The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

“The Kingfisher” is divided into seven stanzas, each made up of six lines of approximately the same length. Although it is written in free verse, not in a metrical form, the poem looks more conventional than many other free-verse works, including some in the same collection by Amy Clampitt. It appears even more traditional because each of the first three stanzas is a definite unit, ending with a period; the remainder of the poem consists of double-stanza units, but again, the first stanza in each pair ends with a punctuated pause and the second with a period. Thus the poem is made up of five segments, each distinct in setting, which are arranged chronologically.

Clampitt emphasizes her narrative intent in her notes to “The Kingfisher” when she describes the poem as a “novel trying to work itself into a piece of cloisonné.” The subject of this poem, she says, is “an episodic love affair that begins in England and is taken up again in New York City.” Although the story is related in the third person, the point of view is that of limited omniscience, for while the author reports the thoughts and feelings of the woman, the reactions of the man are presented as his lover’s guesses or assumptions.

The setting of the first stanza and thus of the first episode in this love affair is rural England. In the late spring or the summer of a year marked by especially vociferous nightingales, the two lovers spend an evening going from pub to pub. At some point, too, they walk by the ruins of a convent and see peacocks displaying their feathers. “Months later,” the lovers are in a Manhattan pub. They have been attending a symphony concert, and during intermission they have rushed out for refreshments and a discussion of what they have heard. They do not agree, but it does not seem to matter.

The next scene takes place in the Bronx Zoo. Through the headphones provided for visitors, the lovers hear the “bellbird.” The man makes a comment that seems to his lover to imply much more than the mere words would indicate. There seems to be increasing tension in the relationship, and the answer on this day is to drink “yet another fifth” of liquor.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, the lovers are still in New York. On a Sunday morning in November, they stroll through a churchyard in lower Manhattan, near Wall Street, listening to the choirs from nearby churches and looking at a thrush, which has paused there on its way south. Some time later that month the love affair ends. No details are given, only that the breakup was a “cataclysm.”

Unfortunately, the relationship did not end neatly. During the years that followed, readers are told in the sixth stanza, there was a great deal of “muted recrimination,” until at last the lovers ceased communicating altogether. Long afterward, again in England, the woman is looking back over the affair, trying to identify the signs of disharmony in every ecstatic encounter. In the last stanza, as urgent as a kingfisher diving upon its prey, the persona summons up her memories. However, she cannot capture her old passion. Her plunge into the past ends in an almost unbearable unhappiness.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395

Like most of Clampitt’s work, “The Kingfisher” is crowded with nature imagery, especially references to birds. The poet mentions nightingales and peacocks twice, once in the initial stanza and again when she is summing up the failure of the affair. She also writes about tropical birds in the zoo, including the bellbird, describes...

(This entire section contains 395 words.)

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a thrush in detail, and concludes by comparing her emotional experiences to the dive of a kingfisher.

Moreover, the symphonic selection about which the lovers disagree is Igor Stravinsky’s composition entitled The Firebird. In an obvious play on words, the performance is compared to a bird of prey, a “kite.” However, since the persona almost immediately refers to her partner’s “hauling down” the musical work by his ridicule, it is evident that the poet has switched to another kind of kite, that which is made by human hands and flown for as long as the wind is favorable. Both meanings are applicable to the poem. The bird is linked to the subject of the musical composition and, more subtly, as a bird of prey suggests the developing destructiveness in the relationship; the frailty of the paper creation, its dependence on external forces, including the skill and the will of the person flying it, reminds the reader of the conditional nature of human love.

It has been pointed out that although there are fine examples of visual imagery in her poems, Clampitt draws upon the other senses with equal skill. In “The Kingfisher,” she comments on the pheasants’ display of feathers and describes both the thrush and the kingfisher in detail. However, there are also many references to sound in the poem, and they are particularly significant in relation to theme. For example, though ordinarily one thinks of nightingales as producing songs of great beauty, Clampitt uses the adjective “loud” in her first mention of them and later seems to blame their noisiness for keeping the lovers awake and for the “frantic” episode which in retrospect has produced more pain than pleasure. Similarly, the sounds made by both the peacocks and the bellbird are characterized as screams, and, again in retrospect, the poet wonders how many sexual encounters have “gone down screaming.” Although the birds who seemed to her to be screaming were not indeed suffering, that unusual wording is now more than appropriate as a symbol of human pain.

The Kingfisher

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1746

Up through the Renaissance, earth, air, fire, and water were considered to be the basic elements of the created universe. In various states of balance and imbalance, they were also believed to be the causal factors of human personality. Long after scientists and the educated public had abandoned such notions, poets continued to exploit the metaphorical power of these states of matter. Whenever one lets one’s senses work upon the natural world, one can understand why these explanations have had such a long hold on the imagination. Earth, air, fire, and water are generative images in Amy Clampitt’s highly acclaimed volume The Kingfisher. In taking advantage of their power and allusiveness, Clampitt finds a convenient and telling link between her own baroque sensibility and the Baroque art of the seventeenth century.

The book’s first two sections, “Fire and Water” and “Airborne, Earth-bound,” announce this sensibility while simultaneously announcing the all-encompassing range of a nervy artist. As one might expect, section 1 includes poems on coastal settings, while section 2 provides inland scenes and descriptions of birds. The third, fourth, and fifth sections are called “Heartland,” “Triptych,” and “Watersheds.” These deal, in turn, with the American Midwest, religious holidays and motifs, and foreign travels. The sixth and last section, “Hydrocarbon,” echoes the opening movements of the collection. By thus presenting the new science’s name for the key molecular combination necessary for mankind’s major energy sources, Clampitt suggests that her book is an encompassing journey that tests the old and new sciences against each other, asking the reader what has changed and what has remained constant over long stretches of human history. Provocatively, this last section has a strong political focus.

The plain style has found an aggressive challenger in Amy Clampitt. She dares the reader to contend with poems seasoned with such word choices as: dado, trig, gemütlich, ombré, repoussé, panicled, campanula, chrysoprase, velouté, ruching, clepsydra. Even crossword puzzle fans will find themselves reaching for the dictionary to get through a number of Clampitt’s poems. This baroque diction is an antidote to plainness, to dullness, and to the barely literate stuttering that is so often taken seriously today. Indeed, her work is extravagantly ornamented: sometimes wonderfully rich, sometimes too rich. Her antidote carries its own poisons—hothouse poisons in which style does a dance further and further removed from communication. One can admire phrases such as “damascene-/ sealed bizarrerie of fernwork” and “a totem-/ garden of lascivious pheromones” and yet wonder if this is luxury or overgrowth. Everywhere, Clampitt’s book is chock full of lavish soundplay, inventive word combinations, startling imagery, learned and playful wit, but there is almost no room to breathe, and sometimes straightforward sense is forsaken. In these poems, the reader is summoned by a strange, idiosyncratic voice. Time will tell if the author of The Kingfisher sounds fresh notes of genius or only precious notes of wastrel extravagance.

One poem, at least, indicates that Clampitt herself is well aware of her poetic manner and the possible objections to it. “Marginal Employment” records the extravagances of the Duc de Berry, evoking his “choicest curios” and telling how his tastes

. . . added value

to the hours of no one knows

how many lapidaries, couturiers,

embroiderers of passementerie

with gilt and pearls, and wielders

in gold leaf of the minutest

marginal punctilio.

The duc’s Très Riches Heures “is burdened with a fossil gilding,” and the reader is asked to consider the effort, the human toll that went into “the scandal/ of such squandered ornament.” This last phrase could represent an extreme stance toward Clampitt’s poetic style. Her argument is this: “The earth’s hours/ are weightier, for all this lightness,/ than the sum of human enterprise’s/tumbledown fiascos.” High claims for the value of high artifice.

Amy Clampitt is a pleasing technician; indeed, something of a virtuoso. Her instinct and care for expressive shapes are evident in both open and closed forms. Most often, she sees to it that her stanzaic poems work honestly—a rare attribute today. “A Hairline Fracture,” for example, uses its loosely defined seven-line stanza to frame shifting centers of focus, this even though the five-stanza poem contains only two sentences. (It could have been otherwise punctuated to reveal many more dependent clauses, but dependencies appropriate to theme and speaker’s perspective are created by running clauses together.) The short last line of each stanza prepares for resolution while it holds a space anticipating the next movement. Distant echoes of sound (“weather”/ “Square”; “character”/ “barrier”) enclose the first two stanzas, a full stop terminates the third, and separation of subordinate from main clause justifies and announces the break between stanzas 4 and 5. More important, there is true distinctiveness to the material, the part of the argument, in each stanza. In these ways, Clampitt holds onto a modernist formal integrity that gives her work a chance of survival.

Formal play and displays are everywhere in The Kingfisher. “Balms” employs three short-lined sonnets as stanzas. Two other sonnet experiments are “The Cormorant in Its Element” and “The Local Genius.” In the title poem, all the end words in the third stanza conclude with rd or ld consonant patterns, while other true and slant rhymes define the other stanzas. “Exmoor” employs a consonant-echo envelope rhyme that plays against the poem’s constant enjambment:

Lost aboard the roll of Kodacolor

that was to have superseded

all need to remember

Somerset were: a large flock

One notes here Clampitt’s fun with splitting words, something that continues through the poem’s closing triplets. The stanzas here do not have the integrity of those in “A Hairline Fracture.” They work in quite another way, moving the reader around corners and over spaces to suggest the rhythms of the described journey. The unrhymed, unclosed tercets of “A Procession at Candlemas” work on a visual level and by their distant allusion to the terza rima of Dante. The processional quality is enhanced by Clampitt’s decision, though this feature is lost when the poem is heard rather than read.

The Kingfisher provides such a great range of subjects and attitudes that it is difficult to label Clampitt’s central concerns. She is skillful in creating physical and psychological environments in which moral action takes place—or fails to take place. Many of her poems, especially toward the end of the book, embrace philosophy, politics, science, history, art, and the evocativeness of places in complex, highly charged, and demanding ways. There is a vision of America’s national conscience and consciousness in “The Dahlia Gardens” that rivals any in the last ten or twenty years. The aforementioned “A Procession at Candlemas” is almost as powerful, with its striking images of “street gangs// amok among magnolias’ pregnant wands.”

There are poems about music, about dancing, about the lore of art-rich Europe. There are poems about ecological history, such as “The Quarry,” and even one about “Botanical Nomenclature” that explains Clampitt’s fondness for the kind of language with which some of her poems are overstuffed. The relationships between creature and environment are explored in “Camouflage,” a poem that pulls another thread, a moving human story, through its tapestry. “Salvage” blends the natural world, the man-made world, and the world of ideas. One of the shorter poems in the collection, “Salvage” has great reach and suggestibility through its dazzling image making. In the poem, the speaker watches flatbed trucks haul squashed-down junked cars to their destination and enjoys the

ceremonial removals

from the category of

received ideas

to regions where pigeons’

svelte smoke-velvet

limousines, taxiing

in whirligigs, reclaim

a parking lot

The fifty poems of The Kingfisher take up 130 pages, considerably more than is customary in poetry collections today. The length of the book is a problem. Many of the individual poems are long and difficult, leaving a reader to wonder if making it through the whole book is going to be an ordeal that brings rewards. In fact, there are rewards, but it would have been wiser for Clampitt to have presented a slimmer collection. While her achievement is impressive, the sheer bulk is off-putting. Perhaps she is aiming too quickly at the place in history that Frederick Turner, in his jacket blurb, has already assigned her. At any rate, the effect of the collection is jeopardized by its length, in part because the shape of the book loses certainty as the reader loses touch with the earlier poems. Books of poems depend on the reader’s memory for some of their important effects, and few readers will hold on to what they need from the early parts of this collection by the time they reach the later stages. Another problem is simply reader exhaustion.

Following the poems are thirteen pages of notes. These include comments on sources, glossings of obscure allusions, and explanations of specialized knowledge. In one case—the notes for “Rain at Bellagio”—Clampitt gives the reader hints on how to read the poem. While this placement of notes is preferable to distracting footnotes, the problem they admit to is a problem of some consequence. Who is Clampitt’s audience? Would not these poems live more completely in themselves? What does one do with the notes? The implied answer is that one must read the poems over again because surely something was missed.

Clampitt’s readers will miss many things the first time through, and the second. Patience brings rewards; certainly the difficulties in these poems can be overcome by a diligent, committed reader. The only question is whether such risks need be run in the first place. There is simply too much here—too much exotic diction, too much allusiveness, too much density, too much material—for most readers. Even though Amy Clampitt is a highly original poet, she does little to extend or even maintain the shrinking audience for poetry. The Kingfisher is an elitist performance, and it is difficult to know whether to applaud Clampitt’s integrity or to accuse her of self-indulgence.

Her “guilt,” it is only fair to add, is not greater than that of William Butler Yeats or T. S. Eliot, or any number of the great, learned, and highly individualistic moderns. Supreme makers, they are bad influences for most writers who come under their spell. Clampitt, too, may be a major voice and a bad influence, but that part of her art demonstrating a great and spirited love for language can do much good.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

The first nine poems of The Kingfisher present the coastal panorama of Maine. In these short poems, Clampitt established four contexts: first, the circular flow from private to public life, in which privileged moments give way to confusion; second, the topographical movement from waterfront toward the heartland, representing anguish and guilt, with a return to birth and creativity, symbolizing patterns in a woman’s life; third, the geographical displacement westward from European civilization (primarily Italy and Greece), through New York City (the media capital) and the Potomac/Pentagon (military headquarters), toward California (Hollywood and the Asian influx)—a journey that notes that midwestern values, like the poet’s mother, are “curtained in Intensive Care” (“A Procession at Candlemas”); fourth, the vertical flow up and down language through fog over rocks toward “a texture . . . along the horizon” (“Gradual Clearing”).

In this spiritual odyssey from composure to Armageddon, Clampitt presents numerous opportunities for divergence or an attempt at new directions; hence, part 5 of The Kingfisher is entitled “Watersheds.” Part 4, with three short poems (“Triptych”), represents a religious interlude. The poet ponders human fate and concludes that violence, apathy, and injustice are the offspring of evolution. Enlightenment is confirmed, but only through loss of innocence. Despite the elegiac mood of this section, the poet is able to transcend human limitation in order to return to God, the “already half-imaginary with distance/ toward the improbable” (“The Reservoirs of Mount Helicon”).

The Kingfisher takes its title and epigraph from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins in which the tiny bird, associated through its blazing color with the Pentecostal Dove, announces the themes of redemption and the gift of tongues. Clampitt places the title poem (twenty-third out of fifty) in part 2, “Airborne, Earthbound,” at a pivotal moment when idealism is challenged by the disarray of life, as if the fiery plumage of the kingfisher represents the odd, brief moment associated with the calm of halcyon days. As memory, sorrow, grief, and remorse are interrogated, Clampitt makes felicitous use of the literary allusions established by T. S. Eliot, in whose “Burnt Norton,” part 4, “the kingfisher’s wing/ Has answered light to light,” and by Hopkins, in whom she recognized the power and fertility in order and light. Indeed, many of the poems are imbued with the four natural elements of earth, air, fire, and water, but light alone is endowed with sacramental grace, the by-product of fire and water—“the absolving smile of rainbows” (“Or Consider Prometheus”).

Clampitt’s organization follows a pattern through which the fleeting habitats of a vagabond existence produce a kaleidoscope of sounds and images. Three long poems draw the reader toward the cyclical nature of reality; death is followed by redemption, and withdrawal edges toward commitment. The shorter poems, clustered around people and events situated in public and private domains, are rich in anecdote and local color; they shine with an effervescence distilled through precise observation. “Beach Glass” epitomizes these traits. The ocean is compared to the human mind that produces human artifacts, what Clampitt refers to in “A Cadenza” as “an apotheosis of merchandise.” The last poem of The Kingfisher, “The Burning Child,” is consistent with Clampitt’s purpose because it offers a choice between disaster and “the nurture whose embrace is drowning.” This total immersion, the return to the womb of ocean, brings the reader back into the poet’s abode in such a way that the concrete poetry of the Great Plains is linked with the abstract configurations of Clampitt’s sensitive mind, producing an expressionist fantasy of aesthetic illusion.


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The Kingfisher, like Clampitt’s other books of poetry, is laced with interpolated voices of poets who have influenced her: Stéphane Mallarmé, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Walt Whitman, and A. A. Milne. Her poems refer indirectly to the struggle to achieve recognition. This somewhat reluctant self-exposure brings her close to Emily Dickinson and to John Keats, about whom she wrote an endearing sequence of poems, A Homage to John Keats (1984). Additional publications since the appearance of The KingfisherWhat the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), and Westward (1990)—have advanced the ideas crystallized in this collection. Clampitt reinforces her belief in the manifold capacities of women, who, like Medusa figures, can appear erratic, threatening, beautiful, and mournful. In her poetry, she strives for a conclusive, deep act that asserts a woman’s dream of being.

This intense focus has brought Clampitt into the forefront of American poetry. She is often associated, stylistically, with poets of a younger generation, such as Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Louise Erdrich, rather than with the women writers who contributed to her formation: Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Bishop, May Sarton, and Denise Levertov. The numerous awards that she has 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; visiting professor, Amherst College, 1986-1987; Hurst Professor, Washington University, 1987-1988; Phi Beta Kappa Poet of the Year, 1987) bear witness to the insistent, unsentimental, plucky intelligence that affirms the exalted state of female consciousness.

Clampitt’s poetry sketches the contours of a modernist perspective in which the sources of “a deaf anxiety” (“Tepoztlán”), though partially revealed, generate a response to bondage; the protest against “a terrain as barren/ as the dust of bones” (“The Quarry”) is identified with “tantrums of spring and summer” (“The Woodlot”). Such autonomy in submission lends an energizing force to Clampitt’s vision. Certain poems illustrate the intricacy of women’s work (“Marine Surface, Low Overcast”), while others examine the legacy of the past. “Imago,” in particular, traces the sexual evolution of the female who, liberated from the abyss of history, reaches a state of fulfillment akin to Margaret Fuller’s ideal of being simultaneously all intellect and all feeling. To express this duality, Clampitt chooses the image of a mermaid who is born out of antiquity and who partakes of a double life—a sea creature thriving on land, diving spontaneously into the picturesque.


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Clampitt, Amy. “An Interview with Amy Clampitt.” Interview by Jan Huesgen and Robert W. Lewis. North Dakota Quarterly 58, no. 1 (1990): 119-128. A valuable addition to scholarship on Clampitt, this interview summarizes her life-long attachments: regional traditions, ancient Greece, ocean vistas, Italian Renaissance paintings, and travel.

Commonweal. CXI, March 9, 1983, p. 155.

The Georgia Review. XXXVII, Summer, 1983, p. 428.

Howard, Richard. “The Hazardous Definition of Structures.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 11, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 1983): 271-275. This study connects Clampitt to The New Yorker poetry establishment and illuminates the craft that transforms “grammar into glamour.” The title of Howard’s essay refers to Clampitt’s description of the poetic process in “Beach Glass.”

Hudson Review. XXXVI, Autumn, 1983, p. 582.

Library Journal. CVIII, January 15, 1983, p. 134.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 6, 1983, p. 6.

McClatchy, J. D. Review of The Kingfisher. Poetry 143 (December, 1983): 165-167. An insightful analysis of Clampitt’s verbal invention, moods, and preoccupations by a critic who has assiduously followed her career and enthusiastically praised her poetry.

New England Review. VI, Winter, 1983, p. 336.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, August 7, 1983, p. 12.

Olson, Paul A. “The Marryings of All Likeness.” Prairie Schooner 57 (Spring, 1983): 99-102. The title of this essay refers to Clampitt’s description of the search for meaning and coherence in patterns of disorder. Olson views Clampitt’s work as a fusion of medieval religion and Great Plains poetry, a passage from guilt to purification.

Vendler, Helen. “On the Thread of Language.” The New York Review of Books 30 (March 3, 1983): 19-22. In this deeply reflective essay, Vendler examines Clampitt’s meditative scope. Working from the idea of a “thread” of language implanted in “The Reservoirs of Mount Helicon,” Vendler underlines the aesthetic quest in which Clampitt spans “the gulfs of the mind and world.”

Virginia Quarterly Review. LIX, Autumn, 1983, p. 132.

Yale Review. LXXV, Autumn, 1983, p. R14.


Critical Essays