Saturday, February 12, 2011

"It was a dream" by Lucille Clifton

in which my greater self
rose up before me
accusing me of my life
with her extra finger
whirling in a gyre of rage
at what my days had come to.
i pleaded with her, could i do,
oh what could i have done?
and she twisted her wild hair
and sparked her wild eyes
and screamed as long as
i could hear her
This. This. This.

The first thing that struck be about this poem was its structure. The title is actually part of the poem. "It was a dream/ in which my greater self/ rose up before me..." And nothing is capitalized except the last line "This. This. This." It's as if Clifton were going out of her way to give English teachers a conniption. And, after reading the poem, that seems almost likely.

The poem focuses on "my greater self." The apparition is described as wild, having an extra finger, and "whirling in a gyre of rage." I find it amazing that Clifton didn't end the poem after the sixth line with, "i screamed and ran." But Clifton pleads with the spirit. Perhaps because, as it is her greater self, she feels some connection -- possibly even loyalty -- to it. And how interesting that it should be described as her greater self, not just something ordinary like, say, her spirit or her heart. Which begs the question, what's so great about a wild, deformed thing that is screaming at you like a banshee?

The answer must be in what the apparition says. Clifton describes her as "accusing of my life... whirling in a gyre of rage/ at what my days had come to." (Clifton really does have something against English teacher: not only does she refuse to capitalize, but she also ends her sentence with a preposition) When Clifton asks what she should have done, all the apparition says is "This. This. This." What the heck is "this"? The only things in the poem the apparition could be referring to are her actions. But she's twisting her hair, sparking her eyes, and screaming. It that really a beneficial way to act? It's practically crazy! But then, maybe that's the point. This apparition, this "greater self," parallels Emily Dickinson's poem "Much madness is divinest sense." The apparition isn't normal, she is quite mad, but she speaks sense.

"What sense?" you may ask. "She's wild." But that's the point. In every society, there has been a conflict between wildness and civilization. Chaos reigns with only wildness, but without it, there can be no creativity and society stagnates. The apparition seems to be telling Clifton that she's erred too far on the civilization side. It seems Clifton has lived her days without trouble but also without meaning. The apparition is wild, but is also Clifton's true self. She is true only to her nature and does not let what society says or anything else for that matter determine what she does or how she feels. Her comment, "This. This. This," expresses her desperation for Clifton to do anything as long as it is true to who she really is. Clifton could grow an extra finger, throw a fit, go crazy, do anything to prove she was an individual, not another order-follower in the crowd. Do something, in other words, that allows her greater self be seen."

But "It was a dream." Clifton has woken up and realized that she can't really do everything the apparition asked of her. Anything is possible in a dream, but reality has rules that must be followed. Clifton sees this as she writes the poem, she puts the truth in the title, but she still retains some desire to do as the apparition asked -- or demanded. She wants to do something...

So she refuses to capitalize. Then, she goes and starts one sentence with "and" just after ending another with the preposition "to." At the very last line, she finally capitalizes, but these aren't even sentences -- they're fragments. And, by the way, "this" happens to be a very vague pronoun. Above it all, she's writing poetry with no rhythm or rhyme scheme.

Clifton knows she can't go crazy, but she's found her own form of rebellion. Let's hope she doesn't write her essays like this, otherwise teachers everywhere are going to throw fits.

On the other hand, her greater self will be happy.

1 comment:

  1. This is great! I don't have anything else to add! :) Except that I think "this" is intentionally vague. It can mean so many things.