March 23, 2010

adam and his mother: Lucille Clifton’s Prosodic Line | Kazim Ali

This is essay appeared in Barn Owl Review, and will be included in Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence by Kazim Ali, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.

Lucille Clifton is known as a poet of simple and clear diction, informed by trickster sensibility, and is as facile with the cadences of King James as she is with Black vernacular. Though she is often seen as a prophet-figure taking Blakean dictation, her poems are marked not only by spiritual gravity but by the humbler attentions of a working poet utilizing the various tools of poetic craft. Clifton has often discussed her roots as a poet in poetic form. Her mother Thelma used to write poetry in iambic pentameter and would go so far as to criticize young Lucille’s poetic attempts (in free verse) saying, “Oh honey, that ain’t a poem” . Clifton also cites Yeats, Aiken, and Sanchez—another poet who marries colloquial oral speech to received form and poetic meters—as influences.

Clifton regularly uses elements of metrical rhythm in all of her poems—but she more frequently shifts meter line by line and usual for oral or performative effect. Clifton, taking a cue from Sonia Sanchez, sometimes uses the traditionally enjambed free verse line to great effect in this way. If you read a straight sentence through the poem will sound truly like free verse, but if read with slight caesurae at the end of each line, one can clearly hear the rhythmic modulation. For example, her poem “moses”:

i walk on bones
snakes twisting
in my hand
locusts breaking my mouth
an old man
leaving slavery
home is burning in me
like a bush
God got his eye on

Each line functions as a different poetic phrase and each has its own meter, the first line iambic, the second a heavy stress-trochee pair, the third an anapest, the fourth line starts in trochees and ends in an iamb—the rhythmic switch emphasizes the actual “breaking” going on—, and the fifth line has a light stress followed by a spondee. Moses’ human self and his human elements—his action walking, his hand, his mouth—are all iambic, small and delicate against the trochaic and elemental twisting, the locusts, slavery itself.

After a trochee-dactyl line and a trochaic line, the penultimate anapest leads into one of Clifton’s favorite poetic strategies—multiple heavy stresses, in this case a spondee, a light stress (“his”) followed by a second spondee. The interruptions of the line breaks forces the ear away from hearing any regular pattern in the rhythm, and heightens the music of the interruptive incantation which puts Moses’ human qualities in opposition to the immense forces of nature and God around him. He’s once again iambic when he compares home to the burning bush before driving home the final line of the poem—God isn’t the burning bush in this version of the myth, but its observer. Merely by watching something God causes it to flower, so too with creation, so too with Moses himself.

Clifton often uses a switch from trochaic intonation to a brief iambic energy build-up before deploying a series of heavy stresses that declaim with biblical fervency. This switch in meter brings emphasis through the sentence and allows the heavy stresses—sometimes as many as six in a row—to do their rhythmic work. Even when she provides the interlude of a light stress, as in “moses,” she remains more or less symmetrical and musical in her use of the heavy stresses.

Like Sonia Sanchez, one of her acknowledged influences, Clifton often deploys the sentence against the line to heighten a sense of drama or difficulty. Sanchez’s poem “Personal Letter No. 2” is a good example of the line-breaks themselves torquing the emotional content of the poem. In this first incorrect version of the poem Sanchez’s lines are re-assembled, and the punctuation is regularized:
i speak skimpily to you about apartments i no longer dwell in
and children who chant their disobedience in choruses.
if i were young i would stretch you with my wild words
while our nights run soft with hands, but i am what i am:
woman, alone amid all this noise.

But here’s Sanchez’s actual poem with irregular punctuation and very strategic line breaks that interrupt and intrude on normal conversational rhythms of speech:
i speak skimpily to
you about apartments i
no longer dwell in
and children who
chant their dis
obedience in choruses.
if i were young
i wd stretch you
with my wild words
while our nights
run soft with hands.
but i am what i
am. woman. alone
amid all this noise.

Lines continually end with personal referents (“i”, “who”, “you”) suspending the action. In one dramatic case an actual word is broken without hyphenation and another “would,” is compressed into the near gnomic “wd.” It’s the penultimate line, however—“am. woman. alone”—that essentializes the drama and demonstrates most clearly how Sanchez is able to position the brokenness of the sentences against the poetic line to represent the sense of loss and alienation felt by the speaker. As in the Clifton poem Sanchez closes the piece with a heavy stress packed line—double iambs (including “alone” from the previous line) followed by three heavy stresses.

Clifton uses this scheme of sentences of various and irregular lengths coupled with mid-sentence line breaks. Since a traditional use of meter—that is, regularly recurring metrical pattern— is clearly not her strategy, one must listen to the stresses line by line in order to detect patterns in the poem as whole.

The first line of Clifton’s “sarah’s promise” has a strange but obvious rhythm: heavy-light-light-heavy, followed by the same pattern again: heavy-light-light-heavy: “who understands better than i,” creating a brief caesura in the middle of the phrase. The heavy stress of the final “i” sounds iambic to the ear with the beginning of the following line—“the hunger in old bones”—but that line quickly transitions from iambs into the spondaic “old bones” finishing with the anapest at the beginning of the third line, “for a son?” Clifton’s speaker discursively announces “so here we are”—and the couple is presented in different meters: Abraham is metric (a dactyl-anapest pair creating, like her trochee-iamb switches, a little more rhythmic momentum in the phrase) and Sarah is all stress—three heavy stresses next to one another framed by light stresses, an inverse of the first line of the poem: “abraham with his faith/and i my fury.”
sarah’s promise

who understands better than i
the hunger in old bones
for a son? so here we are,
abraham with his faith
and i my fury. jehovah,
i march into the thicket
of your need and promise you
the children of young women,
yours for a thousand years.
their faith will send them to you,
docile as abraham. now,
speak to my husband.
spare me my one good boy.

The following sentence, spanning five lines of the poem is full of stresses but the pattern, due to Clifton’s interruptive feet keeps switching from sounding trochaic and iambic by turn. Listen to this fake and metrically more regular version of the line to see how tenuously the original refuses regularity:
jehovah, i march
to the thicket of need
and promise you
children of women for
a thousand years…”

Instead the small interruptions disrupt the ear and force the passage into a more conversational tone. At one point a clot of heavy stresses—“young women,/yours”—once again foregrounds a regularity of rhythm and leads into a fourth, shorter iambic sentence that ends with the double dactyl “docile as abraham.” The final brief sentences are set apart from the rest of the poem by the injunction “now” but sonically echo the longer sentences with their dactyls “speak to my” and “spare me my”. Clifton drives home her point and returns her poem not to Abraham’s rhythmic docility but to Sarah’s anti-rhythmic fury with a final chain of three heavy stresses next to one another:
speak to my husband.
spare me my one good boy.

In “monticello”, an epigrammatic piece about the suspiciously red-haired children of Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved on Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Clifton deploys three different meters across four short lines.

God declares no independence.
here come sons
from this black sally
branded with jefferson hair.

The first line of the poem, a complete sentence, begins with a heavy stress and ends in trochees, thus giving it a trochaic feel to it. Because of the switch in stresses there are three heavy stresses together in the middle of the line, making brief caesurae on either side of the word “no,” offering the denial extra emphasis: “God declares no independence.” This is immediately followed by two brief lines packed with six heavy stresses—a line of declaration against the dominant historical narrative: “here come sons/from this black sally.” The first of these has three heavy stresses in a row while the second, with its framing of light stresses at the beginning and end of the lines seem to draw the ear and the eye to the word “black” and to Sally herself at the end of the line.

These symmetrically stressed lines are released into the rhythmic levity of the final line, a double dactyl followed by a heavy stress giving the end a light iambic sound: “branded with jefferson hair.” While it’s true that ordinarily a heavy stress at the end of regular meter (an iambic line in “moses,” dactyls in “sarah’s promise”) usually signifies gravity in Clifton’s work, here it has a more folksy and humorous sound, like Mother Goose’s famous double dactyl-heavy stress line “hickory, dickory, dock.” The final line of “monticello” with its rhythmic switch seems to leaven the mood of the poem, making it a little bit more witty, even jocular in tone, rather than the more solemn declamatory tone of the second and third lines.

Although Clifton infrequently works in received forms, in her recent collection Mercy she does includes a senryu, a Japanese form that deals with human emotions rather than sublimating observance into nature imagery the way haiku does. Senryu are frequently darkly witty while traditional haiku traffic more in an earnest and wistful tone. Clifton’s poem is called “sonku,” likely a play on Sonia Sanchez’s adaptation of the senryu, called by Sanchez “songku” for their focus on rhythm and music in addition to the bare observation that Japanese forms are well known for.

his heart, they said was
three times the regular size.
yes, i said, i know.

Once again, in a very short poem—the space of seventeen syllables as a matter of fact, Clifton switches poetic meters in each of the three lines of the poem. The very first phrase is an iamb, followed by a caesura and then another iamb with an extra syllable “was” at the end, leading into the second line, and disallowing the kind of “inter-line” caesura that the rhythm of “moses” was so dependent on. This line is followed by Clifton’s characteristic spondee and then an iamb-anapest pair that nonetheless has a little bit of trochaic sound to it—specifically in “times the regular”— another example of the way Clifton’s use of meter sometimes forces the sound of the line to an in-between action. The final line, iambs set up by an injunction (like Sarah’s “now”), thuds with the sound of the dead man’s heart beat and the image’s painful double-entendre: “yes, i said, i know.”

Many of Clifton’s poetic strategies converge in her masterful poem “what did she know, when did she know it”. The poem begins with a single phrase line but this is quickly disrupted by the second line which contains not only an inverted verb but also a disrupted syntax of the declarative: “what it was the soft tap tap.” This move from inquisitive to declarative is highlighted by the rhythmic shift to three heavy stresses in a row of “soft tap tap” which is echoed a few lines later in “sheet arced off.”
in the evenings
what it was the soft tap tap
into the room       the cold curve
of the sheet arced off
the fingers sliding in
and the hard clench against the wall
before and after

Though the third line follows the tap grammatically “into the room,” it is further disrupted by a midline (and visual) caesura before yet another set of heavy stress in “cold curve.” The poem then returns to lines that are nearly iambic single phrases (with the sole and disturbing interruption of “hard clench,” but is unable to sustain this cool approach in light of the difficult subject matter and soon dissolves into fracture and fragment, a pyrrhic foot (two light stresses) followed by a spondee, a caesura and another spondee and then a return to the tentative inquisitive:
all the cold air       cold edges
why the little girl never smiled

The irony here is that the question (“Why did the little girl never smile?”) was asked neither in her actual life, nor does it manage to articulate itself in the poem. It’s also a line that drops its initial trochees into the dark caesura between “girl” and the first syllable of “never” enabling once again an iambic sound from “never” into “smiled.” Clifton immediately switches in the final lines of the poem to a more painful interrogation—because everyone by this point has realized “why the little girl never smiled.” Though intimated as a question it serves to point out to the reader that there is something no one is talking about but that everyone (most pointedly here the mother) knows.

The two final questions are similarly asked without the normative punctuation of a question mark, perhaps symbolic of the fact that these are questions asked of a woman no longer alive, questions that skim the rawest surface of the child-as-adult’s anger, questions that will never be answered:
they are supposed to know everything
our mothers       what did she know
when did she know it

This poem continually switches between declarative and inquisitive, but the switch is not accompanied by either the punctuation or the normal grammatical constructions that would enable the reader to be accustomed to the new rhetorical mode. As a result it more closely imitates the mental structure of a child who does not understand the causal relationships, unable to understand why the father is acting against her in such a way, unable to understand why the mother does nothing, acts like she knows nothing. It’s the chilling realization of the adult Clifton that whether or not her mother knew of her abuse are equally painful—“they are supposed to know everything/our mothers”—that drives the inquiry in the final lines of the poem.
what did she know, when did she know it

in the evenings
what it was the soft tap tap
into the room       the cold curve
of the sheet arced off
the fingers sliding in
and the hard clench against the wall
before and after
all the cold air       cold edges
why the little girl never smiled
they are supposed to know everything
our mothers       what did she know
when did she know it

Clifton’s poems are to be read on the page and aloud. Her use of prosody and metrical elements, sustained and strategic, is sometimes counter-intuitive and requires a more careful and engaged ear than listening to the rhythms in a poet more obviously trafficking in regular meter, to give two very opposite examples, someone like James Merrill or Susan Howe. In Clifton, meter is all strategy, switching within the poem to create added tension, suspension, humor, or emphasis. She is as at home with a conversational tone as she is with those disconcerting trochee-iamb and dactyl-anapest switches. Paying attention to sound patterns in Clifton’s lines as well as the architecture of sound in the poems themselves will greatly enrich understanding of her work’s content and increase the aural pleasure of its music.

Kazim Ali


Jennifer Chapis said...

Thank you for this wonderful reading of Lucille and her music.

Otter7 said...

This close analysis was an interesting read and helpful to me in several ways. As an emerging poet, I am still learning to deconstruct the works of others in an effort to more fully appreciate the art of the poem, and hone my skills at identifying structures and strategies used.
So, with this wonderful essay I learned much more about the work of Lucille Clifton,and gained a new perspective on her creative approach.
I also learned better how I might read her works aloud to best effect.
And I received a marvelous tutorial on stress, meter and prosody that I can hopefully use in a more conscious manner as I create my own new work.

Sabah Van Gogh said...

I must say...this is utterly wonderful! Thank you!