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Literary Treasures: Lucille Clifton reading her poems in the Montpelier Room, Library of Congress, Dec. 2, 1999

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The following is a guest post by Megan Jenkins, an academic-year intern at the Poetry and Literature Center.

This post is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

In my previous Literary Treasures post, I discussed Dudley Randall’s poetry and its strong connection to civil rights.

In this post, I’d like to explore poet Lucille Clifton’s portion of a reading at the Library of Congress in 1999 with Eamon Grennan. It’s available to stream online as part of the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.

Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010. Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936, and raised in Buffalo. She authored 13 collections of poetry, including Good Times (1969) and Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1998-2000 (2000), as well as 22 children’s books and one memoir, Generations: A Memoir (1976). Some of her honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the American Academy of Poets, as well as a National Book Award, an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. She was elected the Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1979-1985 and served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999-2005.

After serving as a government worker in New York, Clifton began her career as a professor and writer in residence at a number of universities, including Coppin State College, Columbia University School of the Arts, George Washington University, University of California at Santa Cruz, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Clifton died on February 23, 2010, in Baltimore, Maryland.

In this 1999 recording, Lucille Clifton begins her reading with poems pertaining to her personal life, specifically her childhood and family. Her first poem, “sam,” tells about her father, whom she later explains was a very complicated man and had abused her as a child.

Clifton sets the stage for her next poem by providing background context about her mother, who she credits as teaching her how to write poetry:

My mother wrote poetry. My mother didn’t graduate from elementary school, but she wrote poetry very traditional, iambic pentameter, everything rhymed. When she’d see me writing a poem, she would say, ‘Oh baby, that ain’t no poem. Let me show you how to write a poem,’ and she would show me how to write a poem.

Once, when her mother received a letter asking her to write a book of poems, Clifton recalls her father saying, “No wife of mine is going to be a poetry writer.” Clifton reads her poem, “fury,” which is based in her memory of watching her mother burn all of her own poems. The poet recalls, “I remember my mother going down in our basement to the coal stove and I stood on the steps and watched as she burned all her poems. And I remember her hand trembling.”

The poem opens:

remember this.
she is standing by
the furnace.
the coals
glisten like rubies.

Clifton’s poem gives readers a glimpse into her mother’s difficult life. In the sixth line, the poem reads, “her hand is crying,” revealing her mother’s sorrow in burning her own poems for the sake of her husband’s vanity.

each hand of her hair
is a serpent’s obedient
she will never recover.

Clifton’s tone and subject shift with “officer powell whispers to himself,” a poem she wrote after Rodney King’s beating at the hands of police in 1991.

Rodney Glen King (1965-2012), a Black construction worker, was beaten by four white Los Angeles (LAPD) police officers on March 3, 1991. The incident was videotaped and then subsequently aired on news station all over the country, inciting public outrage over racial discrimination and police brutality. The incident sparked the LA Riots of 1992, resulting in more than 50 deaths and thousands more injured and arrested.

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God a’mighty… Free at last! // Oliphant. c. 1992. Prints and Photographs Division.

An editorial cartoon, titled “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God a’mighty… Free at last!” (after Martin Luther King Jr.), from the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress, illustrates some of the public criticism and condemnation of the officers’ actions at the time. The piece was created in response to the Simi Valley jury pronouncing the LAPD officers “not guilty” for the beating of Rodney King.

The poem “officer powell whispers to himself” is an imaginary portrayal in which Clifton attempts to understand and satirically rationalize the injustice suffered by Rodney King.

With another thematic shift, Clifton then turns to poems that explore biblical themes. “lazarus” is a three-part poem rooted in the Resurrection of Lazarus. Explaining her interest in Lazarus, Clifton says,

I was thinking about: ‘Here is someone who was dead and was alive again.’ Now you cannot be the same. People who have seen something amazing or have been somewhere amazing cannot be the same.

Plus, I’ve always wondered if Lazarus wanted to come back.

The second poem in the series, “lazarus: second day,” explores Lazarus’ thoughts and transformation; Lazarus reflects on being a different man after experiencing something so unbelievable:

i am not the same man
borne into the crypt.

[The raising of Lazarus (large plate)]. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669, artist. Prints and Photographs Division.
The poem uses both the literal and metaphorical meaning of death to describe his new sense of self, having seen and been somewhere “amazing,” in Clifton’s words. In one sense, Lazarus had died, but was brought back to life. In the poem, Clifton also seeks to use death as a metaphor for Lazarus’ new life, transformed:

lazarus is dead.

what entered the light was one man.
what walked out is another.

Clifton concludes the Lazarus trilogy series with “lazarus: third day,” which illustrates Lazarus coming back and seeing the world with new eyes—not with joy and happiness, rather with sorrow and a lingering sense of longing to go back:

sisters stand away
from the door to my grave
the only peace I know.

At this point in the reading, Clifton shifts focus once more and reads “lumpectomy eve,” “consulting the book of changes: radiation,” “dialysis,” and “donor (to lex)”—poems that examine her battles with health as a survivor of breast cancer and then kidney failure (renal disease) shortly following her cancer remission.

The final poem she reads in this vein, “donor (to lex),” is written to her youngest daughter, Lex, who was also Clifton’s kidney donor. The poet gives context to the poem, saying:

My youngest daughter donated to me her kidney, and what is interesting is that she was the child that I desperately tried to not have. She always says now, she knows all this, we actually laugh about it now—she always says if she had been able to talk she would have said, ‘Give me thirty years! You’re gonna need me!’ because she was the closest match of the children. The children all tested, but she was the closest match.

The poem’s last stanza reveals the irony of the situation: the stubborn resilience of the daughter Clifton tried not to have, and who ended up as her mother’s kidney donor.

suppose my body does say not
to yours. again, again i feel you
buckled in despite me, lex,
fastened to life like the frown
on an angel’s brow.

Clifton’s final three poems—“jasper texas 1998,” “slaveships,” and “won’t you celebrate with me”—are all rooted in subjects of racism and civil rights.

Defense table, jury selection, King, Jasper / B. Woosley 1999. Prints and Photographs Division.

jasper texas 1998” was written after the murder of James Byrd Jr., a Black man chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by three white men in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Two of the three perpetrators were found guilty of capital murder and executed in 2011 and 2019, while the third received a life sentence in prison.

Clifton’s poem recounts the gruesome nature of Byrd’s death, told in Byrd’s voice:

i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body.

The poem then asks:

who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?

slaveships” takes a more historical perspective on American racism. Before reading the poem, Clifton provides some background and context to the poem and its subject:

In reading about slave ships, often they were named/had biblical names. Often, they were captained by ministers. I always think it’s interesting that the man who wrote the great song ‘Amazing Grace’ had been captain of a slave ship. That gives a certain authenticity to it, I think.

Slave ships were the ships—now notice what I’m not saying—slave ships were the ships that went to the African continent, picked up free people, brought them to this country where they were enslaved. Notice I did not say it went there and picked up slaves. There’s a difference there that is profound.

Clifton’s first line of the poem illustrates the cruel conditions that captured African people suffered on slave ships:

loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks for months
in the sweat and stink
of our own breathing

Clifton refers to Jesus first as the name of the slave ship, then to Jesus the figure:

why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel

Clifton ends her reading with “won’t you celebrate with me,” of which she says:

I’d like to end with a poem which has become a kind of anthem for me, and I end with it quite often. It is also a poem that I think that can mean something to everybody. I hope it can mean something to Ireland. I hope it means something to poetry.

It was written because I have a colleague at St. Mary’s College of Maryland […] and that person cannot understand not only why I’m there, but why I exist. And so on a day when I was vulnerable and it hurt my feelings, I wanted to write about it.

The poem’s title and first line, “won’t you celebrate with me,” follows from the self-celebration in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which begins “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” Clifton then moves swiftly to compare America to Babylon, the root of her celebration and victory stemming from living, thriving, and surviving surrounded by those unlike her.

born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did I see to be except myself?
i made it up

Lucille Clifton read her poems at the Library of Congress on December 2nd, 1999—poems that centered her experiences as a Black woman and historical events pertaining to racial injustice. From the discussion of slave ships; to the lynching of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, in 1998; to the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and the riots that soon followed in 1992, the themes in Clifton’s poems share an eerie resemblance to the reality we see nearly 21 years later.

Lucille Clifton’s poetry is boundless, but rooted in fight and survival. She observes and examines painful events and injustices in the past, while also sharing insights and revelations with an eye toward the hope of crafting a better future.

“won’t you celebrate with me” ends with the powerfully memorable lines,

something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Below is the full timestamped index of Lucille Clifton reading her poems (she begins speaking at 47:14):

  • “sam” (48:37)
  • “fury” (50:26)
  • “album december 2nd, 1992″ (52:00)
  • “moonchild” (53:29)
  • “officer powell whispers to himself” (56:04)
  • “praise song” 58:05
  • “lazarus: first day” (1:00:59)
  • “lazarus: second day” (1:01:54)
  • “lazarus: third day” (1:02:30)
  • “lumpectomy eve” (1:04:07)
  • “consulting the book of changes: radiation” (1:06:03)
  • “dialysis” (1:09:24)
  • “donor (to lex)” (1:12:07)
  • “jasper texas 1998” (1:13:35)
  • “slaveships” (1:17:12)
  • “won’t you celebrate with me” (1:18:56)