What the Light Was Like

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

This second volume of Amy Clampitt’s poetry confirms her reputation as the most impressive voice to emerge in American poetry in the 1980’s. Hers is not, however, a young voice: Clampitt, who is now in her mid sixties, did not begin publishing her poetry in magazines until 1978, and her highly acclaimed first book, THE KINGFISHER, did not appear until 1983.

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Further, her voice is venerable not only in its age, in the ways that it reveals a lifetime of travel, reading, and sensitive observation, but also in its themes and style. The predominant concern of her poetry is with loss--the loss of home, close relations, beauty, poetic power, memory, even nature itself--and her meditative treatments of this theme place her firmly in the elegiac tradition of classical and British poetry.

In its traditional themes, its highly wrought form, and its many literary allusions, Clampitt’s poetry seems a throwback to the kind of decorous academic verse which was popular in the 1950’s. In other ways, however, Clampitt speaks more directly to contemporary American concerns. This immediacy is most conspicuous in part 4 of the book, “The Metropolis,” where Clampitt treats the issues of ecology, urban poverty, and the threat of nuclear war. Her contemporary sensibility profoundly affects the entire book in that she explores the traditional elegiac theme of loss in modern American terms. Specifically, Clampitt contrasts the appeals of home and mobility, and the related appeals of poetry as well-wrought object and poetry as liberating activity. These contrasts run through part 1, “The Shore,” which focuses on her summers on the Maine coast; part 2, “The Hinterland,” which deals with her family’s history in Iowa and the death of her beloved brother; part 3, “Voyages: A Homage to John Keats,” which treats the sad but prolific final years of Keats’s life; and part 5, “Written on Water,” which ranges over a variety of settings and subjects.

In the last poem of the collection, Clampitt finally returns to the Maine coast which she seems to consider her primary home. Yet, the title of the poem, “Let the Air Circulate,” and the uncharacteristically open free-verse form in which it is written, make it a paean to mobility as well. The poem serves final notice of what the volume as a whole has richly demonstrated: that Amy Clampitt is a remarkably gifted poet who will continue to “circulate"--to use a variety of poetic subjects and forms--to express the many sides of her prodigious sensibility.

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