How to Be a Living Poem: Lucille Clifton on the Balance of Intellect and Intuition in Creative Work and the Healing Power of Connection
By Maria Popova
Every single thing we make, even the smallest, we make with the whole of who we are and what we have lived — with every impression and every memory, every love and every loss, consciously and unconsciously constellated into the creative act. A song encodes its maker’s entire history of feeling. An equation cannot describe why an apple falls without its maker’s entire understanding of how the universe works. The poetry of personhood — which we might call soul — is the raw material for all creative work. To hear its voice requires a delicate harmonizing of what we consciously know and what we unconsciously are — a syncopation of intellect and intuition.
Thinking about this in the context of Virginia Woolf’s meditation on how to hear your soul and Nick Cave’s insistence on the creative power of trusting yourself, I was reminded of some wonderful passages I had saved from various interviews Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936–February 13, 2010) gave over the course of her long and luminous life.
A century after the polymathic Nobel laureate Henri Bergson considered the interplay of intuition and the intellect in the creative work of science, Clifton takes up the question as related to art in a Rattle magazine interview from the winter of 2002, reflecting on where a poem comes from:
You can murder poems, I mean, I’ve done it, when you start thinking too hard in your own way and you start intellectualizing, because I think a poem has to come from intellect and intuition. If you get too much intuition you have sentimentality, which is not good, and with too much intellect, it has a whole lot of stuff that nobody knows nor cares. But a poem, it’s about a whole human and speaks to the whole human and it has to come from a whole human, so you involve all of yourself.
In the final years of her life, in another interview, Clifton revisits the subject of this integrated totality of being and how to hear its voice:
A human is not sections, is not parts. Stanley Kunitz says that poetry is the story of what it means to be human in this place, at this time… If something wants to be said — the poem — the poem knows that I will accept it… You allow it in yourself. You allow it to do its work in you.
Poetry can be so healing precisely because it springs from that deepest place of reckoning with what it means to be human — the place we seek with the intellect but touch with the intuition. And down there in the depths, we don’t much differ from one another, sharing the same basic longings, the same basic fears. Clifton reflects:
Poetry can heal. Because it comes from a heart, it can speak to another heart.
Somebody asked me why is it that I want to heal the world. I want to heal Lucille Clifton! And fortunately, I am very human just like all the other ones, all the other humans.
With an eye to what it means to be a poet, she adds a sentiment equally true of any creative endeavor:
I didn’t graduate from college, which isn’t necessary to be a poet. It is only necessary to be interested in humans and to be in touch with yourself as a human.
Complement with Clifton’s classic “won’t you celebrate with me” — a living testament to this poetry of personhood turned art — and her spare, stunning ode to the common ground of being, then revisit Wendell Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being and Anne Gilchrist — Whitman’s most beloved friend — on inner wholeness and the key to a flourishing soul.
Published October 21, 2023