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Lines from a poet

Clampitt's letters reveal a writer who heard 'the music of words,' and of life

Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt
By Amy Clampitt
Edited by Willard Spiegelman
Columbia University, 304 pp., illustrated, $39.50

Women can do anything. Or, at least, some women's life stories encourage us to believe this is so. Amy Clampitt's is one of them.

Born in Iowa in 1920 and educated at Grinnell College, Clampitt arrived in New York City in her early 20s as a graduate student in English at Columbia. But, like so many others drawn to America's cultural capital, Clampitt planned to write a novel, the ''good book" she was convinced she had inside her. Bored with her courses, she quit the Columbia program and took a series of jobs, often in publishing, to support her writing habit -- always avoiding any other profession for fear of ''having a label stuck on me which sooner or later might have eaten in and become more than skin-deep."

Unlike most would-be writers, Clampitt actually finished her novel, and then another, but never found a publisher, unsuccessfully entering a novel-writing contest as late as 1966, when she was 46. By then Clampitt was a devoted New Yorker, ''into" antiwar politics and advocacy for the homeless. She had long since concluded that ''I no longer regard writers as glamorous and enviable people," and had even attempted at various times to ''give up all my notions of being a writer."

She began to write poetry -- possibly a form that fit better into the patchwork schedule of freelance editing and ghost-writing assignments she took to get by -- and found her voice. Clampitt's first published poem appeared in The New Yorker in 1978; by 1983 she had a book of poems, ''The Kingfisher," published by Knopf. Four more books followed in quick succession, an outpouring of nearly 200 poems in just over 10 years. In 1992, the woman who had willed herself to embrace anonymity, believing that her real ''talent" was ''for living, for being happy," was awarded a MacArthur ''genius" grant for her poetry.

Clampitt died of ovarian cancer in 1994 at 74, an acknowledged master of her craft, remarkable for her rich language and yen for the universal at a time when intimate minimalism dominated the poetry scene. But her public career had lasted scarcely more than a decade. As a result, the bulk of the letters published in ''Love, Amy," a volume selected and edited by Willard Spiegelman, an English professor at Southern Methodist University and editor of The Southwest Review, were written during the years of struggle for vocation.

To a certain extent, these letters could have been written by any ''girl," as Clampitt referred to herself and her female contemporaries well into their 30s, who had come to New York City in search of a more vivid life than the Midwest could offer. This particular girl had an urge to identify every bird or flower she saw, as well as the wit to dismiss the ''rather monotonously cavorting exuberance" of Dylan Thomas's prose at one of the few readings she attended during the 1950s. Clampitt's letters are filled with what she called ''my own perpetual anxieties and unrequited yearnings," and not all of these were literary.

It may be no coincidence that as rejection notices piled up for her first novel, Clampitt -- raised a Quaker -- immersed herself in the rituals of the high Episcopal Church. And then there is the surprising admission that ''I very much wanted to make a fairly impressive marriage, in order to have seemed to have arrived, in the eyes of other people." Yet Clampitt had already given up this ''ambition" in 1954, the year she confessed it in a letter to her youngest brother. By 1975, when Clampitt was sharing an apartment with her lover, New York law professor Harold Korn, she was certain that ''I really don't want to be anybody's wife." The couple married two decades later, during Clampitt's last round of chemotherapy.

Looking for traces of the poet in these letters, one finds them most clearly in the early years. After a walk in Central Park in the winter of 1955, Clampitt writes of watching ''the gulls riding white-on-white through the snow over the reservoir." In a dime store she notes the ''floorwalkers shrieking at sassy salesgirls." Clampitt's ear for what she called ''the music of words" was there from the start, almost in spite of herself. She tells of starting work on a short story one day in the mid-1950s when ''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 let them break. The next thing I knew, they had begun to reach out for rhymes." Soon she had written 700 lines -- ''a kind of natural history of belief" in verse. But Clampitt stubbornly stuck to novel writing for another decade -- ''Nobody buys or reads poetry by living authors, except Eliot," she complained. Having her books bought and read mattered to her so intensely then, she was willing to ignore the direction in which her talent ''broke."

''Love, Amy" lacks much of the scholarly apparatus a reader has come to expect in such volumes. Compared with Saskia Hamilton's recent edition of the letters of Robert Lowell, Clampitt's near contemporary, in which virtually every reference to a work of literature, friend, or relative is annotated, Spiegelman's editorial work is irritatingly minimal.

Without notes or chronology, or even the customary headings to identify correspondents, ''Love, Amy" might be taken for the novel Clampitt worked on with such diligence but never managed to publish. In this epistolary novel, a girl grows up -- always staying true to ''my own romantic individualism." She learns that ''the East is full of snobs and bluffers and advertising men" -- and editors who are more than willing to say no to her. And yet, she persists in supplying the word ''writer" on forms that ask her to list her profession, although she has yet to publish anything under her own name. In a late flowering, she falls in love. She takes dancing lessons, delighting in ''that discovering of muscles, and feeling the discovery translated into joy." And she writes poetry, translating these newfound fleshly joys into words that finally reach an audience.

Clampitt's career is a late-life version of the tragic early flowering of the English poet she most admired -- John Keats, whose creative outpouring was cut short by his death at 26. It is certainly no accident that the deft final stanza of Clampitt's first published poem, a lush romantic lyric describing a meadow walk in rural Maine, ends with the memorable lines: ''The sun underfoot is so dazzling . . . that, looking, you start to fall upward." It had taken most of her lifetime, and even then it was almost too late, but falling upward was what Clampitt had learned to do at last.

Megan Marshall is the author of ''The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism."

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