In this video segment from Poetry Everywhere, two-time Pulitzer Prize nominated poet Lucille Clifton reads her poem “won’t you celebrate with me.” Drawing from Whitman, the Bible, and the tradition of the sonnet, the poem invites readers to explore themes of identity, race, and gender.
Read "won't you celebrate with me" at the Poetry Foundation.
At the start of Lucille Clifton's "won't you celebrate with me" the speaker poses a question—perhaps an invitation, perhaps a response to someone reluctant to join her. A sense of hesitance follows: the speaker claims that she had "no model" for the self she has constructed even though her poem draws on several sources—notably Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," the Bible (particularly Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon"), and the tradition of the sonnet. (Like a sonnet, her poem has 14 lines and is divisible into sections, with a turn in ideas and emotions from one section to the next.)
In line three, she refers to her existence as merely "a kind of life," and the invitation becomes a timid, almost apologetic gesture. From this apology, the poem shifts to explanation, and the speaker offers reasons for her faltering sense of identity. First, she was born in Babylon—not exiled to it, like the ancient Israelites in the psalm—so she has no memory of a homeland. Second, she is both "nonwhite" (used instead of the more affirmative term "black") and a "woman," a more affirmative term, but still one that defines her by gender, not character. In this poem she must create a new homeland for herself, a new mental landscape.
Moving from the question, "what did I see to be except myself?" back to a statement, the speaker says, "i made it up," referring to her identity. This idea, which has a life separate from the sentence it begins, echoes the previous four-word sentence, "i had no model," and also suggests that the speaker's self-creation is much like an act of storytelling. Then, using its first image rather late in the poem, a "bridge between/ starshine and clay," the poem provides a vivid example of her "making it up." Here the language has become more inventive, more lovely; the speaker is now more confident in her ability to stand alone and is clearly gathering strength.
Toward the end of the poem, a semi-colon arrests the flow of ideas and the speaker addresses the reader, this time not with a question but with an imperative: "come celebrate/ with me." This variation of the poem's opening changes the tone of the celebration. Knowing that "something" has tried to kill her and failed, you have a new sense of what the speaker has triumphed over and new insight into the source of her pride.
Read a biography of the poet Lucille Clifton at the Poetry Foundation.
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