Amy Clampitt Clampitt, Amy (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Amy Clampitt 19??–

American poet.

Clampitt received critical acclaim for her first major collection of poetry, The Kingfisher (1983). Several critics suggested that Clampitt is the most important new poet on the American literary scene. Her richly descriptive verse, enhanced by striking imagery, varies in technique and deals with such topics as love, death, and the passage of time. Many critics applauded the skill with which she shifts from light set pieces to somber reflections on modern life. Clampitt began her career with small press publications and her poems have also appeared in several prestigious literary magazines.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 110.)

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Amy Clampitt writes a beautiful, taxing poetry. In it, thinking uncoils and coils again, embodying its perpetual argument with itself. The mind that composes these poems wants to have things out on the highest premises; refinement is as natural to it as breathing. Like all poetic minds it thinks in images, drawn here from an alluring variety of origins—nature (from Iowa to Greece), religion (from Athena to Christ), science (from geology to entomology), art (from manuscript illumination to Beethoven), and literature (from Homer to Hopkins). Clampitt is unself-consciously allusive; the poems are rich with geographical and literary texture, a texture that supports and cushions and gives body to the meditation—sometimes eager, sometimes resentful—that forms the main strand of each poem.

Clampitt's poems, the best ones, are long, as painful ruminations have to be. Clampitt is a woman in middle age contemplating, in retrospect, a difficult Iowa childhood and adolescence, a move East and travels in Europe, and, in the present, love and friendship, periods of happiness on the Maine coast, and recently the death of parents. This life is very discreetly presented, in ways almost bare of anecdote; and yet the intensity of response in Clampitt's language suggests a life registered instant by painful (or exalted) instant. If Iowa has not had a poet before, it has one now….

That a poem beginning with the barbedwire fencing in an Iowa woodlot should end (after its savage weather report in the middle) with the philosophical conundrum of identity, is surprising, but only until one sees how typical such a proceeding is in Clampitt, where one thing is sure to lead to another. I take "The Woodlot" as typical because it, like most Clampitt poems, seems at once unpredictable and conclusive, straying into an expressionist fantasy with the storms, distilling a purity of feeling with the violets, and raising fundamental questions of a metaphysical order in its conclusion.

All of these qualities are displayed in Clampitt's several bravura pieces in this volume, of which the most transfixing is her three-part piece "Triptych": its parts are called "Palm Sunday," "Good Friday," and "Easter Morning." These poems are about the human inclination to cruelty and to victimage, sometimes in the name of love, sometimes in the name of art, sometimes in the name of religion. (p. 19)

If Clampitt often leaves us exhausted by her headlong and pitiless investigations into the roots of behavior—which by themselves would be only horror stories if they were not mediated by her exquisite lines—she can also revive us by the way she can lose herself in the visibilia of the world. In a one-sentence fifty-line poem on fog, named, as a painting might be, "Marine...

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Paul A. Olson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Kingfisher is a book of tough stuff, full of dirt and doctrine. Since dirt and doctrine are the stuff of Great Plains Poetry and literature in the medieval period (where I have tried to plant my flag), I can treat what Clampitt does by describing how she handles the dirt of the prairie and the visionary lights of medieval religion. She is first a poet of dirt, not of space or history after the manner of Charles Olson and the New Poundians…. The transformation of guilt into dirt and of expiation day (or judgment day) into washday bespeaks both the religion and the region.

Part of Clampitt's capacity to handle prairie-plains themes and her sort of religious insight comes from the combination of capacity to handle extended syntactic structures having a disciplined rhythmic character while moving across the dirt comprising prairie space-and-time as if it were a sea frozen by the syntax into almost permanent form. "The Quarry" begins with an account of the limestone quarries of Le Grand, Iowa seen as the Eocene sea; its fossil remains become schooner cut bluestem, burr oak, willow wisps and the body of De Soto returned to the Mississippi to become sea fossil again. In that flux of fossil, water, grass and again fossil, the one perdurable fact which emerges from present cultural life appears to be the greed which we have hardened into civilization: the plow driving "straight into the belly of the future" to create the "stilted El Dorado" of the Iowa capitol's golden dome. Until gold and greed appear in the poem, its prosody is a dance of modestly used alliteration and assonance combined with an iterative pairing of words ("this grid … this hardening lymph of haste"; "the lilt and ripple" of night birdsong; "the wickiups / now here, now there"; the Indian world "hemmed in or undermined" by treaties). Then with the plow the rhythm thrusts on spondees and iambs. I have been told by New Critics wearing their shining badges (For the Defense of Art) that imitative form is an offense in poetry, but in...

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Edmund White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Amy Clampitt, who has just made one of the most brilliant debuts in recent American literary history, can do everything with words but tell a story—and stories are what she wants her poems to be. In The Kingfisher she takes up (or intends to take up) narratives involving great public themes—religion, politics, history, the Nazi holocaust, self-immolation as a form of protest, nuclear devastation, even the anguish Israel stirs in the Jewish pacifist. She also addresses (or wants to address) decisive personal moments—a dazzling glimpse of art ordering the disarray of life ("Dancers Exercising") or, conversely, a dark vision of the terrifying disorder just behind the comforting insulation of the quotidian ("A Hairline Fracture").

But her talent is neither narrative nor dramatic, and the plot of her poems is often left to the copious notes at the end of the book….

In Clampitt's work, one senses not awkwardness but rather a strange fusion of an ambition to narrate and a talent for suppressing the tale, the talent betraying and transforming the ambition. In fact, her manner of writing a poem is actively antagonistic to the chore of telling a story. Her poems make me think of Schiller's remark that "even when the poet is himself the subject, if he would describe his feeling to us, we never learn of his condition directly and at first hand, but rather how he was reflected on it in his own mind, what he has...

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Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of these 50 poems [in The Kingfisher], 14 have appeared in The New Yorker, consecrated there by the most fastidious editorial taste now (and for the last 25 years) operative in the world of commercial periodicals; in her own high middle ages, Amy Clampitt has had her first book published ninth in the Knopf Poetry Series, consecrated there by the most fastidious editorial taste now (and for the last four years) operative in the world of commercial publishing; embellished with commendations from Richard Wilbur and Helen Vendler, who has since reviewed the book at length in The New York Review of Books [see excerpt above] … this poetry is doomed to success.

Of course, success is perhaps the showiest way we have of ignoring our poets—thrusting them into the neglectful limelight where they can writhe—as if the sound were turned off on a brilliant screen—until someone rescues them from the pillory of acclaim…. Pathetically, I can only add to this syndrome of camouflaging celebrity, for I too enjoy and admire these poems at just that pitch of enthusiasm which sets them beyond the pale—or the murk—where poems usually take. It seems to me that The Kingfisher has given me more delight (what Roland Barthes calls jóuissance, not plaisir) than any first book of poems since the first book of poems I read by A. R. Ammons. Amy Clampitt does things in her own way, but of course unless we can say what that way is, it is not perhaps really doing them. I shall try.

It has to do with some readily identifiable devices. Syntax, for one thing …: the poem is wreathed around its grammar, often being one very long sentence, submissive to the voice, observant of the local inflections, but governing the weight of the lines on the page, down the page, so that we know throughout that we are within a governance, the thrall of grammar, which is the same word, if you trace...

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Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Kingfisher is Clampitt's first volume, in many ways an almost dazzling performance. (p. 430)

The interlocking of vowel and consonant sounds is as impressive as the range of the diction, the way the words function to broaden implication as they echo, reflect, and refract one another.

I began this book as I recommend you begin it, at the back, by reading the notes. Besides making individual poems easier to read, this exercise will introduce you immediately to certain important facets of Clampitt's sensibility. For one thing, we notice an interest in the life sciences—biology, ornithology, oceanography, anthropology—along with literature, mythology, history, and the classical world generally. One result of all this learning (facts, book facts, what are you?) is a tendency towards pedanticism, an overloading of the poems with accurate detail at the expense of feeling, emotion. Clampitt seems to prefer the past to the present, material already covered in books to that drawn raw from life. To say this is neither entirely accurate nor entirely fair—her best poems are those which describe natural events, and while these poems are often filled with learned allusions, they also reflect a good deal of close observation of nature itself. But her weakest poems are generally those that deal with the most contemporary facets of human (as opposed to animal or vegetable) life, poems such as "A Procession at Candlemas," which purports to relate a cross-country drive on Interstate 80, but which shows no real sympathy with, and thus no ability to describe, either the people encountered or the life lived. (p. 431)

The book is quite long and has a thoughtful structure, based on water, earth, fire, and air as metaphorical components of existence. These four medieval elements function better as images than as ideas, however; despite her learning, Clampitt is primarily a descriptive, rather than an intellectual, poet. This is why the book, for all its bulk, still seems rather thin; reading it is a bit like eating a gallon of bouillon at one sitting; you are filled up and feel heavy, but an hour later wonder where all that substance has gone. The heaviness in these poems lies in detail and texture rather than in thematic content…. (pp. 431-32)

Peter Stitt, "'Words, Book Words, What Are You?'" in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 428-38.∗

Richard Tillinghast

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is hard to think of any poet who has written as well about the natural world as Amy Clampitt does. "The Kingfisher" opens with nine splendid poems about the New England seashore—its weather, its tidal flora and fauna, and its effect on the observer. But this is not to be thought of as "nature poetry" if that term suggests the vague outlines, suffused with metaphysical half ideas, of Wordsworth and the American Transcendentalists. One is led to imagine the writings of an expert naturalist with a poet's virtuoso command of vocabulary, gift for playing the English language like a musical instrument and startling and delightful ability to create metaphor—to invoke a spectrum of previously unthought-of but apt associations beyond the scope of ordinary human imagination.

When you read Amy Clampitt, have a dictionary or two at your elbow. Her curiosity and lovingly precise attention to the world, both natural and man-made, have their logical extension in her knowledge and choice of words. Thus, "blue willowware / plates go round the dado"; "eiders" seen on the water are characterized by that delightful, old-fashioned adjective "trig"; a turtle is seen as "domed repoussé / leather with an underlip of crimson"—and "repoussé," once pictured, forever enriches one's notion of a turtle's shell…. This use of words, while dazzling, even overrich for some palates, is not done out of sheer ostentation. I have mentioned the way the vocabulary serves the poet's sharp eye. In turn the recherché words become elements in Miss Clampitt's extremely musical verse.

In conventional nature poetry, the natural world is so thoroughly expropriated by the concerns of the human observer that it often hardly has room to breathe. At the other extreme, the pure naturalist can so isolate nature from the human that the sense of man's relation to nature is lost. I admire in Amy Clampitt's seashore poems the way they entwine the human with the natural without suffocating nature. (pp. 12, 30)

Richard Tillinghast, "Nature, Fantasy, Art," in The New York Times Book Review, August 7, 1983, pp. 12, 30.∗

Peter Porter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Amy Clampitt is in the line of remarkable American women poets—Emily Dickinson (see Ms Clampitt's 'Lindenbloom'), Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop (see the rest of her book passim). She ranges from Dickinson's transformations of reality to Moore's and Bishop's beautifully imagined and tensely described surfaces. She is a virtuoso of the here and the palpable.

It is probably only my temperament which causes me to lose patience occasionally with her plethora of description [in The Kingfisher]. She can paint you in words surfaces as touchable as Alma-Tadema's marble, but you wonder whether her effects may not be as empty as his often are…. [The line-breaks in Clampitt's poetry seem...

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