What Lucille Clifton Decided

For Lucille Clifton, poetry wasn’t really about answers.

Some time ago, she’d heard an old preacher say, “I come to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

And poetry was more about that. The whole human story. The comfortable, the uncomfortable. Racism, kidney failure, being able to make rent.

When Ms. Clifton was a school kid in Buffalo, all the poets who lined the walls of PS 17 were old white New England men with big beards: Longfellow, Thoreau, Emerson. And Ms. Clifton was an African-American girl in upstate New York.

She understood then that “what people were going to teach me might not be all I needed to know.”

So, Lucille Clifton decided “to learn and not just be taught.”

She learned a lot. And she wrote a lot. Sometimes while listening to Bach, though she liked the Four Tops, too.

And she wrote not just from her head or her heart, but from her whole human story. A story that included having six kids in six and a half years. Then losing two of those kids, her husband, her kidney.

Ms. Clifton wrote for two decades before a publisher even gave her notice. “the surest failure,” she would later write in her trademark lower case letters, “is the unattempted walk.”

And when her poems were finally published in books, she would often sign them to fans – of which she had many – ‘Joy!’

Given all that she’d been through, why would she sign like that? There could be many answers. But Ms. Clifton wasn’t really about answers. She was about the whole human story.

And when her husband died, Lucille Clifton – who decided to learn, not just be taught – made another decision. Which she wrote about in a poem from 1992:

“she walked away from the hole in the ground, deciding to live. and she lived.

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