The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser, foreword by Toni Morrison, afterword by Kevin Young, BOA Editions, 768 pages ($35). Prophets, we know from the Book of Matthew, are not without honor save in their own country. Thus, all too often, with poets. The profusion of neglected and misunderstood poets is now and always will be among the world’s more melancholy and predictable sins. You’ll find at this very newspaper, those of us who paid far too scant attention to Lucille Clifton in her lifetime, despite her growing up in Depew, graduating from Fosdick-Masten, working here as a clerk for the state and, in fact, getting a good review from this newspaper in a production of “The Glass Menagerie” with her husband Fred.
The Cliftons moved to Baltimore in 1967. By then, she was already a poet and some of those fine early poems are collected here for the first time. The course of her literary life after Buffalo was, thankfully, nothing like her life when the Cliftons lived here. Her work was loved and honored widely. More importantly, it was widely read and taken with utmost seriousness.
It is no surprise, nevertheless, that in her introduction to this first edition of Lucille Clifton’s “Collected Poems,” Toni Morrison expresses dismay that even among those who praise the abundant “courage, vision, joy” in Clifton’s work, something is missing despite the estimation of that joy as “mystical, poignant, humorous, intuitive, harsh and loving.” What disturbs Morrison is that “there are no references to her intellect, imagination, scholarship, or her risk-taking, manipulation of language. To me she is not the big mama/big sister of racial reassurance and self-empowerment. I read her skill as that emanating from an astute, profound intellect – characteristics mostly absent from her reviews.”
Clifton would hardly be the first writer the world needed time to get into proper focus. She died at 73 in 2010 and this book – collecting all her published poems and 69 previously unpublished – will go a long way toward sharpening the focus on her work so that she won’t be among those who have to wait centuries for history to get it right. A great book to be sure.
– Jeff Simon