Lucille Clifton Takes Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize
and its $100,000 purse
Poet Lucille Clifton.
by Margaret Tearman
Poet Lucille Clifton says the best part of the Ruth Lilly award ceremony last month in Chicago was not the $100,0000 check.
When she stepped on stage to accept her prize, she says, “The first words I heard from the audience were that’s my grandma.”
The proud exclamation was delivered by Clifton’s two-year-old granddaughter, Alexandra.
From another stage, 65 years ago, her mother’s voice still reaches her:
“It was the annual Christmas program of Macedonia Baptist Church,” St. Mary’s College’s distinguished professor of humanities and Maryland’s former poet laureate recalls. “All of the young Sunday school members had been given poems and recitations to memorize. I forgot mine. I remember standing there on stage in my new Christmas dress, trying not to cry as the church members smiled, nodded and murmured encouragement from the front row.
“But I couldn’t remember, and to hide my humiliation, my embarrassment, I became sullen, angry.
“I don’t wanna.
“And I stood there with my mouth poked out.
homage to my hips
these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him around like a top!
“It was a scandal! This fresh young nobody baby standing in front of the Lord in His own house talking about what she don’t want!
“I could feel the disapproval pouring over my new dress.
“Then, like a great tidal wave from the ocean of God, my sanctified mother poured down the Baptist aisle, huge as love, her hand outstretched toward mine.
“Come on baby,” she smiled, then turned to address the church: “She don’t have to do nothing she don’t want to do.”
Clifton did better when the poetry was her own. The Ruth Lilly prize, established in 1986, honors a living U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition. Clifton is the first African American winner.
“It validates a life of work,” said Clifton.
Clifton has been writing for six decades of her nearly 71 years.
“My mother wrote poems and she didn’t graduate from elementary school. I saw her writing as a way of expressing herself and thought this was the normal thing to do,” the poet says.
She followed her mother’s example.
“I was a teenager, if not before, when I wrote my first poem,” she recalls. “It must have been about lost love, since that’s what teenagers write about.”
Writing all along, Clifton a native New Yorker studied at Howard University from 1953 to 1955, graduating in ’55 from the State University of New York College at Fredonia. From 1958 to 1971, she earned a paycheck as a federal and state government employee. Her first book of poetry, Good Times, appeared in 1969.
In 1971, she traded in time cards, moving to Baltimore’s Coppin State College as poet in residence.
The next 25 years Clifton divided between coasts, teaching at Columbia University, George Washington University and St. Mary’s College of Maryland on the East Coast, and the University of California at Santa Cruz on the West.
“I love teaching,” Clifton told Bay Weekly by phone. She was not well enough for an in-person interview. “I give my students possibility, the idea that it is possible to be sincere and humane and intelligent but also sensitive. I give them the possibility of taking risks to do what is the right and best thing, whatever others may think or feel.”
Over the years, she has written nine more poetry collections, 19 children’s books and her autobiography. She was Maryland’s poet laureate from 1975 to 1985.
She’s also a television personality, with appearances on programs including The Today Show and Nightline with Ted Koppel.
Her mother’s words from that Christmas pageant so long ago still reverberate. Clifton says she particularly appreciates the words of Flip Wilson, speaking as Geraldine: “Even when I do things I don’t want to do, I only do them because I want to.”