from Amy Clampitt: Selected Poems, edited by Mary Jo Salter
"Nothing's certain." The first sentence of Amy Clampitt's favorite of her own poems, "A Hermit Thrush," asserts itself with uncharacteristic brevity, and thus with a suggestion of certainty. The paradox is itself characteristic. Throughout her life, Clampitt wavered—not so much between certainty and doubt as among competing, even mutually exclusive certainties.
Insecure, sometimes timorous, she evinced nonetheless an astonishing confidence. Among the things she felt she knew as a wholly unknown writer of thirty-five was that "I am in it"—English literature, that is. Such was her claim to a brother ten years younger, a scientist not apt to disagree. She was sixty-three (and a much-rejected fiction writer) when she made good on her claim to fame, with the publication in 1983 of her brilliant first collection of poems, The Kingfisher. The book gave her instant promotion to the highest echelons of the poetry establishment. A proud initiate to that club, she did not become any less a skittish, fragile solitary. She was odd, singular; her many friends knew it.
Rebellious, nonconformist, wary of systems of all kinds, she could also be dogmatic. There were different dogmas along the way, and her convictions took evolutionary leaps. Personal freedom, though, was a constant ideal—a goal both supported and thwarted by a Quaker upbringing that was altruistic, cultured, politically liberal, and (her word) "repressed." A footloose single woman in her late twenties, traveling abroad for the first time, she conveyed in her novelistic journal a romantic restlessness as she scanned the young men on shipboard "idly as for a chocolate with just the right flavor." Past thirty, on another trip to England, she was apostate (and adolescent) enough to deplore some "old ladies" who were "very pious, very distasteful to look at." Yet midway through her novel-writing thirties, she experienced the solemn joy of a conversion, turned that mystical moment into a massive poem, considered becoming an Episcopal nun, and for a time wrote daily devotional meditations. In her forties, she left the church with an abruptness that surprised her friends, stopped writing fiction, and turned to nearly round-the-clock liberal activism, in a sort of conversion to political protest. The street demonstrator who had once so thrillingly spent a night in jail then fell in love with a distinguished law professor—although, to complicate the irony, Harold Korn was pretty radical too. In her fifties, she moved in with him, the man of her life; yet she protected her autonomy so fiercely that for years she kept an apartment of her own, rarely used. With Hal's encouragement, by her sixties the private poet had thrown herself wholly into a public, even international, persona. Finally, in her seventies, after decades of claiming she would never marry, she became Hal's bride in her final spring.
A life of warring certainties had its parallel in her contradictory literary approaches. Raised in a time and place of no excess—during the Depression, on the Iowa prairie—she would in her writing implicitly uphold the Quaker values of privacy, dignity, reticence. Her wariness of over-explanation occasionally resulted in obliquity. And yet she was constantly bursting with marveling observations and dizzy pleasures, and equally keen exasperations and desperations, that demanded expression in one genre or another, and whether or not anyone else was reading her words. She wrote long, vivacious, highly publishable letters. (Although some fraction of her correspondence saw print years after her death, her private journals and travel essays, as well as the drafts toward unpublished novels, could fill another bookshelf.)
Having dropped out of graduate studies in English because, she decided, she was no scholar, she later published a book of literary essays and wrote a play grounded in a great deal of (perhaps too evident) literary-historical research. She lived in New York for half a century, but wrote about birds perched on branches at least as much as about passengers on the subway: she was an urban nature poet. She often said she wanted to be modern, and was; but she challenged her contemporaries, both formal and free-verse poets, by divorcing that old married couple rhyme and meter: she eschewed strict meter while often indulging richly in rhyme. She was not only a prolific writer but also a "wordy" one, whose love of language, of folded etymologies and interlocking phonemes, led her to use three words when one might suffice, and to make a virtue of excess. Daring in her poems to say so much, so gorgeously, and in long, syntactically knotted sentences, set her apart in the bare-bones 1980s. Yet for her final volume of poems, published in 1994 just months before her death, she alternated between her usual densely packed style and another, airier, more fragmentary mode, and reaffirmed her Quaker side with the title A Silence Opens.
Nothing's certain. "Nothing Stays Put" was another of her titles. She herself didn't stay put—she traveled ceaselessly (and slowly, because of a fear of flying). She did much of her best writing during summer escapes from New York to the coast of Maine, where she was glad to depict not only the roiling seascape before her but also the flat, often desolate landscapes of her Iowa childhood. She wrote with a formidable knowledge of American history, particularly of our expansion westward, but could be, she admitted, a snob in her preference for things European. Modern Greece, classical Greek, Greek myth, all spoke to her vividly. British literary biography did, too. She brought to fruition some of her most complex thoughts by grafting them onto the lives and writings of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Her stylistic models also included John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore.)
In her imagination she disregarded the unities of time, place, and action, and—to append a fourth unity to Aristotle's trio—character. Two of her longest, most admired poems, "Beethoven, Opus 111," and "The Prairie," show her daring to fuse humble, familiar characters with the distant and elevated—her farmer father with Beethoven, and her Pasadena-born grandfather with Chekhov. Meanwhile, year after year, the tide and the fog entered and exited the stage of her Maine poems. The unforeseeable, unrepeatable performances ranged from her little confection "Sea Mouse" to the grave title poem of her second book, a fisherman's elegy she called "What the Light Was Like."
In poems the size of postcards ("Birdham") and letters ("Losing Track of Language"), Clampitt could produce travel writing amusingly and incisively. Pilgrimages—by drivers on the interstate (''A Procession at Candlemas"), or by saint's-day pedestrians in Italy ("Matrix")—provoked some of her deeper yearnings and sorrows. Seedings, transplantings, dispersals—of houseplants that did, or didn't, survive and of weeds that wouldn't stop flourishing—prompted her again and again to write. Most ambitiously, she wrote of exile, particularly of the often tragic movements of peoples in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Called upon to describe herself in an interview, she said she was "a poet of displacement."
Amy Clampitt seldom relied on argumentation. In her life (and I knew her well) she had strong opinions, and these made their way into her poetry, but opinions are not arguments. Displacement was not merely her major theme but also a major poetic device. You couldn't be sure where her thought was going; instead, you were invited to participate in her well-phrased wonder at where you both arrived. Hers was not a logical but an associative mind. While introducing information or imagery, her poems often looped back with an exploratory aplomb to repeat clauses and lines, thus attaching new meanings to old gestures. Those meanings were rarely susceptible to paraphrase, and she negotiated paradox beautifully. Her genius was to stir unlikely figures, themes, and sounds into each other boldly, even rashly, and to contain, in well-crafted vessels, their chemical reactions.
In A Silence Opens, "Sed de Correr" is a notable example of that technique; or, to change the metaphor from chemistry to architecture, the poem is one of her most venturesome, and successful, edifices. Built of bending fragments of syntax, of pointedly strange likenesses that, in repetition and transformation, become somehow natural, it's a Bilbao Guggenheim of a poem. The Spanish title, a phrase by César Vallejo literally meaning "a thirst for running," is translated by Clampitt as "the urge to disjoin, the hunger / to have gone, to be going." Often having given voice to the giddiness and pain of leaving previous selves behind, she found no subject closer to her heart than, as she phrases it here, "running away from what made one." She links unpretentiously her young self, a sort of immigrant from Iowa to Greenwich Village, with Federico Garcia Lorca arriving as a foreigner in Harlem.
First, though, "Sed de Correr" recollects the "ash tree outside the schoolroom" of her childhood. In the phallic metaphor of "the great, growing / trunk of it hardening, the mass, the circumference," Clampitt establishes a theme, the puzzling, fearful power of sexual desire. But like the tree, the poem keeps branching. The natural image seen from the schoolroom window yields to a man-made one, of looming New York buildings with rows of windows—"the lit grid's apertures past counting." She imagines Lorca looking out at the "bleared eyeholes" of the jailed, and at windows behind which, not looking out but in, "the mad / are warehoused." (Clampitt's sister, surely thought of here but unmentioned, was a sometimes-institutionalized schizophrenic.) In Clampitt's own city apartment, "the starry apertures of paperwhite narrcissus" are her only "opening," "a sweetness I drank at as though entity / might depend from it." Note her habitual accuracy: entity depends from, not on; paperwhites "depend" in hanging down from their own slight weight.
The repeated word "aperture" soon takes us to Virginia Woolf: "the lighthouse, / its pulsing aperture engulfed, / the waves breaking." That's a highly sexualized version, you'd have to say, of the lighthouse Woolf presented as a symbol for (in part) art itself. Clampitt's next stanza delivers the waters joining over Woolf's head: her suicide by drowning, large stone in her pocket. A moment later we face Kafka's "windowless / warren of calculation, contingency, foresight." The cockroaches of the city ("those feelers, that lustrous, chitinous / lodging among interstices, among systems / we've lost track of the workings of") have become, by implication, all the denizens of Kafka's nightmare bureaucracies as well as poor, peculiar Gregor Samsa of "The Metamorphosis." Clampitt's own metamorphoses of imagery lead us by stanza's end to consider, in a gathering list, "the gathering impasse of language, the screech / of its decibels, the mumble of its circumlocutions, / the mutter, all over Europe" of a world war that America is about to enter.
But the poem is only half over, its meanings only partly opened. By the end, it is about—what is "about" about, anyway?—failed political systems that create exiles and runaways, and lost innocence: our lost accounts, that is, of most of innocence and experience. We are on the move, all of us; we cannot memorialize the whole of life in words; the words we do write miss the mark; and they cannot all be preserved. The adolescent's gaze on the sexually charged Iowa "ash tree outside the schoolroom" has transmuted into the young adult's discovery, from "a window / onto an airshaft," of two men making love ("I'd not / known how it was done"), and, finally, into a mature woman's consideration of a dying tree on West Twelfth Street, whose "leaves" are the writer's pages. In the poem's concluding lines, the delicate "paperwhite narcissus" we had learned of many lines before has blossomed fully into the narcissism of the writer's quest to be remembered on paper:
The axe is laid
at the root of the ash tree. The leaves of dispersal,
the runaway pages, surround us. Who
will hear? Who will gather
them in? Who will read them?
This selection of poems is a gathering; but it is a winnowing, too. The challenge, here, was to reduce Amy Clampitt's poems by about half. All anthologizing has its quandaries, but with Clampitt the problem is not in her having written many more poems of importance than she published in book form. She did write a great deal, including poems for two early chapbooks (Multitudes, Multitudes of 1973 and The Isthmus of 1981), but these slim, engaging volumes contain no poem, in my view, that is "better" than those I have regretfully excised here from the five full-length books Knopf published in her lifetime.
I have tried to follow the spirit of Amy Clampitt's practice. She could have resurrected poems from her chapbooks, but did not. In the correspondence of our friendship, which coincided closely with her published writing career, I watched her delete from and rearrange every book manuscript with her habitually severe eye. She was wary of minor productions, and had to be persuaded to publish in book form some of her shorter delights, such as the rhyme tour de force "Exmoor" or the sly sonnet "The Cormorant in Its Element."
Perhaps her anthologist's hardest choice is what to do about long, multipart poems, as well as separate poems clearly meant to be read as a thematic unit. To keep all such sequences intact for this selected edition, while omitting many smaller, standalone poems, would perhaps give the false impression that she produced mostly blockbusters. On the other hand, because her longer poems usually make use of nonfiction—of historical and biographical contexts—any one part isolated for publication runs the risk of looking deracinated.
I have compromised by including the whole of one masterly eight-poem sequence, "Voyages: A Homage to John Keats," for its intrinsic beauty and for other reasons: Clampitt's lifelong obsession with Keats's truncated career, her style's great affinities with that young (mature) poet's, and her engagement with Romantic poetry as a whole. Some, but not all, of her poems about Wordsworth and his circle (Dorothy Wordsworth, ultimately, interested her most) and about George Eliot are reproduced here. Clampitt's long sequence "The Mirror of the Gorgon" responded to a trip to Greece and, more deeply, to a fascination with Medusa that she felt from an early age. Yet even to accommodate all the "Gorgon" poems would be too limiting: they extend beyond the named sequence.
A recording survives of one of Clampitt's public readings, probably in 1986-87, in which she had been asked to integrate, with commentary, some of her own work with choices from Emily Dickinson's poems. "The Soul selects her own Society—" begins one of these. When the soul, at the end of Dickinson's poem, closes "the Valves of her attention / Like Stone—," Clampitt says she thinks of "people turning to stone" and the Medusa myth. From there Clampitt invites her audience to consider an incident in the life of George Eliot, who feared she could herself be called a Medusa. We are then led to Clampitt's poem "Hippocrene," named for "the pool that was stamped by the winged horse, Pegasus, who was born of the decapitated corpse of Medusa." In Clampitt's poem, the Hippocrene lives on in Virginia Woolf's England, as a symbol of the uncrossable waters of despair. Clampitt reads the poem to her audience, and notes its citation from Woolf's novel The Waves: "I came to the puddle. I could not cross it. Identity failed me. We are nothing, I said, and fell."
That, in a nutshell, is how Amy Clampitt thought. Separating one poem from its fellows in such an oeuvre is an exercise doomed to frustration—much like plucking just one or two independent lines from a ten-line Clampitt sentence.
I have plucked just four of Clampitt's uncollected poems to be printed here. An excerpt from the long, never-published "The Sun on the Stone" is the first. It celebrates her spiritual awakening in 1956, but hardly limits itself to Christian imagery. Following Milton, one of her heroes, Clampitt makes seamless transitions between classical and Christian tropes; the stone here that belongs to the Cloisters, in New York, belongs also to the Medusa myth.
Of a number of poems remaining in her papers, three were published in The New Yorker after Clampitt's final book had gone to press. "The Equinoctial Disturbances" was followed, after her death, by "Pot Nomads" and "The Winter Bird." "The Equinoctial Disturbances" is a haunting example of Clampitt's late style—or one of her styles, in which spaces appear mid-line and punctuation is minimized. She presents the confusions inherent in illness and insomnia, but does so in a way that is artistically anything but confused:
Pain Management arrives
dressed all in green
a rosebud in (can morphine
have invented this)
Much more could be said about each of the three poems, but I will confine myself to "Pot Nomads." It is less shapely than her finest work; written in a terminal patient's haste, it conveys her fear that, like her houseplants, she won't "make it through the winter." Yet this poem offers a captivating look at her enduring preoccupations.
Clampitt's poetry is as thickly carpeted with flowers as a tapestry. Among her favorite blooms, violets emerge as a personal emblem for beginnings and endings, births and deaths. As she noted in an essay called "Providence," her earliest memory dated from the April day a brother was born. A bed of blue violets beckoned from "the outermost grove," violets whose intensity of hue she compared to a body of water. (True blue itself seemed to have had for her a psychic pull. I think of her account of meeting her future husband, Hal, whose face was so seriously scarred by burns that some people turned away from it. From across the room she had been attracted, she told me, by his "beautiful blue eyes." She praises those eyes, too, in her poem "Blueberrying in August.")
Violets pop up conspicuously in her poems about George Eliot. That pseudonymous novelist who cohabitated scandalously with (as Clampitt made sure to specify) a "pockmarked" drama critic was in some ways an alter ego for the good-as-anonymous poet who met the disfigured, enlightened man Hal Korn and moved in with him. In "George Eliot Country," the "violets still bloom" beside the church where Mary Ann Evans was christened; in another Clampitt poem, "Highgate Cemetery," Edith Simcox, Eliot's idolatrous mourner, arrives at the funeral "with a nosegay of violets" and becomes distracted by grief. She "came to herself finally / at a station she didn't recognize, / somewhere in Hampstead." Came to herself: that might be a motto for both Eliot and Clampitt.
In "Pot Nomads"—set in April, the budding month of her first memory—the "yardful" of violets are purple. Clampitt has also been tending some potted primulas—as their etymology tells us, the first flowers of spring. She is, she admits, irresponsible with them: "Left unwatered while I / gallivanted elsewhere, / they'd languish." (It is typically high-spirited of her to present travel as entertainment. She had been shuttling to chemotherapy appointments by the time of this poem's composition.) The poet is herself, evidently, like the indoor primulas that "would droop and then, repeatedly, / revive, put out new blooms, / bright nurslings of nothing but / the sun and more tap water." At last the "tough" and "warty" primulas are returned to the ground, and months later, in a fall weeding, she rediscovers them "greenly / holding on": ironically, in being buried and forgotten (their "travels over"), they have a greater chance at survival than in her keeping.
The experienced Clampitt reader will see "Pot Nomads" hearkening to earlier poems that find in the taming of plants a way to get at something grander. The tragic "Sed de Correr," with its paperwhites, is on that reading list. So is "High Culture," whose amaryllis blooms are compared to a "somewhat / famous violinist" paying a visit to the "parlor of the farmhouse." So is "The Horned Rampion," in which a long-forgotten, dried wildflower rediscovered between pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica is like "old love / reopened, still quivering."
Another in this nursery of poems is "A Hedge of Rubber Trees"—chatty, long-lined, busy with apparently trivial detail, and terribly sad. The rubber trees of the poem's title are potted. They serve as window shades in the Brooklyn apartment of an eccentric friend, a woman of "threadbare history" who has washed up from somewhere in the "Baltic cold" (and who drinks—she might be called potted, too). She lives, and by poem's end has apparently died, surrounded by the rubber trees, three cats, a canary, and cockroaches. Clampitt writes of her initial empathy with the friend whom she later, guiltily, loses track of:
Unclassifiable castoffs, misfits, marginal cases:
when you're one yourself, or close to it, there's
a reassurance you haven't quite gone
under by taking up with somebody odder than you are.
In a Paris Review interview of 1993, Clampitt, now a famous poet, connected this poem to the biographical sketches of her apprentice chapbook Multitudes, Multitudes: poems about survivors, particularly female ones. "The lives of marginal, overlooked, and neglected women have a kind of analogue in growing things," she said, "the weeds that spring up in vacant lots and are the precise opposite of the showy, carefully cultivated blooms in a florist's window." She maintained in the interview that she was "put off" by militant women. And she was not a "feminist poet." But was she, if pressed, a feminist? Yes.
"Pot Nomads" also evokes Clampitt's "Beethoven, Opus 111." In the final, extended stanza of that great poem, she shifts from describing Beethoven's piano music to recounting a seemingly minor roadside incident in her father's life. And she does so abruptly in mid-line, with her own technique's "astonishment of sweetness":
a disintegrating surf of blossom
opening along the keyboard, along the fencerows
the astonishment of sweetness. My father,
driving somewhere in Kansas or Colorado,
in dustbowl country, stopped the car
to dig up by the roots a flower
he'd never seen before—
A few lines later, Clampitt adds,
He mentioned in a letter the disappointment
of his having hoped it might transplant—
an episode that brings me near tears,
still, as even his dying does not.
And he asks from his hospital bed that someone "take away the flowers." To his daughter, that wish was tantamount to death itself.
In this book I have repotted some of Amy Clampitt's most vital poems, in the hope of seeing them flourish in new surroundings. "Nothing's certain," in an existence she called "this / botched, cumbersome, much-mended, / not unsatisfactory thing." That a great many of Amy Clampitt's poems will continue to thrive, one way or another, is about as certain as things get.
About the Author
Mary Jo Salter is the author of six collections of poetry, including A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems. She is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and divides her time between Baltimore, Maryland, and Amherst, Massachusetts.
Alfred A. Knopf