Friday, July 22, 2005


The remarkable world of Amy Clampitt is revealed in letters

Los Angeles Times/Los Angeles/CA/USA/21-Jul-05/LA Times

…. By following the old French adage to cultivate your own garden, this uncommonly gifted woman produced a luminous body of poetry, including the volumes "The Kingfisher" and "What the Light Was Like," which will live on long after the verse of some of her more politic contemporaries is forgotten.

Until 1983, when she was 63, Clampitt lived a life of quiet obscurity, writing poetry that gained her almost no recognition. As editor Willard Spiegelman points out in his introduction to "Love, Amy," one of the key factors that made her poetry so unlike any other being written in those years was that she "never became part of a poets' community…. In her sixties, Clampitt had already established her style and ideas, and she did not need to curry favor with other poets or editors or with the general public."

The eldest of five children in an Iowa Quaker family, Clampitt had been living in New York ever since graduating from Grinnell College in 1941.

Between odd jobs for publishers and for the Audubon Society, she wrote novels that no one would publish. In 1956, while visiting the Cloisters, she experienced what can only be called an epiphany.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, she was galvanized by the beauty of the medieval music and tapestries and was taken out of her own existence, as she writes to her brother Philip: "[F]or the first time in my life, without even knowing that I knew it, I had been without fear."

Trying first to record this in her journal, then to write it up in the form of a short story, Clampitt experienced something even more unexpected:

"Quite as though they had a will of their own, the sentences broke in a way that was not my usual style at all. Rather frightened, I must admit, for the moment, I let them break. The next thing I knew, they had begun to reach out for rhymes. This frightened me almost more, until I discovered that finding a rhyme could be almost as natural a process as the resolution of a dominant chord: I didn't have to look for them, they simply came."

Not having written verse since her teens, Clampitt had considered it merely an adolescent phase. Yet now she found herself composing a 700-line poem, regardless of how unlikely she was to find a publisher for it.

"I feel as if I could write a whole history of English literature, and know just where to place everybody in it…. The reason being, apparently, that I feel I am in it."

In the same letter to her brother, she describes her vision and some of the lines that it inspired:

But let light speak:

Know that the will

Is, and was ever, free;

Free at the verge of time, free in the weak, …. As Spiegelman notes, Clampitt's incarnation as a poet coincided with her attraction to the Episcopalian Church, yet she came to write even more prolifically in the late 1960s, when she retreated from the church, dismayed by what she considered its insufficient response to political, social and environmental matters that she deemed urgent.

In some respects, Spiegelman seems the ideal editor for a collection such as this. A professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, editor in chief of the Southwest Review and author of four books on poetry, he is completely in sympathy with Clampitt's allegiance to the great spirits of the past and her disregard for literary fad and fashion.

His introductory essay, "A Poet's Life in Letters," sets forth her life story crisply, clearly and illuminatingly.

But when it comes to the actual editing of this volume, Spiegelman proves surprisingly disappointing. There are few, if any, notes identifying people who are mentioned in the letters, or anything else that was important in her life.

But in giving us these frank, unpretentious, immensely revelatory letters, "Love, Amy" enables us to learn more about the remarkable woman who created a splendid body of poetry more likely than many others to endure.


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