Amy Clampitt's poem "Iola, Kansas" is typical of her poetry, using her much-lauded command of the language to show that a small, almost unnoticed moment in life can be much more significant than it might at first seem.
The poem concerns a cross-country bus ride that passes from Oklahoma into Kansas, driving through miles and miles of seemingly empty country before coming to a stop at a diner in a small speck of a rural town. The poem's speaker is moved by the honesty and simplicity of the woman at the diner in Iola and realizes that, though she would never have expected it, she has found happiness at the end of her trip. Clampitt presents the plainness of the bus trip, the town, and the diner with complex language and imagery that might, at first, seem contrary to her subjects, but that end up showing off the depth and significance of things too often taken for granted.
Clampitt's career as a poet is notable for the quality of her work, but also for the fact that, at age 63, she seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere, publishing her first collection of poetry to great critical acclaim. She published four more collections in the next decade, with a meteoric rise to the highest echelons of American poetry. "Iola, Kansas" was published in The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt which appeared in print in 1997, four years after her death.
Clampitt was born on June 15, 1920, in New Providence, Iowa, a town of 200 people. She was the first of five children. Her father, Roy Justin Clampitt, was a farmer, and the family lived on the 3000 acre farm that was owned by the poet's grandfather until Amy was ten. They then moved to an uncultivated patch of land a few miles away; this was the first of many moves throughout Clampitt's life.
Growing up, Clampitt was encouraged to be a writer by her paternal grandfather, who, in addition to being a farmer, was a fan of literature—he had written and self-published his own autobiography. She began writing poetry at the age of nine, almost fifty years before her first publication. After graduating from New Providence Consolidated School, she attended Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, earning a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in 1941. She then received a scholarship to Columbia University, and went to New York for graduate school. She left school within a year, however. Throughout the 1940s, she worked for Oxford University Press, eventually rising to the position of promotions director for college textbooks. When she left that job in 1951, Clampitt took a long, five-month tour of Europe before returning to New York. From 1952 to 1959 she was a reference librarian for the National Audubon Society. In 1960, she began working as a freelance editor and writer, and she continued to do so for the rest of her life. In addition, from 1977 to 1982 she worked for the E.P. Dutton publishing house as an editor.
While working in various jobs associated with literature, Clampitt continued to write. At first, she thought of herself as a novelist, and wrote three novels during the 1950s that were never published. She turned to poetry in the 1960s, publishing a small edition of her first collection in 1974. Her first commercial publication came in 1978 when, after attending poetry writing classes, her work was read by the poetry editor of the New Yorker, one of the most respected magazines in the country. For years, her works were published in that magazine.
With the publication of her book The Kingfisher in 1983, Clampitt became a literary sensation at the age of 63. Over the next ten years, she published five more collections of poetry, as well as collections of her critical essays. She received some of the highest honors available to poets, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1992, a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets in 1984, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1992. In the final decade of her life, Clampitt taught at William and Mary College, Amherst College, and Washington University. She died of ovarian cancer on September 19, 1994. In 1998, "Iola, Kansas" was published posthumously in The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt.
The first line of "Iola, Kansas" establishes the poem's basic situation: the speaker is riding a bus through the middle of the country, referred to here as "the interior."
Lines 2 through 4 concern the flatness along the route of the interstate highway the bus is taking through Oklahoma. Although the state is known for having the most diverse terrain of any state, away from the major urban areas, the state has areas that are flat and empty, with miles of nothing more notable along the interstate than oil refineries, referred to in line 2 as "cities" because they often, from a distance, look as big and bright as actual towns rising on the horizon. Even before it became a state in 1907, Oklahoma was famous for oil production: though its yield of oil has diminished as the wells have dried, it is still an important spot for drilling, and for refining the oil culled from off-shore drilling sites. The first stanza refers to the wastefulness of offshore drilling as "crass" and yet "indispensable." It mentions the drilling rigs that tower above the flat Oklahoma landscape as "homunculi."
A "homunculus" (the singular form of "homunculi") is a legendary figure that comes from early scientific theory. It originally referred to a small deformed humanoid figure that could be created by a scientist, and the word was later adapted in reproductive theory to indicate that sperm were actually tiny men, or homunculi. An artistic rendering of a human being with exaggerated features, showing the relative sensitivity of certain nerve paths, is called a "sensory homunculus." Such portrayals, with large hands, lips, and genitals, look somewhat similar to oil drilling rigs.
The poem's second stanza contains a litany of the things that the speaker observes outside of the bus, along the side of the highway, in small towns, and in the yards of houses adjacent to the road. In line 7, after describing the bright color of the bumper-stickers that talk about Jesus, the speaker expresses bewilderment in an aside to the reader: "who knows / what it means." The implication is that religious conviction is not only different than, but contradictory to, the showiness of bright fluorescent coloring, which should properly be more subdued.
Line 8 refers to a "Barbie-doll barbecue": the poem is indicating that the people who bought the barbecue in the backyard of a house on the highway are trying to emulate the aesthetically sterile make-believe world of Barbie dolls, buying products that are more suited for an image of perfection than for real life. Unlike the graffiti that might be observed in an urban setting, written on a stationery wall, this scene of self-expression and chaos passes by the bus's window like a motion picture, which the poem refers to as "graffiti in video."
Line 9 has lyrics from popular songs, which the poem refers to, disparagingly, as "dirges." The phrase "heart like a rock," which appears in the poem in italics, is an inexact meshing of two songs. Bob Seeger's "Like a Rock," which talks about being young and powerful, never includes the word heart. Seeger's song, adapted to well-known commercials for pickup trucks, has led to an association with rural America, the area described in the song. A closer connection can be made to Paul Simon's song "Love Me Like a Rock." This song does not use the word heart as the poem does, either, but its meaning is similar. The second song lyric, "I said Kathy I'm lost," which also appears in the poem in italics, comes directly from Simon's song "America," which chronicles a couple in love on a bus ride, laughing together and commenting on the other passengers, with a refrain that reflects the point of "Iola, Kansas": "All come to look for America."
In line 10 the poem announces the transition from Oklahoma to Kansas, which, it observes, is less orderly, lacking the same "scheme."
"Sere groves," mentioned in line 11, are groves that have withered and dried. The "horizonless belch and glare," an image that begins on that line and continues on to the next, indicates the fires that refineries emit into the sky, to burn off gasses released in the refining process. "Alluvium," mentioned in line 12, is usually used to indicate sediment that is deposited by a flowing river: here, Clampitt uses the word to indicate that the flow of time and life has dropped old automobiles off in junkyards in the same way that a flowing river might naturally drop silt.
The setting established in the first three stanzas changes at the start of stanza 4, as the speaker explains that the bus has crossed over from Oklahoma to Kansas. The scenery, which was ugly and commercial, turns to that of a more peaceful rural landscape as the bus turns off of the large freeway and travels down smaller country roads. In place of the oil derricks of Oklahoma are the symbols of community in small Kansas towns: churches and bandstands represent places where individuals come together, partaking with each other in religion and music. The water towers that are likely to be the tallest structures in the towns have the names of the towns painted on them, and the towns are named for girls, which makes them seem friendly and sweet.
The first two lines of stanza 5 are concerned with describing the churches in the small towns, and with drawing connections between the churches and the colorful bumper stickers previously referred to in line 6. Although the stained glass windows are meant to be beautiful and inspiring, the poem calls them "banalities," pointing out the disparity between their intention to worship Jesus and the lack of imagination that they inspire: the question "who is this Jesus?" indicates that the speaker receives no religious uplift from viewing them.
The last half of stanza 5 is about the way that life in a small Kansas town baffles the poem's speaker, who not only fails to recognize Jesus from the churches' tributes to Him but also feels a growing sense of "strangeness." The sights described in the first stanzas were worth noting, but the speaker could at least make some sense of them, unlike the experiences in Kansas.
The town of "Iola" is first identified. For a bus traveler, accustomed to food from vending machines and rest stops that feature attention-grabbing videos, the hominess of the rest stop is remarkably unusual. In line 24, the claim that the boysenberry pie was just made that very day is characterized as having been said "believably." The fact that the poem's speaker would include this word indicates, first, that one would assume that the pie would not be fresh, and also that one would expect that a person would lie about its freshness. The word indicates surprise on both counts.
At the end of stanza 6, the speaker of the poem uses "I" for the first time. All previous personal pronouns have been "we," referring to the people on the bus collectively. The experience of receiving the pie from an honest person (who also refers to herself as "I") has made the poem's speaker more reflective, more self-aware.
The poet does not say that she reveres the pie, but that she feels "something akin" to reverence, thereby identifying the specific emotion with a general term, much as she earlier is only able to come up the idea of "strangeness" to describe the town of Iola.
In line 26, using the name "Silex" for the coffee pot marks it as an old device that was manufactured before Proctor Electric and Silex Corporation merged in 1960. The Silex coffee maker was a glass vacuum device, heated on a stove burner, that was first patented in 1915.
The air brakes mentioned in line 27 are common on buses used for interstate transit, and, when engaged, are loud enough to wake any people who may have stayed on the bus to sleep while it was at the rest stop.
The use of the word "agency" in line 28 indicates something acting according to the will of God. While the word is more commonly used to refer to branches of a bureaucracy such as the government, there is a long-standing tradition of using the word to identify an "agent" that God uses to carry out His plans. In the same line, the word "assembly" refers to the passengers on the bus, but it does so in a way that likens them to a church congregation.
The poem's reverence for the simple country life is felt by all of the bus passengers in line 29, bringing them together as a community, a feeling that they did not have before. The speaker refers to herself as a "rock" in line 30: her heart, or emotions, are only able to narrowly escape from her body through "some duct" when she is moved by what she has seen in Iola. The poem ends with the same recognition of the inability to impose order that was mentioned in line 10, but, after having absorbed the "mess" and lived with it, not just experienced it intellectually but emotionally, the speaker finds that the uncertainty that people in the country accept as being the way of life makes her happy.
Small Town Life
After establishing a sense of disconnect that dominates the speaker's feelings about America during the bus trip, this poem focuses in on a sense of community that comes from life in a small town. Small town collective thinking is characterized in several ways.
One characteristic of the ways that people are said to think in the towns of Kansas, the "interior" of the country, is represented by the names of the towns in this poem. They are identified as girls' names, which the poem presents as a sign of closeness, of intimacy, of friendship. This aspect of the town names is briefly foreshadowed in the song lyric quoted in line 9, which refers to "Kathy" as if one is overhearing a snippet of conversation between friends. Later, when the specific town in Kansas is identified as "Iola," the same sense of personal closeness has already been established.
The poem mentions monuments, seen through the bus window, that are associated with life in a small town: a bandstand in a park, water towers, and churches all reflect a rural mentality that seems alien to the observer.
The most potent symbol of small-town life giver here, though, is the food one finds in this culture. For one thing, it is fresh food, not to be gotten from a vending machine but prepared by hand. It is not fresh in the sense of healthy or nutritional—the specific items mentioned are processed white bread, coffee, and pie—but it has a personal connection with the person serving it. The fact that the pie is "believably" fresh-baked implies much about the speaker's assumptions and findings about small-town life. In a world where pies are routinely churned out of machines and then presented as being fresh, this one, though not described in a very appetizing way, is something that someone has taken the time and inclination to create. In this one image, the poem captures a sense of honesty and industry that represent the values of small-town life.
This poem presents a quest for happiness, even though the poem's speaker does not seem to even be aware of being on a quest. It is focused on forward motion, as the bus carrying the observer moves through the Oklahoma landscape that is filled with "illusory cities," yards full of objects that betray their owners' pretense, and claims of religious fidelity that are too showy, with their day-glo neon backgrounds, to take seriously. Clampitt never openly expresses any particular resentment toward this life, but the choices of objects make it clear enough that there is no satisfaction for the reader in them.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Write a short play for four to eight actors playing characters riding on the bus described in the poem, giving each character dialog that is related to the stop at the diner.
- "Iola, Kansas" describes a road trip, and road trips are an inherent part of American culture. Why might that be? Research road trips and how diners and buses fit into this topic. Also research other famous works of art that feature a road trip. How do their themes differ from those in this poem? Present your findings to your class.
- The speaker of this poem seems to think that the slogans about Jesus she sees on bumper stickers are in bad taste. Find some bumper stickers that you think sound awkward or crude, and rewrite them to more clearly express the sentiments that you think they are trying to convey.
- Make a playlist of songs that you would listen to on a bus trip across any five states. Write a paragraph about each explaining which songs should be listened to in which particular places, and why.
The bus's arrival at Iola, Kansas, does not at first seem to bring any particular comfort to the poem's speaker. The elements of the small town are viewed coldly from the bus window, with a tone that is slightly judgmental, looking at the town's water towers and churches as clichés of small-town life. It is only after a meal at a restaurant, when a particular inhabitant of Iola has been introduced, that the speaker of the poem feels her "heart go out." By the last line, she has found the satisfaction that she never specifically said she was lacking. The journey that was characterized with discontent ends with happiness, implying, though not directly saying, that the speaker of the poem has, in the end, found what she was searching for all along.
Order and Disorder
This poem uses the phrase "the scheme is a mess" twice, in line 10 and in line 31, with the second time bracketed in parentheses to indicate that it is an echo of the first. The expression is, of course, self-contradictory: a "scheme" cannot imply anything but a sense of order, but it is at the same time a "mess," which can mean nothing but disorder. This contradiction points to a greater sense of ambiguity felt by the poem's speaker. The area of the country that the poem takes place in is open rural country: though there are few signs of civilization, they are imposing, like highways and oil refineries. Orderly civilization is spread out, though, strewn across the expanse of land in a mess.
The first half of the poem is dominated by the oil refineries, which are complex and orderly structures, similar to cities. They are not placed in order along the highway, though, but are interspersed with junkyards and backyards and the comings and goings of other vehicles along the road.
The second half of the poem is about the town of Iola, where order and disorder blend together in harmony. Life in Iola is not mechanical, as indicated by the absence of video and vending machines. Instead of imposed order, a natural order has been established: one where people, without being told to, respond to their environment in unison. The people in the bus form a "community" from their experience of stopping at a small-town diner, while before the experience of Iola they were just disconnected travelers.
Although "Iola, Kansas" does not follow a regular rhythm or rhyme scheme, Clampitt does stay with a rigid organizational scheme by dividing the poem into four-line stanzas. The four-line stanza, called a "quatrain," is the most common stanza used in English poetry. One reason that this form is so often used is that it lends itself to a balanced symmetry: rhyming poems can end the second and fourth lines with rhymes (the abcb pattern), they can rhyme the first and third lines in addition to the second and fourth (abab), or they can rhyme the first and second, then third and fourth lines (aabb). Using such a well-known, traditional form as the quatrain, even in the absence of a rhyme scheme, imposes a sense of order on "Iola, Kansas." Readers who might otherwise be inclined to think that the author is simply recording her experiences are constantly reminded of the controlling hand of the poet, who has imposed such a strict, regular order on the ideas presented.
Clampitt is known as a writer who uses a wide range of language to engage readers' curiosity. This poem uses some common, everyday expressions that sound like a person might use in an average conversation. It also uses the sort of colloquialisms that one might find in rural Kansas, such as "swigging" or "innards" or "mess." Clampitt is even willing to include a new word of her own making, "purply," to describe a pasty substance that is not exactly purple. But the most conspicuous use of diction is her freeness with complex words that common readers might need to look up in a dictionary, such as "illusory," "banalities," "homonuculi," or "alluvium" By challenging her readers with her poem's diction, the poet forces them to become active participants in reading; they have put some work into understanding her message. Using simpler language might make the poem easier to understand, but easy reading would not necessarily be an accurate reflection of Clampitt's vision.
Oklahoma and Kansas
Clampitt wrote most of her poetry, including this poem, while living in New York, nearly 1300 miles away from where the poem takes place. The poem therefore reflects some truths about the places that it talks about and some stereotypes that would be common to someone viewing it from a distance. For instance, one would naturally be more likely to come across more bumper stickers announcing the car owner's love of Jesus in Oklahoma and Kansas than in New York; the area is at the center of the section of the country that is referred to as the "Bible Belt," which is a term coined by journalist H.L. Mencken in the 1920s to describe the swath from the Carolinas to Texas where evangelical Protestants are vocal about their Christian faith. New York, by contrast, like many urban areas across the globe, has a much higher mix of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christian religions than any of the places described in the poem, which would make the sorts of proclamations about Jesus one might find in the Bible Belt conspicuous when seen by a New Yorker like Clampitt.
Another aspect of the region that Clampitt identifies correctly is the dominance of oil production on life in Oklahoma. This area, which had and still has one of the densest populations of Native Americans in the country, was flooded with Americans of European descent in the last decade of the eighteenth century, when oil was found there. Ever since then, Oklahoma, like neighboring Texas, has been associated with the fortunes to be made in the oil industry. Though Clampitt's association of Oklahoma with oil might seem a little clichéd, the poem does show a fine distinction between the past and present when it recognizes that the rigs that pump the oil out of the ground have moved to offshore drilling as the easily-accessed deposits have dried up, but that the area still has retained the refineries to process the oil.
The poem's views of small-town life in Kansas reflect a city-dweller's view of country life, even if it is based in Clampitt's small-town Iowa upbringing. The fact that she is either misremembering a trip through Kansas or exercising poetic license with what she found there can be seen in the way she characterizes the towns as being named after girls. In the general area of Iola, there are in fact towns named Mildred, Florence, Rose and Selma, but the same area has a fair share of towns with boys' names, too, such as Benedict, Neal, Dennis, and Vernon.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1990s: Bus travel in rural areas continues to decline steadily ("the bus [is] half empty"), as stable gas prices and a booming economy make car ownership affordable for most Americans.
Today: Rising gas prices and concerns about the environmental effects of driving have encouraged a significant amount of the population to reconsider using public transportation, though automobiles are still the most common means of transport for most Americans.
- 1990s: A bus traveler from an urban part of the country to a rural part of the country can expect to find distinct ideas and attitudes that reflect the traditions of each individual region.
Today: Regional cultures, while still distinct, may be less so than ever before. The prevalence of the internet and cable television, and the powerful influence of the media provide news and cultural information to all regions instantaneously, exposing all places to the same cultural influences.
- 1990s: Rural areas are sparsely populated. The landscape is dominated by farms and "auto junkyards."
Today: While the landscape remains the same, populations in rural areas continue to decrease, as individual farmers have been mostly forced out of business by large, industrialized farms and by a burgeoning global trade that provides low-cost produce from abroad.
Perhaps her broadest generalization that reflects an urban bias in discussing the mid-southwest is the poem's use of Wonder Bread as a symbol of American rural homogeneity. Wonder Bread is a brand of white bread, which is a mass-produced, bland form of bread that is most popular in areas lacking in culinary input from other cultures. In many parts of the world, bread making is an art, and living in New York, a city that draws off of international diversity, Clampitt would be much more aware of white bread as a symbol of the monoculturalism that thrives in the American heartland than the people that eat that bread themselves would know. The term "white bread" has even come to be symbolic of American provincialism, indicating the sense that commercialism, a lack of nutrition, and predominantly pale northern European ancestry preside at the center of American culture.
Clampitt was over sixty when her first commercial book of poetry, The Kingfisher, was published in 1983, and she immediately became an important figure in the literary world. The Kingfisher was reviewed in papers and magazines of national and international prominence. The year after its release, Clampitt was given the Award in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and she received a fellowship award for distinguished poetic achievement from the Academy of American Poets. In the following decade, Clampitt went on to publish four more full volumes of poetry and a few limited edition books. Though they were all praised by critics, The Kingfisher is still recognized as her greatest achievement.
"Iola, Kansas" comes from The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, published in 1997. With this volume, critics were able to look at Clampitt's brief career in one place, at one time. Mickey MacAdam, reviewing the collection in the publication Hurricane Alice in 2000, focused on the poet's reputation for being a difficult read, with words and literary allusions that only readers with extensive backgrounds would understand. "Regardless of the reader's previous knowledge of or desire to research her allusions," MacAdam concluded, "the rich and intensely woven musicality of Clampitt's language more than compensates for whatever particular facts the reader is unable to immediately negotiate." A reviewer for the Economist described the book as "a rare and enduring achievement," explaining Clampitt's genius as coming from the combination of her poetic skill with the experiences of her lifetime: "She has done time on the Greyhound bus, and was, in her time, both in the world and out of it."
On the rare occasions when there have been any negative criticisms about Clampitt, they usually pale when put in perspective. Willard Spiegelman, for instance, quoted the poet Mary Karr as having noted that Clampitt's writing can sometimes seem a little too rich, quoting Karr's essay "Against Decoration," in which she compares one passage of Clampitt's poetry to "Swinburne on acid or Tennyson gone mad with his thesaurus." Still, Spiegelman dismisses Karr's concerns, asking for, if anything, more. "All of her intellectual and cultural appetite is easy to miss amid the sheer gorgeousness of Clampitt's sounds," he said in the Kenyon Review, "streaming, even gushing from the page as though released after years of captivity."
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly looks at the way the poem's structure is slightly forced, which serves to make it more alive and engaging.
Clampitt is a poet known for the complexity of her works. The most obvious characteristic of her poetry is that she does not hold back her extensive, fluent vocabulary: an intelligent reader can expect the need to refer to the dictionary at least once or twice in the course of reading the average Clampitt poem. There is no question that she makes her works challenging on purpose. When things are not handed over to them easily, readers can become engaged in the act of seeking understanding. The relationship between the poet and the reader becomes one of partnership, with both sides seeking the truth, instead of feeling one-sided, like a lecture, with all of the ideas flowing toward a passive receiver who may or may not have a stake in what is being said.
Clampitt's use of difficult language is as obvious as it is legendary. And her imagery is no more accessible than the words themselves, leaving it to future generations of literary analysts to parse the many possible implications of the details that she has given. Added to this is the way that Clampitt manipulates the structure of the poem, playing with the arrangement of the words while making it seem as if she is doing anything but that. Her poems take readers away from the page to look up allusions, references, and definitions, certainly, but they also draw readers into the work, to try to follow what is going on and why. What might, for example, seem to be a poem that lends itself to an easy, casual reading often turns out to have been built over a maze, a complex design that one might not even notice without looking. Then, just when the reader is feeling intimidated by Clampitt's depth of knowing, it becomes apparent that she is really writing about the familiar world after all. She achieves some of her effects by knowing much more than the reader, but she is not above bending the rules to achieve other effects: not with the intent of cheating, but with a sense of fun.
Take, for example, the poem "Iola, Kansas." The poem's message is fairly obvious and can be restated in simple terms. It tells the story of a person who takes a long, interstate bus trip, passing by symbols of excessive consumption and superficial religious devotion, eventually ending up in a small town—Iola—where emotions are true. As a result of an encounter with one particularly sincere woman running a diner, the people on the bus find camaraderie, leaving the poem's speaker ultimately happy. Of course, it is an oversimplification to phrase the events of the poem in these terms, and could give the false impression that the poem is using unnecessarily complex language to hide the fact that the story it tells is an old and familiar one. What matters is the details that she uses to convey these events—the line from Paul Simon's America; the look and texture of a slice of boysenberry pie; the desolation of clusters of pecan trees along the side of an empty highway. These and countless others are things that no summary could capture, which is precisely why, even if its core message is nothing too new, the poem itself still has something important to say.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Readers can gain insight into Clampitt's ideas about life and art by reading Love, Amy, a collection of her letters to family members and friends written over the course of forty years. It was edited by Willard Spiegelman and published by Columbia University Press in 2005.
- Clampitt came to the attention of the literary world in 1983 with the publication of her first mass-market collection, The Kingfisher. It is still considered by many to be her most moving and forceful work.
- Critics frequently link Clampitt's poetry with the works of Elizabeth Bishop, who was only nine years older than Clampitt, though she published her works a generation before Clampitt did. In particular, Bishop's 1946 poem "A Miracle for Breakfast" shows similarities to "Iola, Kansas" in its phrasing, sensibilities, and in its use of language. It can currently be found in Bishop's Complete Poems, published by Chatto and Windus in 2004.
- Another contemporary poet often linked to Clampitt is Jorie Graham, whose complex word choices resemble Clampitt's own word usage. Her collection Dream of a Unified Field (1995) is a selection of twenty years of her poetry, which spans 1974 to 1994 and has been referred to as being as continuous in the story it tells, start to finish, as a novel.
- Mary Jo Salter wrote the introduction to The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt. Salter's poem "Tromp L'oeil," included in her collection Open Shutters (2003), reflects the kind of complexity and linguistic playfulness that one finds in Clampitt's poetry.
Structurally, this poem does something interesting. At first glance, it appears to be just as commonplace as the story that it tells of finding happiness in small-town honesty. Clampitt has cut the poem into lines that have a consistent, uniform width, and arranged them into quatrains, four lines per stanza. Augmenting this is that most of the lines, 19 out of 32, end with some sort of punctuation. Although the poem does not follow a formal structure in terms of a repeating rhythm or rhyme scheme, it certainly gives readers the feel of formal poetry by following these consistent patterns from beginning to end. Readers take from this the feeling, whether consciously realized or not, that the poet is not merely stating emotions, not just following her whims or her inspiration, but that Clampitt has a very careful, deliberate intention in mind. This sense of the poem's shape and her measured, complex choices of language build on each other, leading to the greater overall impression that there is more to the events here than meets the eye. It could be argued that this feeling, forcing readers to look more and more closely, is what all poetry is about.
But what seems to be the structure of this poem is something of an illusion. A tightly structured poem would cover one and only one idea per stanza, building on the sum of them. But this idea is difficult to follow very strictly in the case of a narrative poem like this one, because the details of the story that the poet is trying to tell don't often fit into the poem's shape. The four-line stanza helps a poet simplify complex points, but the story has a shape of its own. There ends up being a struggle between the material and the form that the author is trying to impose upon it. Clampitt amplifies this natural contradiction by choosing to tell the whole poem, start to finish, with one continuous sentence.
The most obvious reason for this continuity would be that doing so keeps the action moving, fluid, to the end: in spite of the constant punctuation and the seven stanza breaks, some readers might praise the poem by noting that it "flows." But if the need for continuity were in itself an excuse for stretching one sentence out further and further, there would be short stories and novels that try to follow the same principle, rambling on and on for pages without a period. The desire to keep a work bouncing along without ever coming to a stop is always offset by the basic principles of English grammar: there are only so many twists and turns a piece of writing can take before it comes to an end of its logical sense.
"Iola, Kansas" does an admirable job of using its punctuation to fold its ideas neatly into each other, and of keeping readers in touch with what is happening in the poem, even as their minds come close to the point of fatigue. Clampitt uses commas freely, often coinciding with the ends of lines. If she phrased things differently, with the commas and the line breaks each creating separate pauses in the poem, it would lose its luxurious texture and end up choppy. The poem even uses the dash, Emily Dickenson's preferred method of redirecting the reader's train of thought down one sidetrack after another, but, while Dickenson might use five or six in a sentence, Clampitt uses just one. She does not alter the poem's direction with her one dash, but instead uses it to bring the whole poem to a halt, three lines from the end. In this way, her dash works like the final line break of a traditional sonnet, announcing the coming of a summary. Readers pause with that one dash in "Iola, Kansas" and then go on to find a direct statement of what had previously only been implied.
In two cases, the poem directly steps outside of the narrative progression to make comments on the side, in parentheses. The first instance of this asks "who is this Jesus?"—a philosophical question that theologians have grappled with for ages. It comes at a time when the poem is thick with physical description that has been superimposed over the bleakness of the Oklahoma/Kansas landscape. In the second case, the poem has almost settled on what it is going to accept as meaning when it parenthetically interjects, "the scheme is a mess." To some extent, this echo of line 10 can be read as a reminder of the former confusion that has finally been settled. It can also, though, be taken as a reminder that any sense of resolution this poem offers should be recognized as illusory, that the underlying problem of "mess" still exists where apparent order exists, haunting the poem like a ghost.
The thing that really enables Clampitt to push the poem through to the end in just one sentence is her use of colons. She uses a total of six colons in "Iola, Kansas." Independently, each colon might be significant, but together they take on a cumulative mass that builds almost to the point of ridiculousness. For instance, the colon at the end of the first stanza brings the sentence to a stop to introduce a list, as colons most often do. The one in line seven also introduces a list, as does the one in line nine (introducing a short list of songs heard) and line 21 (things not found at the rest stop). In line 22, there is a colon to introduce a direct quote from the woman at the lunch counter.
These are each legitimate uses for colons, in separate sentences, but the fact that they show up one after another indicates an infringement of the rules of grammar and logic. Most grammar books will shy away from pronouncing a hard and fast law that prohibits multiple colons in one sentence, though they are clear about why one would not want to use the device in that way. The colons mentioned are supposed to introduce lists and phrases, which would in each case imply that the end of the sentence is coming up, but Clampitt goes on past the introduced list or phrase, bringing the sentence back to life after it should have died a natural death. What she does is unusual, but poetry is built on writers taking just such thought-provoking turns.
There is one more colon, however, that does not fit the rules. The colon that Clampitt uses in line 25 is probably a true infraction of the rules of logic. What follows it is not a list, and it is not a phrase that is introduced by "with something akin to reverence," any more than anything in any other case is an introduction to the words that follow it. The logical connection between "reverence" and "free refills" might be ironic in that they do not compliment each other but have a contrasting effect: there is a difference, though, between compliment and contrast, which makes this the most questionable bit of punctuation in the whole poem. The repeated use of colons throughout the poem is suspicious, and the use of a colon here, where the running succession of ideas really runs out and a new thought clearly begins, represents the author flaunting the rules of grammar.
It is proper that poets should flaunt the rules of grammar: it keeps things interesting. When we use the phrase "poetic license" to identify places where poets are allowed to bend the rules of grammar in order to attain an artistic effect, the implication is that poets and only poets are licensed to take such liberties. In the case of this poem, the multiple colons work, along with the other punctuation marks, to keep this long, inclusive sentence going, and the long sentence serves, like the complex grammar, to keep readers involved in what they are reading. Clampitt's control of words and grammar allow her to achieve effects that writers with less skillful hands might have trouble sustaining. She keeps every element of the poem in motion, always pushing forward toward her meaning.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Iola, Kansas," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
In the following excerpt from a review of Clampitt's Collected Poems, Spiegelman analyzes the subjects and characteristics of the poet's work. Of "Iola, Kansas," which Spiegelman calls a "one-sentence tour de force," the critic notes how the poem's themes of community and wariness are similar to those found in some of the poems of the twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop.
… For all of the richness in her poetry, Clampitt is, like James Merrill, equally an elegiac poet of loss and dislocation. "Losing Track of Language" examines one kind of loss and compensatory gain; "Midsummer in the Blueberry Barrens" begins with a nod in the direction of Wordsworth and Frost ("Tintern Abbey" and "Directive," respectively) by conveying a pattern of disappearance within a landscape: "Away from the shore, the roads dwindle and lose themselves / among the blueberry barrens" (266). Clampitt is sensitive to natural erosion and encroachment for more than merely ecological or aesthetic reasons. All evidence of change echoes personal instability. As early as "On the Disadvantages of Central Heating," she remarks, "the farmhouse long sold, old friends / dead or lost track of" (17). Later in that volume, The Kingfisher, in her first great long poem, "A Procession at Candlemas," Clampitt alludes to Native Americans as merely one of many migratory tribes:
… The westward-trekking
transhumance, once only, of a people who,
in losing everything they had, lost even
the names they went by, stumbling past
like caribou, perhaps camped here.
Such renderings of loss, forgetting, unwrapping, returning, and unpeeling are the essential cause of all those accumulations—in imagery, metaphor, rhythm, and syntax—that annoy or fatigue Clampitt's thoughtless critics. She always put the weight of her style at the service of diminishments. She is, in fact, as likely to dismiss as to welcome ornament for its own sake; she disdains the merely cute, once referring condescendingly to "Guido Reni, master / of those who prettify." Her true Americanness comes out in those moments when she adheres to a Yankee's, or a farmer's, sense of value: she loves "all that / utilitarian muck down underfoot" ("The Local Genius" ), or objets trouvés that are dear for their fragility and their usefulness, like the straw racks in "Stacking the Straw" that exemplify the biblical ephemerality of all flesh. Yet these "beveled loaves" also amount to "the nearest thing the region had / to monumental sculpture" (63). Like Whitman ("This Compost"), Stevens ("The Man on the Dump") and A. R. Ammons (Garbage), she bears witness to the beauty of accumulated masses of compost, of "the pleasures of the ruined," as in "Salvage":
I find esthetic
satisfaction in these
from the category of
to regions where pigeons'
in whirligigs, reclaim
a parking lot … (36)
She abhors wastefulness, admiring the Darwinian elegance of destruction on the Serengeti Plain where first lions, then "down-ruffed vultures," then "feasting maggots / hone the flayed wildebeest's ribcage / clean as a crucifix" ("Good Friday" 68). Of such natural selection does Clampitt build her own theology.
One typical misunderstanding of ornament resents it for manufacturing false, unwarranted Sturm und Drang and for confusing mere excess with depth. In fact, Clampitt proves everywhere that "depth is not everything," as she aphoristically announces in "The Spruce Has No Taproot." We can take this arboreal example as one of Clampitt's own talismans: like all the weeds, seedlings, easily displaced persons, tribes, and species with which she identifies, it roots itself shallowly in order to adapt and to form a subtle community:
… the spruce
has no taproot, but to hold on
spreads its underpinnings thin—
a gathering in one continuous,
meshing intimacy, the interlace
of unrelated fibers
joining hands like last survivors
who, though not even neighbors
hitherto, know in their predicament
security at best is shallow. (117)
Such shallowness makes freedom the reward for truancy. Thus, the "pokeweed, sprung from seed / dropped by some vagrant" ("Vacant Lot with Pokeweed" 329), which seizes a temporary foothold; or, in the same group, some bamboo curtains, "going up where / the waterstained old ones had been, and where the seedlings— / O gray veils, gray veils—had risen and gone down," in the apartment of a Greenwich Village eccentric ("A Hedge of Rubber Trees" 335). "Nothing stays put," she announces in a poem of that title in this series that celebrates as well as laments eternal impermanence: "All that we know, that we're / made of, is motion" (340).
Motion has political—as well as psychological—causes and effects. She cites the words of an Omaha Indian in her signature piece "The Prairie":
The white man does not understand America,
a red man wrote: the roots of the tree of his
have yet to grasp it. (346)
Above all, the essence of such motion has, as it must for a poet who seeks the proper form for her vision, syntactic consequences. The "interlace" of her spruce tree is also the right word for the meshings by which Clampitt—here and elsewhere—duplicates and represents those other familial, cultural, and historical reticulations, the elaborately constructed networks that enable our individual lives to flourish. Where uprooting and exile—even when temporarily denied or held at bay—pose a constant threat, the only home a poet may finally claim is a strongly built, involved, poetic structure. (A bit less compulsively than Merrill and the younger contemporary poet Mark Doty, Clampitt has a fondness for little stanzaic "rooms" that offer one kind of refuge.) The early poem "Black Buttercups" (What the Light Was Like) makes the best case for the wariness Clampitt learned as a child in the face of unhousing and exile. Although she never suffered, as Merrill did, from a "broken home," from divorce, she lost her Edenic farmstead in the Depression when she was ten and her family was forced to move. Exile and menace were the lot of her ancestors, always on the go, but even the original farmstead gave onto a symbol of final menace:
… the terrain began to drop (the creek
down there had for a while powered a
but now ran free, unencumbered, useless)—
that not-to-be-avoided plot whose honed
fixed stare, fanned in the night
by passing headlights, struck back
the rueful semaphore:
There is no safety. (125)
Like Hopkins, Frost, and Heaney, other masters of rural pleasure and rural coldness, Clampitt knows how to brace her Latinate syntax and vocabulary with a harsh, grim monosyllabic string ("plot whose honed stones' …") for a maximally chilling effect.
The sense of dispossession allies her as well with Elizabeth Bishop, our most famous poet-orphan, who was always deeply skeptical of happiness and wisdom in equal measure. "Iola, Kansas" is an implicit homage to the Bishop of such poems as "Arrival at Santos," "Cape Breton," and especially "The Moose," which square the fear of the unknown with the thrill of (even touristic) adventure, and which ask us to measure the satisfactions of a seldom achieved community of feeling against the relative unlikeliness that we should ever experience—let alone deserve—happiness, pleasure, and personal identity even for an instant.
This one-sentence tour de force, reporting an all-night bus ride through the heart of the country, actually begins by echoing "Arrival at Santos," which ends with an ominous flat statement ("we are driving to the interior") after thirty-seven lines of wittily observed details. Clampitt's journey is more industrialized, more noun-heavy:
Riding all night, the bus half empty, toward
among refineries, trellised and turreted illusory
the crass, the indispensable wastefulness of
offshore, of homunculi swigging at the gut
of a continent …
As the bus proceeds from Texas, through Oklahoma and into Kansas, it pauses at a rest stop in the godforsaken town of the title, where the narrator "with something akin to reverence" eats a piece of simple home-baked boysenberry pie, before piling back onto the bus with her fellow travelers:
… then back to our seats,
the loud suction of air brakes like a thing
the voices, the sleeping assembly raised, as
by an agency
out of the mystery of the interior, to a
and through some duct in the rock I feel my
heart go out,
out here in the middle of nowhere (the
scheme is a mess)
to the waste, to the not knowing who or
why, and am happy. (291)
Like the bus riders in Bishop's "The Moose," stopped by a giant creature in the middle of the road, and then united by a "sweet / sensation of joy" before resuming their journey, Clampitt and her companions join together in one of those rare moments of what we can only call grace. Spiritual longing and an awareness of "the strangeness of all there is" inspire her, in spite of her spiritual, political, and emotional wariness, to be ready to relish such moments when they do come.
Rejoicing often takes place within a context of sharing—within a community of other people whose very presence assures greater pleasure—and it takes place as well within the syntactic equivalent of community: a long sentence (Clampitt writes longer sentences than practically anyone else, and more one-sentence poems as well) with deeply subordinated clauses. The so-called "literariness" of her writing serves, therefore, a political as well as an aesthetic purpose: it proves that words and phrases, like human beings, are intricately enmeshed in greater units.
Source: Willard Spiegelman, "What to Make of an Augmented Thing," in Kenyon Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 1999, pp. 172-81.
In the following review of Clampitt's Westward, Morrison places the volume in the larger context of the poet's overall work. In comparing the volume to "Iola, Kansas," Morrison notes how a key grammatical characteristic of that poem—its use of a single long sentence, with no periods, over the course of the poem's eight stanzas—is used to even greater effect in Westward.
Amy Clampitt's new book opens with a bold piece of imaginative transportation, "John Donne in California," setting down a poet who alluded to America but never visited it among the giant redwoods and "New World lizards" of the West:
Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or is
Jerusalem? pondered John Donne,
who never stood among these strenuous,
huge, wind-curried hills, their green
gobleted just now with native poppies'
opulent red-gold …
Donne is far from being the only figure, or indeed the only literary figure, to be uprooted in the course of Clampitt's collection. The central theme of the book, as dominant in the last poem as in the first, is of men and women driving westward—pioneers, settlers, immigrants, dreamers, poets. But Donne is the right person for Clampitt to start with, for the poem of his that she cites and expects us to turn to (though uncharacteristically she gives no source in the endnotes) is a "Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse," in which Donne imagines his prostrate body as a map (and his doctors as cartographers) and celebrates a heavenly union of East and West. "Is the Pacifique Sea my home? Or are / The Eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?" asks Donne (and Clampitt after him), implying an answer he had already reached in one of his sermons: "In a flat Map, there goes no more, to make West East, though they be distant in an extremity, but to paste that flat Map upon a round body, and then West and East are all one."
Nearly four centuries after Donne, the idea of West and East being united, "all one," remains as frail a conceit as it has always been, but in the euphoria of the present moment, with the bad old empires on their sickbeds all around the globe, it is proper that Clampitt, if ever so obliquely, should catch something of that utopian dream. She is not a political poet, but nor is she so unworldly as she sometimes sounds, and her collection, susceptible to historical changes, offers its own special version of late twentieth-century glasnost. It is no coincidence that "The Prairie," which closes her collection, should offer us another fusion of East and West, comparing the experiences of Anton Chekhov in the Russian steppes with those of her own grandfather in the American prairies.
So Westward, despite its title, is as much about the East as the West, the Atlantic as the Pacific, Europe as North America. Clampitt calls the opening section of it "Crossings," and it is a word she has earned the right to use, for she is a great poet of crossings over, mediation, cultural exchange. In Europe, or at any rate in Britain, we are very conscious of this: Clampitt, it seems, is the first American poet since Robert Lowell to explore the continuities between her country and ours.
Until Clampitt's arrival, it had become a critical commonplace to assert that American poetry and British poetry were no longer on speaking terms. Since that brief, glorious moment in the late 1950s when the British and American poetic traditions took a parallel course, with the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath an initially beneficent but finally tragic symbol of the union, the two traditions have been all but severed. Indeed, the suspicion had begun to arise that they have always been implacably opposed, and that separatists like Poe, Whitman, and Williams, for whom being in the American grain meant kicking against the old colonialist British heritage, had it right.
Part of Clampitt's attraction (to us at least) is that she offers a more hopeful version of the relationship between Old World and New. She finds it, for example, in the image of her grandfather, a late nineteenth-century pioneer, whom she describes composing a sonnet in the middle of the prairies. "We have listened too long to the courtly muses," wrote Emerson, and sought instead American "self-trust." Clampitt's grandfather, terrified of the infinite spaces, lacking self-trust and clinging to the reassurances of the Mayflower legacy, cannot oblige him:
There crowd my mind (he wrote) vague
of Aeolian harpings, twined with weird
Aeolian harpings in Dakota: it is an image that admits dislocation, opposition, even a faint sense of the ridiculous. But for Clampitt's grandfather, a prey to terrible anxieties and crying "Lost, Lost," those Aeolian harpings are a way of finding himself, or at least of comforting a troubled mind. So Clampitt does not judge it reprehensible that the Old World should continue to penetrate the New. She goes on to ask whether it still does so a century later:
Can the courtly muses
of Europe, those bedizened crones, survive
the manholes, the vaunt and skitter of
consort with the dug-in, the hunkering
of the Dakotas?
The answer, for her, is that they can and they do. Westward, like her three earlier books, is forever turning up connections and continuities: between the European skylark and the North American meadowlark; between a New England violet and a field pansy in Holland; between Scottish heather and blueberries in Maine; between the history of Virginia and the mockingbirds and warblers who move through the state's colonial habitats unheedingly, "ignorant of royal grants, crests / charters, sea power, mercantile / expansion, the imperative to / find an opening, explore, exploit …"
For Old World readers, touchy these days about seeming marginal, it is reassuring to find themselves reinstated on the map in this way. The welcome the British gave to The Kingfisher, Clampitt's first book, must have had a lot to do with such feelings of gratitude, though perhaps we didn't recognize it at the time: at last an American poet who made us feel we mattered; at last an American poet we could appreciate without having to feel defensive about our own achievements; at last, after futile endeavors to get a grip on Ashbery and Ammons, an American poet we could understand. This may be simply another way of saying that Clampitt is an Anglophile, and it is true that, though the guiding spirits of The Kingfisher were Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, the book also displayed a rich appreciation of such components of English life as damp bed sheets, Peak Frean biscuits, hassocks, toasting forks, sheepdogs, windowboxes, and rain.
That same Anglophilia has since manifested itself in more literary appreciations—of Coleridge, the Wordsworths, Hopkins, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and above all of Keats, to whom Clampitt dedicated one of the sequences in her second book, What the Light Was Like. In Archaic Figure, her last collection, Clampitt's imagination moved outward and backward to Greece, leading her into a reclamation of female deities and toward her most feminist collection to date. But even here, a reverence for English figures like Dorothy Wordsworth and George Eliot were central to the pattern. And in the new book it is impossible to read beyond the first page without feeling that the British (or the Irish) are at the back of it—whether Hopkins, whose compounding technique is imitated in Clampitt's image of "lofted strong-arm / redwoods' fogfondled silhouette," or Seamus Heaney, whom one glimpses in "the frail wick of metaphor I've brought to see by."
Yet Anglophilia will not quite serve as an explanation for why it is that Clampitt should have been taken up so enthusiastically on our side of the Atlantic as on her own. One might as easily explain her appeal in terms of what, for the British reader, is its exotica: in birds, beasts, and flowers (porcupines, turtles, sundews, the sea mouse, the beach pea, the grosbeak) familiar to us only from books. It is true that such natural phenomena must look exotic to readers in New York, too, but they are hardly likely to feel the vertiginous thrill that British readers do on reading a Clampitt poem about, for example, a whippoorwill. A whippoorwill! My Columbia Encyclopedia, referring me to "Goatsucker," gives me a fuller description than Clampitt can offer, but she has the better explanation of why it is that rare birds like the whippoorwill should exert such fascination:
the gregariousness of the many are what
we can't abide.
We single out for notice
above all what's disjunct, the way birds are,
with their unhooked-up, cheekily anarchic
dartings and flashings, their uncalled-for
A taste for the exotic is not one that Clampitt would necessarily like to see attributed to her, though, and not only because it might raise questions about her centrality. In "Nothing Stays Put," she wonders whether the exotic can really be said to exist in a world where distance has collapsed, where nowhere is more than a plane-hop away, and where supermarket shelves blaze with the "largesse" of the tropics. Clampitt, who grew up a Puritan and can still sound like one, recoils from this unmerited glut ("we are not entitled"), much as an earlier poem of hers recoiled from central heating.
But this isn't so much a recoil from the contemporary world as a desire to suggest that "the strange and wonderful" can be indigenous, too. She is drawn to, and likes to draw our attention to, the neglected, the remote, the out of the way; and there is nowhere like one's own doorstep for finding them. This holds for people as well. The human beings Clampitt likes to celebrate, women mostly, are also neglected and out of the way, and often come associated with a particular piece of indigenous yet exotic fauna: one with a "potted hedge of rubber trees," another with Rosa rugosa, a third with the "ubiquitous, unaspiring" beach pea.
The sympathy that Clampitt brings to her descriptions of people and plants does indeed make us feel that they are "strange and wonderful," but this is not because she likes to wow us with their oddities. On the contrary, she has a humdrum care to represent them accurately. Even the whippoorwill sounds pretty familiar by the time Clampitt has finished with it:
Night after night, it was very nearly enough,
they said, to drive you crazy: a whippoorwill
in the woods repeating itself like the stuck
of an LP with a defect, and no way possible
of turning the thing off.
And night after night, they said, in the
small hours the whipsawing voice of obsession
would have come in closer, the way a sick
thing does when it's done for—…
An evocation like this might serve better than the Columbia Encyclopedia in helping you to recognize the whippoorwill's call. …
the oats grow tall,
their pendent helmetfuls
of mica-drift, examined stem
by stem, disclose
alloys so various, enamelings
of a vermeil so
craftless, I all but despair of
ever reining in a
metaphor for …
But rein in her metaphors she does, of course: the "liquid millennium" of the dawn chorus, the "charred and single coal" of an oriole, the "yearning seedling choir" of canary droppings in a cage. The rush of physical impressions can threaten to overwhelm not only the reader but the poet, too, who describes herself a couple of times as "fazed," and who in her most intense moments comes across as the sort of woman you might meet at dusk on the shoreline with an armful of shells, driftwood and fishing net—wideeyed, pantheistic, half-cracked. But she is prepared to risk a reputation for genteel craziness so long as that also allows her a place in posterity as (to adapt Hardy) a woman who used to notice such things.
The contradictions of such a persona—the poet whose genius for noticing is also held to be an eccentricity, whose careful attention to the look of things is held to be, socially, a carelessness—are ones she writes well about in "The Field Pansy," which uncovers a connection between three different kinds of flowers, and speaks of
this gushing insouciance that appears at the
of an all but infinite particularity: sedulous,
in the end (so far as anyone can see) without
What is consequence? What difference do
of that seeming inconsequence that's called
add up to? …
Phrased as a question though this is, it offers an implicit defense of Clampitt's art, which will put up with being called "inconsequential" so long as it has the consequence of capturing and creating beauty.
It is a difficult double-act to perform—insouciance on the one hand, sedulousness on the other—and Clampitt does not always bring it off. At times her thoroughness becomes a self-defeating pedanticism, as if she has thought out and read up on her subject to the point where there is nothing left to discover in the act of writing the poem, and where a scholarly paper (or indeed one of her ample source notes) might serve equally well. At this point her poetry can sound academic, prone to an Eng. Lit. piety (all hommages to the giants) and to a fussy, ornate, affected vocabulary—"the zenith's frescoed-by- / Tiepolo cerulean."
But if at its worst her poetry smells of the lamp, at its best it works like a flashlight, purposeful in its glare but always likely to chance on bright objects in the dark. Her casual-seeming line breaks help this effect of spontaneity: resistant to rhymes and end stops, it is a verse that stays alert to lucky breaks, sudden insights, the brief epiphanies of a life lived on the move. Her poetry is full of lists, accumulating and itemizing in verbless sentences the riches of things read or observed ("spring mud and summer dust, / burdocks, beatings, piety," "Collectives. Tractor lugs. / Names: brunizem and chernozem; culm / rhizome and stolon"). More usually, though out of the same restlessly notating spirit, she prefers long sentences. "Iola, Kansas," for example, is one long sentence running over eight stanzas and bringing us the Midwest as seen from a Greyhound:
we're in Kansas now, we've turned off the
we're meandering, as again night falls,
the little towns with the name of a girl on the
the bandstand in the park at the center, the
alight from within, perpendicular banalities
candy-streaked purple-green-yellow (who is
the strangeness of all there is, whatever it is,
stranger, we've come to a rest stop, the name
of the girl
on the watertower is Iola: no video, no vending
but Wonder Bread sandwiches, a pie: "It's
I just baked it today," the woman behind the
believably says, the innards a purply glue …
Whether this stands up, grammatically, as a sentence is doubtful ("… growing stranger, we've come to a rest stop" surely requires stronger punctuation than a comma), but there can be no doubt that it is the mode juste, the commas and the colons acting like rest stops on a long journey, the full stop delayed for the end.
The long sentence, often broken up by one or several sets of parentheses, has become an increasing feature of Clampitt's work and has never seemed more appropriate than in Westward. It expresses the rootlessness and the restlessness that is her subject here, the feeling of drawnout journeys and great movements and migrations, of destinations finally arrived at but even then perhaps only provisionally, and certainly only after several detours so elaborate that the direction in which we are moving looks to have been forgotten. The most spectacular example of this comes in the title poem itself, which is an account of a journey Clampitt took to Iona, in the Western Isles of Scotland, home of St. Columba and Christianity.
Beginning in London, among the "reverse" migrants of a spent commonwealth, those from the fringe returning to the old imperial heart, Clampitt heads northward and westward, her journey becoming a symbol for all the "embarkations, landings, dooms, conquests" of people in search of God, or of the promised land. It takes two interminable sentences toward the end before Clampitt brings us to "the brim of an illumination" about
a zeal ignited somewhere to the east,
concealed in hovels, quarreled over,
portaged westward: a basket weave, a
fishing net, a weir to catch, to salvage
some tenet, some common intimation for
all flesh, to hold on somehow till
the last millennium: as though the routes,
the ribbonings and redoublings, the
attenuations, spent supply lines, frayed-out
gradual of the retreat from empire, all
its castaways, might still bear witness.
This is Clampitt's most high-flown and religious version of what the westward impulse means. As the title poem, it acquires a certain definitiveness. But other meanings multiply throughout the course of the book. "Westward" is the search for gold, money, jobs, opportunity, a home; it is a flight from the fear of infinite spaces; it is the urge to civilize, colonize, tame, subdue, settle; it is an existential quest, the search for a freedom to "throw one's life away" as one chooses:
This being what all the rush
finally comes down to:
to be free, as Isabel Archer pigheadedly
put it, to meet one's fate,
to take one's chances, try on
Above all, "westward" is Clampitt's own search for roots, the return she makes from points east to the "evangelhaunted prairie hinterland" of her upbringing, a "farmhouse childhood, kerosene-lit, tatting and mahogany-genteel," which she left as an "intemperate" teenager to head for the "glittering shambles / of enthrallments and futilities" that goes by the name of Manhattan. As that image shows, Clampitt now shrinks from the vacuity of urban "monoculture": the color and generosity of what she finds in nature are a reproach to the gray human alternative in Manhattan, "every pittance under lock and key / a party to the general malfeasance." But this is not to say that there was anything especially wholesome about her ancestor-settlers, "far from hot baths," who, social outcasts of a kind, fled to discover new worlds but soon enough were imposing a "neat and fearful grid of settlement" that would enable them in turn to find someone else more vagrant "to look down on." Clampitt, in other words, is not sentimental about her roots.
Hovering over her book is a play on the word "settled": conscious (from reading his privately printed pamphlet) of her grandfather's unsettled mind, she tries to settle something in her own mind. Is not settlement primarily an attempt to ward off spiritual unsettlement? Is it not therefore doomed to failure, however often roots are put down and civilization spreads? And isn't man's natural state, however much he may seek to be at rest somewhere, to be mobile? Some such suggestion underlies "The Prairie" and allows its ending, which might otherwise be a sad record of Clampitt's failed homecoming, to have an air of exhilaration about it:
I know or ever heard of lives there now.
On Summit, from some long-obliterated
snapshot, I thought I recognized the house
a great-aunt lived in once: the number
not quite right, the tenant an old
deaf Mexican who did not understand.
Not being able to return to where you came from leaves you freer to be what you are: that would seem to be the almost joyous consolation Clampitt takes from her frustrated journey. It is the same exultant note that one hears at the end of "Iola, Kansas":
and through some duct in the rock I feel my
out here in the middle of nowhere (the
scheme is a mess)
to the waste, to the not knowing who or
It is this surrender that makes Clampitt amore truly modern poet than her occasional snappishness at contemporary urban culture would lead you to think. In the brightness and the diversity and the "unhooked-up" independence of the bird world she finds a model ("free as a bird") to live by; and in the migrations of her ancestors she confirms her own migrating spirit, which, unlike theirs, will never seek to find the place to settle. Westward is not her most accessible book, but it is her most self-aware one. Failing to come home at the end of it, she can now be said to have truly arrived.
Source: Blake Morrison, "The Cross-Country Poet," in New Republic, Vol. 203, No. 1, July 2, 1990, pp. 29-32.
Clampitt, Amy, "Iola, Kansas," in The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 291.
MacAdam, Mickey, Review of The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, in Hurricane Alice, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring 2000, p. 11.
Spiegelman, Willard, "What to Make of an Augmented Thing," in the Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1999, p. 172-73.
"War of Words," in the Economist, Vol. 348, No. 8081, August 15, 1998, p. 72.
Costello, Bonnie, "Amy Clampitt: Nomad Exquisite," in Shifting Grounds: Reinventing Landscape in American Poetry, Harvard University Press, 2003.
Costello's book looks at the ways that poets have changed their styles of imaging the wide open land, devoting a chapter to Clampitt and her intimate sense of the Great Plains.
Morgan, Grady Hall, Memoirs of a Greyhound Bus Driver, Infinity Publishing, 2005.
The experience of interstate travel is becoming lost to history. Morgan's book is not at all academic, but the stories that he tells offer insight into a way of life covered in "Iola, Kansas."
Shortridge, James R., Cities on the Plains: The Evolution of Urban Kansas, University of Kansas Press, 2004.
This book looks at the recent history of the area of the country where the poem is set, charting the growth of towns that were, like Iola, small and isolated just a few years ago.
———, The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture, University of Kansas Press, 1989.
James R. Shortridge's examination of the ways that middle western values and culture have looked to Americans in general gives the kind of insight that only someone who is both an intellectual and an insider can offer.