won’t you celebrate with me

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Lucille Clifton, “won't you celebrate with me” from Book of Light. Copyright © 1993 by Lucille Clifton.  Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.
Source: Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

Writing Ideas

1. How do you define yourself? Write a poem that defines the “kind of life” you’ve made for yourself, choosing examples that suggest how you feel about your place in your family, your community, and your country.

2. What Clifton initially suggests is a celebration seems, by the poem’s end, to be a struggle for survival: “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” What struggles have you faced and emerged triumphant from? Use Clifton’s final line as a point of departure for your own poem of resistance.

Discussion Questions

1. The speaker concludes the poem by explaining that she is celebrating “that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” What has tried to kill the speaker?

2. Though Clifton claims she “had no model” in shaping her life, she draws from several literary models to write her poem, including Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the Bible, and the sonnet form. What does referring to these texts suggest about Clifton’s struggle and the poem’s meaning?

3. In her opening lines, Clifton draws on Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” in which he writes, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” How is Clifton’s celebration similar to or different from Whitman’s?

4. Clifton’s poem is a sonnet. In what ways is it like other sonnets you may have read? In what ways is it different? Why might using a non-traditional approach to the form (free verse, little punctuation, and no capitalization) be appropriate to her subject matter here?

Teaching Tips

1. Show your students Clifton’s reading of the poem and share their observations of the poet’s presentation. How did her reading add to or challenge their interpretation of the poem?

2. Have students explore the poem by writing it out as sentences, examining the impact of line break, the choice of agent and action, and the use of punctuation. Ask them to describe one or more of these choices in a sentence that weaves Clifton’s text into an interpretive statement about this sonnet.

3. Before reading, share images of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Vatican Museum and explore what it means to “create” in the context of the famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After reading, have students discuss the difference between Michelangelo’s representation of two hands in the act of creation and the image of Clifton’s speaker’s hands.

More Poems by Lucille Clifton