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Poet turns a page in poetry prize history

May 09, 2007|Mary Carole McCauley | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — For poet Lucille Clifton, the act of naming -- an object, a pet, a person -- is an act of aggression almost akin to a declaration of war.

"There's a kind of arrogance in thinking that the name I give something is what it calls itself," she says.

"It's demeaning. Once we have given something a name, we expect it to be that thing. I don't know what the cow calls itself, nor what it calls me -- nor, I suspect, would I want to."

It's unclear whether Clifton is referring to the cow jumping over the moon, the mad cow, the sacred cow or some other type of grass-muncher. Possibly, all three, and many more besides.

But that mix of profundity, earthiness and humor -- evidenced not only in the above observation, but also in her 11 books of poetry -- earned Clifton the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize this week. It is among the most prestigious awards that can be won by an American poet and includes a $100,000 stipend, which will be presented to her during a ceremony in Chicago on May 23. Clifton is the first African American woman to win the award since it was established in 1986.

Naming, she says, is just one of many activities that she does not understand and probes in her verse.

"I think that people are having kind of a nervous breakdown," Clifton says. "Just read the newspaper. It's in the world, and it's in ourselves. Humans are intellect, but we're also intuition. Sometimes we over-think and forget who we are."

Nonetheless, adversity -- whether political or personal -- dims neither Clifton's zest nor her prolific output. In addition to her poetry, Clifton also has written a prose autobiography and 19 books for children.

Despite serious health problems -- a kidney transplant and operations for two forms of cancer -- the 70-year-old keeps an active teaching and writing schedule. In addition to her regular, weeklong stint each semester at St. Mary's College of Maryland, she is scheduled to appear in the fall at Stanford University and Bryn Mawr College. And those are just the commitments that she can remember off the top of her head.

"I am slowing down," she says. "This year, I have a week off between engagements."

The Lilly Prize is given annually by the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, the Holy Grail for versifiers. Previous winners include such literary luminaries as Adrienne Rich, Anthony Hecht, Maxine Kumin and John Ashbery.

"It feels like a kind of validation," Clifton says.

"When I received the phone call telling me that I had won, I was very, very surprised. It never had occurred to me that I would win that award. Maybe I'm just tremendously humble. But I don't think so."

Clifton's verses fall on the ear with the transparency and musicality of water tumbling over rocks.

"I like the short, distinctive music that the poems make," says Christian Wiman, Poetry's editor and one of the three judges who selected the winner. "It's admirable how simple and clear the surfaces are. But when you study her best poems, they keep opening into depths of complexity."

In 1988, she became the first author to have two books of poetry chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the same year -- though another writer, William Meredith, won.

Clifton went on to receive the 2000 National Book Award for "Blessing the Boats."

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