Lucille Clifton: The People’s Poet

[By Jeff Westover]

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (BOA Editions, 2012), edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser, makes available “all the poems Lucille Clifton published in book form during her lifetime” as well as a significant amount of her unpublished poetry (xxvii). This 769-page volume is a welcome addition to the list of Clifton’s publications, since it includes work not gathered in two earlier selections (Good Woman, 1987 and Blessing the Boats, 2000), including Clifton’s last two published books of poems (Mercy, 2004, and Voice, 2008), an unpublished yet impressive 2006 set of poems titled “Book of Days,” eleven “Last Poems and Drafts,” and a substantial number of poems composed (but never published) before her first book, Good Times, came out in 1969. 

In Mary Carole McCauley’s review of the book published in the Baltimore Sun on October 20, 2012, co-editor Michael S. Glaser explains that he rescued several of Clifton’s late poems from oblivion. In an illuminating afterward to the volume, fellow editor Kevin Young elaborates: “when she cleaned out her office after retiring in 2005, she threw away a number of things, including poems, many in her hand or with her clear edits– all of which are now part of her archive…The typescript for “Book of Days” was among these discards, complete it seems without any editorial markings or even her name” (746). 

In addition to recuperating such material, The Collected Poems features a lively foreword by Toni Morrison, and in his afterword Kevin Young provides a wide-ranging overview of Clifton’s poetic career. The book also includes a bibliography of Clifton’s publications (including her books for children) and an index. These features enhance the value of The Collected Poems documents the accomplishments of a lifetime, making it convenient for readers to compare Clifton’s poems on similar topics from different periods and explore their complexities in light of those comparisons. 

The book does not include Clifton’s 1976 memoir Generations or any of her other prose.  (An important work, as Young points out, Generations may be found in the 1987 volume Good Woman). There are no textual or explanatory notes on the poems, but such apparatus would no doubt have made the single volume unwieldy and too expensive to produce and market. No more than one poem appears on a given page, and because Clifton’s lines are not usually very long, no adjustments seem to have been needed in the layout of any of the poems. 

Although Young explains in his afterword that “Dating of these poems is more an art than a science,” he has “placed the poems in a rough chronology,” starting with the poet’s earliest work and moving forward in time (733). This arrangement offers readers a sense of the trajectory of the poet’s career. Young characterizes this trajectory as a development from “more ‘public’ poems in a broad voice to more personal and…profound work” (733). He does a good job of situating Clifton’s early work int he Black Arts context and of identifying some of the poet’s persistent concerns and themes, while Morrison challenges readers to focus on the intellectual dimensions and poetic innovations of the poet’s work, not just on its emotional power (xxxi-xxxiii).