Literary Analysis

 Nina Simone by Curtis Marden

Nina Simone by Curtis Marden


Feminism and the Black Experience in Lucille Clifton’s and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Poetry

by Meaghan Bush

continued . . .

     The poetry of Lucille Clifton is especially moving for those inspired by the feminist movements of the 20th century. Her work empowers and exposes the female body and the biological disputes that come with them without asking for forgiveness. Clifton’s work is especially vital in the ongoing conversation about and the pursuit of intersectional feminism in the 21st century. Her work is inclusive of all women regardless of race because it acknowledges “the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations” (McCall 1771). As Emilia Tetty Harjani described, “It is the self-worth that functions as the basis for the equity and characterized the feminist voice in the poems,” (37). This is evident in all of her poems.

     Clifton’s poetry is assertive, to say the least. One of her more powerful poems is “wishes for sons,” in which she describes the commonplace burdens of womanhood that are too often misunderstood or even unknown to men. Although she says, “i wish them cramps,” this is figurative (Clifton “wishes for sons” 1). Clifton doesn’t appear to actually wish that men also had cramps or had to deal with the physical nuances of femininity. Her wish is actually far more realistic. By describing these hidden problems in her poem, she’s describing issues to men with which that they don’t typically have to deal. This is because she wants men to understand the difficulties women face. She wants understanding. Equality can be achieved between two different groups of people by mutual understanding of each other and each other’s struggles. There’s no need to physically change either group. One does not need to experience something awful to understand and sympathize with someone who has gone through that ordeal. This is evident in the essay “If Men Could Menstruate” by Gloria Steinem, who was seen as somewhat of an extremist in the 20th century. She described how menstruation would be celebrated if it were men’s bodies instead of women’s who experienced it (Steinem). However, this is not the case in reality, and because it is women who menstruate, it is often seen through the male gaze as a gross and dirty function of the weaker sex.

     Menstruation isn’t that terrible when compared to other tribulations. However, Clifton tries to expose more than that to the male readers of this poem. She says, “i wish them one week early / and wearing a white skirt,” (Clifton “wishes for sons” 5-6). The situation isn’t obvious to those who don’t menstruate. Those who do understand realize that this is describing an early period which will stain the white skirt being worn. The following line is possibly the most powerful in the poem: “i wish them one week late,” (Clifton 7). Similarly, this line is vague to those who don’t understand the issues women face. The part: “one week late,” is referring to the menstrual cycle, and when it’s late it’s often because of an unexpected pregnancy or fear of one, which is something no man has to experience within his own body. The fear and terror a woman feels when realizing she’s “late” is incredibly difficult to describe to men. However, this line is very fitting because it’s short, like a woman thinking, “I’m late,” which is also quite blunt.

     Clifton goes beyond pregnancy and menstruation when describing the biological trials of a woman’s life. The speaker says, “later i wish them hot flashes / and clots like you / wouldn’t believe,” (Clifton “wishes for sons” 8-10). Her depiction of menopause continues, and it’s as unforgiving as the earlier lines of the poem. The final stanza says, “let them think they have accepted / arrogance in the universe,” which describes women deciding to acquiesce in a patriarchal world that doesn’t understand or even respect their bodies (Clifton “wishes for sons” 15-16). We still see this lack of understanding and respect today as men in governments around the world dictate the health practices and standards regarding women’s bodies and health. The poem ends with, “then bring them to gynecologists / not unlike themselves,” (Clifton “wishes for sons” 17-18). She describes here how medical experts are often unsympathetic toward women’s bodies, like men. Throughout this poem, she describes women’s bodily issues and asks her male readers to be more understanding. This is exactly what feminists have been practicing for decades. Raising awareness of a certain issue leads to logical and just reactive and proactive solutions. Through this poem, Clifton raises awareness of situations women experience and asks men to understand them. Through methods like this, there will hopefully be a day when men are not repulsed by the mention of menstruation or apathetic toward the possibility of unexpected or unwanted pregnancies or indifferent to the repercussions of aging on women’s reproductive systems.

     A different poem of Clifton’s celebrates women’s bodies. In “homage to my hips,” the speaker revels in the power and pride of her hips. The waist, hips, and buttocks of women are sexualized to the point where they often represent a woman’s identity. However, the hips are given a new description in this poem. They’re described as “free” and “mighty,” (Clifton “homage to my hips” 6-11). Her body is not something to be tamed, instead she rejoices in their agency, and therefore her own agency. Interestingly, the poem ends with “i have known them / to put a spell on a man and / spin him like a top!” (Clifton “homage to my hips” 13-15). Instead of a woman being spelled or tricked by a man into giving him affection, the speaker and her hips hold the power. The narrator’s hips “don’t fit into little / petty places… they don’t like to be held back,” (Clifton 4-7). These “petty places” are the figurative places that women’s bodies are placed in patriarchal society through the male gaze. It’s petty and offensive to see a woman as an object. Here, however, the female body is not an object; it’s an uncontrollable force of femininity.

     Clifton breaks through the limitations of body standards and expectations in this poem as well. The opening line is “these hips are big hips,” (Clifton “homage to my hips” 1). They are not the small, petite hips of models or movie stars. The speaker rejoices in her big hips. She says, “they need space to / move around in,” (Clifton 2-3). Women are often more aware of how much space they occupy than men, who take up extra space when sitting, often in public transit, by sitting with their legs wide open. Women rarely do this, which is why the practice is called “manspreading.” These two lines of the poem are so great because the speaker is not meek as it’s expected of women, and she is strong enough to have confidence and take up space with her big hips. Not only is this woman unique in that she doesn’t have a model’s figure, she also has the confidence and will to exist unabashedly in a society that would prefer her meek and small.

     This poem in particular shows that “however difficult it may be, Clifton's women face down the temptation to douse their spirits,” (Monaghan 23). This poem is a celebration of the power women’s bodies hold. It goes against the traditional portrayal of women’s bodies and gives them a new identity. Clifton’s poems are not only engaging and comprehensible, but they also have a great deal to say. The conversation of women’s bodies, rights, and health is continued by her poetry. Through reading them, those who don’t understand what women face in our patriarchal culture can begin to learn and open their eyes. As Harjani describes, “she emphasizes that women’s response i.e. viewing that their selves are worthy would play an important role in empowering themselves to solve their problems,” (37). Clifton’s work doesn’t romanticize the female body the way male poets have for centuries. She contributes to an ongoing movement designed to change the public identity of women in modern American society.

     Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry has a stronger emphasis on African-American socioeconomic issues. In her poem “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” she describes the victim’s mother after the funeral. The speaker sets the scene unexpectedly by saying: “after the murder, / after the burial,” (Brooks “The Last Quatrain…” 1-2). The Emmett Till of this poem was not given a funeral, a public celebration of his life. He was buried in the ground with little to no ceremony. By bluntly describing these two evens, it becomes clear that these are the two events weighing on the mother’s and the narrator’s minds.

     The portrayal of emotion in this poem is striking. The mother is “the tint of pulled taffy,” (Brooks 4). She must be under tremendous stress after the murder of her son, similar to stress of taffy being stretched out repeatedly. Describing this strained feeling with “tint” suggests that the tensions can be seen, whether through the mother’s complexion or expression. Additionally, the detail of her “drinking black coffee” furthers the depiction of her grief. Her drink lacks cream and sugar, there is no sweetness. Similarly, her son has been murdered, leaving her strained and bitter.

     In this poem, it is not the physical body but the emotional timbre that most resonates with the reader. The poem is short, similar to the brevity of Till’s life. The most poignant line in this poem is: “And she is sorry,” (Brooks “The Last Quatrain…” 8). One would imagine than a mother whose son has been murdered would feel many things, but not sorry. This is where the black experience comes through in this poem. African-American parents must teach their children to be incredibly cautious in certain situations, particularly those involving white people. African-Americans simply cannot be as carefree in public as Caucasian people. The mother in this poem probably feels guilt for not having taught her son to be cautious enough. The tone and wording of this makes it clear that the situation is the result of a prejudiced society that is not likely to change. The mother feeling sorry feels like defeat, as if she’s surrendered to the circumstances of his murder. She doesn’t condone these actions, but the tone describes her submission. Gertrude Hughes described: “Brooks used imagism to render a historical event placeless and timeless, not because it wasn't historical, but because it was,” (384). This is a moving piece regarding a major historical event of prejudice, and the work will remain to stop the world from forgetting about this horrid occurrence.

     Brooks generally wrote poems about less specific events. Her poem “We Real Cool” describes the downfall of some young black people. They “left school,” “lurk late,” and “sing sin,” (Brooks “We Real Cool” 2-5). This is describing young people who skipped school to stay up late into the night to spend their time at jazz clubs playing pool. The words “Jazz June” is where the black experience is evoked (Brooks “We Real Cool” 7). Jazz music is almost explicitly associated with African-American culture. These youths are certainly young black people, which makes the last line all the more disturbing. The poem closes with “Die soon,” referring to these young people who have been skipping school to have fun (Brooks “We Real Cool” 8). There is no reason given for the impending deaths. The sentencing appears suddenly, after three stanzas of harmless, youthful fun. Allison Cummings described: “The rebellion of the pool players was self-destructive and regarded with pity and sadness by the speaker,” (11). The tone of the poem certainly stands out among the short lines. Just as it is inevitable for young people to search for enjoyment outside of school, it is certain that they will meet an unfortunate fate.

     Gwendolyn Brooks is a powerful African-American female poet who uses race as well as gender to express rejection of demographically based suffering. As Gertrude Hughes described: “Color prejudice pervades her work,” (Hughes 392). She’s known for being a poet concentrated on the prejudice and injustice African-Americans face. However, Brook’s work is about both the black experience and the female identity. Her focus on African-American women should not limit readers of other sexes and ethnicities in their ability to identify with the subjects and themes. Similarly, Clifton’s work should not be limited by viewing it strictly through a feminist lens. The two poems discussed are examples of works that are not strictly about black women or the black experience, but about femininity as a whole. However, Mandolin Brassaw described that “her work reflects new currents in African-American literature since the mid-twentieth century, specifically literature written by black women authors,” (Brassaw 47). Clifton is an accomplished and celebrated African-American poet. This is largely because her poetry delves into the black experience and portrays the struggles of African-American women.


Works Cited

Brassaw, Mandolin. “The Light That Came to Lucille Clifton: Beyond Lucille and Lucifer.” MELUS. vol. 37, no. 3. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 43-70. JSTOR.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Eighth Edition. vol. 2. Edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 1312.

——. “We Real Cool.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Eighth Edition. Vol. 2. Edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 1312.

Clifton, Lucille. “homage to my hips.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Eighth Edition. Vol. 2. Edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 1480.

——. “wishes for sons.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature , Shorter Eighth Edition. Vol. 2. Edited by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 1480-1481.

Cummings, Allison. “Public Subjects: Race and Critical Reception of Gwendolyn Brooks, Erica Hunt, and Harryette Mullen.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. Vol. 26, No. 2. University of Nebraska Press, 2005, pp. 3-36. JSTOR.

Harjani, Emilia Tetty. “The Feminist Voice in Lucille Clifton’s The Thirty Eighth War, Miss Rosie, and Final Note to Clark.” Litera. Vol. 12, No. 01. Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta, 2013, pp. 27-38. JSTOR.

Hughes, Gertrude Reif. “Making it Really New: Hilda Doolittle, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Feminist Potential of Modern Poetry.” American Quarterly. Vol. 42, No. 3. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, pp. 375-401. JSTOR.

McCall, Leslie. “The Complexity of Intersectionality.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and

Society 30.3. Rutgers University, 2005, pp. 1771.

Monaghan, Patricia. ““She Want It All”: The Sun Goddess in Contemporary Women’s Poetry.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. Vol. 11, No. 2/3. University of Nebraska Press, 1990, pp. 21-25. JSTOR.

Steinem, Gloria. “If Men Could Menstruate.” Ms. Magazine, 1978.