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Untitled poem by Lucille Clifton

cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.

when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country

and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.

it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.

i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.

now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.

-Lucille Clifton

I first heard Lucille Clifton read this poem on A Century of Recorded Poetry, an audio collection of significant recent poets. I gained a unique perspective by hearing her read her own work–it flowed cleaner, for starters. It’s one thing to read something to yourself and stress what words you’d like to stress, and put in breaks where you feel they should be; it’s another to hear the original form, as the poet hears his own work. Reading it was beneficial as well: seeing the words opened up other possibilities of interpretation for me, so I suppose the best case would be to hear someone read their poem aloud, and then read it yourself.

I feel a unique connection, experiencing the poem audibly first. The same goes for hearing other types of writers read their work. Some are excellent readers and speakers, like Neil Gaiman or Ursula Le Guin or Mary Robinette Kowal, others butcher their words and stumble around and I feel embarrassed for them. I’d like to be the former. Who wouldn’t? Unless your poems are Really Edgy and Nobody Understands them (or you) and you’re afraid you’d lose all that Glorious Muse if you relaxed a little. Maybe I’ll start recording some of my poems and put them up. Hey, maybe I’ll put some short stories up, too.

Back to Lucille Clifton. Cruelty skates a fine line between drama and melodrama. It’s easy to seem, when writing a poem about mundane things using dramatic images, as if you were manufacturing poetic emotions in order to have something to write about, but I don’t think she’s doing that. She’s using the mundane occurrence of killing roaches, which few people feel bad about, to underscore the unfeeling we have toward true tragedy. That’s hard to do well, but Clifton does it. This is the sort of poetry I like best: pure distillation of emotion, where every word has a purpose; every sound and line break is intentional.

I’m conflicted, because I’d like to write poems of that quality, but that sort of intentionality is double-edged: it feels fake to set out and plan to use certain devices, but good poems rarely come without re-sculpting them a half dozen times. For me, anyway. Keats said, “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” I’ll accept that only if we posit that trees have a really hard time making leaves.

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