve thinking

it is wild country here
brothers and sisters coupling
claw and wing
groping one another
 
i wait
while the clay two-foot
rumbles in his chest
searching for language to
 
call me
but he is slow
tonight as he sleeps
i will whisper into his mouth
our names

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my dream about being white (1987)

hey music and
me
only white,
hair a flutter of
fall leaves
circling my perfect
line of a nose,
no lips,
no behind, hey
white me
and i’m wearing
white history
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and
wake up
dancing.

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sorrow song (1987)

for the eyes of the children,
the last to melt,
the last to vaporize,
for the lingering
eyes of the children, staring,
the eyes of the children of
buchenwald,
of viet nam and johannesburg,
for the eyes of the children
of nagasaki,
for the eyes of the children
of middle passage,
for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes,
russian eyes, american eyes,
for all that remains of the children,
their eyes,
staring at us, amazed to see
the extraordinary evil in
ordinary men.

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wishes for sons (1987)

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.
 
i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.
 
later i wish them hot flashes
and clots like you
wouldn’t believe. let the
flashes come when they
meet someone special.
let the clots come
when they want to.
 
let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

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the garden of delight (1991)

for some
it is stone
bare smooth
as a buttock
rounding
into the crevasse
of the world
for some
it is extravagant
water   mouths wide
washing together
forever   for some
it is fire
for some air
and for some
certain only of the syllables
it is the element they
search their lives for
eden
for them
it is a test

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blessing the boats (2000)

                                                                   (at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back     may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that 

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Blessing the boats by Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton page on Amazon*
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Lucille Clifton’s poetry collections

  • Good Times (1969)
  • Good News About the Earth (1972)
  • An Ordinary Woman (1974)
  • Two-Headed Woman (1980)
  • Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir: 1969–1980 (1987)
  • Next: New Poems (1987)
  • Quilting: Poems 1987–1990 (1991)
  • The Book of Light (1993)
  • The Terrible Stories  (1996)
  • Blessing The Boats: New and Collected Poems 1988–2000  (2000)
  • Mercy  (2004)
  • Voices (2008)
  • The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton (2012)
 

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