A Poem as Form of Self-Identification in Lucille Clifton’s "Won’t You Celebrate with Me"

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  Poetry can be an outlet for self-discovery. Poets use this art form to express their individuality. “The making of a poem is a lot like the making of a self: it requires awareness, understanding, and a willingness to consider how we’re shaped by our cultural context, our influences, and our language” (Ekis, Poetry Foundation). In poet Lucille Clifton’s, “won’t you celebrate with me” she discovers the identity of one’s self and explores her emerging self-consciousness. Clifton explores how a poem and self can be intertwined. She defines herself as “non-white” and a woman and these two, race and gender, have both become defining points within the poem. Born in New York in 1963, Lucille Clifton has resonated firsthand with the oppression of segregation and racism. She forms her individualism and explores the theme of identsaysity race and gender throughout “won’t you celebrate with me” through her use of lowercase letters, vivid metaphoric language, and her convincing timid tone.

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“won’t you celebrate with me” begins with a question that sounds like an invitation? The speaker starts with this question to the reader, which alludes to a certain hesitancy for the reader to celebrate. The tone throughout the poem is timid and resembles a plea. The reader does not want us to celebrate her actual life but to celebrate the “kind of life” she has shaped for herself. This suggests the speaker’s concern for their self-consciousness and addresses the speaker’s concern for their developing self-awareness. Clifton’s lack of capital letters (which is evident in all of her poems) conveys a sense of smallness. Her words are not chained by conventional rules. Her lowercase “i” is reflective of the speaker’s self-image which is diminished and challenged. When the speaker says “what did I see to be except myself”, shows the universe contracting in the lack of confidence. There is not a guideline or “no model” for the self that she is trying to construct. Without the guideline or “cookie-cutter” way for self-transformation, the speaker undertakes this transformation based on their vision.

With the lack of guidance for the self she has constructed, the poem parallels several sources to explore the theme of self-consciousness. One source, the biblical Psalm 137, “by the waters of Babylon,” parallels Clifton’s speaker of the poem and the indifference she’s inherited. Psalm 137, a hymn expressing the Jews exiled by the Babylonian effort to conquest Jerusalem, echoes the speaker’s exasperation. The speaker relates herself to the world and faults that as her sense of identity. With her being a “nonwhite” woman, opposing identities are a point of defiance within the poem. However, the speaker metaphorically to say they were “born in Babylon” and refers to them having no memory of their “homeland” and having to start a new one. They are not identifying their selves based on their background but from scratch. The speaker is rebirthing herself, ultimately creating a new vision of the world. The use of vague adjectives when the speaker says “both nonwhite and woman” enforce the idea of her identity not being constructed from her background. These words are used by the speaker to identify themselves with words that are less physically descriptive and are more of a representation of their true personality.

A poem is a form of self-identification. Poetry allows the poet to express their self through a literary art form. The speaker is liberated from their backgrounds and is defining themselves based on their ideals. “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton, is an effective example of poetry revealing the accurate representation of personality, which is much more than the limiting description of a being “both nonwhite and woman”. Free from historical bonds, the poem permits the full expression of self-perception, unrestrained by the truths of physical being. The complexity of this understanding could not be gained from a strictly outward physical examination. In many ways, this freedom allows for a truer expression of self from the speaker, which may reveal a deeper understanding of the person behind the work.  

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