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December 01, 1987Pierpont Morgan LibraryFrom the Academy Audio Archive

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 Hermit Thrush

Amy Clampitt

Nothing's certain.  Crossing, on this longest day, 
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up 
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked 
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us 
back, year after year, lugging the 
makings of another picnic--

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons--there's no knowing what the slamming 
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree, 
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass 
and clover tuffet underneath it, 
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding. 
Whatever moral lesson might commend itself, 
there's no use drawing one, 
there's nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue 
(holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or 
any no-more-than-human tendency--
stubborn adherence, say,

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to 
hold on in any case means taking less and less 
for granted, some few things seem nearly 
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath, 
the months-long exhalation of diminishment 
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto--

that no point is fixed, that there's no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells, 
such sailor's knots, such stays
and guy wires as are

mainly of our own devising. From such an 
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from 
year to year the earth's sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry's cool poultice--

and what can't finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic--today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet--

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk's-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a 
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or 
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive--
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human--there's

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this 
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

From The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 1997 by the Literary Estate of Amy Clampitt. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

From The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 1997 by the Literary Estate of Amy Clampitt. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Amy Clampitt

Amy Clampitt

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

by this poet

poem
past parentage or gender
beyond sung vocables
the slipped-between
the so infinitesimal
fault line
a limitless
interiority

beyond the woven
unicorn   the maiden
(man-carved   worm-eaten)
God at her hip
incipient
the untransfigured
cottontail
bluebell and primrose
growing wild   a strawberry
chagrin   night
poem
     
Daily the cortege of crumpled 
defunct cars 
goes by by the lasagna-
layered flatbed 
truckload: hardtop 

reverting to tar smudge,
wax shine antiqued to crusted 
winepress smear, 
windshield battered to
intact ice-tint, a rarity

fresh from the Pleistocene. 
I like it; privately 
I find esthetic
poem
Lost aboard the roll of Kodac-
olor that was to have super-
seded all need to remember
Somerset were: a large flock

of winter-bedcover-thick-
pelted sheep up on the moor;
a stile, a church spire, 
and an excess, at Porlock,

of tenderly barbarous antique
thatch in tandem with flower-
beds, relentlessly pictur-