Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559
Amy Clampitt’s luminous enunciations in The Kingfisher and What the Light Was Like brought her suddenly into the forefront of American poetry in the mid-1980’s. She is often linked, stylistically, with poets of a younger generation, such as Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Louise Erdrich, rather than with the writers who contributed to her formation, such as John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bowen, and May Sarton. The awards she received (Guggenheim Fellowship, 1982; Academy of American Poets, 1984; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1984; honorary doctorate, Grinnell College, 1984; writer-in-residence, College of William and Mary, 1984-1985; Hurst Professor, Washington University, 1987-1988; and MacArthur Fellowship, 1992) bear witness to the insistent, unsentimental, plucky intelligence that affirms an exalted state of female intelligence.
Clampitt was born and raised in Iowa on a fairly large farm. After college she studied at Columbia University in New York and afterward remained closely associated with publishing houses and research societies in the Northeast. In the 1960’s and 1970’s she traveled widely as a freelance writer, editor, and researcher; Greece and Italy made lasting impressions.
Her poetic voice, manifested in the powerful verse of the late 1980’s, often bears comparison to Medusa figures—beautiful, erratic, threatening, and mournful. Many critics observe that the early poems, with their numerous literary allusions, rich observations, effortless digressions, mood changes, and structural variations, represent a form of baroque profusion. In the later works, especially A Silence Opens, hidden tendencies toward a spiritual dimension—the ineffable, pared-down, and transcendental aspects of reality—point backward to earlier signposts.
The emphasis on change, vividly articulated in elegiac locales, represents a dynamic presence in The Kingfisher, in which opportunities for divergence are symbolized by the seascape of Maine and the movement from waterfront toward the heartland. Birth and creativity in transitional zones reinforce patterns in a woman’s life much like the topographical shifts in Westward from European civilization to New York, Washington, D.C., the Midwest, and California, home of Hollywood and the Asian influx.
In The Kingfisher, What the Light Was Like, and Westward, Clampitt organizes her material in such a way that fleeting glimpses of momentary events produce a kaleidoscope of sounds and images. Enlightenment is confirmed, but only through loss of innocence. Multiple voices announce a series of refocusings in which telephoto vistas dissolve into close-ups. In the same way, the outer appearances of self-detachment become subtly personalized as memory, sorrow, grief, and remorse are interrogated. This combination of confessional elements and archetypal extrapolations from them allows Clampitt to reflect upon the passage of time and the brocaded textures of language that trace this inevitable flow.
Clampitt’s poetic achievement can be summarized as the perfect identification of contrasts and contradictions (classified in Westward as “crossings” and “habitats”); intellectual interludes and grassroots platitudes, home life and travel, myth and history, defiance and submission are gathered into a single scheme. This synthesizing process is linked to “a remnant of uncountable transformings” (“Matrix,” in A Silence Opens), which allows Clampitt to explore marginal positions in language, perception, and spirituality. It is no accident that her last book of poems celebrates in song this beguiling web of visitations and departures in equal numbers. The contents of five of her books were brought together in one volume in the posthumously published The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt.
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