Book review: Nothing Stays Put: The Life and Poetry of Amy Clampitt


The late Janet Malcolm memorably proclaimed that a biographer is like a “professional burglar” attempting to break and enter a life — a busybody and voyeur masked in “an apparatus of scholarship.” Willard Spiegelman’s “Nothing Stays Put: The Life and Poetry of Amy Clampitt” embodies a different kind of investigation, not surveillance but thoughtful examination that at times still spins off into a kind of awe.

This isn’t “breaking and entering.” Spiegelman does not force his way into the literary house that Clampitt built over decades. He never offers provocative speculation or unfounded conjecture. Yet this respectful distance does not prevent him from reading her life as an inevitability, not of fate, rather of the poet’s extraordinary nature.

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Spiegelman — author of many previous books, including an edited volume of Clampitt’s letters, “Love, Amy” — defers to the poet herself, or Amy, as he often calls her. In the opening pages, he presents her poem “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews,” a whirlwind of allusion that appeared in the New Yorker in 1978, when Clampitt was 58. She was unknown to the literary world at the time but would have several more poems published in the magazine before they were collected in her book “The Kingfisher,” in 1983. Spiegelman gingerly unpacks the title poem from that book, calling it “autobiographical, perhaps at second hand, but not revelatory.” Clampitt, he says, quoting a longtime friend of the poet, “wanted to tell the world things,” not “share herself.”

The biography follows Clampitt’s slow turn toward poetry and publication, interrupting itself with insights ardent with wonder. Born in Iowa in 1920 to a family of Quaker farmers, Clampitt graduated from Grinnell College in 1941, then headed on her own to Manhattan. There she found work in publishing but focused all her creative energy for 20 years on writing novels, none of which were published. Spiegelman characterizes her life from Iowa onward as a maturation of a literary sensibility that had been in fact schooling itself carefully, alert to everything in farm life, family and religion, defying the seeming randomness of her success when it came.

In New York, Clampitt became active in antiwar, feminist and prisoner-rights protests. She traveled to England and Greece and later immersed herself in classical Greek. Clampitt at last decided to turn toward poetry, saying she wanted to “name things.” She enrolled in a poetry workshop at the New School at age 57. The course instructor, Daniel Gabriel, a young poet, found her student verse, as he told Spiegelman, “overwritten, obscurantist and difficult.” Yet her first full-length book of poetry, published in 1983, became an immediate classic. Prizes, publications and critical acclaim followed — a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur “genius grant,” among them. Clampitt died in 1994 at age 74.

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When she appeared on the literary scene, like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus, it was often said that no one wrote poems like Amy Clampitt. But a close read of the poems of “Kingfisher” and “Westward” and subsequent volumes (five books published over the last decade of her life) makes clear her influences. Her first published poems — and the ones that followed — reveal a lifelong apprenticeship with John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Wordsworth.

Although Spiegelman notes that Clampitt’s debut as a poet aligned her with poets also emerging in the late 70s, in fact, the popular poetic aesthetic of that period was not “telling” but “showing.” Not “naming” but revealing — the ascendancy of imagery over rhetoric. Despite this, Clampitt stayed her course.

There were those who took exception to her erudite, offbeat, lit-intoxicated, rocketing voice, or what one critic described as nonstop “arias” and another “a meal composed entirely of desserts.”

I admit I was one who did not hear Clampitt’s music at first: Her poems often impressed me as overcharged prose, as in this final stanza of “The Kingfisher”:

a kingfisher’s burnished plunge, the color

of felicity afire, came glancing like an arrow

through landscapes of untended memory: ardor

illuminating with its terrifying currency

now no mere glimpse, no porthole vista

but, down on down, the uninhabitable sorrow

This biography sent me back to reread her work — altering my view. The music, as Spiegelman notes, has to be tuned into, tracked among the acrobatics of wordage, the high-wire leaps of thought.

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Also, Clampitt, though acting and appearing ageless, embodied the broad reading habits of another generation. Spiegelman, sadly, feels he has to explain: “Literature defined her, and it affected her work, her inner life, and her love life from start to finish. People in the 21st century may not understand a commitment of this sort.”

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I take a step backward, kind of amazed, reading Clampitt’s inspired imitations of Keats. She acknowledged, as Keats did in his final letter, how she “always made an awkward bow.”

Clampitt comes to life here, where “nothing stays put” as she repeats in a poem. I wonder if even Janet Malcolm might have given a pass to this devoted biographer and his own bow to a nightingale.

Carol Muske-Dukes is a former poet laureate of California. Her book of poems “Blue Rose” was a 2019 Pulitzer Prize longlist finalist.

The Life and Poetry of Amy Clampitt

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