Poem-A-Day: Lucille Clifton

It’s common for people to assume all poetry is autobiographical. It’s not.

Yes, some of it is, of course. And sometimes poetry feels autobiographical and even begins with a nugget of memoir but then evolves into something else.

I wish more people understood this, but then I also wish more people understood and/or appreciated and/or even read poetry. (That’s perhaps a discussion for another day.)

One form of poem which I really enjoy, in part because it specifically breaks up the autobiography stereotype, is the dramatic monologue, in which the poet is writing specifically as someone else. The speaker in this first-person poem can be real or made up, but it is decidedly not the poet.

One of my favorite examples of this form is Lucille Clifton’s “Moses.” Note the succinctness of the poem, how it economizes a familiar narrative with visceral imagery. Note how it uses unconventional choices regarding its capital letters and punctuation to create tone and rhythm and voice. Note the final, gorgeous, implied rhyme of the last few syllables to give the reader insight into just what motivates the speaker, Moses.

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Moses

 

i walk on bones
snakes twisting
in my hand
locusts breaking my mouth
an old man
leaving slavery.
home is burning in me
like a bush
God got his eye on.