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.
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 Yorker, Poetry, 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...
(The entire section is 1941 words.)