won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
–from “song at midnight”
What kind of life has Lucille Clifton shaped so wondrously, this self-made woman? What do you make of yourself when you have to start from scratch? It’s true that she had no models, though the poet who comes to mind—just as distinctive, as unlike anyone before or since—might be Emily Dickinson.
In these lines from the final poem in our selection of her poetry, I hear Whitman’s “I celebrate myself.” But Lucille doesn’t ask us simply to witness. The opening line, “won’t you celebrate with me?” is not a command, not “celebrate with me.” Rather, it’s an invitation, respectful, a request that takes into consideration our will as readers. What’s more, it’s a personal invitation, as if she were choosing each one of us out of a crowd: “Won’t you come celebrate with me?” And what she invites us to celebrate is something she has audaciously accomplished by herself.
The “what” in line 2 is depersonalized; it’s our basic clay. And the shaping Clifton speaks of is an active, hands-on process, the way one molds clay. In the Bible God took clay and made a human being in his image. Here a woman takes charge. Notice that Lucille doesn’t write “my life” or “a life,” but rather “a kind of life.” “Kind of” is a qualifier. It may indicate a diminishment, suggesting that while her life is okay, it’s not the real thing. Or perhaps it’s an act of humility, testifying to the equality of many different lives, a bow to the thought that every life is a little piece of something larger.
Lucille is fearless in expressing her own naked truths. Her uniqueness reveals itself in her use of form and content. Think about her distinctive house-shaped poems, which welcome us into a space of intimacy and kinship: little houses for poetry whose shape gives them the look of stability. And think about her syntax and language: words reduced to the essential, absolutely clear, direct and sure. So many critics have praised Clifton’s poems for their simplicity. I think instead of how her work overturns all the traditional aesthetics that I learned. Hers is a unique body of language that sidesteps artifice to communicate directly with the heart and soul.
Clifton’s poetry offers us a model not just for what we say or how we say it, but for the very act of saying—for expressing our naked truths, and, above all, persisting. Through terrible loss! Lucille herself has lost two children and suffered for years with terrible illnesses, and still she lives and writes. Her poems express rage (“how sick I am, how mad”), yet they find a way back from the edge of self-destruction. They grieve their losses; they change; they let go. Grief may be the hardest of all emotions, because in order to feel it you truly have to give up hope. Clifton’s poetry grieves its way to wisdom and compassion.
Lucille told me that when her first book was published, she and her five children, like little ducklings, were walking through a mall. She saw her book in a bookstore window and started screaming with happiness. She ran into the bookstore, grabbed the saleslady and pointed at the window: “That’s my book, that’s my book!” The saleslady looked at her coldly and purposefully. No, she said. No, it’s not.
What I’m talking about is a model for persisting, for valuing the precious life of the artist, the life of intellect and passion, in ourselves and in others. In her poetry Lucille Clifton models survival for all of us with toughness and humor. And I don’t mean just physical endurance. I mean the ability to prevail over the many things that are able to kill body and spirit. The poets who manage to keep writing reveal this attribute in their lives and their work. Their “kind of life” is the singing school of great poets and great spirits.
“Come celebrate / with me,” Lucille concludes, “that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and failed.” The “me” that refuses to be killed is what Clifton has so beautifully succeeded in making of herself: a poet. Yes, by all means, let’s celebrate with her!