Lucille Clifton First Black Woman To Win Lilly Poetry Prize

By Jeffrey Thomas
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – Black poet Lucille Clifton has won the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious honors awarded American poets.

In making the $100,000 award, the judges cited Clifton’s “looming humaneness” and “moral quality.”

“Clifton has added enormously to the representation of the African-American experience in poetry and has been a kind of historical consciousness for her people and a public consciousness for us all,” the judges said.

Clifton, 71, is the first black woman to win the Lilly Prize, which was established in 1986 and is presented annually by the Poetry Foundation. Previous winners include such well-known poets as Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Yusef Komunyakaa, and last year’s winner, Richard Wilbur.

“I’m a contemporary American poet who is African American and female,” Clifton told USINFO when asked how she sees her work within the context of American poetry.

She said it never occurred to her when she was growing up in western New York state that she would win such recognition for her work. “I began writing at a time when people who looked like me were not being published.”

But Clifton has become one of the most revered figures on the American poetry scene. "Lucille Clifton is a powerful presence and voice in American poetry. Her poems are at once outraged and tender, small and explosive, sassy and devout. She sounds like no one else, and her achievement looks larger with each passing year," said Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and chair of the selection committee, in announcing the award.

The first of her 11 books of poems, Good Times, appeared in 1969, and some of her poetry was selected the next year by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps in their collection Poetry of the Negro 1746-1970. She has won many honors since then, including a National Book Award in 2000 for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000. She served as poet laureate of the state of Maryland from 1974 until 1985. She is also well known as the author of many books for children.

The range of subjects in Clifton’s poetry is broad. A mother of six, Clifton has written poems about family relationships, identity, love, sex, death – most of them clearly informed by the black experience in the United States. There are also the many poems about American history and the world of today – poems about nameless blacks buried on old plantations during the days of slavery; the first child killed in a riot in Soweto, South Africa; a 12-year-old South African victim of AIDS; the victim of a racist murder in Jasper, Texas, in 1998; and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She also can be funny, as in “wishes for sons and “homage to my hips.”

“I am an African American poet, and I try to write out of what I know about the history of this country and certainly the history of African Americans in this country,” she said, but she added that she also writes “of everyone.”

“I think my audience are ones who feel like me, and I think that’s a lot of humans. ... I write out of humanness, and I like those who have been or plan to be or are human to join me in that.” Clifton said she is “always surprised” at her growing international audience. Her work has been translated into Norwegian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Hebrew and Serbian, among other languages.

For those unfamiliar with her work and looking for a place to start, Clifton suggests Good Woman, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 and includes her first four books of poetry and an essay about her father’s family, one member of which was brought to the Untied States from what is now Benin.

“Mulberry Fields,” which Clifton identified as a good poem to start with, is available on the Web site of the Poetry Foundation. Another personal favorite of hers, “the message of crazy horse” is also available there. Crazy Horse was the war chief and visionary leader of the American Indian Lakota who played a major role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in which the 7th U.S. Cavalry under General Custer was killed in 1876. “I’m very fond of he who was called Crazy Horse,” Clifton said.

Asked why she writes, Clifton responded, “I’ll give you Martin Luther’s answer: ‘Because I cannot do otherwise.’”

More information on Clifton and her poetry, including the full text of “wishes for sons,” “homage to my hips,” “Mulberry Fields” and “the message of crazy horse,” is available on the Poetry Foundation Web site.

A webcast of Clifton reading her poetry at a Maryland high school is available on the Web site of the Library of Congress.

For more information on African Americans and poetry, see Gateway to African American History and The Arts.