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.