“A Poet's Life in Letters”
Introduction by Willard Spiegelman
Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt
It is a sad but undeniable truth that the age of letter writing, among the literati as well as ordinary people, has probably come to a close. Some future scholar may have access to “The Complete E-Mails of Mr. or Ms X,” but by the end of the twentieth century, the great epistolary tradition had begun to wither following its vast flowering in the nineteenth. Lewis Carroll is said to have written ninety-seven thousand letters. Darwin’s projected correspondence will require thirty volumes. After 1871, the year of The Descent of Man, he wrote approximately four letters a day (fifteen hundred a year), and he installed a mirror in his study window to catch sight of the postman when he walked up the drive. Still, bulk is not everything. In roughly seven years' worth of letters before his death at twenty-five Keats presented as full an autobiography of a young writer as has ever existed.
Because we like acquainting ourselves with people even at a distance, the draw of letters as a means of getting to know their author remains strong. Their allure requires little explanation: reading correspondence is one way of constructing or reimagining a life, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle slowly out of various mosaic pieces. And letters by literary figures (like Keats, Byron, George Eliot, and, in the century just past, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill) offer double insight, or open a double window, into a writer’s work as well as his or her life. Like ordinary readers, scholars and biographers persist in wanting to have access to writers’ letters as a possible way of explaining their authors’ inner and outward selves. But even letters by careful stylistic craftsmen will frustrate as well as satisfy because the reader gets only a single possible picture among many. There will always be missing pieces, of course; all accounts will be partial.
Amy Clampitt offers challenges to a would-be editor. Her literary life, at least her public literary life, absorbed only the last decade-and-a-half of her seventy-four years. Like her life, her letters can be divided, somewhat simplistically, between the years before her fame and the years of her celebrity, especially after the 1983 publication of The Kingfisher, the first of five commercial volumes published before her death in 1994. (In 1973 Clampitt had gathered together and published her early poems in a small volume entitled Multitudes, Multitudes. A second apprentice work, The Isthmus, appeared as a chapbook in 1981. None of these collected poems was ever reprinted.) Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and James Merrill, the first two slightly older, the last slightly younger than Clampitt, all published their first poems when they were young. They became parts of the literary scene, even Bishop in far-off Brazil, and they wrote to other literary people as well as to family and friends, all of whom suspected they were dealing with somebody “important” or soon-to-be important. Clampitt, however, lived in quiet obscurity for sixty-three years. She never became a part of a poets' community. She wrote few literary letters even after she became well-known, in part because she lacked the time to do so and in part because she had nothing to gain from it. In her sixties Clampitt had already established her styles and ideas, and she did not need to curry favor with other poets or editors or with the general public. During her first foray into a poetry writing class, at the New School in 1977, she came up against an amiable young instructor named Dan Gabriel “who I think disapproves of the kind of thing I do” but who seemed to offer her bemused tolerance. In her first letter to the poet Mary Jo Salter (June 5, 1979) she observes that “a whole generation has been so deadened by rock music that an ear for the music of words may be obsolescent. ‘You’re in love with words,’ I was told (by a poet, yet) in a tone of accusation. What he meant, I guess, was that I tend to use too many of them.”
With regard to “words,” their “music,” and so many other poetic habits, Clampitt’s “presiders” (to use Keats’s term for Shakespeare) had been Keats, Dorothy as well as William Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hopkins, Dickinson, Whitman, and George Eliot, not her contemporaries. Like all great poets, she was always addressing her departed masters as much as her living and future readers. In a 1990 letter about a George Eliot project to Jennifer Snodgrass as the Harvard University Press, Clampitt speaks to the combined isolation and community that all writers maintain: “Writers are all to some degree conscious of being lonely people; they crave a company they do not always find except in the vicarious company of those whose imaginative power has electrified their own.” The nineteenth century came alive—electrically, vicariously—in her. Once she found her medium (poetry rather than fiction) and developed sufficient self-confidence to recite her poems in public and to submit them to journals, in the late 1970s, she was “discovered” and championed by Howard Moss at the New Yorker, by the young Mary Jo Salter, who mistook Clampitt for a contemporary when she was reading the slush pile of poems at the Atlantic, and by various critics, especially Helen Vendler, who reviewed her favorably and supported her for Guggenheim and MacArthur grants. With the exception of Clampitt’s exchanges with Salter and Vendler, however, most of the literary correspondence in 1978–1994 is of a strictly business sort, essentially unexciting. One irony of Clampitt’s sudden appearance on the literary scene was the dismissal of her work by certain feminist critics who scoffed at her bookish and intellectual temperament, her commitment to “high” culture, and her exuberantly descriptive style. And not only ideologues of her own gender made fun of her: James Dickey once observed, while seated next to her at dinner, that she wrote poems about flowers. She suffered from the same condescension from men that Dickinson and Bishop also received. Clampitt’s letters—as well as her poetry—will prove, I hope, that she was an exemplary, determined woman with strong political convictions as well as independent tastes.
The external shape of Clampitt’s life before the decade of renown is clear in its outlines. (See Salter’s vibrant, informative introduction to Clampitt’s Collected Poems.) Born in Iowa to a Quaker family on June 15, 1920, the eldest of five children, bookish and slightly eccentric from an early age, she was graduated from Grinnell College in 1941 and immediately made a beeline to New York. She had a fellowship for graduate school at Columbia in English, dropped out before the year was up, soon went to work at Oxford University Press as a secretary, and rose to the post of promotions director for college textbooks. In 1949 she won an essay contest, sponsored by OUP, for which first prize was a trip to England. A bit after her return she left the press (1951) to write a novel. When no publisher accepted it, or two subsequent ones, she went back to work, this time as a reference librarian for the National Audubon Society. Birds, like cats, weather, and landscape remained perennially fascinating to Clampitt the woman and the writer: “She was galvanized by nature,” remembers her oldest New York friend, Phoebe Hoss. (Indeed, in her mature poetry nature often stands in—as it did in her life—as a surrogate for any direct treatment of personal relations.)
In the sixties and seventies she came into her own in several ways. She started working as a freelance editor, then went to Dutton, began writing poetry with greater earnestness, and became involved in antiwar and other political pursuits. Is it coincidental that she took up poetry-writing for the first time since adolescence when she began to feel the attraction of the Episcopal Church in the mid-1950s? Or that her major poetry coincides with her abandonment of the church in the late 1960s and early 1970s in favor of political activism? In 1968 she met her longtime partner (whom she married several months before her death; she had always opposed marriage, on principle), Harold Korn, a law professor at NYU and later at Columbia University, through their shared political activity and work with the Village Independent Democrats. She moved in with Hal in 1973 (keeping this cohabitation something of a secret from her more conventional relatives) but also kept the small walk-up apartment in a Greenwich Village brownstone that remained the Woolfian “room of [her] own” until she was forced to give it up in the last year of her life when the building was converted into co-ops. Her poems began appearing in magazines, and she rose like a comet, praised by many and derided by some, on the literary scene in the late seventies. A MacArthur prize in 1992 gave her the first real money she ever had; with it she purchased a small cottage in Lenox, Massachusetts, between Tanglewood on one side and Edith Wharton’s The Mount on the other. In the spring of 1993 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; she died in Lenox eighteen months later.
A literary editor is left with Clampitt’s correspondence to family and friends mostly from the previous, precelebrity, decades. Even here lacunae inevitably appear. Trying to assemble the letters of someone born in 1920 means realizing that many people who may have saved her letters died before an editor could contact them. In addition, others did not know that their friend or relative would become “Amy Clampitt” and did not save her correspondence. There are no letters from the 1940s. The earliest letter I have found is a polite thank-you, and a report on recent activity, to her English host, Barbara Blay, from 1950. It is a model of etiquette and poise.
What was it like to be a young career woman in Manhattan, with a war going on, with soldiers and sailors shipping out and then, in 1945, returning to postwar American prosperity? Did Clampitt ever meet Madeleine L’Engle, or Leonard Bernstein, both of whom also lived on West 12th Street in the early 40s? Did she run with the Village crowd described by Anatole Broyard in Kafka Was the Rage?: “Nineteen forty-six was a good time—perhaps the best time—in the twentieth century. The war was over and there was a terrific sense of coming back, of repossessing life. Rents were cheap, restaurants were cheap, and it seemed to me that happiness itself might be cheaply had.” What was Clampitt’s version of Wordsworth’s “Bliss was in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven”? We shall never know unless we come upon new letters. (The husband of Barbara Clark, a Grinnell friend, threw out all of Clampitt’s pre-1968 letters in an excess of housecleaning zeal.) And we confront more than just chronological omissions. Amy Clampitt and Hal Korn were inseparable most of the time; “being around him has the effect of expanding who I am, rather than diminishing and curtailing it as close associations so often do,” she wrote to Barbara Clark in August, 1971, after Hal set out, solo, for a European trip. When they were apart they usually communicated with one another by phone. They seldom wrote. I have seen three of Clampitt’s letters and several cards to Korn, written when she was at the Djerassi Foundation in the early 1980s and then visiting friends and relatives out West. She addressed him as “Lion” and signed herself with a “Prrrr” and a cat’s face. The letters are reportorial rather than intimate.
What of earlier lovers? We know that she had them. The title poem of The Kingfisher deals somewhat opaquely in a third-person narrative with a love affair gone awry, which friends say was Clampitt’s own. There was a broken engagement in the early fifties. Clampitt refers to several “young men” and serious love affairs in letters to her youngest brother, Philip, in the 1950s, but there are no “love letters” per se to anyone. She discussed Peter Marcasiano, a painter she met on a park bench in Paris in 1955, with whom she had an intense but (according to her friend Mary Russel) platonic relationship with until 1958 when Marcasiano returned to Paris. There were also European men—one who married someone else, one who died—say Mary Russel and Phoebe Hoss, her companion at Oxford University Press between 1947 and 1949, but specific identities seem to have been lost. Amy was determined to remain private, resolute not to breach confidences in her letters. Instead, we have the meditative reflections of someone who has known love, in several forms and at various levels of depth, without the kind of specific details that would today be grist for gossip magazines. Reticence and self-revelation go hand in hand. What she withholds from the letters only adds to the luminous dignity of the writer’s introspection.
A degree of circumspections, especially with regard to personal matters, must surely constitute one part of Clampitt’s heritage from her Quaker parents. Her father, Roy J. Clampitt (1888–1973), wrote an autobiography, A Life I Did Not Plan, in 1966, and he is equally reserved on certain matters—the private life in general, the sexual life in particular—like many people of his generation. His daughter eventually came to share what she referred to (in a 1984 letter to Helen Vendler) as his “shy eminence.” She also shared the bookishness of her grandfather, Frank Clampitt, who wrote a little autobiographical memoir, privately printed in 1919, about his father (Amy’s great-grandfather), in which he proudly remembers a small room in their renovated Iowa farmhouse (1881) “which I furnished myself and which with its single book case seemed to my book obsessed fancy at the time a near approach to literary paradise.”
In her father’s book Amy receives less attention than practically anyone else in the family. Roy joyfully announces the birth of his firstborn; soon we learn that she is off at college, then in New York on a fellowship; she makes periodic visits home, especially when she moves back to Des Moines for six months to live with her sister Beth (who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia during her senior year of college and who spent most of her adult life in health care facilities); she takes up photography; the parents occasionally see her in New York or at the house of her brother Larry (1923–1928) outside Boston. We have little idea of what she does or of who she is. Rather like Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Amy seems to be taken for granted. Being ignored, however, is not the worst thing that can happen to an artist. Even a person who seems to have support from, and community within, a family, can experience the profound kind of isolation that inspires creativity as self-expression, compensation, or even (thought not in Clampitt’s case) revenge.
How does one take the measure of a literary life? Clampitt always knew she was a writer. The letters, especially the extraordinary early ones to her youngest brother, prove her capacity even before she alit upon the right genre for its expression. In The Cyclone, the Grinnell College yearbook for 1940, her junior year, there are several photos of her looking largely like the other well-coiffed girls in one of the last classes before the beginning of World War II. In a group shot of the staff of Tanager, the literary magazine (“the most serious publication issued on campus”), seven of nine people (three faculty, six students) are smiling and looking off to one side. One unhappy girl seems to scowl at the camera. The last has her head cocked and looks straight ahead both seriously and skeptically. That’s Amy. Literature defined her—and affected her work, her inner life, and her love life—from the start to the finish. In a letter to Philip (March 17, 1956) she says with the confidence of the young and hopeful: “I feel as if I could write a whole history of English literature, and know just where to place everybody in it, with hardly any trouble at all. The reason being, apparently, that I feel I am in it.”
Her sense of her literary calling (“a writer is what I was meant to be,” she admits to Philip) coincided with, or was temporarily eclipsed by, her flirtation with the Anglican Church nel mezzo del cammin, in her thirty-sixth year. She complemented her commitment to “the hidden power of language” with a religious zeal that allowed her, for a while, to find harmony and wholeness in spiritual observances, to find a place in a religious community, which she later abandoned for a place in political activism. Almost sixty, coming out of obscurity well beyond the age when one might hope to do so, she sounds a different note in her first letter to Mary Jo Salter, who has just written her a fan letter: “I don’t greatly enjoy the company of literary types—the more literary they are, the more miserable they seem as human beings. . . . I’ve yearned secretly for a poet I could write to.” If she was born a poet, it certainly took her a long time to discover that fact. Her vocation was always clear, but the right genre was not. Not only did she try her hand at fiction when young but near the end of her life, fascinated with the place of Dorothy Wordsworth in the circle that included her brother and Coleridge, Clampitt wrote and rewrote a play about the Romantics, which displayed virtually no gift for the conflict and dialogue inherent in drama in the same way her earlier novels, one about life on an Iowa farm, another about religious controversies, were thick with description and commentary but thin on plot and characterization.
From the start Clampitt committed herself to her literary vocation as a consumer, that is, as a reader. In her letters her voice is that of a custodian of literature, a keeper as well as a sharer of property. Even more than the writing of letters, her long life of reading bespeaks a dedication to learning and to a solitary, contemplative temperament that looks increasingly old-fashioned in the third millennium. In a 1959 letter to her New York friend Mary Russel she refers to “solitude—that dangerous luxury—or it a necessity after all?” Earlier that same year, to the same correspondent, she allows that “I made a real try at not wanting to be a writer. . . . The curious thing about this kind of voluntary relinquishment—or anyhow attempt at relinquishment—is that one emerges with renewed confidence: not in oneself, precisely, so much as in the nature of things.” She was well aware of her “vocation”—which she admits “is a curious thing”—well before she experienced any success in it. Virtually every letter makes some mention, even in passing, of a new discovery, or of some book that she brings to the attention of her correspondent. Books called to her, and she responded.
Reading aloud, a common custom in the nineteenth century has connected contemporary couples such as Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. Likewise, it was always part of Hal and Amy’s routine, especially during summer holidays in Maine and, at the end, in Lenox, when they would work their way through Dickens, Eliot, and Balzac, with no television in sight (although they were fans, in their Manhattan apartment, of Masterpiece Theater). In the country Clampitt and Korn had a life similar to the one Virginia Woolf describes as her routine with Leonard in the country: in the morning they wrote, in the afternoon they walked, in the evening they read.
Many of the external circumstances of Clampitt’s life, though hardly her personality or character, changed after fame and notoriety caught up with her. She loved her laurels but never rested on them. The success of The Kingfisher made her work harder. She said yes to invitations to read and to give classes. She accepted teaching posts at Amherst, Smith, and William and Mary. She continued to travel everywhere, whenever possible by train or bus, preferring to see the landscape from inside a Greyhound. (The majority of her European trips were managed via boat almost until the end.) Buses appealed to the Quaker in her: “It’s a way of having solitude without feeling like a recluse” she writes to Rimsa Michel in 1974. No other contemporary poet has expressed so keenly the complementary feelings of separateness and togetherness, selfhood and community, as she does. Travel had always brought out her congenital, almost giddy, eagerness and joie de vivre: at forty-five, traveling in Naples, she says she is mistaken for twenty-five and feels fifteen.
Once eminent, she offered suggestions on the work of friends and strangers alike. She accepted honors, from virtually everyone, everywhere. But she also knew when to say no. She had second thoughts about guest-editing a volume of The Best American Poetry (see her letter to David Lehman of April 3, 1989). She made a fuss in 1992, when William and Mary commissioned Clampitt to compose and deliver a poem in honor of the college’s three hundredth anniversary. The authorities thought that her “Matoaka,”—about Pocahontas—might offend the sensibilities of Prince Charles, who would be on the same platform, and asked her to read it on a separate occasion. Her icy formal letter to Martha Hamilton-Phillips shows the same steel in her spine that was evident in her earlier letter to Henry Kissinger and in her deeply felt, Quaker-inspired resistance to perceived injustices and social inequities during her years of political activism. When she acted indignantly, she always did so on behalf of a higher, or impersonal cause, and never out of vanity or mere self-righteousness. Her fierce integrity matched her unsentimental generosity.
The literary culture had changed by the time Clampitt made her appearance in it. In the era of poetry workshops, degrees in creative writing, not to mention open-mike readings in coffeehouses and church basements, being “a poet” conferred a certain modest cachet. In a June 30, 1990 letter (not included here) to Barbara Blay Clampitt reports on a trip to the Midwest:
There were several poetry readings, and at one of them half a dozen relatives from my hometown—the last ones I would have expected at a poetry reading—turned up. Another occasion brought out a group from my old college, along with a different crew of relatives. Times have changed, from when admitting to being a writer was an embarrassment. (What do you do? I’m a writer. What do you write? Poetry, said with a slow blush. What kind of poetry? Oh . . . well . . . I don’t really know . . . And so on.)
The letters from the decade of celebrity evince surprise as well as gratitude: Clampitt always maintained an unworldly naïveté in addition to her political commitments and fierce Quaker willingness to speak out and act against social injustice. Even as she threw herself into the world she gave the impression that at least part of her (is this not true of every writer?) was not of it. She was delighted to see new things, to meet new people and audiences all across the world—from Cambridge to Williamsburg to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to California, and beyond to Britain and Bellagio—and to the extent that her schedule permitted she remained in touch with the new friends (Edward Hirsch, John Wood, Eileen Berry) as well as the older ones (Barbara Clark, Rimsa Michel, Mary Russel). At the end of her life she was as excited by poetry slams as she was by readings in bohemian Village coffeehouse backrooms decades before.
What do we expect from a writer’s letters? Information about literary activity, certainly, which in Clampitt’s case meant (for the most part) reports of reading. Although she was always a writer, she came into her poetic maturity late, after her misguided efforts at writing fiction that no one ever wanted to publish. We don’t read about her poems until she had already mastered the art of writing them. In her exchanges with Salter, Vendler, and Craig Raine (her English editor) she discusses the nuts and bolts of her poems and others’; although she is willing to accept editorial advice she clearly knows her own mind and does not seem to fret excessively over potential missteps and errors.
More broadly, we want reportage of the Frank O’Hara “I do this, I do that” sort. Clampitt loved weather, as she admits to her brother early on; the landscape in general as well as its particular flora and fauna always engaged her observant, Darwinian eye for detail. One of the strongest legacies of her devotion to nineteenth-century literature was her patient looking: Ruskin and Hopkins, as much as Darwin, are major precursors. She shared with Dorothy Wordsworth an enthusiastic delight in the daily trivia that constitute the largest part of anyone’s life. Clampitt shopped for clothes; she sewed! We get a recipe for homemade granola and descriptions of Amy and Hal in jogging outfits working out with their handsome trainer. (Even close friends would be amused, I suspect, to picture the two of them jogging around the Central Park reservoir.) Observation extended to human beings as well. Because she had tried her hand at novels before she succeeded as a poet, many of her longer poems have a narrative or anecdotal base. As do her letters. She tells stories deftly, describing a boat of tourists bound for Europe, a peace protest, a night in jail, a tipsy dinner party, a trip to the secondhand bookstore. As a writer about place—whether the Midwest, Maine, Manhattan, or Europe, which she visited with a renewal of giddiness, balanced by her spiritual profundity about place, on each successive trip—she opens our eyes by focusing her own. Her prose is limpid, clear, classic in its simplicity—the exact opposite of the sinuous, swirling, baroque exuberance we find in her poems. It’s as if she not only meticulously crafted each letter with an eye to its recipient (as any writer sensitive to her audience will do; we notice how much simpler her letters to Beth are than those to Philip) but also maintained two different styles, one for her epistolary examinations and reports and the other for poetic invention.
Finally, although she seldom used the letter as an occasion for “mere” self-analysis, she lets us into her life and mind, most notably in the letters to her youngest brother in the fifties (which constitute roughly one third of the pages here), when she could play the role of wiser sibling, “Dutch Aunt,” and didactic counselor because of the ten years between them. (“I start out analyzing and end up delivering a sermon,” she admits.) In these letters we watch her grapple with the affective life, the political life, and the spiritual one. Clampitt remained in touch with a Benedictine nun in England well after the decade of her high Anglo-Catholic phase and after she left the Church, disappointed in its refusal to speak out on political matters. (Intransigent with regard to the Church’s refusal to be as radical as she wanted it to be, she had a private interview with Paul Moore, the liberal bishop of New York, and could not understand that the Church encompassed a wide spectrum of opinions, tastes, and views.)
Above all, we sense a temperament that encompasses polarities: fierce intelligence and exuberant, childlike wonder, assertive self-confidence and timidity, austerity and sensuousness. Writing to Helen Vendler in 1985, Clampitt refers to her inability to grasp the poetry of Wallace Stevens except “in bits” and proceeds to a lovely metaphor for her own creative and mental instincts: “A barnacle is what I sometimes think I really am, seizing on any passing thing that may be tempting, but unequipped to deal with the whole of anything. Ideas do interest me, but I can’t hold onto a whole idea long enough to understand it.” We may legitimately infer an analogy to her beloved Keats, with his “negative capability” and his innate sympathy with the sparrow pecking in the gravel outside his window. And, like wonder, gratitude was one of her mainsprings, a legacy from her Quaker simplicity. At the end of a 1982 letter to Mary Jo Salter Clampitt modestly apologizes for a slight, and uncharacteristic, querulousness in her tone: “I’m not complaining about anything really. . . . I simply regard myself, in spite of everything, as one of the fortunate people who happen to be around.” It seems likely that she would have been a happy woman even without literary success; she possessed—from nature or genetic inheritance? from training?—an unaffected enthusiasm for the things she loved and an unself-contained ardor the world could not squelch.