The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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,...

(The entire section is 1746 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 591 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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....

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.