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Lucille Clifton to receive Frost Centennial Medal posthumously

It will be a bittersweet celebration Thursday night at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South in New York City when the Poetry Society of America awards its highest honor -- The Robert Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in American poetry -- posthumously to Lucille Clifton. The Frost Medal typically involves a guest lecture on the part of the recipient, but this year the format has been changed to incorporate a tribute to Clifton's life and work featuring several of the leading figures in American poetry.
 
Clifton -- a Buffalo-area native, National Book Award winner, two time Pulitzer Prize nominee, and the first African-American woman to receive the prestigious Ruth Lily Prize from the Poetry Foundation -- had been selected to receive the award earlier this year, but died on February 13th following complications of emergency surgery. The award to Clifton was to carry special significance as it was intended to mark the centennial celebration of the Poetry Society of America
 
In the weeks following her passing, we've read many fine tributes to Clifton's work and career, but two especially worth noting are Elizabeth Alexander's insightful appreciation "Remembering Lucille Clifton" in The New Yorker and fellow former Buffalo area native Kazim Ali's more closely read analysis of the formal aspects of her poetry in Adam and his mother: Lucille Clifton’s Prosodic Line originally published in the little known Barn Owl Review, but soon to be included in Ali's Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.
 
It was an eloquence in service of justice, that arose out of voicelessness, that tested but respected the limits of language, and yielded only to acknowledge the final dominion of silence, that was the hallmark of Clifton's work, honed over decades to its essential truth-speaking power. 
 
Formally, she was a minimalist, which placed her work in the mainstream of 20th century American modernism, even as it incorporated elements of Black idiomatic speech, the cadences of the King James Bible, and a wide range of mythical and philosophical frames through which to write about the African-American family and the predicament of Black women in particular, but always in the context of the larger human condition. Although the early portion of her career coincided with the flowering of what came to be known as the "Black Arts movement" in America, Clifton's work is seldom identified with it. Instead it derives its authority from some older and more primal "womanist" storytelling tradition.
 
Clifton -- almost certainly the most important poet born and raised in the Buffalo area in the 20th century -- had an ambivalent relationship with her hometown throughout most of her career. Like another prominent African-American writer of her generation -- the poet, essayist, and satirical novelist Ishmael Reed (who in fact, was in a writers' workshop with Clifton in the late 1950's in Buffalo and encouraged her to send her work to Robert Hayden and Langston Hughes) -- Clifton made almost no progress in her career until she left Buffalo at age 24 in 1960. On her return visits to Buffalo, particularly in recent years, she lamented the poverty and economic disparities so evident in this community, and the lack of opportunity, particularly for young people.
 
Born as Thelma Lucille Sayles into a working class family in Depew in 1936, Clifton was raised in Buffalo (her family lived on first on Purdy Street and later on Harwood Place), and graduated from Fosdick-Masten (now City Honors) High School. She attended Howard University and Fredonia State Teacher's College (now SUNY Fredonia) from which she graduated in 1955. She married her late husband Fred Clifton (then a philosophy instructor at the University of Buffalo) in 1958, and moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 1960.
 
She gave birth to and raised six children with her husband prior to his death in 1984, all while employed as literature assistant in the Office of Education in Washington, D.C. from 1960 to 1971 and later, as an English professor at Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland. It was during that time that her lesser-known career as a children's author flourished. She published over twenty titles on African-American history and family life, including the award-winning "Everett Anderson" series of novels. 
 
Her debut book of poems Good Times was selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 1969, and she went on publish a dozen more collections, including Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980, and Next: New Poems (both of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1988, marking the first time in history any author had two books selected as finalists in the same category for the award). Widely praised for its "poetics of understatement," her work was noted for exploring her African-American heritage and themes of family, community, and survival from illness and oppression often from a feminist perspective, but always informed by the preternatural awareness of the female body.
 
After a series of teaching appointments at Columbia University, George Washington University, and The University of California at Santa Cruz, in 1991 she was named Distinguished Professor of The Humanities at St. Mary's College in Columbia, Maryland, where she had also served as state Poet Laureate from 1979 to 1985.  It was there she enjoyed her greatest success, including her celebrated public television appearances on Bill Moyers' "The Language of Life" and "The Power of the Word" series on PBS and the publication of four critically acclaimed volumes -- Quilting: Poems 1987–1990, The Book of Light (1993), The Terrible Stories (1996), and the National Book Award winning Blessing The Boats: New and Collected Poems 1988–2000 (BOA Editions, 2000). In 2007, she became the first African-American woman to receive one of the literary world's highest honors, The Poetry Foundation's Ruth Lilly Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry.  
 
Clifton's great success was also a coup for one of Western New York's leading independent publishers.  Rochester, New York based BOA Editions, Ltd. became Clifton's publisher after Random House dropped her in the mid-1980's, and was immediately rewarded with Good Woman and Next in 1987--both of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Although she surely could have gone elsewhere, Clifton repaid BOA's loyalty by remaining with them for the last two decades of her publishing career. Her final two volumes for legendary small press founded by Al Poulin, Jr., were Mercy (2004) and Voices (2008). 
 
Ms. Clifton's final public appearance in Buffalo occurred on April 5, 2009, when she read from her work in Kleinhans Music Hall as featured guest of the "Buffalo/Williamsville Poetry, Music, Dance and Arts Celebration" sponsored by the school systems of both communities and Just Buffalo Literary Center.   
 
For those interested in a Buffalo community celebration of the life and legacy of Lucille Clifton, The Buffalo Friends of Lucille Clifton will be holding a public memorial and remembrance of her on Sunday, April 18th, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Frank Merriweather, Jr. Public Library, 1324 Jefferson Avenue (near East Utica St.) in Buffalo.  For more information, contact Ray Smith at 895-7336 or Molly Bethel at the Locust Street Neighborhood Art School, 138 Locust St. at 852-4562.  Until that afternoon, we have Lucille's own words from Quilting (1991):
 
LOT'S WIFE 1988


each of these weeds
is a day
 
i climbed the stair

at 254 purdy street

and looked into a mirror

to see if i was really there

i was there. i am there

in the thousand days.

the weeds. and these weeds

were 11 harwood place

that daddy bought expecting it

to hold our name forever

against the spin of the world

our name is spinning away in the wind

blowing across the vacant lots

of buffalo, new york,

that were my girlhood homes

sayles, i here them calling, sayles,

we thought we would live forever;

and i look back like lot's wife

wedded to her weeds and turn to something

surer than salt and write this, yes

i promise, yes we will.

--Lucille Clifton
 
--R.D. Pohl
true

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