Poets & Writers

A Poet a Day: Lucille Clifton

"sorrow song"

A Poet a Day: Lucille Clifton

During these trying days of social distancing, self-isolating and quarantines, days rife with fear and anxiety, my colleagues and I thought you might like some company. So each day we will be introducing you to poets we have met over the years. The only contagion they will expose you to is a measure of joy, reflection and meditation brought on by “the best words in the best order.” Enjoy.
— Bill Moyers

Today, we present a poem by Lucille Clifton, read at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. She wrote “sorrow song” as part of a collection of poems “constructed as ‘sorrow songs’ or requiems… [which] grieve for political figures or tragedies.” In “sorrow song,” Clifton reflects on what our children might think of us.

sorrow song

for the eyes of the children,
the last to melt,
the last to vaporize,
for the lingering
eyes of the children, staring,
the eyes of the children of
of viet nam and johannesburg,
for the eyes of the children
of nagasaki,
for the eyes of the children
of middle passage,
for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes,
russian eyes, american eyes,
for all that remains of the children,
their eyes,
staring at us, amazed to see
the extraordinary evil in
ordinary men.

Lucille Clifton, “sorrow song” from Next: New Poems. Copyright ©1987 by Lucille Clifton.

“Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept.” – Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton, who died in 2010 at the age of 73, learned to love language as a child listening to poems written by her mother, a woman who never finished grade school.

Inheriting that love of language and the spirit of her mom, Lucille Clifton wrote poetry of her own for 20 years before she was actually published. But with her first collections of poems, she quickly gained recognition that just kept growing over time. Over a long and prolific career Clifton published more than 30 books that probed the indignations of slavery, celebrated the day-to-day events of life and community, and chronicled, with frank and poignant sensuality the frailties and pleasures of the human body.

Lucille Clifton was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — in the same year, 1988 — something that had never happened before. In 2000, she received the National Book Award for Blessing The Boat: New And Selected Poems, and then in 2007, became the First African American woman to receive The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize — one of American poetry’s most prestigious poetry honors.

Watch more of Lucille Clifton in our archive.

See all poets in the A Poet a Day Collection.