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Lucille Clifton’s Respond to Whiteman’s Poetry Essay

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Updated: Feb 15th, 2022


Lucille Clifton was an African-American poet, who, through her work depicted the experiences of African-Americans. Additionally, many of Clifton’s works emphasize the strength of women, praising their courage. In her poems and memoir, Clifton paid tribute to Walt Whiteman, a great American poet by including quotes of his poems in each chapter. This paper aims to examine the influence that Whiteman’s work had on Clifton. Clifton responds to Whiteman in her “won’t you celebrate with me” by emphasizing the collective experience that forms a story, instead of focusing on an individual’s achievements solely.

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In her poems, Clifton pays tribute to Walt Whiteman. For instance, in her memoir titled “Generations,” she included Whiteman’s quotes at the beginning of each chapter. This memoir specifically traces the history of slavery and African-American history, as well as Clifton’s own experience. As such, the works of Whiteman help Clifton emphasize that the United States, as a country, was created for the freedom and equality of its citizens, which was not the case for the African-American community. Therefore, Clifton refers to Whiteman’s poetry not only in her poems but also in other works, showcasing the immense impact that Whiteman had on Clifton.

Clifton quotes the following poem “Song to Myself” by Whiteman in “Generations”:

“They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.”

In the chapter where this quote appears, Clifton talks about her family members and ancestors, saying that some of them died young, others were slaves or had to work hard in factories. The fact that Clifton included this poem in one of the crucial parts of her memoir, which discussed her heritage showcases her response to Whiteman’s words. She embraces the poet’s emphasis on inclusion and celebration, however, instead of focusing on herself she cites generations that preceded her. Hence, unlike Whiteman, Clifton argues for the inclusion of her ancestors as an integral part of one’s life.

An important distinction between Whiteman’s and Clifton’s works, which signifies the response that the latter had for Whiteman is that Clifton’s poetry is largely focused on the collective. Whiteman, on the other hand, as can be seen above, was more concerned with the individual. “Song to Myself” in general is one of Whiteman’s greatest works that represent his creative vision, hence one can use it to analyze the core themes of Whiteman’s poetry. The representation of self is central for this poem, although Whiteman also mentions that she is a part of the universe as well when writing “I am large, I contain multitudes” in section 51 of the poem. Therefore, there are some overlaps between the messages that both authors aimed to convey and it is evident that Clifton respected Whitman’s work, but added her own understanding of a person’s experience as a collective thing.

The memoir is not the only work of Clifton where similarities and impact in Whiteman’s work can be seen. For example, in “won’t you celebrate with me” she depicts herself as a strong individual, despite all the difficulties she had to face. She invites a reader for a celebration of her life, where she mentions that she grew up with no role model. As an African-American woman, it is evident that Clifton faced difficulties growing up and had no one to look up to, yet she grew up and became a strong individual. Cliffton writes:

“won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman”

In the final lines of this poem, she states that despite the dangers of issues she had in life as an African-American, she survived and thrived as a poet. In this poem, unlike her other work, Cliffton focuses on “I” instead of the collective representation of her community, which has similarities with Whiteman’s “Songs to Myself.” This work can be considered a response to Whitman’s poetry, where Clifton explores the topic of self, similarly to Whiteman. Notably, Clifton consistently uses lower case letters, even when mentioning herself, when she states “i made it up” that can signify her lack of confidence or understanding that she is only a part of something greater. Therefore, there are many overlaps in “Song to Myself” and “won’t you celebrate with me,” as well as many differences in the way the authors perceive themselves and the world around them.

When examining Whiteman’s work one notices the themes of freedom and democracy, which can be seen in Clifton’s work as well. For instance, in the poem “America” he explores the themes of democracy and equal rights for all. The following is the poem:

“Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time” (Whiteman)

In this short poem, Whiteman points out the United States is a state for free and equal people, as he describes it as a center for daughters and sons. Clifton’s work is more women-centered, as she demonstrates more emphasis on the issues of gender inequality and the perception of females. Hence, another way Clifton responded to Whiteman’s works is by focusing on the experiences of women when exploring the topic of equal rights in America.

One example is her “poem in praise of menstruation” where Clifton writes:

“if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon”

Here, as in her other works, Clifton uses lower case capitalization, which also demonstrates her unique style and view of herself as an author, and perhaps as a part of something larger. Whitman, however, used upper capitalization to emphasize certain elements of his poetry, such as Earth, Freedom, Love, and others. Therefore, while Whiteman’s and Clifton’s views and poetry share similarities, she responds by placing less emphasis on the “I” and focusing primarily on praising women.


Overall, this paper examined the response of Lucille Clifton to Walt Whiteman’s poetry. Clifton includes a lot of Whiteman’s poems in her memoir, representing the impact that the great poet had on her life and work. For instance, she uses “Song to Myself” to respond to Whiteman’s celebration of inclusion, but instead of focusing on an individual, she embraces the collective experience of her family as African-Americans. Both poets explore the themes of freedom and democracy, as well as the strength of an individual, which is evident in Whiteman’s “America” and Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” Hence, Clifton responded to Whiteman’s work by honoring the poet and using his poems to show her experience as an African-American woman.

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IvyPanda. "Lucille Clifton's Respond to Whiteman’s Poetry." February 15, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/lucille-cliftons-respond-to-whitemans-poetry/.


IvyPanda. 2022. "Lucille Clifton's Respond to Whiteman’s Poetry." February 15, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/lucille-cliftons-respond-to-whitemans-poetry/.


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