Clampitt, Amy Kathleen
Clampitt, Amy Kathleen
(b. 15 June 1920 in New Providence, Iowa; d. 10 September 1994 in Lenox, Massachusetts), editor, lecturer, and poet whose verse is characterized by complex syntax and sophisticated imagery.
The oldest of five children of Roy Justin Clampitt, a farmer, and Lutie Pauline Felt, Clampitt grew up on a 125-acre farm. She loved the outdoors and her earliest memories were of violets that grew like a “cellarhole of pure astonishment.” Encouraged by her grandfather, she read voluminously as a child. She started writing poetry at age eight, but her earliest ambition was to be a painter. When Clampitt was ten, her family was forced to move to another farm because of economic problems brought on by the Great Depression; the sense of dislocation and loss would remain with her throughout her life.
In high school Clampitt wrote a few sonnets that “weren’t bad,” as she said in an interview with New York magazine in 1984, but she had no desire to become a poet. Thanks to an English assignment, she discovered the poetry of John Keats and was attracted to his descriptions and evocation of physical sensations. The influence of Keats would be apparent in her future work. At Grinnell College in Iowa, Clampitt majored in English and “fell in love” with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth-century English poet and Jesuit priest. Hopkins’s celebration of the spiritual nature of the physical world and his intensity appealed to Clampitt. He, too, would influence her poetry, particularly in her intricate use of words. Clampitt wrote little poetry during her college years and graduated in 1941 with honors and a B.A. degree in English. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Living in the Midwest, Clampitt had always felt a sense of cultural isolation. In 1941, with a graduate fellowship to Columbia University, she relocated to New York City. Except for occasional visits, she never returned to the Midwest. However, the life of a graduate student was not for her; she saw Columbia as a “mill for getting advanced degrees” and dropped out during her first year. In 1943 she went to work as a secretary for Oxford University Press, where she eventually became promotion director for college textbooks.
In 1949 Clampitt won an essay contest; the prize was a trip to England. Clampitt always felt that she had missed a sense of history growing up in the Midwest. The trip to England provided her with a connection to the past. While there she had the opportunity to visit Oxford and see the university. It was just as described in Hopkins’s poem “Duns Scotus’s Oxford.” At Christ Church Hall she felt she could “smell” the presence of the past. Two years later in 1951, she quit her job at Oxford University Press and used her savings to tour Great Britain, Italy, and Greece. After five months Clampitt returned to New York City and wrote the first of three novels; not one was accepted for publication.
Clampitt went to work as a reference librarian for the National Audubon Society in 1952, a position she would hold until 1959. She spent her lunch hours bird-watching in Central Park, wrote book reviews for Audubon magazine, and continued to produce novels. The seven years she spent at Audubon were not happy ones. Nevertheless, Clampitt liked learning about biology and was entranced by a biography of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution became a recurrent theme in her poetry. During this period Clampitt did not write poetry; “I was paralyzed,” she said in her interview in New York magazine. She lacked the self-confidence necessary to take a chance and create.
A family problem caused her to resign from her job at Audubon, and she returned to Iowa for six months, working in a contractor’s office. While there she wrote another novel that was never published, but she did resolve years of miscommunication with her family. Buoyed by her reconciliation with her family, Clampitt returned to New York City to a new job and a new decade. She worked as a freelance editor, earning a reputation for her ability to fix difficult manuscripts. Clampitt, who grew up as a Quaker, also became deeply involved in the peace movement from 1967 to 1970. She participated in the action known as the “daily death toll,” in which protestors lay in front of the White House gates to symbolize the number of Vietnamese killed that day. All protestors wore Vietnamese hats and had to designate their occupations on a banner. Clampitt chose “poet.” It was the first time she had thought of herself as a poet, and in fact she was now writing poetry. But like her novels, her poetry was not being accepted for publication.
In 1974 at her own expense, Clampitt contracted with Washington Street Press to publish a collection of her poems, Multitudes, Multitudes. Although this volume lacks her later precision, polish, and assurance, it includes those themes she continually reiterated in subsequent work: war, the past, mythology, love, nature. In 1977 Clampitt went to work for the publishing house E. P. Dutton as an editor. She stayed with Dutton until 1982. Clampitt continued to send out her poems, hoping to get published, and in 1978 her poem “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” was accepted for the 14 August issue of the New Yorker. Poetry editor Howard Moss was charmed by the poem and stated in New York magazine, “I fell in love with it immediately. We were all waiting for someone like Amy to come along, someone who didn’t pretend that life was simple. Right away I knew she was the real thing.”
When she received a check for the poem, the first significant money she had earned as a writer, she sent her mother flowers. Clampitt was in her late fifties, and from this point her poems appeared regularly in the New Yorker, Nation, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Kenyan Review, Prairie Schooner, and Yale Review. In 1981 she was invited to participate in a workshop project sponsored by the nonprofit Coalition of Publishers for Employment. The result was The Isthmus, which contains fifteen poems. Some of the poems are about the coast of Maine (“The Isthmus,” “The Lighthouse,” “Surf”); others are mediations on death or reflections on design in nature (“Saint Audrey’s Necklace”).
In 1982 Clampitt won a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and became a full-time poet. Future jobs would include teaching appointments as writer in residence at the College of William and Mary, Amherst College, and Smith College. Clampitt’s first major collection of poetry, The Kingfisher (1983), published when she was sixty-three, established her as a major poet. This collection of fifty poems, many previously published in various magazines, was praised by poets and critics alike. The title is an allusion to a line in a poem by Hopkins that reads, “As Kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.” Divided into six sections, the collection is organized around the four elements of fire, water, earth, and air. The poems’ subjects are diverse, ranging from marine life and wildflowers to John Lennon’s murder, the Vietnam War, and the Holocaust. Some poems are about her parents: “A Procession at Candlemas” describes the death of her mother, and “Beethoven Opus 111” draws a comparison between her father’s struggle to cultivate the land and Beethoven’s battle to create music despite his deafness. Making connections between seemingly disparate subjects is typical of her style. Although some of the poems are humorous, the general tone is somber. The Kingfisher was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Clampitt’s next collection, What the Light Was Like (1985), centers on images of light and darkness. It consists of forty poems grouped into five sections; the section titles refer to locales such as “The Shore,” “The Hinterland,” and “The Metropolis.” The poems shift not just in location but also in time and perspective. From a cottage on the Maine coast to a scene set in an Iowa farmhouse in the past to an apartment in Manhattan, the movement echoes the relocations in Clampitt’s own life. As in the previous volume, this book includes poems about her family and is dedicated to her brother Richard, whose death is described in the poem “The Curfew.” The centerpiece of the book, literally and thematically, is “Voyages: A Homage to John Keats,” a sequence of eight poems. “Voyages” is a pastiche, drawing from Keats’s life, letters, and poems. Voyages was published separately in a limited edition in 1984.
In her next volume, Archaic Figure (1987), Clampitt explores the consciousness of women from Greek mythology to modern times. The first two sections of the book, “Hellas” and “The Mirror of the Gorgon,” were inspired by her travels in Greece. The third section, “A Gathering of Shades,” is a series of biographical poems focusing on writers such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth, with a particular emphasis on Dorothy. This section of ten poems is the core of the volume and includes “An Anatomy of Migraine,” which unifies the section since all the writers described suffered severe headaches.
In Westward (1990) Clampitt’s central thematic concern is of men and women traveling and arriving. Journeys include those of the present and past as well as imaginary journeys, such as “John Donne in California.” The title poem is based on Clampitt’s own journey from London west to Iona off the coast of Scotland. A poem about the past is “The Prairie,” a long, eight-part narrative detailing the journey of Clampitt’s grandparents to the prairie and their struggle to make a life for themselves; it includes a comparison with the experience of the playwright Anton Chekhov on the Russian steppes.
The heart of Clampitt’s fifth volume of poetry, A Silence Opens (1994), is “A Silence,” which the critic Harold Bloom described as the “crown of Clampitt’s poetic life’s work.” Clampitt was aware she was dying while writing most of this volume. Fellow poet and friend Mary Jo Salter wrote about “A Silence” that Clampitt “had chosen at the end to open spaces between words, to allow for all the things poetry cannot say, and to respect the silence she believed was waiting for each of us.” The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt was published posthumously in 1997.
In addition to her poetry, Clampitt edited The Essential Donne (1988) and wrote Predecessors, Et Cetera (1991), a collection of essays. Her unpublished play about Dorothy Wordsworth, Mad with Joy, was given a staged reading at the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1992. Clampitt won a number of prizes, including the award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984, a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets in 1984, and a MacArthur fellowship in 1992 that allowed her to purchase a cottage in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.
Clampitt’s unofficial critic and companion for twenty-six years was Harold L. Korn, a law professor at Columbia University. Opposed to marriage and childbearing for most of her life because she felt they depleted creative energy, Clampitt married Korn in the spring of 1994, three months before her death. She had no children. Clampitt died in her home of cardiac arrest, following a battle with ovarian cancer.
As a poet, Clampitt struggled for years to find her voice and an audience. The stunning success of The Kingfisher was a shock to her. Although some found her poetry difficult to read and were confused by the dense literary allusions and the involuted syntax of her poetry, others were thrilled by the richness of her vocabulary, her wide range of subjects, and her perception and evocation of the natural world.
An additional small volume of Clampitt’s poetry, The Summer Solstice (1983), was published in a limited edition (thirty-three copies, to be exact), as well as Manhattan: An Elegy, and Other Poems (1990), another very limited edition. For good background material see Patricia Morrisroe, “The Prime of Amy Clampitt: A Major Poet Makes a Late Arrival,” New York (15 Oct. 1984). Interviews include: Laura Fairchild, “Amy Clampitt: An Interview,” American Poetry Review (July/Aug. 1987): 17-20, and Robert E. Hosmer, Jr., “Amy Clampitt: The Art of Poetry XLV,” Paris Review 35, no. 126 (spring 1993): 76—109. Critical reviews of her poetry that include some biographical information are: Helen Vendler, “On the Thread of Language,” New York Review of Books (3 Mar. 1983); J. D. McClatchy, “Earthbound and Fired-Up,” New Republic (22 Apr. 1985); Christina Robb, “Amy Clampitt Reveals the Poetry of Nature,” Boston Globe (6 Apr. 1990); Phoebe Pettingell, “Amy Clampitt’s Pilgrimage,” New Leader (16 Apr. 1990): 16-17; Robert B. Shaw, “Review of .4 Silence Opens,” Poetry (Dec. 1994): 161-166; Harold Bloom, “Poetry in Review,” Yale Review 86, no. 1 (Jan. 1998): 179-185; and Willard Spiegelman, “What to Make of an Augmented Thing,” Kenyon Review 21, no. 1 (winter 1999): 172-182. A tribute by Mary Jo Salter is in the New Republic (6 Mar. 1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times (12 Sept. 1994); and London Independent (23 Sept. 1994).
Marcia B. Dinneen