Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

belittling “i”

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Lucille Clifton is one of the most memorable women writers of all time. Clifton has had a lifetime full of success and her collection of works show her empowering embrace to be an African American woman. This SUNY Fredonia alumni has a specific style of writing and uses certain techniques such as using all lower case letters in her poems.

Take a moment to listen to this Lucille Clifton Podcast. On April 3, 2007 Clifton attended a round table discussion with some of our current Fredonia professors to discuss her work. During the clip, one of the professors mentions Lucille’s tendency to keep her poems in all lower case letters. This discussion starts at the 4 minute mark and emphasizes her secondary voice in the use of her lowercase “i”. This was a revolutionary move on Clifton’s part and significantly changed the tone of her poems. Consider her enlightening piece “daughters” on page 819 in our anthology.

woman who shines at the head
of my grandmother’s bed,
brilliant woman, i like to think
you whispered into her ear
instructions. i like to think
you are the oddness in us,
you are the arrow
that pierced our plain skin
and made us fancy women;
my wild witch gran, my magic mama,
and even these gaudy girls.
i like to think you gave us
extraordinary power and to
protect us, you became the name
we were cautioned to forget.
it is enough,
you must have murmured,
to remember that i was
and that you are. woman, i am
lucille, which stands for light,
daughter of thelma, daughter
of georgia, daughter of
dazzling you. (Clifton, 819)

Daughters represents endless generations shaping women into the empowering people they are. It is very ironic that Lucille Clifton chooses to write a poem with such a big concept in all lower case letters. But what does this do for the reader? Why does Clifton choose this technique over the traditional starting every sentence with a capital and ending with proper punctuation? We can interpret her lowercase words as her soft spoken, quiet voice shining through in telling her hard truths. Her purity in her voice sets a meditative tone for the reader to engage and feel at ease about. By going the extent of keeping the “i” lowercase, she is making herself little and insignificant compared to the rest of the words. She does not allow herself to overcompensate her work by putting her name or the use of capital “I” to come before the message of the poem. “i am/ lucille, which stands for light,/ daughter of thelma, daughter/ of georgia, daughter of/ dazzling you” (819). Clifton also goes to the extent of not even capitalizing proper nouns such as Georgia and Lucille. This sends the reader the message that no word is superior to another and the poem is set at a constant even level.

Another example of Lucille’s ironic technique of belittling her works by use of lowercase letters is her short poem “june 20.” This piece is told from the perspective of an unborn child which supports the smaller letters based on size and potential. An unborn child obviously has no voice and no real influence which supports Clifton’s style.

i will be born in one week
to a frowned forehead of a woman
and a man whose fingers will itch
to enter me. she will crochet
a dress for me of silver
and he will carry me in it.
they will do for each other
all that they can
but it will not be enough.
none of us know we will not
smile again for years,
that she will not live long.
in one week i will emerge face first
into their temporary joy. (819)

To conclude this topic, Clifton’s works are extremely truth telling during a time of ultimate silence. Her style of writing does not only reflect the times from the overall message but also is reflected throughout every aspect of writing. Lucille did not have a lot of influence according to the downsize of her text. Clifton shows this alternate world that we are not aware of and gives that source a voice. This can reflect the time when African American women had little to no voice much like an unborn child.





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