LIANE HANSEN, host:
Lucille Clifton, a pioneering American poet, passed away on February 13th. We want to mark her passing and the works she leaves behind, so NPR's David Gura wrote this appreciation.
DAVID GURA: When Lucille Clifton was growing up on Lake Erie in the 1940s, she never thought she'd be a poet, as she told NPR in 1993.
Ms. LUCILLE CLIFTON (Poet): The only poets I ever saw were the portraits that hung on the walls in elementary school in Buffalo, New York: Old, dead white men with beards from New England.
GURA: Clifton didn't look like Longfellow or Whittier or Whitman. She was a woman, an African-American, a wife and a mother to six children. Her family was incredibly important to her and to her writing.
This is a 1995 recording of Clifton reading a poem about her father, Sam.
(Soundbite of recording)
Ms. CLIFTON: (Reading) If he could have kept the sky in his dark hand, he would have pulled it down and held it. It would've called him Lord, as did the skinny women in Virginia. If he could have gone to school, he would've learned to write his story and not live it. If he could have done better, he would have. Oh, stars and stripes forever, what did you do to my father?
GURA: Lucille Clifton cared deeply about history, about her own personal history and about the history of the United States. In her poems she reexamined American history. She tackled tough subjects: injustice, racism, sexism, the apocalyptic. Still, Clifton could have and often did have a remarkably light touch, a penchant for humor.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander teaches at Yale.
Professor ELIZABETH ALEXANDER (Yale University): She said: With my poetry I hope to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
GURA: In print, Lucille Clifton's poems look distinctive, with limited punctuation and few capital letters.
Professor KEVIN YOUNG (Emory University): And there's a kind of quietude in the lowercase, but also boldness of direct speech.
GURA: Kevin Young is a poet and a professor at Emory University.
Prof. YOUNG: She's just talking to you, but she's also sort of singing at the same time.
(Soundbite of recording)
Ms. CLIFTON: (Reading) Hey music and me, only white. Hair a flutter of fall leaves circling my perfect line of a nose, no lips, no behind. Hey, white me. And I'm wearing white history. But there's no future in those clothes, so I take them off and I wake up dancing.
(Soundbite of applause)
GURA: A recording of Clifton reading at the Guggenheim Museum in 1983 from Poets.org.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove says Clifton could distill vital moments into moving, powerful poems. She was concise.
Professor RITA DOVE (University of Virginia): It is so much more difficult to write simply than just to write in a complex manner. What she did to pair it down to the essential and still have it sing, that is hard.
GURA: Her ability to do that led to Pulitzer Prize nominations and a National Book Award. In 2007, Clifton received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the highest honors in American letters. She paved the way for poets like Dove, Kevin Young and Elizabeth Alexander.
Prof. ALEXANDER: She inspired not just respect and admiration, but very, very, very deep love.
David Gura, NPR News.
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