The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt

by Amy Clampitt
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1941

Even the most casual reader of The Collected Poems of Amy Clampittwill immediately notice that many of the poems seem to be about the poet’s favorite places on the map of the world. Although she spent most of her life living in a Manhattan apartment and working for various publishers and, notably, the Audubon Society, Amy Clampitt was a dedicated traveler—of both the planet and the mind.

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Born on an isolated farmstead in rural Iowa and later a student at Grinnell College, Clampitt was, at heart, a midwestern observer, a watcher of big, star-filled skies and a patient student of birds and flowers. However, she left the Midwest after graduating with honors from Grinnell College, moved to New York City, and took classes at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. She had hoped to become a writer, but, in one of her characteristic changes of direction, Clampitt decided that she just was not talented enough to be a good writer, so she dropped out of college and entered the business world as a clerk, secretary, and researcher. In her poignant and lucid foreword to The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, poet and longtime friend Mary Jo Salter documents these quiet years during which Clampitt read voraciously, continued writing on her own, and traveled.

In 1971, during a demonstration protesting the war in Vietnam, Clampitt literally hung a sign that read “poet” around her neck, proclaiming to the world that she was serious about this vocation and had, finally, decided to go public with it, chiefly by appearing in the pages of such publications as The New YorkerPoetry, and the Kenyon Review. Although she published three limited editions, Multitudes, Multitudes(1974), The Isthmus (1981), and The Summer Solstice (1983), Clampitt did not become a nationally recognized and widely celebrated poet until the appearance of The Kingfisher (1983), the single volume for which she is best known even though she was sixty-three years old at the time of its publication. During the next eleven years (until her death from ovarian cancer in 1994), she produced four more beautifully crafted volumes of poetry: What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure(1987), Westward (1990), and A Silence Opens (1994). These last five books and forty-four pages of Clampitt’s notes combine to form the large and handsome volume of The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt. The volume also contains an index of first lines and an index of titles, making it a very user-friendly book. In addition, the foreword creates a context for her richly complex poetry and even provides a moving, eyewitness account of the poet’s last days.

Although Clampitt has received nearly universal and enthusiastic praise from critics and reviewers, it is significant that her peers and fellow poets, such as James Merrill, John Hollander, and Salter, were especially generous in their response to the large body of her work. Clampitt was a unique voice, although readers of John Donne, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop will certainly feel comfortable with her style and subject matter. She can be profoundly spiritual like Donne, richly sensuous like Keats, terse like Dickinson, rhythmically inventive like Hopkins, whimsical like Stevens, but most, perhaps, like Moore and Bishop because of her attention to the minutiae of physical reality. “Fireweed,” from Westward, is a fairly typical specimen, with its complex syntax and rich, inventive diction featuring compound words:

A single seedling, camp-follower
of arson—frothing bombed-out
rubble with rose-purple lotfuls

unwittingly as water overbrims,

tarn-dark or sun-ignited, down
churnmilk rockfalls . . .

Later in this short poem, Clampitt will send the novice reader to the dictionary by using such words as “matutinal,” “homiletic,” and “caveat.” In this respect, Clampitt is one of the most demanding contemporary poets. Although she never attempts to obfuscate or confuse, Clampitt refuses to “dumb down” her text. After years of being a researcher and editor, she has a great respect for the precise word needed in a particular context—no matter how difficult or unfamiliar. In like manner, readers should expect the odd Italian or French phrase, especially in her poems of place.

In spite of her bookish ways and life in a small, cramped apartment, Clampitt was a true globe-trotter with a special fondness for Italy and England among other foreign and domestic destinations. “Fireweed” is set in London, one of her favorite points of destination; physical places, for Clampitt, are simultaneously spiritual and metaphorical. It is what she imaginatively makes of London or Paris, for example, that drives the poems and gives them their special sense. Places are always standing for something else or something larger than themselves, and, in this particular respect, Clampitt’s poems resemble those of Bishop and Moore. More generally, one could classify her poems of place as a subspecies of the art form (in painting and poetry) known as paysages moralisées, in which the poet draws a moral lesson or truth from a particular place. William Wordsworth and W. H. Auden almost specialized in this kind of poem, and both were among her favorite poets. In her foreword, Salter cites Wordsworth as one of the poets Clampitt requested to be read at her bedside during her final days in a cottage she had recently purchased in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Lenox, Massachusetts, is a long way from Clampitt’s birthplace in New Providence, Iowa, the venue she evokes in “The Prairie,” a long poem partly about her great grandfather but mainly about the impossibility of buying or owning this vast landscape of the Heartland:

The year is 1860. February. Still hard winter.
A cabin of hewn logs, on sixty acres
of raw grassland, prairie yet unturned.

One bed. Snow sifts through roof chinks.

Some nights the kettle freezes on the stove.
My great-grandfather gets what rest he can
On a quilt-covered pile of straw.

Not surprisingly, many of her poems concern the urban ambiance of New York City, the place where she spent most of her life. In one of her best poems, “Times Square Water Music,” she draws a contrast between the ubiquitous technology of the city, as symbolized by the subway trains, and the older, natural forces, here suggested by the implacable seepage of water in the subway tunnels. She exults in the fact that nature, even in the form of dripping water, simply cannot be stopped by human technology, no matter how sophisticated:

as though anyone
could tie up seepage
into a package—
down which the
water, a dripping
escapee, was surrep-
titiously proceeding
with the intent,
albeit inadvertent,
in time, at an
inferior level,
to make a lake.

Even the format of the poem, with its slender columnar shape, suggests the stream of water descending. The poet further emphasizes the effect by deliberately breaking up “surreptitiously” into constituent parts, “hiding” the word in the next line to suggest stealthiness even in the graphic design upon the page.

In “Amaranth and Moly,” she continues her treatment of New York City by likening it to the classical underworld of Hades; the East River becomes the River Styx, crossed “in a secondhand Volkswagen”: “You enter a region/ of landfill, hamburger loess, a necropolis/ of coffee grounds, of desiccated Amaranthus albus/ (rudely known as pigweed) on the run.” In “Manhattan,” the reader follows a man with “inoperable/ cancer of the pancreas” who, nevertheless, finds a moment of loveliness on the Staten Island Ferry. On “the shunted, hooting, double-snub-/ nosed tub he was as much at home in as/ an owned house.” In typical Clampitt fashion, the place is seen through the double lenses of life and death, beauty and ugliness, disease and health—just as in “Matrix,” where she describes Lake Como, Italy, as being both “hideous” and “precious.” Another strong contrast surfaces in her poem on the nineteenth century British novelist George Eliot (“In George Eliot Country”), where city and country are placed in stark juxtaposition. The poem is further shaped by a characteristic cataloging of telling details:

From this Midland scene—glum slagheaps,
barge canals, gray sheep, the vivid overlap
of wheatfield and mustard hillside like
out-of-season sunshine, the crabbed silhouette
of oak trees . . .
exiled her to London, with its carriages
and calling cards, its screaming headaches.

Literary spots associated with Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Margaret Fuller, and Wordsworth are lavishly evoked in the pages of The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt. “Grasmere,” a poem in which Clampitt examines both the “wild” and “tea-cozy cozy” aspects of Wordsworth’s famous Dove Cottage, contains these vivid images:

dark rooms loom with coal fires; the backstairs
escape hatch into a precipitous small orchard
still opens; bedded cowslips, primroses,
fritillaries’ checkered, upside-down
brown tulips still flourish where
the great man fled the neighbors. . . .

Besides this abundant outpouring of poems about place, there are also many poems in which religious or ethical themes are dramatically addressed. Yet, even in her most minor poems, Clampitt is always a moralist. She maintained high—nearly impossible—standards of moral behavior, breaking with the Episcopalians, for example, because she did not believe that they condemned the Vietnam War with sufficient zeal. There existed clear moral boundaries in Clampitt’s universe, a mindset that also made a middle ground or moral ambiguity possible. In a remarkable group of poems on Lent and Easter themes, she traverses this broad spectrum. In “Palm Sunday,” her mood of exhilaration over the blooming of spring flowers is undercut by the certainty of the crucifixion, to which she alludes in the rather shocking image that closes the poem. In a catalog that lists dandelion blooms and “torturer’s implements,” she also includes “olive groves” and the flowering “of apple and almond, the boxwood/ corridor, the churchyard yew,/ the gallows tree.” Moral and ethical concerns loom large in her other much-praised group of poems in The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt—those on avian subjects, a natural topic for poets if one thinks of Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, Keats’s nightingale, or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skylark, all emblems of larger emotional complexity. Clampitt, in her single most famous poem, “The Kingfisher,” alludes to the similarly titled poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins but uses the bird as a symbol both of transcendence (rising above emotion) and immanence (remaining in an emotional state) concerning a previous, unhappy love affair and its resultant “uninhabitable sorrow.” The beautiful plumage of this distinctive bird and its diving motion perfectly express what no other words could convey about the aftermath of a major but mysterious emotional passage in her life:

a kingfisher’s burnished plunge, the color
of felicity afire, came glancing like an arrow
through landscapes of untended memory: ardor
illuminating with its terrifying currency
now no mere glimpse, no porthole vista
but, down on down, the uninhabitable sorrow.

The final poem in The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt seems to be addressed directly to the sensitive reader who has appreciated how much Clampitt has struggled with language to make her stunning poems. Language, she suggests throughout the book, cuts against itself and, ultimately, the speaker to a strained stupefaction, a hard-earned state of silence analogous to drug- induced euphoria or meditative bliss. “A Silence” instructs the patient reader and auditor that “past parentage or gender/ beyond sung vocables,” in a psychological space of “limitless/ interiority,” a miracle occurs, an event that transcends language, when finally and beautifully, “a silence opens.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, September 1, 1997, p. 52.

Detroit Free Press. November 2, 1997, p. E7.

Library Journal. CXXII, October 15, 1997, p. 65.

The Nation. CCLXV, November 3, 1997, p. 65.

New Criterion. XVI, November, 1997, p. 59.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, November 9, 1997, p. 8.

The New Yorker. LXXIII, December 15, 1997, p. 153.

Philadelphia Inquirer. December 21, 1997, p. Q8.

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