Saturday, April 08, 2006

NEW! Review of Amy Clampitt's Letters

Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt, edited by Willard Spiegelman. Columbia University Press, $41.50.

Reviewed by David Galef

All too often, the careers of well-known American poets follow a predictable pattern: early promise capped by a major award, followed by years of uneven work or a slow downslide. Late-blooming exceptions are almost refreshing: Wallace Stevens, for instance, whose first book came out when he was 44, though one should distinguish between a late bloomer and a late publisher. The career of Amy Clampitt presents a striking instance of this second career flight, cut short in 1994 by ovarian cancer. Clampitt’s poetry has always been both sensuous and cerebral, with a layering of the past in nature and culture. The poet herself, or at least the persona in her work, made her seem like the kind of individual you’d want to meet: modest but with high standards, slightly romantic but pragmatic where it counted, and perpetually curious.

Now, a decade after her death, Willard Spiegelman, an American literature professor who once described Clampitt’s verse as half voluptuous and half Quaker, has published a carefully tailored selection of Clampitt’s correspondence to present, as he says, “A poet’s life in letters.” The picture is an intriguing mosaic with some early pieces missing. The last fifteen years of her life, Clampitt encountered fame, which makes for its own distortions, though she seems to have handled it rather well.

Graduating from Grinnell College in 1941, Clampitt left the midwest for New York, though for quite some time she worked at a low-profile job, first as a secretary, then as a librarian, later doing editorial work. In these respects, her career arc was like that of the British novelist Barbara Pym, an author whose quiet but penetrating work Clampitt admired: two smart, talented young women who went to the big city and performed office work for years while writing on the side--in Pym’s case for the African Institute, for Clampitt, the Audubon Society. Their interests, too, seem to have coincided: flora and fauna, the weather, and landscape, as well as food. Judging from their letters (Pym’s were collected in 1984 under the title A Very Private Eye), neither was immune to celebrities, though if they were snobs, it was only in the Virginia Woolf sense: they valued talent. Both retained their intelligence to the end.

Love, Amy starts in March 1950, with a letter to Barbara Blay, an Englishwoman whom Clampitt first visited in London the previous year. Blay, the recipient of letters on everything from the holes in Clampitt’s shoes to the presence of Seamus Heaney, represents just one of many long-term friendships that sustained Clampitt over the years. She wasn’t a temperamental artist famous for feuds. And her letters are sustaining rather than vitriolic. As she writes in her essay collection, Predecessors Et Cetera, in a review of women’s epistolary literature: “The writing of letters--real old-fashioned ones, as distinguished from the copiously scripted and distributed appeal to its recipients’ worst or better instincts, or even to both at once, that like weeds in an untended plot may soon crowd out all else--is a dying art.” Her prose is chatty but structured, with casual observations on life often linked to art or literature. In this respect, she seems a fine embodiment of the thinking, feeling poet whom T. S. Eliot praised, the kind who connects reading Spinoza and falling in love.

But Clampitt never adopted the crabbed, progerian stance that Eliot often affected--an early 1940s shot of her in Central Park makes her look like Carson McCullers--and she displays unabashed enthusiasms. As she writes her brother Philip in the early fifties, “Then there was the evening when I listened to a poet reading Yeats aloud, and practically floated out of the window, the effect was so intoxicating.” She could also be political and droll at the same time, referring to left-leaners as “the dictatorship of the vegetariat.” And always, always, she writes about what she’s been reading, from Toynbee to Stendhal and back. Clampitt clearly continued her education on her own long after leaving college. In one of her letters to Philip, she thinks about taking The Faerie Queene on the subway, a scene similar to Arthur Miller’s reading War and Peace while strap-hanging from Brooklyn.

For all her reading, in the 1950s Clampitt went through some failed-novelist years. As her letters show, she could work lovely descriptive touches but wasn’t as adept at reproducing scenes, and her unsuccessful narratives were apparently skimpy on plot and characterization. Certainly, she could be both clinical and lyrical in evoking atmosphere, as in “From a Clinic Waiting Room”: “Down in the blood bank / the centrifuge, its branched transparent siphons / stripping the sap of Yggdrasil / from the slit arm of the donor, skims / the spinning corpuscles, cream-white / from hectic red.” She could also quickly penetrate to the heart of a matter, which may be one reason for her impatience with the Freudian fervor of the fifties and sixties. She preferred the rigor of religious morality over psychoanalysis, as she explained in a letter to Philip back in 1957, concluding, “And good luck with your psychotherapy!” She was a free spirit, though not a careless soul--that Quaker background. Hence her self-description in a letter, “Within limits, I do pretty much as I like,” and a telling reference to “My own brand of nonconformity.”

Clampitt’s letters also reveal the family she left behind in Iowa (for a poignant view of her great-grandfather, “A settler / From Indiana, his mind scarred by whippings,” see her long poem “The Prairie”). Clampitt herself was one of five children, and her sister Beth spent some time in and out of institutions. Clampitt, for her part, spent time in and out of church. In fact, a semi-embrace of Episcopalianism around 1956 seems to be involved with her starting to write poetry. By the 1960s, she grew dis-enamored of the church, quit her job at the Audubon Society, and began to travel more. Around the same time, she became more overtly political, canvassing for Eugene McCarthy and proclaiming anti-war sentiments. Her February 1971 letter to Henry Kissinger about the Vietnam War is a masterpiece of controlled, eloquent frustration. Almost ten years later, she revealed in a letter to a family friend that she’d grown distant from the church because of its lukewarm reaction against the war.

But she never lost her adoration of art. She writes admiringly of other writers: A. R. Ammons and his poetry book Sphere; an old reliable, the work of e. e. cummings; and the chants of Allen Ginsberg, whom she terms “completely himself.” But she also notes, in 1975, that the definition of poetry has lost all coherence nowadays. Her work was more in line with that of Elizabeth Bishop, clearly a poet whose sensuous grace influenced Clampitt significantly. Finally, around 1979, Clampitt’s own poetic career began to blossom. The poet Mary Jo Salter plucked a few of Clampitt’s poems from the slush pile at The Atlantic Monthly and decided to write her a real letter, thus beginning a correspondence (in both meanings) that would last some fifteen years.

Clampitt took a creative writing workshop with a public reading as a practicum and writes to Salter about “how heady a pleasure it can be to have an audience,” though in the same letter, she notes ruefully: “more poets writing than there are readers, it would appear.” In a March 1978 letter, she notes triumphantly that a poem of hers is to be printed in The New Yorker. From that point on, Howard Moss, the “kindly, unassuming, pleasant” poetry editor at The New Yorker, figured in many of her letters, and Clampitt started meeting Big Name poets, including James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Joseph Brodsky, Galway Kinnell, and Derek Walcott. The Harvard-based scholar and critic Helen Vendler also entered the picture, at first puzzled by the appearance of this poet without academic credentials but quite cognizant of her talent. Along with Frederick Turner of The Kenyon Review, Vendler was an anointer who could make a poet’s reputation. (She was probably instrumental in securing Clampitt a Guggenheim and eventually a MacArthur Award.) Clampitt’s letters to her show how a critic can help a poet with the work itself: editing suggestions. She also relied on a man with a musical ear: her life partner, the law professor Hal Korn, whom she had met at a political rally in 1968.

Even before Clampitt was “discovered,” life was a fairly pleasant mélange. Writing to Blay in 1977 from Corea, Maine, where she and Hal spent the summers, she mentions work on a Dutton manuscript, that they’re living on blueberry pie and crabmeat, and that she and Hal saw a local production of Così fan Tutte. These details could easily figure into a Clampitt poem, a loose commingling of the natural and the stylized, though so much depends on the arrangement and the vocabulary. This is a woman who casually refers to vernissage, physids, and amphipods. And for all her book-knowledge, her letters also include a lot of naturalism, not surprising given her interests and work at the Audubon Society.

Spiegelman shows the poems enclosed in a few of Clampitt’s letters: a version of “Palm Sunday,” for instance, eventually pared down for inclusion in her first volume. From her letters during this busy era, one can appreciate the texture of her life: house guests arrive and depart; she and Hal are jogging these days; “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” is published in The New Yorker for a payment of--an exultant note here--$183. And after some uncertainty about whether she would ever come out with a book, a new editor at Knopf, Alice Quinn (eventually succeeding Moss at The New Yorker), accepted the book that came out as The Kingfisher in 1983. After that, Clampitt published four more full volumes: What the Light Was Like, Archaic Figure, Westward, and A Silence Opens.

Such prolific success, and at the expense of the reigning minimalist aesthetic, occasioned a fair amount of criticism. In a letter to Salter, she notes that another poet accused her, “You’re in love with words.” Though this label seems the very definition of a poet, Clampitt is typically modest: “What he meant, I guess, was that I tend to use too many of them.” During the summers, she and Hal reread Dickens and George Eliot, and in late 1981, Clampitt writes Blay that she’s learning ancient Greek.

In the last years of her life, she became a luminary, and some of the placid pleasures change to descriptions of reading tours, publication events, and meeting other luminaries--not to mention the inevitable reviewing work thrust at her, as well as judging literary contests. But New York was changing, and the 1980s were not the 1960s. In a sign of the times, Clampitt’s beloved 12th-Street walk-up turned co-op, and The New Yorker altered under the editorship of Tina Brown.

A June 1993 letter to the poet George Bradley refers almost glancingly to surgery and chemotherapy. She left Manhattan, selling her place on 12th Street and buying a retreat in Lenox, Massachusetts, with money from her MacArthur. Growing increasingly weaker, she married Hal three months before she died. A photo in this volume records the event, with Clampitt, unable to stand but wearing a smile under a swoopingly broad-brimmed hat. The last letter in the selection is dated September 5, 1994, from Phoebe Hoss, writing for her friend, who died just five days later. As for what remains, her Collected Poems, issued by Knopf in 1997, is a good place to start. The volume shows the same multiplicity of interests as in her letters. As she wrote to Philip back in 1954: “I have never known exactly what the accepted version of myself was, if there is such a thing.” Posterity shimmers in these refractions of a variegated life.

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