Throughout this poem, the speaker explores her journey and the obstacles that were in her way to becoming her true self. She did not have anyone to model herself after, so instead focused on her own morals and personality. Her strength comes from her belief in herself, and she’s unwilling to relinquish that to anyone or anything.
Explore won't you celebrate with me
‘won’t you celebrate with me’ by Lucille Clifton begins with a call to action, ‘won’t you celebrate with me’. The rest of the poem explores the reasons for the celebration, the speaker having gone against odds of privilege and still managed to come out as a success. She molded herself based on her own morals and personality. She’s her own person and is constantly aware that the world wants to take that away from her. She hangs onto it tightly, ensuring that if something tries to take it away from her, it will fail.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of the Title “won’t you celebrate with me”
‘won’t you celebrate with me’ is used three times in the poem (including the title), making it a refrain and increasing its overall importance. The speaker asks the reader or a specific listener to hear her story and celebrate with her the fact that she’s been able to overcome adversity and be who she truly is without influence. By saying “won’t you celebrate with me” rather than “celebrate with me,” the speaker asking, and hoping that those hearing her words will recognize her and her accomplishment. But, she isn’t sure that they will celebrate it with her.
Clifton explores themes of identity and the self within ‘won’t you celebrate with me.’ Her speaker expresses her strength in regard to her personal morals and identity by explaining how she modeled them herself. She didn’t have role models or an image to craft herself after. So, she turned inward and became purely who she wanted to be. This belief in herself allows her the freedom to stand up for her morals and beat off any attempt to undermine her self-confidence and identity.
‘won’t you celebrate with me’ by Lucille Clifton is a fourteen-line poem that is commonly regarded as a sonnet despite the fact that it does not use a traditional sonnet rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. In fact, Clifton chose not to use any pattern of rhyme or rhythm in ‘won’t you celebrate with me.’ Despite this, readers should note the use of words like “me” at the end of multiple lines and the rhyming endings “clay” and “every day” at the ends of lines nine and twelve.
Clifton also made several interesting choices in this poem when it comes to the line breaks and use of punctuation. For example, the use of a period at the end of line three after lines one and two are enjambed. Here, Clifton is asking the reader to pause and consider the impact of having “no model” to base one’s life on. The first lines flow quite smoothly and then are brought to a halt in line three (something that’s emphasized through the use of caesura).
Another interesting moment occurs in line seven, with the phrase “i made it up” appear by itself. The line is enjambed, meaning that readers have to move down to the next line in order to find out how the phrase ends.
Clifton makes use of several literary devices in ‘won’t you come to celebrate with me.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: occurs when the writer includes a pause in the middle of a line. It might be created through punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example: “my other hand; come celebrate” and “a kind of life? i had no model.”
- Extended Metaphor: from the first lines, the poet’s speaker starts a metaphor comparing the development of her personality and morals to the shaping of something out of clay.
- Allusion: a great example occurs in the fourth line where the poet references “babylon.” Without historical knowledge of what this city represents, it’s hard to understand why her Babylonian origin is important.
One technique that Clifton uses throughout the poem is a distinct lack of capitalization. In doing this, Clifton could be suggesting that her poetry is not conforming to the traditional grammar structures of English writing, furthering her sense of difference and nonconformity. Similarly, this could reflect the way that black writers are underrepresented in the English canon, with the small typeface insinuating a certain minimization.
won’t you celebrate with me
what did i see to be except myself?
won’t you celebrate with me begins with a call to action, Clifton asking the reader if they will celebrate her achievements with her. The focus on ‘me’ at the end of the first line, the syntax of the line placing emphasis on the pronoun, furthers the importance of the sense of self in the poem. The key focus here is Clifton’s achievements, symbolized by ‘me’ being the focal point of the first line. She asks the reader, or a specific, unknown listener, to celebrate with her what she’s “shaped into.” By using words like “model” and “shaped,” she regards herself like a piece of clay that can be modeled and made into whatever form she wants. In her case, she didn’t have a model to base herself off of (or someone to look up to, strive to be like, and respect), so she could only be herself.
The focus on the active case of this line, ‘I have shaped,’ rather than the passive, ‘my life was shaped,’ emphasizes the idea that Clifton herself has forced these achievements. Clifton focuses on the idea that it is her, and only her, that has worked for her achievements – the poet here examining the self-drive she possesses.
She goes on to say she is a nonwhite woman “born in babylon.” It’s important to note the use of “nonwhite” in the fifth line. By using this term, she’s alluding to a long and complex history of language being used to elevate some cultures and people and degrade others. “Nonwhite” is used to refer to anyone who is not white, a broad and sweeping categorization that places everything and everyone not white against those who are. This term is used in a similar manner to “nonwestern” and “nonnative.”
Clifton is suggesting in these lines of ‘won’t you celebrate with me,’ that it does not matter the race. It is the idea that ‘white’ is given so much privilege over all other races, therefore identifying herself as ‘nonwhite’ to act as a form of representation for all those reduced to an ‘other.’ The compounding of ‘and woman’ furthers this argument of representation, with Clifton embodying someone against which everything has been stacked against.
Babylon is another interesting feature of these first lines. It is an ancient city mentioned in religious texts. It was used and still is today to refer to a prosperous city in which citizens live without morals. While she might’ve been born in “babylon,” she still had the power to make herself into whoever she wanted to be.
i made it up
and has failed.
The seventh line of the poem starts an allusion to a John Keats poem, ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again.’ In this poem, Keats uses the line “Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay,” something that readers can clearly connect to Clifton’s speaker’s metaphor in the first few lines.
The use of ‘between / starshine and clay’ represents the divide between opportunity and reality. On the one hand, there is a clear possibility in the future, the ‘stars’ representing the promise of the future. The ‘clay’ is the earth in this metaphor, the lack of opportunity and the absolute reality. Clifton argues that being ‘nonwhite and woman’ places you within this liminal space ‘between’ these ideas. You can see that opportunity, ‘star’ that others are taking, but without a defined path to get there, are stuck almost the ‘clay.’
The speaker stands on the bridge between ideas and the “clay,” which has no discernible meaning or form. She made herself there, battling the world as others would have her understand it and who she knew she wanted to be. She held on tight with one hand to the other, knowing that she could only be herself.
The idea that she must ‘hold tight’ to her current situation relates to the precarious nature of her place in society. As a black woman in a society which still contains deeply racist and ingrained bias against black people and women, Clifton fears for the stability of everything she has built. On one hand, she invites the reader to celebrate her achievements, but always, on the other hand, she is ‘holding tight’ to everything she has achieved, ensuring it cannot be taken away.
The final lines of ‘won’t you celebrate with me’ flow quickly and smoothly. They ask that the readers, or a specific listener, come and celebrate with her. The world has tried to “kill” her and has failed. It has tried to rule out and damage her identity (consider the use of a word like “nonwhite”), and she’s not allowed that to happen. The poem ends suddenly with a period after the word “failed.” This suggests that never will there be a time when she doesn’t keep the upper hand over the “somethings” trying to kill her.
Readers who enjoyed ‘won’t you celebrate with me’ should also consider reading other Lucille Clifton poems. For example:
- ‘homage to my hips‘ – takes an empowered attitude towards a woman’s body and celebrates its beauty.
- ‘oh, antic God‘ – expresses a longing for a lost parent, the speaker’s mother, and her desire to return to the past.
- ‘good times‘ – narrated by a child who should be too young to understand the problems of the adult world.