Nothing Stays Put: The Life and Poetry of Amy Clampitt by Willard Spiegelman; Knopf, 432 pp., $38
“An eccentric woman deserves an eccentric biography.” So writes Willard Spiegelman in this first biography of the poet Amy Clampitt. If there was anything eccentric about the genteel bohemian Amy Clampitt, it was that she was extremely private about her private life—which makes writing her life story a singular challenge. Indeed, the subtitle of Spiegelman’s book is “The life and poetry of Amy Clampitt” (my emphasis). Although she was often autobiographical in her poems, Clampitt was never a confessional poet. We have no record of divorces, breakdowns, births, addictions, or abortions, because there were none. We do know that much about her. If not the chronicle of an “eccentric,” then, this is an extremely courteous and well-mannered biography of a mild but chatty bohemian and, considering the huge gaps in the personal history, a well-wrought and engaging attempt at reconstruction, with detailed analyses of the poems to fill things out.
The book’s prologue is actually an apologia. As Spiegelman writes, “I shall not tell all the truth, because it is not available.” What he had to work with were, firstly, the diaries and journals Clampitt kept; also her correspondence, which Spiegelman edited in 2005; then the views of those who knew her. Finally, there is the evidence of the poems. The final third of the biography is the most ample, with its depiction of the public life and sudden fame the poet enjoyed following the publication of her first collection, The Kingfisher, in 1983—when she was 63.
So what of the earlier life? Amy Clampitt was born to Quaker farmers in Iowa in 1920. She was raised on the family farm in close contact with her grandparents, who were also farmers. Her father graduated from Grinnell College, a nearby Quaker school, where in turn Amy took a degree in English. Though her letters and poetry suggest the lifelong attachment she had to the prairies, she would soon set off for New York. This was not immediately for a professional literary career, however; in the fall of 1941, she was enrolled in the graduate English program at Columbia, but she left after one or two terms. Frustratingly, we have no idea why, although Howard Moss, her future editor at The New Yorker, generally found his own experience there “uncongenial.” After a couple of years in secretarial jobs, Clampitt began work at Oxford University Press (OUP) and soon rose to more senior managerial positions, including one that allowed her to produce a weekly bulletin on cultural news that became a popular in-house magazine. Thus the girl from the prairies found herself in the intense social and cultural swirl of New York during World War II, but again, we know nothing concrete about her personal life, other than the snippets that Spiegelman is able to provide from her correspondence. In the late fall of 1943, she was able to rent a walk-up studio apartment in the West Village (354 West 12th Street).
But her life in the ’40s was far from static. In 1949, having won an in-house essay competition, she was awarded a trip to England, where she may have begun an affair with an editor at OUP in Oxford, assumed to be Charles Johnson. Soon afterward, he became head of the Toronto office, and the relationship was able to continue on the other side of the Atlantic. The only direct mention of this particular relationship—among others barely hinted at—is in the title poem of The Kingfisher, with a note that its subject is about “an episodic love affair that begins in England and is taken up again in New York City.” Whether love or travel was the spur, Clampitt began to take time off from further jobs and, apart from working on novels, attempted a career as a travel writer. Despite pursuing both genres indefatigably, no publishers were interested, though she was able to get agents to represent her. Spiegelman discusses Clampitt’s travel writing but draws a diplomatic veil over the fiction.
A neat summary of Clampitt’s activities in the ’50s would read: “Audubon Society, novel writing, religious cravings.” She was a reference librarian at the Audubon Society. Her forays into fiction were disappointing. As for her spiritual life, despite her Quaker upbringing, the poet was confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 1956. She worshipped at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in the West Village. What inner needs this satisfied we do not know, but the poet gradually became disenchanted with organized religion and in the following decade turned to politics, becoming seriously involved in social protest over Vietnam, homelessness, social deprivation, and property development. She became a canvasser for the Democratic candidate for the presidency, Eugene McCarthy. When she began writing poetry, in the early ’70s, it was this political part of her life that found expression in her work.
In 1968, Clampitt met Harold Korn, who was also working for the McCarthy camp. Apparently the two became lovers fairly soon, but five years would pass before she moved into his apartment in an Upper East Side postwar high-rise—a very different location from the bohemian pad that had been her home for three decades. Hal, as Korn was known, could not have come from a more different background. He was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants and grew up speaking Yiddish. The family was not prosperous, but Hal was good academically and studied law at Columbia University, ending up there as a law professor. Hal’s facial disfigurement—he had suffered serious burns in a car accident—was certainly no barrier to intimacy. All the evidence suggests that they had a warm and vibrant relationship until Clampitt’s death in 1994 from ovarian cancer.
It is interesting to see just how Clampitt’s fame came about. After leaving the Audubon Society, the poet worked as a freelance editor and in 1977 became, in effect, the top editor for Jack Macrae, editor-in-chief at E. P. Dutton. Macrae asked to see some of her poems and, impressed, he sent three examples to his friend Howard Moss, poetry editor at The New Yorker, who was also impressed, but not enough to take anything. Macrae persisted, and Moss accepted “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” from a subsequent submission. Thus it was a complete surprise to the poet to receive an acceptance in the mail without having submitted any work. After years and years of literary endeavor, Clampitt now concentrated entirely on poems. After the publication of The Kingfisher, four more collections followed.
Much has been made of the fact that Clampitt published her first book at 63. This means that her actual career as a poet lasted a mere 11 years. Some of her work, of course, such as her poems set in Greece (memorably the “Hellas” section of her 1987 collection, Archaic Figure) had a long gestation. And her poems are packed with observations and experiences from her earlier life—although again, nothing personal.
What is noteworthy today is the interest that her New Yorker poems produced, leading to new friendships and an ever-widening circle of admirers. She spent her last decade giving readings, teaching creative writing at a variety of universities, attending conferences, and also retreating with Hal to New England, where they bought a house.
As to the poetry, it should be said that however individual Clampitt was, and however much an Anglophile, her poetry was always in the American tradition, going right back to Ezra Pound’s Imagist call for “direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective” and William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things.” But her greatest quality lay in another of Pound’s directives: to “make it new.” Her poems are fresh and invigorating and best captured by a phrase that George Orwell used to describe Shakespeare, that they exhibit “a sort of exuberance … simply an interest in the actual process of life.” Her poetry is filled with the spirit of place or, indeed, of a person (John Keats, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, the Vietnam War protester Norman Morrison, or the repeat offender “Jolene,” the “welfare mother” of nine renamed in Dolly Parton’s 1973 song). The criticisms of her work—that she tended to form lists, that she used an arcane vocabulary, and perhaps that many of the sequences she wrote were too long—have not kept readers away. Already her work is of another era, which is inevitable, but Spiegelman’s biography brings that era fully to life, augmented with sensitive and informative readings of the poems.
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