A Poem Is Born

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On a bench outside the college union, a lauded poem had a quiet debut. The poem would go on to become part of a National Book Award-winning collection, but here, it was simply a gift, from one new friend to another.

The author? Lucille Clifton, the distinguished American poet who came
to campus in 1990.

The recipient? Ruth Pittard. Pittard worked at the college for 30 years,
from 1975 to 2005. During Clifton’s visit, she was the program director for
the college union, and it was her role to welcome prominent campus guests.

But Clifton, she admits, was special.

Lucille Clifton at Davidson 1990w Jennifer Bean 90
Lucille Clifton at Davidson in 1990, with Jennifer Bean ‘90

I was an English major, and she was one of my heroines,” Pittard says. “The thought that she was coming to Davidson was like having one of your rock stars come.”

Pittard not only welcomed her to campus, but to her home. That night, she invited Clifton and any interested students to talk poetry over dinner. She laughs and admits the invitation was purely selfish. After all, how often does one get to invite a rock star to dinner?

After the students left for their dorms, the two women stayed up talking. It became one of those rare conversations that converts strangers to intimates in short order. They talked about being women in a male-dominated world. They talked about poetry and language. They discovered their shared love of knitting. Clifton admired Pittard’s sweater, one that Pittard designed and knitted herself.

After Clifton left, Pittard stayed up late writing the knitting instructions for her sweater, which would become a thank-you gift for the poet. She didn’t know, however, that Clifton would have a gift for her as well. The next morning, as the two women sat on a bench outside of the union waiting for students, they exchanged presents. Clifton’s was a poem, yet unpublished, that related to their conversation the previous evening. Clifton read the work to Pittard, titled “poem in praise of menstruation,” and then gave her the hand-written poem.

“There we were, sitting on that bench, waiting for students who were late, having this cosmic conversation about menstruation and sweaters,” Pittard now laughs.

Vital Connection

What do you give someone to thank them for a life-changing conversation? For Ruth, it was her art: the design for her sweater. For Clifton, it was her words.

Increasingly, poetry is being used as a currency of sorts, a way to bestow a gift in a personal way that nothing else—not cash, not stuff—can.

Poetry is being read more now than it has been in years, according to the National Endowment of the Arts. In their last survey in 2017, nearly 12 percent of adults said they had read poetry in the previous year, which was higher than any point over the last 15 years. And the group who read the most poetry? Young adults, aged 18 to 24. Even as fiction writing declines, poetry is growing more popular.

One of the causes of poetry’s resurgence comes from a surprising source: social media. The same platform that reduces articles to listicles, that compels “tl;dr” (“too long; didn’t read”) responses to long-form nonfiction, has embraced poetry. Poems are shared via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, reviving interest in the literary form, perhaps showing why younger people are reading—and sharing—poetry in greater numbers.

Clifton is far from alone in deciding that sometimes, a poem is the perfect gift.

“A poem can go viral in a way that a novel can’t go viral,” says Alan Michael Parker, Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English. “The art form is portable within technology, and I think that’s part of the appeal. But I also think it’s because poetry speaks to the human condition in a way that’s direct as well as eternal.”

The correlation between the direct and the eternal, the specific and the universal, creates a power within poetry that not only connects readers with words, but with each other. And during a time of social unrest and political division, that sense of expression and connection isn’t something that just seems nice or pretty. It seems vital.

Self-Expression

“Poetry is a way of expressing the inexpressible,” says Tony Abbott, professor emeritus of English. “Art makes sense of life.”

After his retirement from Davidson, Abbott discovered a thirst for poetry that existed beyond campus. He continues to teach poetry, now mostly to seniors. He says that the same needs that draw college-aged people to poetry—the need to express ones feelings and find ones place in the world—apply to seniors as well.

It’s often the times of transition—whether adapting to college or adapting to children going to college, whether starting work or entering retirement—that compels people to self-reflection and self-discovery. His life’s work has been encouraging people of all ages to not just read and appreciate poetry, but to write it as well.

“There are two different approaches to poetry,” Abbott says. “The first is, let’s be as difficult and academic and complex as possible, and write a poem that no one will read, and we’ll put it in The New Yorker. Even I don’t get some of those. The other is, let me write poetry as clearly as I can.”

Clifton, he says, is in the second group. She took a minimalist approach to poetry. Hers had a style similar to Emily Dickinson’s, stripping works of all unnecessary words and—for Clifton, even most punctuation and capitalization—paring poems down to a powerful intensity.

Abbott also likens her to Walt Whitman, in that she wrote in an open form. Many of her poems addressed the female body, race and family life.

“It was a sacred connection to bodies
and selves and to the world and to each other. We had this wonderful conversation about the privilege of being women.”

—Ruth Pittard

Sacred Privilege

In the poem Clifton gave to Pittard, she took a topic that some people would see as mundane or even private—menstruation—and elevated it to the sacred. She likened it to a river, one that’s beautiful, faithful, brave, and ancient, that connects all women throughout time to each other, that connects women to the earth. The poem spoke directly to the conversation that Pittard and Clifton shared.

“We were talking about how the language of women originates in the body and the heart. It’s such a relevant language for literature,” Pittard says. “That was before people were talking about body processes openly. But it was sacred for her, and for me it was sacred. It was a sacred connection to bodies and selves and to the world and to each other. We had this wonderful conversation about the privilege of being women.”

Pittard is far from alone in responding powerfully to Clifton’s work.

Parker says that Clifton, who began publishing near the end of the Black Arts movement and was deeply revered in the literary community, wasn’t didactic in her work. She didn’t tell readers what to think, but instead compelled them to a feeling.

“There’s a tremendous amount of empathy in Clifton’s work. An empathetic imagination might be her hallmark, that and the simplicity of the language,” Parker says. “It’s hard not to feel when you read a Lucille Clifton poem, and only then do you figure out what you think about what you feel.”
Pittard remembers how connected the students felt with Clifton during the dinner at her home that night 28 years ago. She remembers how Clifton treated the students as equals, listening to them as much as talking to them.

Clifton would go on to become the first African-American woman to win the high honor of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and she’d become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. She died in 2010. But Clifton lives on at Davidson College still.

She lives on in Parker’s poetry classes, where he continues to teach her work to students who continue to respond strongly to it.
And she lives on at Davidson College through a piece of paper, adorned with straight lines of artistic handwriting, recalling the moment when a lauded poet shared a quiet moment with a new friend.

“The moment we had is uniquely Davidson. It’s one that Davidson encourages,” Pittard says. “At Davidson, you value the literary arts. Connection. You can have these conversations—you make time for them, you make room for them.”

Three (Not-So-Small) Changes

When Lucille Clifton gave Ruth Pittard the poem, she mentioned that she still had changes to make to it. At first glance, it’s tough to spot the differences between that version and the one that was published the following year. But there are three differences that, while seemingly small, helped to shape the poem:

Position of final “If”
The poem has two columns, with the words in the right bridging the stanzas to the left. Each line in that right column adds one word (“if,” “if there,” “if there is”) until the final line returns to solely “if.” Pittard’s version had that final “if” as part of the left column; the published version put it in the right. “‘If’ is underneath the surface of what’s being said in the poem,” Prof. Alan Michael Parker says. “The ‘if’ connects stanzas, overlaps the sentences. The reader wants the form to be complete, which happens when the final ‘if’ returns to the right.”

Conjoining final two stanzas
In the initial draft, Clifton separated the final stanza into two. This breaks the form, creating the only two stanzas not joined by “if.” In the published version, those two stanzas combine into one. The result, according to Parker, is that those last four lines are not undermined by a condition, as the other stanzas are, and the structure of the poem is maintained.

Eliminating final punctuation
The first draft of the poem ended with a period. Clifton’s style is noted for its minimalist approach, including its approach to punctuation, so this seems like a surprising choice. She used only one other punctuation mark—a comma—in this poem. In the published version, she omits the period. This final period doesn’t feel necessary, Parker says, and omitting
it seems more consistent with Clifton’s style.

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Jen Tota McGivney

Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jen Tota McGivney writes features and essays for magazines and websites, and is a contributing editor and regular writer with Charlotte magazine.

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