I read with Lucille back in 1973 in a program at the Smithsonian in DC that paired three sets of two poets over a series of nights in what was billed as a gathering of "six of America's major poets"—and in my youthful arrogance felt I was more major than some of the others!
What I remembered most from the series was finally getting the comic and jazz (or what I interpreted from my music background as "jazz") elements in John Ashbery's poetry. And the impact of Lucille Clifton's reading. The night Clifton and I read, she was exceptionally gracious and an incredibly powerful reader.
I was going through a major feminist/gay movement influenced phase at the time, so I took exception to a poem she read in defense of Little Richard. The poem started by calling him by his real name, Richard Penniman, which I doubt many, if any, in the audience besides me knew was Little Richard's real name.
It was a direct and powerful poem, but it confused me at the time in its interpretation of his homosexuality. Somehow in my ears that evening, I thought he came out almost as a stereotype and that Clifton seemed to be blaming his sexuality on "white" people, or at least some white people, obviously racist as well as homophobic ones. But it came across to me that night as adding to the stereotypes instead of destroying or at least deconstructing them. I haven't read or heard the poem since, so I could have been totally misinterpreting it based on my own defensiveness about all that at the time.
As I said, Clifton was an incredibly powerful reader of her own work, and in later years especially her poems were strong and often uniquely put statements of self examination, especially where gender and race are concerned. I was honored to be paired with her and felt grateful for it, even if I also felt a little argumentative about some of the ideas in her work back then.
But what I remember most was her solid presence, her generous nature and fearless laughter, her adamant truth as she saw it and her way with rhythm and language. I hope she saw through my very different approach to poetry into my deep admiration for her accomplishment and generosity in sharing it. Even though she was only six years older than me, I remember feeling like she was a lifetime ahead of me, and in some ways she was.
Her work is there for anyone to check out for themselves (though I couldn't find the Penniman poem on line). I'm lucky to have known her however briefly and however skewed my perspective of her might have been then. She was a dedicated poet committed to the truth as she saw it and that's always to be treasured in my book. She died from a mysterious infection according to one obituary I read (thanks Terence and Ron).
As tragic as her passing is, there's something poetic in the mystery of it to me. Like even death was afraid to face her truth head on.