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Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010: Award-Winning Poet Was First African-American Laureate of Maryland

Lucille Clifton's poetry is known for being simple, truthful and direct.
Lucille Clifton's poetry is known for being simple, truthful and direct.

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STEVE EMBER: I'm Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I'm Barbara Klein with People in America in VOA Special English. Today we tell about the award-winning poet and writer Lucille Clifton. Critics call her one of the greatest writers of our time.


STEVE EMBER: Lucille Clifton began writing poetry when she was about ten years old. She had developed an interest in poetry because of her mother, Thelma Sayles. Her mother was also a poet although her poems were never published. As a child Lucille would sit on her mother's lap and listen as she read poetry. She learned to love words and the power of words. That stayed with her as she grew.

There was another experience that stayed with her, too. Once, her mother was offered a chance to publish her poetry. But her husband, Samuel Sayles, ordered her not to do it. In anger, and sorrow, Missus Sayles threw her poems into a fire. That memory also stayed with Lucille. She would write about it years later in her poem called "fury". Like many of Lucille Clifton's poems, "fury" is personal. It deals with her own experiences.

BARBARA KLEIN: Lucille Clifton believed that it was important for poets to write about their own memories. She said poetry comes out of the life of the poet. That, she said, is the only way that poetry can reach other people. Lucille Clifton's poems deal with life and death, religion and politics, motherhood and family. They tell stories of racism, sexism and injustice. They tell of terrible things done to humans by humans.

In one poem she calls it the extraordinary evil in ordinary men. In the poem "Cruelty," she takes a different look at violence.


don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.

when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country

and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.

it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.

i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.

now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.


Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010: Award-Winning Poet Was First African-American Laureate of Maryland
Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010: Award-Winning Poet Was First African-American Laureate of Maryland

STEVE EMBER: Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles in Depew, New York in nineteen thirty-six. She was named Thelma after her mother. Lucille was the name of one of her father's ancestors. Neither mother nor daughter was happy with the name Thelma. When the younger one got older she chose to call herself Lucille.

While her mother taught her to love poetry, her father gave her the gift of storytelling. He would tell Lucille interesting stories about her ancestors, especially the one named Lucille who was his grandmother. Samuel Clifton said she was the first black woman to be legally hanged in the state of Virginia. Lucille Clifton wrote about it in her poem called "Lucy."



BARBARA KLEIN: Lucille was the first one in her family to graduate from high school. In nineteen fifty-three, she won a scholarship to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. She studied there for two years. Then she returned to New York to attend Fredonia State Teachers College.

Fred Clifton was a professor of philosophy at a local university. The poet and the professor met, fell in love and were married in nineteen fifty-eight. They moved to Baltimore, Maryland in the nineteen sixties. They had six children over a seven-year period, four girls and two boys. Lucille Clifton wrote poetry while raising her family.

STEVE EMBER: She released her first book of poetry in nineteen sixty-nine. The book was called “Good Times.” The New York Times called it one of the best books of the year. The poems are about ancestry and family, oppression and politics. They use a small amount of words to communicate big ideas. That was Lucille Clifton's style.

She often talked about her love for words. She loved the sound of words and the way the words felt in her mouth. She loved finding interesting ways to use words to express what was happening in the world.

BARBARA KLEIN: Unlike her mother, Lucille Clifton’s poetry was anything but traditional. Her poems do not rhyme or follow a special kind of pattern. They do not use fancy words. They do not deal in make believe. Her poetry is known for being simple, truthful and direct. It is written the way people speak, in a casual, relaxed language. There is very little punctuation and even less capitalization. Many of the poems are uncomfortably honest. Lucille Clifton often said that she tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Over the years, she seems to have perfected that art. Here, she reads her poem "Admonitions."


I don't promise you nothing
but this what you pawn

I will redeem what you steal
I will conceal my private silence to
your public guilt, is all i got

First time a white man
opens his fly like a good thing
we'll just laugh, laugh real loud my
black women

When they ask you
why is your mama so funny

She is a poet
she don't have no sense


STEVE EMBER: Lucille Clifton published more than thirty books during her career. They include ten books of poetry and twenty children’s books. She released her first children’s books in nineteen seventy, a year after her first book of poetry was published. Her book “Some of the Days of Everett Anderson” became the first in a series of books about a young African-American boy growing up in the city. Years later, the seventh book in the series, “Everett Anderson’s Goodbye,” was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award.

Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010: Award-Winning Poet Was First African-American Laureate of Maryland
Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010: Award-Winning Poet Was First African-American Laureate of Maryland

Miss Clifton received many other honors during her long career. She won a National Book Award in two thousand for her poetry collection “Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems.” She was nominated for three Pulitzer Prize Poetry Awards. She is the only poet to have received two Pulitzer nominations in a single year.

Her “Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir” and her collection “Next: New Poems” were both nominated for Pulitzer Prizes in nineteen eighty-seven.

BARBARA KLEIN: Miss Clifton also won an Emmy Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Los Angeles Times Poetry Award. In two thousand seven, she became the first black woman to receive the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize. It is considered one of the highest honors a poet can receive. It includes a one hundred thousand dollar award.

In addition to her writing, Lucille Clifton spent many years teaching poetry. She served as a writer in residence at Coppin State University in Baltimore, Maryland. She also taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Saint Mary’s College of Maryland and Duke University in North Carolina. And she was the first African-American poet laureate for the state of Maryland.

Lucille Clifton died in two thousand ten from problems related to cancer. She was seventy-three years old. She leaves behind a written record of her life and legacy through the words of her poems.


STEVE EMBER: This program was written and produced by June Simms. I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our reports are at And you can find us on Twitter and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.