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“i am running into a new year” by Lucille Clifton

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

About the Poet

Lucille Clifton

As we close out the first year of the Just Buffalo Literary Center Poem of the Week, we turn again to the voice of the late Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), the most important poet born and raised in the Buffalo area in the 20th century, and a writer whose work over her five decade long career touched the lives of countless readers.

Born as Thelma Lucille Sayles into a working class family in Depew, NY in 1936, Clifton was raised in Buffalo (her family lived on Purdy Street) and graduated from Fosdick-Masten (now City Honors) High School. She attended Howard University and Fredonia State Teacher’s College (now SUNY Fredonia) from which she graduated in 1955. It was during this time that she developed her concise, lower-case free verse style, best known for its iambic trimeter lines, slant rhymes, and allusions to biblical and slave narratives— a decisive break from Eurocentric verse styles—that marked her involvement in the Black Aesthetics movement.

She married her husband Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor at the University at Buffalo, in 1958, and moved to the Washington, DC area in 1960. The couple and their six children born in Buffalo moved to Baltimore, where Clifton became poet-in-residence at Coppin State College, and from 1979 to 1985, Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland.

Clifton moved to California for a short time after her husband died in 1984, but returned to Maryland as Distinguished Professor of The Humanities at St. Mary’s College in Maryland several years later and remained there until her death in 2010.

She was the author of 14 collections of poetry including Good Times (selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 1969), Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980, and Next: New Poems (both of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1988, marking the first time in history any author had two books selected as finalists in the same category for the award). Widely praised for its “poetics of understatement,” her work was notable for exploring her African-American heritage and themes of family, community, and survival from illness and oppression often from a feminist perspective, and always informed by the preternatural awareness of the female body.

Clifton won the National Book Award in 2001 for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000, (BOA Editions, 2000) and in 2007, she became the first African-American woman to be awarded one of the literary world’s highest honors — the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement by the Poetry Foundation. Three weeks prior to her death in 2010, Clifton received the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America.

In addition to her poetry, Clifton published 18 children’s books and Generations: A Memoir published by Random House in 1976.

This poem appears in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 published by BOA Editions Ltd in 1987.

The Poem of the Week feature is curated by literary legacy awardee R.D. Pohl.