SEPTEMBER 8, 2017
AMY CLAMPITT’S NAME will be familiar to many contemporary poets because of the eponymous Amy Clampitt Residency, a prestigious fellowship program that has been sponsoring retreats for poets since 2003. One presumes that readers of contemporary poetry also know, or know of, Amy Clampitt’s own rich, original poetry (although a recipient of the coveted Stegner Fellowship at Stanford did once wonder aloud to me why the award was called “the Stegner”), and perhaps are even aware of the story of her career’s trajectory, which can read something like a fairy tale.
In a poetry climate that often values early success and the right credentials, it may be heartening and illuminating to know that Amy Clampitt, born in 1920, never earned a graduate degree (she received an undergraduate degree in English from a small Iowa college), and didn’t publish her first full-length book of poems, The Kingfisher, until she was 63.
Clampitt’s success was not spontaneous, of course; a glance at the acknowledgments page of The Kingfisher shows that she had been writing for some time and placing her work in many of the best journals of the day. By Clampitt’s own account, however, her breakthrough came in 1978, with the publication of a poem in The New Yorker (from which she had been receiving rejections “for years and years”). The piece caught the attention of poet Mary Jo Salter, then a junior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. Salter helped connect Clampitt with editors at Knopf, who brought out The Kingfisher in 1983.
In the remarkable decade that followed The Kingfisher, Clampitt published five more poetry collections as well as witty, substantial prose on everything from ornithology to the Shakespearean canon. She taught at a number of writing programs and received a cluster of major awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and, perhaps most notably, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1992.
With her MacArthur award, Clampitt purchased a small house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which she was able to enjoy for a brief time before her death from cancer in 1994. Clampitt’s husband formed a fund in Clampitt’s honor to “benefit poetry and the literary arts,” and the very home she purchased with her MacArthur winnings is now a retreat house for the Amy Clampitt Residency.
There is nothing “apprentice-like” about Clampitt’s first collection, let alone her second, What the Light Was Like, which appeared from Knopf in 1985 — except that one feels that Clampitt was always apprenticing to Gerard Manley Hopkins. She certainly took on his belief that “what you look hard at seems to look hard at you,” which is one reason that looking into her second book is such an engaging experience.
We find Clampitt continuing to use the acutely sensory, allusive, evocative language of The Kingfisher, not as mere ornament, but rather as a means to reveal the rich essence of simple things — and to take (and make) what joy she can of them. Hers is, as Helen Vendler put it, “a beautiful, taxing poetry” that invites the reader to pay the same extraordinary attention to the text that Clampitt pays to everything, from the motions of a housecat on the prowl in “Bertie Goes Hunting”:
Dear beast, luxurious of pelt,
moon-orbed possessor of the
the lurk that twitches in
the haunch at every
piebald quiver of the out-in-the
open; past the fern-flanked
porchside boundary, a froth
of goldenrod and timothy
absorbs his predatory
silver underside of memory,
the lunge-evoking, paradisal
rustle of the underbrush, the
just-missed quarry …
to a night spent caucusing for a political candidate in “Ringing Doorbells”:
that night for Gene
McCarthy at the edge
of Little Italy
the mildew, after
the musts and fetors
of tomcat and cockroach,
the hayfield whiff
of pot, hot air
a flux of borax,
the entire effluvium
of the polluted
like a hidden
fault line …
Clampitt had clearly been preparing her whole life for her late but meteoric rise. As Malcolm Gladwell might say, she had put in her 10,000 hours and had learned from more poets than Hopkins. In this second collection, she is unabashed in sampling from and paying homage to her literary “predecessors” — Hopkins, Keats (the dedicatee of an entire section), the Metaphysical poets (especially Donne), Stephen Crane, Marianne Moore, and Frost. Full of questions and analogies, the poems are after what Hopkins, inspired by Duns Scotus, called the “inscape,” the “thisness,” the truth, the gist of things; they aim not just to see the light, but, as the title suggests, to know, and to describe, exactly What the Light Was Like. Indeed, almost every poem contains some image of “light,” or of its counterpart, the dark:
stealth of the seep of daylight, the boats
bird-white above the inlet’s altering
fish-silver, the murmur of the motor
as the first boat slips out
ahead of daylight
into the opening aorta …
(from “The August Darks”)
… to drive off into the just-
stirred mother-of-pearl of the day
(from “A New Life”)
[the] bog’s sunken floor a dapple of such countless,
singly borne, close-to-the-
ground corollas, each of a whiteness
so without a flaw …
(from “Cloudberry Summer”).
And “A Baroque Sunburst” begins with a flash: “struck through such a dome / as might await a groaning Michelangelo.” But perhaps the most moving exploration of light comes in the title poem, which recounts the story of a local lobsterman who one day puts out and does not come back, only to be discovered days later, dead, “slumped against the kegs”:
… I find it
tempting to imagine what,
when the blood roared, overflowing its cerebral sluiceway,
and the iridescence
of his last perception, charring, gave way to unreversed,
the light out there was like, that’s always shifting — from
a nimbus gone berserk
to a single gorget, a cathedral train of blinking, or
the fogbound shroud
that can turn anywhere into a nowhere.
With their intricate, suspended sentences, sprinklings of foreign and arcane words and neologisms, their leaping between high and low culture, it might be easy to dismiss Clampitt’s work as baroque, a mass of glinty surfaces, a sea of language too in love with itself. But the poems are much more than this. “Gooseberry Fool,” for example, is on the one hand a highly inventive, figurative description of a sour fruit:
The gooseberry’s no doubt an oddity,
an outlaw or pariah even — thorny
and tart as any
kindergarten martinet, …
[a] veiny Chinese
lantern, its stolid jelly
of a fruit, not only has
no aroma but is twice as tedious
as the wild strawberry’s sunburst
Yet later in the poem, Clampitt writes that
… gooseberry virtues
take some getting
used to, much as does trepang,
tripe à la mode de Caen,
or having turned thirteen.
The acerbity of all things green
and adolescent lingers in
it — the arrogant, shrinking,
prickling-in-every direction thorn-
iness that loves no company except its,
or anyhow that’s what it gets.
The “prickling-in-every direction thorn- / iness” of the diction in this densely textured passage reveals an intuition into the risks as well as the “virtues” of difficulty: in fruit, in people, in poems. And if these poems risk putting off what Willard Spiegelman calls, in How Poets See the World, “[Clampitt’s] thoughtless or lazy readers,” they bring great rewards to the close reader. Spiegelman goes on:
One typical misunderstanding of ornament resents it for manufacturing false, unwarranted Sturm and 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.
Fans of Clampitt already know the “virtues” and delights of her poems. For those who have not read the work, What the Light Was Like makes a strong place to join her “subtle community.”
In an endnote regarding “The August Darks” from What the Light Was Like, Clampitt quotes George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” The poems in Richard Deming’s second book, Day for Night, concern themselves precisely with this “roar […] on the other side of silence,” attending to whatever, as he puts it in “Whether or Not,” is “subject / to sudden loss.”
Like Deming’s first book, Let’s Not Call It Consequence, which won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America (Shearsman, 2008), his latest collection grapples with the elusive motions of consciousness itself. Like Clampitt, Deming continues to turn to his own poetic predecessors, such as Rilke and Ashbery, but also finds inspiration in painters, photographers, and, especially, filmmakers. In fact, the title Day for Night refers to the cinematic technique of shooting night scenes during the day.
The technical methods of these art forms — framing, montage, cuts, ambience, voice-over — offer Deming a language to communicate uncertainty, restlessness, anomie, loneliness, and longing, as in this passage from “Refrain”:
Below my window, a woman grasps her love like a new
screenplay. Dawn, when it comes, is still
the very shape
of surprise; it starts like a guilty thing.
A man in a blue serge suit — I didn’t know
they still made them — coughs into his sleeve. The torn
and faded poster for Fritz Lang’s Scarlet
just how much past has passed.
Some days are like that: heavy painted canvases
laid alongside the walls of lofts
in the meatpacking district. …
In lines like these, it feels as though Jules Dassin is exchanging trade secrets with Frank O’Hara. Even when his poems are full of things — lemons, waterspouts, toast and jam — it is the silence surrounding and suffusing these objects, the loss they entail, that Deming is after. “There is this life, thrown or found,” he writes in the long, ambitious penultimate poem, “Son et Lumière” — “it takes a shape and makes its time. Yet, / why becomes want again and again.”
“I didn’t ask / to be here, to become a form / that becomes its own end,” Deming writes in “Son et Lumière.” Here he seems to revert to one of the sources of the modern lyric poem: the riddle. Both he and Clampitt make poetry a place for puzzling out the complex, paradoxical nature of language and reality, bringing the innermost secrets of being to light.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, will be published in 2017.