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Lucille Clifton came to prominence in the
Black Arts movement in the late 1960s, but this selected poems covers a less dramatic
period as the poet moves into middle- and then old-age. As in the careers of most poets as
they progress, elegy is evermore present, as well as the themes of illness, childhood
reminiscence, as well as poems for and about children. Another important strand of her
work treats of themes such as feminism and sex through the lens of mythological personae.
However, she remains preoccupied with issues of negritude and race, and the social
injustice still attendant upon these in the United States. The poetic style of the book is
more or less uniform throughout: free-verse lines that range between one and three
stresses; extensive use of dramatic monologue and autobiographical anecdote; and her
chosen orthography removes all capitalisation.
Succeeding generations of African-American poets are
disassociating themselves from the Black Arts movement as it fostered a careless attitude
to the craft: reading Clifton, one feels that such distancing is justified.
African-American poetry has never, even to the present day, enjoyed the same attention as
has the music and the novels, and this is perhaps because the poets themselves have not
been able to situate themselves satisfactorily either within or without the Anglophone
tradition. Was Gwendolyn Brooks really kow-towing when she wrote sonnets? Was she really
innovative when she stopped? African-American poets unfortunately never seemed to pose the
right questions so that their art could prosper, and the result is that they still feel
that they must engage in a kind of boosterism, a boosterism which would be unnecessary if
the achievements were significant. (For instance, the recent collection of essays and
interviews The Furious Flowering of African-American Poetry, ed. Joanne V. Gabbin
[UP of Virginia, 1999]). The result of their stylistic uncertainties is that many have
fallen into the present period style, a good example of which is Clifton's
"photograph", which is subtitled "my grandsons / spinning in their
joy" and which I give in full:
keep them turning turning
black blurs against the window
of the world
for they are beautiful
and there is trouble coming
round and round and round
Other than the mention of the blackness of the
grandsons, this poem could have been written by any of a few hundred poets of any ethnic
background in the U.S., Britain or Ireland. The theme is how wonderful one's relations or
lovers are, and how vulnerable is this beauty in an inimical world. The conclusion is a
slight sigh of despair and foreknowledge. There is nothing wrong with this theme per se,
but what is dismaying is the uniformity of its treatment in so much contemporary poetry.
Clifton's work, including those poems which deal with the themes I listed above, fits
comfortably into this context, effecting a seamless stylistic assimilation into the
verbiage of the ubiquitous second rate.