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About this poet

Amy Clampitt was born on June 15, 1920, and brought up in New Providence, Iowa. She wrote poetry in high school, but then ceased and focused her energies on writing fiction instead. She graduated from Grinnell College, and from that time on lived mainly in New York City. To support herself, she worked as a secretary at the Oxford University Press, a reference librarian at the Audubon Society, and a freelance editor. Not until the mid-1960s, when she was in her forties, did she return to writing poetry. Her first poem was published by The New Yorker in 1978. In 1983, at the age of sixty-three, she published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher (Alfred A. Knopf).

In the decade that followed, Clampitt published five books of poetry, including What the Light Was Like (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), Archaic Figure (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), and Westward (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990). Her last book, A Silence Opens (Alfred A. Knopf), appeared in 1994. The recipient in 1982 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1984 of an Academy Fellowship, she was made a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1992. She was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and taught at the College of William and Mary, Amherst College, and Smith College. She died of cancer in September 1994.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)
A Silence Opens (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)
Manhattan: An Elegy, and Other Poems (University of Iowa Center for the Book, 1990)
Westward (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)
Archaic Figure (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987)
What the Light Was Like (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985)
The Kingfisher (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983)
The Summer Solstice (Sarabande Press, 1983)
Multitudes, Multitudes (Washington Street Press, 1973)

Prose

Predecessors, Et Cetera: Essays (University of Michigan Press, 1991)
The Essential Donne (Ecco Press, 1988)
A Homage to John Keats (Sarabande Press, 1984)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

A Hedge of Rubber Trees

Amy Clampitt
The West Village by then was changing; before long
the rundown brownstones at its farthest edge
would have slipped into trendier hands. She lived,
impervious to trends, behind a potted hedge of
rubber trees, with three cats, a canary--refuse 
from whose cage kept sifting down and then 
germinating, a yearning seedling choir, around
the saucers on the windowsill--and an inexorable
cohort of roaches she was too nearsighted to deal
with, though she knew they were there, and would
speak of them, ruefully, as of an affliction that
     might once, long ago, have been prevented.

Unclassifiable castoffs, misfits, marginal cases:
when you're one yourself, or close to it, there's
a reassurance in proving you haven't quite gone
under by taking up with somebody odder than you are.
Or trying to. "They're my friends," she'd say of
her cats--Mollie, Mitzi and Caroline, their names were,
and she was forever taking one or another in a cab
to the vet--as though she had no others. The roommate
who'd become a nun, the one who was Jewish, the couple
she'd met on a foliage tour, one fall, were all people
she no longer saw. She worked for a law firm, said all
     the judges were alcoholic, had never voted.

But would sometimes have me to dinner--breaded veal,
white wine, strawberry Bavarian--and sometimes, from 
what she didn't know she was saying, I'd snatch a shred
or two of her threadbare history. Baltic cold. Being 
sent home in a troika when her feet went numb. In
summer, carriage rides. A swarm of gypsy children 
driven off with whips. An octogenarian father, bishop
of a dying schismatic sect. A very young mother
who didn't want her. A half-brother she met just once.
Cousins in Wisconsin, one of whom phoned her from a candy 
store, out of the blue, while she was living in Chicago.
     What had brought her there, or when, remained unclear.

As did much else. We'd met in church. I noticed first
a big, soaring soprano with a wobble in it, then 
the thickly wreathed and braided crimp in the mouse-
gold coiffure. Old? Young? She was of no age.
Through rimless lenses she looked out of a child's,
or a doll's, globular blue. Wore Keds the year round,
tended otherwise to overdress. Owned a mandolin. Once
I got her to take it down from the mantel and plink out,
through a warm fuddle of sauterne, a lot of giddy Italian 
airs from a songbook whose pages had started to crumble.
The canary fluffed and quivered, and the cats, amazed,
     came out from under the couch and stared.

What could the offspring of the schismatic age and a 
reluctant child bride expect from life? Not much.
Less and less. A dream she'd had kept coming back,
years after. She'd taken a job in Washington with 
some right-wing lobby, and lived in one of those
bow-windowed mansions that turn into roominghouses,
and her room there had a full-length mirror: oval,
with a molding, is the way I picture it. In her dream
something woke her, she got up to look, and there 
in the glass she'd had was covered over--she gave it
     a wondering emphasis--with gray veils.

The West Village was changing. I was changing. The last
time I asked her to dinner, she didn't show. Hours--
or was it days?--later, she phoned to explain: she hadn't
been able to find my block; a patrolman had steered her home.
I spent my evenings canvassing for Gene McCarthy. Passing,
I'd see her shades drawn, no light behind the rubber trees.
She wasn't out, she didn't own a TV. She was in there,
getting gently blotto. What came next, I wasn't brave
enough to know. Only one day, passing, I saw
new shades, quick-chic matchstick bamboo, going up where 
the waterstained old ones had been, and where the seedlings--
     O gray veils, gray veils--had risen and gone down.

From The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 1997.

From The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 1997.

Amy Clampitt

Amy Clampitt

Amy Clampitt was born on June 15, 1920, and brought up in

by this poet

poem
An ingenuity too astonishing
to be quite fortuitous is
this bog full of sundews, sphagnum-
lines and shaped like a teacup.
                               A step
down and you're into it; a
wilderness swallows you up:
ankle-, then knee-, then midriff-
to-shoulder-deep in wetfooted
understory, an overhead
spruce-
poem
a stone at dawn
cold water in the basin
these walls' rough plaster
imageless
after the hammering
of so much insistence
on the need for naming
after the travesties
that passed as faces,
grace: the unction
of sheer nonexistence
upwelling in this
hyacinthine freshet
of the unnamed
the faceless
poem
While you walk the water's edge,
turning over concepts
I can't envision, the honking buoy
serves notice that at any time
the wind may change,
the reef-bell clatters
its treble monotone, deaf as Cassandra
to any note but warning. The ocean,
cumbered by no business more urgent 
than keeping open old accounts
that