All Her Nomads

Helen Vendler

  • Collected Poems by Amy Clampitt
    Faber, 496 pp, £25.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 571 19349 8

Amy Clampitt died in 1994, at the age of 74; Knopf had published her first book of poems, The Kingfisher, in 1983. It was followed by What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), Westward (1990) and A Silence Opens (1994) – five books in 11 years. These are the books that make up this Collected (which does not include Clampitt’s chapbook, Multitudes, Multitudes, privately printed in 1973).

The Collected is preceded by an affectionate Foreword by the poet Mary Jo Salter, a close friend of Clampitt’s during the Eighties and Nineties; the biographical information below is drawn from this helpful introduction to both the person and the writing. Amy Clampitt was born on 15 June 1920, the first of five children, in New Providence, Iowa, on a three-hundred-acre farm belonging to her paternal grandfather; she lived on the farm until she was ten, when her parents, to Clampitt’s lasting regret, moved to a new house. Her life was outwardly uneventful. After 12 years in the local public schools, where she felt out of place, she moved on to Grinnell College, then – after entering graduate school at Columbia – she dropped out and became a secretary at Oxford University Press. ‘She wrote advertising copy and won a company-sponsored essay contest, whose prize was a trip to England,’ Salter tells us, and adds: ‘It, and a follow-up journey around Europe a few years later, when she quit the Oxford job, changed her life.’ There was an unhappy romance, and then a job as reference librarian for the Audubon Society. In the Fifties, Clampitt wrote three novels, which remain unpublished. She kept an apartment in Greenwich Village, but for the last 25 years of her life she also shared an apartment on the Upper East Side with Harold Korn, a professor at Columbia University Law School; they married shortly before Clampitt’s death in 1994, of ovarian cancer. In the summers, they spent weeks in Maine, the location of many of Clampitt’s poems of fog, sea and sundews. Salter, in recounting her first meeting with Clampitt in 1979, gives a physical description that is very accurate:

Tall, seemingly weighing nothing at all in her ballet slippers, she had a lightness of foot and manner that put one in mind, immediately, of a child. Her dark brown hair, greying only a little then, was put up behind with a hippie’s leather barrette, though she had also trained two wide chin-length locks to fall over her rather comically large ears. She was less able (though she tried, with long, elegant fingers that were always flying upward) to hide a beautiful gap-toothed smile.

(Thomas Victor’s photograph, reproduced on the dust-jacket of the Collected, catches the smile convincingly.)

Salter also fills in, for Clampitt’s new readers, the moral background to the poems. It was Quakers who had settled New Providence, but a more amalgamated Protestantism was what Clampitt had been raised in. She was drawn in the Sixties into political action, and had joined the 1971 demonstrations outside the White House protesting the bombing of North Vietnam. When Salter asked Clampitt if she had ever wanted children, she replied: ‘Oh no, when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima I knew that this wasn’t a world I wanted to bring children into.’ Salter, rightly, suspects that there were other reasons: it is clear from the poems that Clampitt was repelled by her mother’s life, drained of personal energy by childbearing and household duties. Clampitt, Salter later learned, ‘left the Episcopal Church (after years of commitment so fervent she had considered becoming a nun) because she felt its leaders had not been sufficiently outspoken against the war’. But Clampitt also rebelled against being incorporated into any movement. She said in an interview in the journal, Verse, the year before she died:

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