The unlikely career of one of America's most loved poets

Lucille Clifton is often surprised by the reception she gets from audiences. In September, at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, Ms. Clifton received two standing ovations - the first for simply walking onstage. "I don't understand it," she says without any pretense. "I just try to write clearly and directly. I try to appeal to the whole human."

Clifton has done that and more. For decades she has been one of America's most celebrated poets. She has published 10 books of poetry and won major awards - including two NEA grants, the National Book Award, and a Lannan Literary Award. Both critics and fans describe her as "beloved" - a term she doesn't like - anda symbol of wisdom and strength. Still, Clifton views the adoration as just one more surprise in her "unexpected life."

The first surprise, some might say, is how she became a published poet. Her mother never finished grade school, and her father never learned to write, but theirs was a house "filled with words." Both parents were voracious readers, and her mother often recited iambic pentameter and penned her own verse.

Clifton attended the State University of New York at Fredonia and Howard University. But by her early 30s, she had six children under the age of 8.

Clifton wrote short, tight poems whenever she could steal a few free moments, but surveying the literary landscape, she "didn't see anyone who looked like me." White poets, she says, were the only ones who were validated.

Yet as Clifton explained during a recent interview, "the universe will sometimes give you what you need, even if you don't know what you have need of."

In 1969, she sent a poem to Robert Hayden at the National Endowment. He had already left the NEA, but Carolyn Kizer, his successor, read the work and submitted it to the Discovery Award competition in New York City. Clifton won. Her big break came when she read at the award ceremony. An editor from Random House was in the audience, and he published her first book.

Few of Clifton's fans know this story, but many feel they know her - and that she speaks directly to them about perseverance and the will to survive. This has been another surprise for the poet who writes with stark grace about the beauty and brutality she has experienced as an African-American woman:

maybe my father
made these couplers.
his hands were hard
and black and swollen,
the knuckles like lugs
or bolts in a rich man's box....

[From "what i think when i ride the train"]

"I was at Smith College shortly after I left the Dodge Festival," Clifton says, "and there were several young women who came up to me and said 'Thank you for writing that poem.' " What they meant by that, she believes, was thank you for writing about my experience.

"One of the things poetry can do for people is to say you are not alone." But conveying that message is just one part of her job.

Clifton, who writes unflinchingly about both her own sensuality and the darker sides of human experience - drug abuse, poverty, physical abuse, and slavery - views herself as a witness, "a person who tries to see the whole [human] history."

The act of bearing witness is important, she explains, "because someone must be a voice, someone must notice things and see beyond the obvious. If one person speaks, no one can say that they never heard."

wants my son
wants my niece
wants josie's daughter
holds them hard
and close as slavery
what will it cost
to buy them back.

[From "white lady - a street name for cocaine"]

But teaching people to hear is a challenge. Clifton, who is a professor of English at Saint Mary's College in southern Maryland, is often surprised by how unaware young people are about the past. "We don't know the history of our time, and we don't know the history of our country."

And, on a more basic level, she says, students often don't realize that they can "learn with more than just the intellect." Poetry, she says, "is a balancing between intellect and intuition," and if one must choose between the two, "one should always fall on the side of intuition."

Poetry also balances between joy and sorrow, and Clifton has had her share of sorrows. One of her sisters, who worked as a prostitute, died years ago. And in 2000, one of her daughters passed away. Clifton has also battled cancer several times.

But through it all, the poet with the warm, rich voice maintains that life is not out to get her. "I get angry," she says, "I write about it, but I can't live there.... If I have any faith, it is that the universe is not my enemy. Fear may be the enemy," but she won't let it define her.

What does define her? Perhaps her capacity for joy, she suggests (she loves Bach and Aretha Franklin), her determination to "stay in for the long haul," and her complexity. "Sometimes I am foolish, prone to error, silly, mistaken, and downright bad," she says. "You do the best you can, which isn't always sufficient."

That comment might surprise fans who admire her work's precision and its strong, unwavering voice. Her poems have become a bit longer over the years, but she has always remained true to her spare, well-honed style, regardless of what the current literary trend might be.

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and I keep on remembering
mine

["why some people be mad at me sometimes"]

The one thing she has never been able to do, however, is learn how to type. "I have used four fingers for 30-something years," she admits with a laugh. She lets a poem form in her mind until a draft is ready. "I need to feel urgency," she says of her creative process, "that I have to get this down." Then she types the poem up on "a very ancient videowriter. No one makes them anymore."

Clifton, who can't stand typos, sometimes retypes a poem several times before revising. Her unwavering approach is one more testament to the perseverance of a very respected, much-loved poet whose life has surprised both her and her thousands of readers.

Elizabeth Lund is one of the coordinators of the Monitor's online poetry site. For more poetry coverage, go to www.csmonitor.com/poetry.

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