Poets in Black and White: Remembering Lucille Clifton and Robert Frost

Lucille Clifton and Robert Frost

At eNotes this month, we are taking some time to remember two great American poets:  Lucille Clifton and Robert Frost.  Clifton passed away on February 17, 2010, and March 26 marked Frost’s birthday. Seldom have two writers articulated their view of the United States in such unique and memorable ways.

Lucille Clifton’s often highly personal poems focused on what it was like to be an African-American woman living in the twentieth century. Her voice has been characterized as “earthy” and reminiscent of the “rhythms of the black oral tradition.”  One of her poems that embodies all three of these characteristics is “The Lost Baby“:

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born in winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car
we would have made the thin walk
over the genecy hill into the canada winds
to let you slip into a stranger’s hands
if you were here i could tell you
these and some other things

and if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers wash over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller of seas
let black men call me stranger always
for your never named sake

Clifton’s collection of poems Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.  Twelve years later, in 2000, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 won a National Book Award.

Like Clifton, Robert Frost too also wrote of the American experience, but from the vantage point of a white New Englander. However, where Clifton is typically sparse and direct, Frost’s poems are frequently long and colloquial.  And while he is often thought of as America’s kindly grandfather poet, in fact, Frost could be quite dark and brooding.  For example, consider his poem “Acquainted With the Night“:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost won the Pulitzer Prize four times:

  • 1924 for New Hampshire: A Poem With Notes and Grace Notes
  • 1931 for Collected Poems
  • 1937 for A Further Range
  • 1943 for A Witness Tree

Frost died on January 29, 1963. He was 89 years old.