Clampitt, Amy (Poetry Criticism)
Amy Clampitt 1920–1994
Clampitt emerged on the literary scene in 1983 with the publication of The Kingfisher. Surprisingly, this first collection earned her a reputation as one of America's foremost poets. Her poems resonate with rich and varied language, and are filled with detailed images from classical literature. In her subsequent collections, What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), Westward (1990), and A Silence Opens 1994), Clampitt built on her reputation for virtuoso use of language, metaphors, and meticulous detail. Her intellectual language and construction have led to comparisons with Marianne Moore and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Those same qualities are also the most oft-cited flaws in Clampitt's poetry: at times her heavy language and ornamentation seem to overwhelm the subject.
Clampitt was born and raised in Iowa, living on the farm owned by her Quaker parents. As a child she was often left alone to amuse herself, and spent much of her time reading. Clampitt's grandfather, a farmer who loved books, set an early example for her, having written a memoir of his life on the prairie. By the age of nine, Clampitt herself was writing Shakespearian sonnets, but initially wanted to write fiction, believing that being a novelist was more acceptable to her peers than being a poet. Clampitt attended Grinnell College in her native Iowa where she received a B.A. with honors in English in 1941. She earned a graduate fellowship to Columbia University and moved to New York City after leaving Grinnell. Clampitt soon discovered that graduate work was not to her liking, and she left Columbia and took a job with Oxford University Press where she remained until 1951. After a five-month European vacation, Clampitt returned to New York in 1952 and worked as a reference librarian for the National Audubon Society and subsequently as a free-lance editor. Her time spent in Europe would later provide a rich source of material for her poetry, and inspired much of the collection Archaic Figure. She resumed writing poetry in the early 1960s, inspired in part by the social turmoil and issues of the time. The 1960s gave her, she said, the courage to write poetry, but it wasn't until the mid 1970s that a collection (Multitudes, Multitudes, 1974) was published. With the publication of The Kingfisher came overnight acclaim and recognition for the then 63 year-old poet; more importantly, Clampitt
was able to make her living as a poet, giving readings, teaching, and holding grants such as the Guggenheim Fellowship. Clampitt continued to write prolifically, producing new poems and collections at a remarkable rate until her death from cancer in 1994.
Clampitt's first collection Multitudes, Multitudes (1974) offered little indication of the bright future that lay ahead. The style felt somewhat forced and heavy-handed, yet some critics argue that the collection is not without merit. Many of the themes that were to occupy her later work were present in the fledgling collection, including mythology, war, and ancient Greece. Clampitt became known to the reading public through poems published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and other periodicals, and was championed by Stanley Moss, the New Yorker's long-time poetry editor. Many of her previously published poems were collected in The Kingfisher (1983), Clampitt's first commercially-published collection, which shocked and dazzled the literary community by its assured and distinctive voice. Noted critics, including Helen Vendler and Frederick Turner, expressed amazement at the depth and complexity of Clampitt's verse. Hailed as a water-shed in modern American poetry and called "the most brilliant debut in recent American literary history" by Edmund White, The Kingfisher instantly accorded Clampitt a high place in American literary circles and assured her future as a poet. She was immediately compared with Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Gerard Manley Hopkins and many other famous poets.
Her next collection—What the Light Was Like (1985)—sometimes suffers by comparison, but some critics note an increased Keats-like rhetoric, and, indeed, its center-piece was the tribute "Voyages: A Homage to John Keats." In all of her works, critics observe that she maintains an enthusiastic interest in structure, rhythm, meter, and texture laced with classical allusions, references to science and literature, and a wealth of details. Her work dealing with her childhood is considered among her best, and her treatment of the beauty of farm life interspersed with the pain of adulthood is evidence of her thoughtfulness and subtle understanding. Archaic Figure (1987) earned both enthusiastic praise and criticism: praise for her frequently brilliant use of rhythm and poetic phrasing, and criticism of her overly literary style In Westward (1990) Clampitt made extensive use of landscape as a vehicle to deal with unsatisfactory relations, sexual identify and loneliness. The collection was highly praised by critics. Clampitt's last work, A Silence Opens (1994) is filled with "curious, almost random-seeming detail [collected] with magpie thoroughness." Critics note her fascination with the shifting perceptions of history which in this collection she described as, "the shadowy, predatory tent show / we know as history." In the collection, Clampitt sought to give voice to those persons marginalized by the record of the past, as in the poem "Matoaka" about the Native American known to history as Pocahontas.
Clampitt's poetry has met almost universal acclaim for its complex use of language and allusion. Marked by a resonant voice, allusive wit and texture, her work draws on the experiences of poets who came before her, especially Gerard Manley Hopkins and Marianne Moore. Critics agree that Clampitt's love of details and powers of observation are her key strengths, and they work to the best advantage in her land- and sea-scape poems. Clampitt's poetry is nothing if not intellectual, and the life of the mind and ideas are central to her poems. It has been remarked that a reader would do well to have a dictionary or two on hand while reading Clampitt. The vocabulary and literary allusions that enrich her verse has also been criticized as being too academic, too forced, and over the head of most modern readers. Still, the depth of meaning is undeniable and to simplify her language or structure would be to strip her poetry of its uniqueness and its force. What most distinguishes Clampitt's poetry is her ability to weave together the myriad of ideas (nothing was beyond her notice) with the life of the mind and the spirit into a whole which reflected the curiosity of an agile mind.
J. D. McCIatchy (review date 1983)
SOURCE: "Short Reviews," in Poetry, Vol. 143, No. 3, December, 1983, pp. 163-67.
[In this brief review of The Kingfisher, McCIatchy comments on Clampitt's similarities to Marianne Moore, especially in their use of language, their exuberance, and their moralism.]
"It is a privilege to see so / much confusion," said Marianne Moore. By "confusion" she meant the world's own welter, its facts, artifacts, curios, and contradiction. And by "privilege" she meant their moral ordering. Amy Clampitt is a poet in the mold of Moore. For several years now I have been excitedly following Clampitt's poems as they appeared in magazines. As Leigh Hunt said of Congreve, they were...
(The entire section is 784 words.)
Patricia Morrisroe (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Prime of Amy Clampitt," in New York, Vol. 17, No. 41, October 15, 1984, pp. 44-8.
[In this essay, Morrisroe credits Clampitt's poetry with the power to turn the everyday into the magical through its powerful, evocative language.]
"It's all very strange," says Amy Clampitt in her small, bird-like voice. "For years, nobody wanted to read my poems. I'd submit them to magazines and get them back without a word of encouragement. Now there's all this commotion, and it's nice. But sometimes I wonder what all the fuss is about."
In just two years, the "fuss" has turned Clampitt, a former Audubon Society librarian, into one of the major voices in...
(The entire section is 3887 words.)
Sandra M. Gilbert (review date 1985)
SOURCE: "Six Reviews," in Poetry, Vol. 147, No. 3, December, 1985, pp. 156-58.
[In this review of What the Light Was Like, Gilbert criticizes Clampitt's obvious and, in her opinion, tedious use of literary references and excessively poetic phrasing.]
Especially on the East Coast, Amy Clampitt has been widely hailed as the latest wonder woman of contemporary poetry. Perhaps most notably, Helen Vendler enthusiastically commended this writer's first volume, The Kingfisher, for the variety, the complexity, and, indeed, the difficulty of its vocabulary, but more recently—and more extravagantly—Mona Van Duyn (on the cover of What the Light Was Like)...
(The entire section is 962 words.)
J. D. McClatchy (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Amy Clampitt: The Mirroring Marryings," in White paper on Contemporary American Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 311-28.
[In the excerpt below, McClatchy explores Clampitt's poetic voice, especially her use of literary allusions and the themes of death and completion.]
When Amy Clampitt's The Kingfisher was published in 1983, reactions were as extravagant as the texture of the poems themselves. Those reactions came in two waves. The praise prompted a success; the success prompted attacks. About The Kingfisher and the books she has written since, opinions have been sharply divided: enthusiasts applaud their unfashionably rich rhetoric,...
(The entire section is 4642 words.)
Blake Morrison (review date 1990)
SOURCE: "The Cross-Country Poet," in The New Republic, Vol. 203, No. 1, July 2, 1990, pp. 29-32.
[In his review of Westward, Morrison attributes Clampitt's appeal to English readers to her attention to detail, her willingness to include the Old World and its history, and her search for emotional roots.]
Amy Clampitt's new book opens with a bold piece of imaginative transportation, "John Donne in California," setting down a poet who alluded to America but never visited it among the giant redwoods and "New World lizards" of the West:
Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or is
Jerusalem? pondered John Donne,
(The entire section is 3339 words.)
Helen Vendler (review date 1991)
SOURCE: "Imagination Pressing Back," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVII, No. 16, June 10, 1991, pp. 103-11.
[In this review of Westward, Vendler examines Clampitt's use of landscape as a means "to resolve questions of sexual identity, of unsatisfactory family relations, of the expectations of society…."]
For Amy Clampitt, landscape is the refuge to which, for its serenity, its visual variety, its biological laws, she turns in order to resolve questions of sexual identity, of unsatisfactory family relations, of the expectations of society, of the history of Iowa (whence she fled, in her twenties, to Greenwich Village). Reading, of course, was one resource of this...
(The entire section is 1700 words.)
Amy Clampitt (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: "Lasting the Night," in Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, W.W. Norton & Company, 1993, pp. 28-30.
[In this essay, Clampitt recalls her initial lack of self-assurance and reflects upon the development of her poetic voice.]
By the time I graduated from high school I had discovered the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, then very much in fashion. The spring of 1937 is a long time ago, and it may be that I only imagine what I seem to recall—namely, aspiring to what the first of her Figs from Thistles called "burning at both ends." Oh yes, I was going to be a Writer, but that was no more than ancillary. To put it another way, it meant getting...
(The entire section is 1186 words.)
Phoebe Pettingell (review date 1994)
SOURCE: "Poetry in Review," in The Yale Review, Vol. 82, No. 3, July, 1994, pp. 170-73.
[In the following review of A Silence Opens, Pettingell discusses the importance of history in Clampitt's poetry.]
Can it really be only eleven years ago that readers of poetry discovered Amy Clampitt? Back then, in 1983, even sympathetic critics were taken aback by the rich density of her rhetoric. Nobody had expected a revival of almost nineteenth-century lustiness of language and imagery—especially in an era where an almost anorectic plain style still retained popularity. Reviews tackled her anomalies by tracing her diverse influences: John Donne and John Keats, Gerard...
(The entire section is 1087 words.)
Robert B. Shaw (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "High Reachers," in Poetry, Vol. 165, No. 3, December, 1994, pp. 158-65.
[In the following review of A Silence Opens, Shaw praises Clampitt's ability to impose an order upon the multitude of small details that leads the reader to the poem's moral message.]
Amy Clampitt's latest book [A Silence Opens] like her earlier ones, is at first a little intimidating in its bursts of abundance. It can seem like a cornucopia out of control. Rather than shrinking back, it is best to allow oneself to be engulfed; what seems a welter proves to have a fair amount of order after all. The plenitude in question is both in subject matter and style; geographically and...
(The entire section is 988 words.)
Berger, Charles. "Poetry Chronicle." Raritan No. 3 (Winter 1991): 119-33.
Discusses Clampitt's work in context of Westward and calls Clampitt a formidable elegist.
Birkerts, Sven. "Amy Clampitt/Christopher Janecorkery." in The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry, pp. 305-08. New York: Williams Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989.
Compares The Kingfisher with What the Light Was Like and says the newer collection is strong and shows a sense of wholeness though sometimes the Baroque degenerates to Rococo.
(The entire section is 282 words.)