At the end of her fifteen years as a public poet, facing the ovarian cancer that would claim her life, Amy Clampitt penned the first poem of her last book. Written in two clause-heavy sentences, the poem is called “Syrinx.” The word "syrinx" refers not only to the mythical reed-pipes of Pan, but also to the branched tubules in a bird’s throat with vibratory openings that create the possibility for birdsong. The first of the sentences sings like this:
Like the foghorn that’s all lung,
the wind chime that’s all percussion,
like the wind itself, that’s merely air
in a terrible fret, without so much
as a finger to articulate
what ails it, the aeolian
syrinx, that reed
in the throat of a bird,
when it comes to the shaping of
what we call consonants, is
too imprecise for consensus
about what it even seems to
be saying: is it o-ka-lee or con-ka-ree, is it really jug jug,
is it cuckoo for that matter?—
much less whether a bird’s call
means anything in
particular, or at all.
Notice the poem’s stately pace and rich language, its pun on “fret,” its unexpected, lopsided rhymes (“lung / percussion”; “consonants, is / consensus”), and its playful, paradoxical use of precise language (aeolian syrinx) to discuss the imprecision of both the meaning and vowels inside a birdcall. At stake in the poem is not what’s consonant or even constant, but what’s lacking even the security of a fixed name. All those lovely particulars (words) that the poem harnesses to craft meaning also drive toward that meaning’s unraveling. They ride not only in the service of precision and consensus, but also (and at the same time) towards a disagreement. They acknowledge the namelessness that always hovers beneath any language.
As if praising us for noticing this, and for forging a way through this knotted thicket, Clampitt gives a wink with the opening of her second sentence. It launches: "Syntax comes last, there can be / no doubt of it . . ." It may, but Clampitt is just about to call attention to her own use of this “last-ness.” Her next sentence is as complex and branched as the first. Moving by accumulation and parenthesis, it builds up an investigation of how language comes to have meaning. But the sentence also pokes fun at its own complexity:
Syntax comes last, there can be
no doubt of it: came last,
can be thought of (is
thought of by some) as a
higher form of expression:
is, in extremity, first to
be jettisoned: as the diva
onstage, all soaring
takes off, pure vowel
breaking free of the dry,
the merely fricative
husk of the particular, rises
past saying anything, any
more than the wind in
the trees, waves breaking,
or Homer’s gibbering
those last-chance vestiges
above the threshold, the all-
but dispossessed of breath.
In fact, nearing the end of her life, on the verge of becoming dispossessed of her own body, Clampitt offers her own diva performance. Rather than merely contorting, her acrobatic dance of sound and meter invites a real reckoning with language. Rooted in craft (syntax), the sentence also partly escapes its vessel, becoming, by virtue of its linguistic grace, musical. (This sentence, purporting to be about vowels, actually performs in mouthy consonants: fricative, husk, particular . . . ) Like an opera singer, Clampitt plays meaning against music, syntax against sound. Caliban and Ariel might not have done it better.
It’s a breathtaking performance, and it’s typical Clampitt, embodying what’s both remarkable and persistently challenging about her poetics. It’s the kind of virtuosity that allowed Clampitt, who was fifty-eight when she published her first poem in 1978, and sixty-three when she published her first book in 1983, to launch a miraculous career. Her emergence in the 1980s gave her, for a while at least, a kind of fame that was far from marginal.
After decades of trying (and failing) to be a novelist, Clampitt switched to poetry in her early fifties. She took courses here and there, but found a champion in Howard Moss, then poetry editor at the New Yorker. Her manuscript finally arrived at Knopf, where Alice Quinn was her editor. Her first book, The Kingfisher, achieved the kind of astronomical success that poets only imagine, or, at best, struggle for years to achieve. Clampitt climbed the poetry charts, gaining entry to the poetry establishment’s elusive reaches. The Kingfisher was praised in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. The Nation called it “one of the most brilliant debuts in recent American literary history.” For a former Audubon librarian who was nearly a senior citizen to emerge this way was so fully unexpected that even glossy, pulse-following New York magazine commissioned a four-page profile. In it, Clampitt sits resplendent and slightly bemused between profiles of bankers and ads for Caribbean cruises. J. D. McClatchy is quoted as saying that Clampitt had “burst upon the scene” as though she’d “sprung full-blown from the brow of Jove.”
Clampitt’s aesthetics were as unconventional as her career path. While critics such as Helen Vendler panned the typical late-Seventies aesthetic as “spare,” and sounding “as if the poet had taped his own telephone conversation,” Clampitt offered up wrought, filigreed, pomaded poems rife with high literary allusion—poems that, in contrast to a going trend, eschewed that kind of personal revelation we’ve come to call the confessional.
This artfulness was a long time in coming. Clampitt was born in 1920 (three years after Robert Lowell) and raised in Iowa as a Quaker. She attended Grinnell College. Her grandfather wrote a rather flatfooted memoir about the place, and her own writing frequently cultivated her consciousness of being the eastward-returning child of westward-facing settlers. Even her first poem in The Kingfisher describes a turtle as it “hove eastward, a covered / wagon intent on the wrong direction.” It’s perhaps an indirect reference to herself, but also a touchstone of her continent-crossing consciousness, of her watchfulness of both historical tides and natural migrations. (But how natural are we migratory humans? Clampitt herself, with her talent for embodying both sides of a binary, was never fully decided.) She once called herself “a poet of displacement.” She was someone who, like many of us, was always “moving on or going back to where you came from.”
By the time fame found Clampitt, she’d been in motion a long time. In 1941, fresh out of Iowa, she came to New York to do graduate work at Columbia. Though she later displayed great fluency in the Romantics and Wordsworth, and taught herself Greek, she soon eschewed graduate study (and academicism) and took a first job at Oxford University Press. She left this job to write a novel, but when she was down to “holes in [her] shoes and approximately twenty-five dollars to [her] name,” she went to work (with very little knowledge of birds) as a librarian at the Audubon Society. None of her three novels were ever published. Years went by: rich, fascinating, paradoxically principled. In 1956 she experienced an intense religious conversion from her Quaker upbringing to the Episcopal church. In the Seventies, she left the church for its failure to take a stand on political issues, and organized against the Vietnam War and on behalf of the Black Panthers. She met and partnered with a liberal law professor. (These fascinations follow her: In her home in Lenox, Massachusetts, where I lived for a year as the Amy Clampitt Fellow, one will find anti-war flyers stuck as bookmarks in Wordsworth, or a battered copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice next to Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.)
And Clampitt’s experience of her own success would be short-lived. Following The Kingfisher, she published four more volumes of poetry over eleven years. In 1992, she was named a MacArthur Fellow and used the funds to buy a house. In 1993, she learned that she had cancer. In February of 1994 she published her final book, A Silence Opens. In September, she died.
Even while her success was obvious—she was championed by Helen Vendler, Alice Quinn, and the New Yorker—it wasn’t always widely reaching. (Clampitt wouldn’t have minded: She once said that she’d be just fine with having just “30 or 40 good readers.”) Clampitt was both celebrated and mocked in her lifetime, and has been since, as well. Ask poets about her now, and they (many of them middle-aged men) will confess that they always found her writing style baroque, overwritten, flowery, grandmotherly. “Purple prose,” said one. “Bad Hopkins,” pronounced August Kleinzahler, decidedly opinionated and not prone to mincing words. Others, like Rosanna Warren, remember admiring the way that Clampitt’s singular style launched a departure from the de rigueur spareness of the 1980s, challenging a school marked by a poetics of terseness. These debates, far from being confined to the Seventies, are hardly decided. Some people confess a knee-jerk suspicion of Clampitt’s long-winded approaches to so-called canonic high culture (she’ll write at length about Keats, Wordsworth, Beethoven, Mozart). Among colleagues, I can often sense that the pulse of poetry sometimes believes itself to have rejected or forgotten Amy Clampitt. Nevertheless, many poets confide a secret devotion to the work, as if they believe they are the only poet who still likes her. I would argue that it’s a shame to think of her as forgotten, forgettable, or less than remarkable. It’s too quick, as some do, to dismiss her flights of syntax as some kind of doilied grandmotherly festooning.
In fact, Clampitt is exactly the kind of grandmother we all might learn from. Her shuttling of meaning against itself is wily, wise, and even subversive. In this, she stands as a precursor of what’s most pleasurable about say, Carl Phillips, and as an inheritor of what’s pleasurable in reading Moore. As if in retort to “I, too, dislike it,” Clampitt figures poetry as a “botched, cumbersome, much-mended, / not unsatisfactory thing.” In the same poem she figures the world as “snelled” together, mended by improvised and almost haphazard stitchery, and also as something that can emerge only out of our our necessary, but also imperfect care. If her writing is embroidered, it also contains an implicit defense of its artfulness, and it contains the sort of defense of domesticities that Virginia Woolf made with both Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.
For those ready to enter Clampitt’s world, there’s a fine Selected Poems out just last year from Mary Jo Salter. It effectively halves her lifework, and contains an excellent introduction. Then again, it might be just as well to plow through the old Collected. After all, in both the complete and selected volumes, not everything is a gem. Reading the Collected again, I find things that are too easy, too cozy, perhaps too domesticated for me (there’s a poem that ends in a “whiff of vanilla,” and indeed, vanilla seems to be what it is). Then, like Amy, I’m of two minds: That poem, about the sturdier form of the wild orchid, enchants me in attempting so earnestly—and so craftily—to avoid the hothouse. I do love in Clampitt what Elizabeth Hardwick once called a “greed for particulars.” I admire the way her observations of nature weave us into connection—not untroubled, but certainly despite ourselves—with the organic world. She celebrates the blue glass of milk of magnesia bottles alongside the cracked rubble of Chartres and unearths unusual animals (“The Sea Mouse”), alongside a host of iffy urban denizens who have been companions. For those who feel that she’s too “high culture” (whatever that means these days), it’s fascinating to watch her watch garbage, noting that “nothing / is beneath consideration.” Her poem “Salvage” celebrates the “cortege of crumpled / defunct cars” . . . on “the lasagna- / layered flatbed.” She lingers on the “arcane / trash-basket dig / the pleasures of the ruined.” Indeed, Clampitt’s pleasure is often full of ruin. Her work reflects a subversive consciousness at odds with itself. Her work combines “aesthetic rumination and ethical unease”—aspects she once attributed to the poetry of Marianne Moore, but which describe her very well at the same time.
In her house, Clampitt’s fascinations are clear: Wordsworth and his circle, Hopkins, the Romantics. She has a book called A Natural History of Vacant Lots, and books that reflect her quest to teach herself Greek in her sixties. (She liked, as she noted, the sound of it—that “gibbering Thespesiae iachē” again.) Though most of her papers are now at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, I stumbled on marginalia—sometimes on the back of an anti-war flyer. Her elaborate handwriting was itself a kind of lacy snell, a net forming a world out of associations. Her poems bear the great loves on her bookcase out: from Wordsworth, Clampitt learns to capture nuances of the mind’s action even as it ponders; from Hopkins, she inherits a peculiar sense of stress. From Moore, she learns again the arts of paradox and negation, of stating the negative to imply the positive, of weaving a presence by painting its opposite. In the creation of a style—influenced, certainly, but not derivative—Clampitt remains undogmatic. In her work I find embodied another dictum from Moore: “One writes as one must and not as one should.”
Ultimately, I think the best way to read Clampitt is with an open mind, a tendency to browse, and a willingness to let the question remain unsettled. Her rangy travel poems, with their heapings-on of nominatives can recall Whitman; as with Whitman, we must live with contradictions, with knotted syntax made of quarrelsome thought in motion. I’m not immune to the criticisms of Clampitt’s detractors: She can feel precious, her “veloute”-filled poems like a fetishized carrot on a 1980s dinner plate. Despite the fact that I see the ambition in her eight-part homage to Keats, I prefer her earthier poems to her recherché docudramas. But just when I’d turn away from something overwrought, the filigree enchants me: a shifting nebulous idea, a word that I too want to caress (“ouzel,” “pipit,”).
When Clampitt gets it right, she gets it right. To just about any reader, I’d recommend “Matoaka,” the excellent poem that acknowledges our misremembering of Pocahontas. Amid a rash of history poems, this has always stood out to me as a major exploration of the way poetic form can interact and dramatize the problem of knowing any fact. I’d read “A Hermit Thrush,” in which Clampitt claims (rather confidently) that “[n]othing’s certain,” and in which her subject and her language proceeds to “snell” her and any understanding together by the means of groundcover and fishhooks. As in Wordsworth, the drama of Clampitt’s syntax serves not merely to obfuscate, but also to illuminate the mind’s uncertain process of trying to know, and then, from there, trying to feel. This, I think, is a triumph. On the strength of such poems, I’d wager that Clampitt cannot become passé, not only to those forty or so readers but I hope to a great many more.
Once one has thought a little about Wordsworth, I recommend thinking of Clampitt as a naturalist, a birder—someone who knew birdsong and the anatomies of birds down to their warbling throats.
Last year in Mexico, I had the opportunity to closely watch some northeastern shorebirds that had migrated to the Yucatan for the winter. I felt myself holding still in the deliberate act of observation. Were these fellow migrators piping plovers, the endangered kind that nest in the place in Maine and that my own grandmother owned? I held still to observe their quick actions—beak, leg, ringed necks—hoping that they would reveal themselves. I felt myself suspended, heaping on qualities, watching each adjective arrive with wonder. It's this kind of watching, and self-watching, that Clampitt dramatizes so beautifully in her work. It may be also what is challenging about her. It may be that such attention is itself endangered.
Out Clampitt’s last window, in the darkest part of the winter, I watch the motions of the red-breasted nuthatch—a light thing that dares to brave New England cold. I know she would have seen and known more about the bird than I do. I think of what she wrote of the monarchs: “airborne marathon, elegiac / signature of nations who / have no language // their landless caravans augment / among the blistered citadels.” Clampitt, long in travel, would also have admired what tries to stay put.