I’ve just finished a review of Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems for next month’s Slate Book Review. I wanted to cover the book for a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that some of Clifton’s poems have been immensely important to me. But I wanted to write about it, too, because I’m the only poetry critic for the Review, and I think it’s important that the poetry there represent some of the diversity that makes up American culture.
It’s a challenging assignment, which was also part of its appeal. In the book’s afterword, Kevin Young places Clifton’s poetry in the context of the Black Arts movement, writing of “a public poetry—one aware of its audience and even pitched at times toward a newfound audience that it was both meeting and making.” As someone who is, among other things, white, male, straight and the child of college graduates, I’m not used to waiting for a poem to reach out to me. Anxiety and insecurity may have defined much of my identity, but I’ve approached most texts in my life with an unexamined confidence that they were there for me—that I belonged in reading. But sitting down to a poem that takes its time to make others welcome, as Clifton’s occasionally do, I have to learn to listen in context, to overhear sometimes, be self-aware of myself as someone with a race and a gender and a non-universal (privileged) place in the society we share. And to still be present in the middle of that.
I teach an amazing group of 10th graders* right now, and I decided to try out a Clifton poem on them: “homage to my hips.” Some loved it. Some found it simplistic, at least at first. No one talked about race, which was interesting to me. The language of empowerment has become so generalized in our culture, I think, that even a phrase like “these hips have never been enslaved” can easily slide into mere metaphor. Too, the specifically “black” diction, which is such an essential component of Clifton’s power as a poet—her persuasive claim to authority—has been widely and variously co-opted, and at the same time we have learned to deal with race by pretending it isn’t there.
I suspect that I struggle with these things, too, with the challenge, at least in some poems, of hearing Clifton clearly across not only my difference but also our difference—the years that have passed since Clifton first sat down to her incredible life’s work. To their immense credit, though, my students were able to cross over with me, and with agility, to speak and think perceptively about the ways the poem matters in its very specific context—the black body, which was the thing a slaveholder owned; the black female body that is still judged by its “whiteness”; the freedom implied by a woman, especially an African American woman, choosing to exercise her ability to elicit male desire.
It is an odd thing for me to enter the community that Clifton was creating, and yet it’s an essential one, too (and amazing, but that’s in the review.) The other day, after spending some time on Adrienne Rich’s “21 Love Poems,” I asked my students what they thought about poems that apparently depend on the some component of the writer’s identity for their meaning. After all, I said, we’ve been told that poems are supposed to be universal. The answer delighted me: all poems come out of some person’s specific situation and identity. The same goes for our reading, even as we use it to enlarge the situation where we begin.
*I should mention that I teach amazing 7th and 8th grade students, too.