a vagueness over everything...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Amy Clampitt


A vagueness comes over everything,
as though proving color and contour
alike dispensable: the lighthouse
extinct, the islands' spruce-tips
drunk up like milk in the
universal emulsion; houses
reverting into the lost
and forgotten; granite
subsumed, a rumor
in a mumble of ocean.
definition, however, has not been
totally banished: hanging
tassel by tassel, panicled
foxtail and needlegrass,
dropseed, furred hawkweed,
and last season's rose-hips
are vested in silenced
chimes of the finest,
clearest sea-crystal.
opens up rooms, a showcase
for the hueless moonflower
corolla, as Georgia
O'Keefe might have seen it,
of foghorns; the nodding
campanula of bell buoys;
the ticking, linear
filigree of bird voices.


I’ve always believed Amy Clampitt to be the complete package – beautiful lyricism with meditative intensity and a strong painter’s touch with imagery, most often centered in nature. A metaphysical poet of the highest order. Mixing the best of Bishop with the best of Donne. Clampitt’s first published poem was in The New Yorker. Her first book, The Kingfisher, published when she was 63, is as strong a debut as American literature can hope for.

In the late winter of 1986, I was sitting in an ICU waiting room at Emory University Hospital – had been there for days – fearful tension had closed to numbness – and leafing through an issue of Vanity Fair, I came upon an essay about Clampitt. The focus was her approach to suffering and letting go in her poem “A Procession at Candlemas”. Enlightenment. I was hooked. As roads lead on to other roads – in 1990, it was my fortune to have dinner with Clampitt – there were four or five poets gathered around the table. Her voice was compelling. Every word was – or at least seemed to me to be so – a lesson, an instruction, a phrase that gave way to understanding the self. Most likely, I was just ready.

“Fog” is a poem that shows off Clampitt’s strengths. A music that will make one dizzy, but the dance leads to an awakening ... the ticking, linear filigree of bird voices. Her language is beautiful in its detail, as shown in the opening stanza:

the islands’ spruce-tips
drunk up like milk in the
universal emulsion; houses
reverting into the lost
and forgotten; granite
subsumed, a rumor
in a mumble of ocean

It’s a stunning, intense view of specificity. Her word choice – stanza two, for example – is rich and impeccable: banished, tassel, panicled, needlegrass, furred hawkweed, vested, and clearest. Strong music with a painter’s brush: “as Georgia / O'Keefe might have seen it”.

Reading Clampitt is like opening your eyes to find yourself standing in the deep center of a great forest. Her words are the path.


Pris said...

Thanks for introducing me to her. Her poem is stunningly beautiful. Good post.

(And I like 'Everybody Knows', too, by Cohen)

Clare said...

Lovely entry. Immaculate poem...

KATE EVANS said...

Wow, thanks. I've never spent much time with Clampitt but will now.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks Pris, Clare, and Kate for the read. I do hope you read more of Clampitt's work. She's a unique force.

jenni said...

Great entry. Thanks.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

I appreciate the read, Jenni.

C. E. Chaffin said...

God-awful beautiful poem.

Didn't know Clampitt arrived so late in her life. Amazing story.

Imagine, your first credit in "The New Yorker.

And that you got to sit and talk with her!

Strangely, most poets are much more approachable than we think. It just never occurs to us to try and meet with them. Eliot graciously received many wannabes in his time.

Liked your quotes on poetry, but was disappointed in nothing by Eliot. Re-reading those lines by Yeats was an incredible pleasure.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

As for the poetry quotations: I couldn't get to everyone - only 10 - That's why Eliot is missing. He should be there.

Thanks for the read of the Clampitt piece, CE. I think you're right about most poets.