Theatricality and Interiority: Amy Clampitt’s Performances


Celeste Goodridge


The character of any of us is to some degree an invention, hitched to an armature of what can’t be altered (118).


Although Clampitt has described herself  “as a poet of place” (163), she may finally be remembered for her poems and essays about other writers, in which she re-creates, revises and deconstructs some aspect of the life lived. In her poems and prose Clampitt frequently develops associations between writers whose lives never actually crossed, finding odd echoes and resonant similarities between their temperaments, experiences, and texts. Reading and re-reading for Clampitt become performative as she creates a web of intricate connections that startle us into a new awareness of   “the powerful way in which literature can become a link with times and places, and with minds, otherwise remote . . . ” (Note provided with  “Voyages: A Homage to John Keats,” in What the Light Was Like, 107). The act of reading is a dramatic gesture and a means of fashioning the self, as Clampitt dramatizes and conveys the delight, pleasure, and play of her mind’s engagement with her material. Part of her performance occurs off stage, as it were, as Clampitt privileges the act of composing: the pre-writing and activity of writing itself. However, this seemingly private activity is frequently made visible in her notes to her poems, which serve to highlight what Richard Poirier refers to in a discussion of the dynamics of literary performances as “the gap between the completed work, which is supposed to constitute the writer’s vision, and the multiple acts of performance that went into it . . . ” (The Performing Self, 88). For Poirier, performance may entail “a perpetually tensed antagonism between acts of local performance, carried out in private delight and secretive plotting, and those acts of presentation when the author . . . gives the finished work to the world” (88). Clampitt’s notes to her poems, as well as her asides in her prose concerning the importance of re-reading, tend to defuse the tension between her private acts of performance and the art she offers her public. They also remind us of the inescapable primacy of what Poirier calls “the whole conduct of the shaping presence” (86–87) behind the text. In this respect, Clampitt is the heir of writers like Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, who convey the immediacy and pleasure of the act of shaping and assembling their material.

Not particularly interested in documenting historical continuity or endorsing Harold Bloom’s  “anxiety of influence,” Clampitt seeks instead, in her poetry and prose, to dramatize both the gaps and links between the world she inhabits and that offered by literature. Her poems about reading and writing literature give her access to a richly complicated world apart from this one—one that she can enter and exit at will. They also allow her to read and re-read her own culture. Her writing about writing, then, may be seen as a means for Clampitt to have both solitude and company. It is paradoxically through a theatrical and public assertion of self as  “shaping presence” that Clampitt achieves a sense of inwardness and privacy.

Clampitt’s assessment of Julia Budenz’s From the Gardens of Flora Baum might well apply to her own performance of imagining  “how everything connects” in the world she creates:  “It is part of a vision of how everything connects, of how it is possible at any moment to step from the everyday into the sacred, and back again” (166). In some of her poetry, writing about the world of literature and entering that world allow Clampitt to imagine an inner world that excludes the quotidian. However, in her most recent poems and essays, it is the link between these two worlds—the everyday and the world of writing—that Clampitt succeeds in capturing and celebrating. This linkage in its most provocative form makes us question how we know things: historical events in the past, our own history, current occasions, and literature itself. In a poem like  “The Halloween Parade,” found in Westward (1990), her most recent volume of poems, or her essay,  “Wordsworth in 1990,” Clampitt both reads contemporary culture and its events through the lens of literary allusion—texts, characters from texts, and writers—and invites us to re-read literature through the lens of contemporary events. The world of literature gives her a new perspective on this world; of equal importance is the way contemporary events can teach us how to read and re-read literature.  “We in 1990,” she asserts  “are bound to read and re-read Wordsworth a little differently. Having ourselves witnessed what happened in Tiananmen Square is to shudder with him as he wrote, remembering, of how ‘the scenes that I witnessed during the earlier years of the French Revolution, when I was a resident in France, come back to me with appalling violence’ ” (11). This is performative and daring in that Clampitt forces us to re-read Wordsworth and the past in terms of what Tiananmen Square has taught us, reversing the usual assumption that literature/art/history teaches us how to read the world we inhabit, the performances of the present and the future.

In contrast, in  “Voyages: A Homage to John Keats,” a poem in eight parts which appeared in What the Light Was Like (1985), Clampitt writes herself into the life and work of John Keats, gaining self-knowledge and an entrance to her own past in the process. Appropriating Keats’ life history and literary production gives Clampitt a sense of an inner landscape. In constructing this rarefied world, she achieves a sense of enclosure, a retreat from this world. This poem, unlike her later ones, is concerned overtly with her engagement with the inner world of literature as a refuge. Her note to the poem makes this visible, as she pays tribute to Keats by connecting his thoughts of the sea to her own, Whitman’s, and Hart Crane’s:

It was [in Bate’s biography, John Keats] that I came upon the account by a contemporary, Joseph Severn, of how Keats would pause during a walk across Hampstead Heath to watch the passage of the wind over a field of grain:  “The sea, or thought-compelling images of the sea, always seemed to restore him to a happy calm.” The idea of John Keats pausing to take in a sight that had been familiar to me since childhood connected itself in turn with images of the ocean in the work of Whitman and Hart Crane.(What the Light Was Like, 107)

Clampitt also finds an unlikely connection between Keats and Osip Mandelstam, which her notes to the poem also unpack:  “For connecting Keats with Osip Mandelstam, there is at any rate the authority of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s observation (in Mozart and Salieri, p. 23): ‘Akhmatova used to say that Keats almost physiologically reminded her of Mandelstam’ ” (What the Light Was Like, 107). Finally, drawing on Helen Vendler’s essay,  “Stevens and Keats’ ‘To Autumn’, ” Clampitt explores the link between Stevens and Keats. As J. D. McClatchy points out:  “Clampitt’s daring here is, in Pound’s phrase, to have gathered from the air a live tradition, her voice one with theirs” (White Paper, 324).

In  “The Prairie,” a later poem from Westward, Clampitt is much more concerned with finding a link between the world she is in now and the past. To this end, Clampitt brings together Joseph Brodsky, Simone Weil, R. W. Emerson, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov, and her  “father’s father”:

A chance fact leaps into place: that Anton Chekhov
came howling (as only the stillborn can
fail to do) into existence at Taganrog

the year my father’s father, no doubt howling
too, endured the shock of entry. Add the link
of early memory: the prairie, the steppe—

a shimmering caul of namelessness, of voices,
unauthenticated, multitudinous, in wait
for (so Chekhov wrote) a muse, a scribe, a bard.

                                                          (Westward, 98–99)


At the end of the poem, Clampitt fuses her own consciousness and personal history with her  “father’s father’s” and that of the other writers mentioned in her text. She can now undertake her own elegiac journey westward:

To be landless, half a nomad, nowhere wholly
at home, is to discover, now, an epic theme
in going back. The rootless urge that took

my father’s father to Dakota, to California,
impels me there. A settled continent: what
does it mean? I think of nights, half wakeful,

under the roof of their last house, the haven
I knew it as long gone, whoever lives there,
its streetlit solitudes, the clock’s tock,

the wooing snuffle of a freight train travelling
along a right of way whose dislodged sleepers now
lie scattered like the bones of mastodons.

                                                          (Westward, 98–99)

Clampitt celebrates her own rootlessness, her nomadism, suggesting that this condition of being  “landless” and  “nowhere wholly at home” impels her to look back and go back and repeat her grandfather’s journey. She also explicitly connects her situation to that of Henry James, who earlier in the poem is described as  “a landless, exquisite sort of nomad, who found / no comfort for the dolors of Man Thinking / but in hesitations, velleities . . . ” (96).

Like James, Clampitt sees herself as an exquisite nomad, wondering at times if her uprootedness is a particularly American condition. Reading her poetry and prose, one is struck by her consistent interest in those writers who felt marginalized, misunderstood, ignored, displaced, or exiled. She seems especially interested in those who were  “alienated from their places of birth” (111) or never understood by their audience. Failure or the threat of failure seems to hover over many of the writers Clampitt admires.

Hart Crane, with whom Clampitt feels  “certain affinities” (164) because of  “the side of him that felt affinities with Keats” (164), is described as the  “son of a candy manufacturer in Garrettsville, Ohio, and a misfit from the day he was born” (110). He is also one of those American writers who escaped being thought of as a regional poet precisely because he was able to leave his home. In  “Voyages,” the last poem of  “Voyages: A Homage to John Keats,” Clampitt also invokes Crane, who is seen as  “a changeling” in perpetual exile, who finally leaped to his death, knowing no other home:


On April twenty-seventh, 1932, Hart Crane
walked to the taffrail of the Orizaba,
took off his coat, and leaped. At seventeen,
a changeling from among the tire-and-rubber

factories, steel mills, cornfields of the Ohio
flatland that had absent-mindedly produced him,
on an enthralled first voyage he’d looked into
the troughed Caribbean, and called it home.

                               (What the Light Was Like, 67)


In  “Amherst,” Clampitt recalls the audience Dickinson never had, her  “breathless, hushed excess,” and her unremarked surveillance of  “all that carnage” during the Civil War.


The oriole, a charred and singing coal,
still burns aloud among the monuments,
its bugle call to singularity the same
unheard (she wrote) as to the crowd,
this graveyard gathering, the audience
she never had.

 Fame has its own dynamic, its smolderings
and ignitions, its necessary distance:
Colonel Higginson, who’d braved the cannon,
admitted his relief not to live near such
breathless, hushed excess (you cannot
fold a flood,

she wrote, and put it in a drawer), such
stoppered prodigies, compressions and
devastations within the atom—all this
world contains: his face—the civil
wars of just one stanza. A universe
might still applaud,

the red at bases of the trees (she wrote)
like mighty footlights burn, God still
look on, his badge a raised hyperbole—
inspector general of all that carnage,
those gulfs, those fleets and crews
of solid blood:

                                            (Westward, 52)


In  “Margaret Fuller, 1847,” Clampitt imagines Fuller in Italy, in love with Angelo Ossoli, and writing to her mother:  “ ‘I have not been so well,’ / . . . ‘since I was a child, nor/so happy ever. ’  ” Clampitt then poignantly captures Fuller’s exile as she prepares to give birth to her child, even while dreaming of others dying. This time in Italy tragically and enigmatically serves to prefigure Fuller’s own death by drowning, which occurred off the coast of New York, as she made her way back to the  “New World,” that never accepted her on her own terms:


                                     “A strange lilting lean
old maid,” Carlyle had called her—though
not nearly such a bore as he’d expected.
What would Carlyle, what would straitlaced
Horace Greeley, what would fastidious
Nathaniel Hawthorne, what would all Concord,
all New England and her own mother
say now? An actuality more fraught
than any nightmare: terrors of the sea,
of childbirth, the massive, slow,
unending heave of human trouble.
Injustice. Ridicule. What did she do?
it would be asked (as though that mattered).
Gave birth. Lived through a revolution.
Nursed its wounded. Saw it run aground.
Published a book or two.
And drowned.

                                       (Archaic Figure, 48)


On the surface Clampitt seems to suggest, in both the tone and form of the last section of the poem, that all lives consist of, and are defined by, discrete fragments of experience. When seen from the outside, most lives, like Fuller’s life, lack a coherent form of narrative. In her rhetorical question— “What did she do?”—and in her matter-of-fact and understated list of Fuller’s activities and accomplishments, Clampitt manages to capture the futility of a life that is unmarked, unremarked, and unseen; yet such a catalogue, with its insistence on what will stand out, what can be recovered, also conveys the unremitting energy and courage of the life Fuller led. In doing so, she silences the voices of  “all Concord, / all New England and [Fuller’s] own mother,” and carves out a new space for Fuller.

The same preoccupations with displacement, exile, and marginality, emerge in Clampitt’s prose. In her collected essays, Predecessors, Et Cetera, she also seeks to rewrite and revise some chapter of a writer’s life in an effort to unsettle commonly held perceptions about the life and work. Dickinson, for example, is seen as awkwardly  “noisy ”(50), and James as empowered, rather than debilitated, by his humiliations on the stage. Clampitt’s essays on Dickinson and James— “The Theatrical Emily Dickinson ” (1989) and  “A Poet’s Henry James” (1991)—are compelling meditations. According to Clampitt, both were theatrical, drawn to perform and performances, given to hyperbole, intrigued by a sense of drama, and in need of an audience. Both were also insecure and daring, humble and audacious, reclusive and yet very social.

My readings seek to uncover some unusual links between Clampitt’s portraits of these writers and to make visible a crucial difference in her perception of how each employs a  “sense of the drama” (50) in their respective engagements with poetry and the novel. Given the nature of Clampitt’s own performances and the recent completion of her own drama concerning the Wordsworth Circle, Mad With Joy, I am especially interested in her emphasis on the role performance plays in their lives and work. Dickinson’s performances are theatrical, histrionic, and grounded in spectacle and excess of feelings. James’s, on the other hand, involve a different economy of expenditure, happening both off stage and on. James tends to work behind the scenes, dramatizing the inner workings of consciousness—his own and his characters’. As theatrical as his characters’ performances can be, we never forget the eloquence and power of the unsaid behind these public displays. As with Clampitt’s own performances, we are always mindful of  “the whole conduct of [James’s] shaping presence” (The Performing Self, 86–87). As Clampitt notes perceptively:  “When it comes to architectural form, no novelist, it seems to me, ever handled it more masterfully” (67). The mastery and performance of writing itself, Clampitt implies, gives James (as it does her) access to a sense of interiority and a means of acknowledging  “that everything is complicated”(69).

Dickinson appears rambunctious in comparison and lesser somehow, despite Clampitt’s suggestion that she is  “surpassed only (just possibly) by” Shakespeare,  “the very master of all things theatrical” (56). Her penchant for drama in her poetry and life can be recovered in her excess of feelings, her hyperbole, and through her distanced, yet powerfully engaged, observations of the Civil War’s theatricality. James’s inability to make a successful drama fly on the stage and his increasing reluctance  “to make scenes” in his own life, on the other hand, may have led him to write fiction in which he privileged the non-exchange, stillness, and renunciation. He did this, moreover, without ever abandoning his passion for the drama, the power of performances, and  “the drama of interior awareness” (68). Clampitt seems both haunted and intrigued by the possibility that Dickinson and James were empowered by being slightly uncomfortable with their circumstances.

Clampitt begins  “The Theatrical Emily Dickinson” with a dismissal of Dickinson as “the confirmed recluse” (50), which she recognizes  “is all but fixed in the national hagiography” (50). Instead she suggests that we consider Dickinson’s poetry and life as  “troublesomely various, even to a degree noisy” (50). Drawing on Marianne Moore’s assessments of Dickinson’s letters—Moore found in them  “a sense of drama with which we may not be quite at home”—Clampitt applauds Dickinson’s  “excess of feeling” (50), recognizing that Dickinson was bound to be misunderstood.  “The posturing did not diminish with the years; and even as a girl, I think she tended to scare people. She laughed in the wrong places. She raised questions that were not merely impudent but blasphemous”(51). Dickinson’s transgressions, Clampitt implies, fuel her poetic project.

Clampitt sees Dickinson as a performer of sorts who put on different masks in an effort to situate herself and her interpretations of her surroundings. Citing the lines  “I never spoke—unless addressed / And then ’twas brief and low—,” Clampitt concludes:  “One can only speculate that she was trying on an attitude, in a desperate effort to discover a place for herself, to envision a fate” (52). Dickinson would later, Clampitt asserts, fervently imagine  “the very opposite of fading away without notice—a release of those erotic forces which, in her own instance, evangelism had failed to harness” (52). This simultaneous release of self and assertion of self can be seen in poems like #754,  “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—,” and in Dickinson’s use of hyperbole.

     In one of her breathless addresses to the Master himself, she wrote:  “Vesuvius dont talk—Etna dont—one of them—said a syllable—a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever—She couldn’t look the world in the face afterward—I suppose—Bashfull Pompeii?” (53)

Her hyperbole links her to other women in the nineteenth century—George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Alice James—who Clampitt asserts feel  “in excess of any available object” (53). Finding Dickinson  “all extremes,” (53) Clampitt notes:  “She could be arch, to a degree that makes a reader uneasy. Smarmy sentiment came to her a bit too easily, and may also have contributed to her eventual popularity”(53). Here Clampitt equates Dickinson’s eventual success with her pandering to an audience’s desire for sentiment; but it is the subversive, unsettling side of Dickinson which Clampitt finds compelling.

Clampitt is most astute when she suggests that Dickinson’s view of  “the moral world as a great, splendid, terrible, auditorium” (54) allowed her to  “stave off a greater terror, that of vanishing without further notice” (54). As Dickinson viewed and transformed this stage, she was paradoxically both the audience and performer. Significantly, she found a way of staging and fixing in the moment her own identity through viewing the world as a performance. This performance was necessarily viewed from the margin and from a distance.  “For Emily Dickinson,” Clampitt asserts,  “the world seen from that Cupola on Main Street was somehow ‘new every morning’ ”(29). With her  “sense of drama,”Dickinson embraced  “the drama of the Civil War” (54), rendering poems  “suffused with awareness of carnage—with references to cannon and bayonets, to the bandaging of wounds” (54). From the edge and because of her discomfort with her surroundings, Clampitt implies, Dickinson was able to apprehend this stage of horror—to see the war as a theatre. In short, in the Civil War Dickinson  “found a subject equal to that sense of drama which Marianne Moore saw as necessary to her existence”(55).

In  “A Poet’s Henry James” Clampitt reads James’s life in conjunction with his fiction, starting from the premise that James’s failure as a dramatist, as exemplified in both the text and the dreadfully received performance of Guy Domville, serves to illuminate and propel the aesthetic concerns of his fiction, particularly those of his late novels: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. Stressing James’s vulnerability, his  “own mixed feelings about writing for the stage” (58), and the  “great and terrible disaster” (58) he endured on the opening night of Guy Domville in London in 1895, Clampitt portrays James as an artist who was both debilitated and empowered by this failure, by his ambivalent relationship to the stage and the drama, and the spectre of what might have been. For Clampitt, James’s aesthetic is intimately tied to his failure; James’s drama of consciousness led him to privilege the incomplete exchange, highlight the performance which masks what is always on the verge of being unmasked, offer  “lying as a form of magnanimity ”(65), expose the glimpse of something forbidden or previously hidden, and strive for stillness.

Although James remained concerned with  “dramatic resonances” (68), the cinematic, the need for calculated performances of  “the poetry of appearances”; (64), he finally was most effective in conveying  “the drama of interior awareness, of what goes unsaid”(68). For Clampitt, James’s success in rendering the not said, the interiority of his characters, the  “inwardness” and  “consciousness of a centered being” must be considered in relation to his inability to be a playwright and his simultaneous unwillingness to shake the desire to be a dramatist. Clampitt’s dual emphasis on James’s failure in the theatre and his reluctance to relinquish his passion for the drama frames her reading of his method of rendering experience and character in his fiction.

Clampitt begins her essay with an anecdote concerning James’s inability  “one day on his usual walk” (57) to recognize  “a woman he knew he knew ” (57). It wasn’t until she announced,  “I’ve done up the joint into rissoles” (57), that James knew  “she was his housekeeper” (57). For Clampitt, James’s private failure to recognize his housekeeper must be placed next to his public/artistic ability to understand and convey the nuances of  “how things look” (64), to see the weather as “a character in the drama” (64), and to imagine how a particular setting can catalyze a change in consciousness or social relations, as they have been previously constituted:

It can be startling, for instance, to rediscover the way James writes about the weather. One might suppose that a writer concerned with the nature of the  “felt life,” the workings of the mind—a writer who didn’t recognize his own housekeeper when he met her in the street—wouldn’t have paid the elements all that much attention. But the attention is there . . . . The Ambassadors . . . is suffused with the meteorological sense of Paris, culminating in the excursion into the countryside where one of the chance encounters that are a favourite device of James’s occurs, and where Lambert Strether’s view of just about everything is changed forever. In The Wings of the Dove, the weather becomes literally a character in the drama with the arrival of  “the first sea-storm of autumn,” when we find ourselves in  “a Venice of cold, lashing rain from a low black sky, of wicked wind raging through narrow passages, of general arrest and interruption.” (63–64)

For Clampitt, it is James’s failed exchanges in his life that produced his heightened sensitivity to his surroundings as a barometer for gauging and conveying the inner consciousness of his characters. James finds in both the outward appearances of things, and performances of  “behaving well” (65) in the face of unbearable deception, an  “objective correlative” for the inner drama, that rarely can be articulated, but is always omnipresent.

It is his characters’ grand performances—performances that  “a civilized life” (64) demands—with which Clampitt is most concerned. Like Dickinson, who Clampitt felt tried on different masks in an effort to survive, James’s characters are always  “in the process of making themselves (cosmetically and otherwise—of, as T. S. Eliot put it (and almost certainly the debt to James there too), preparing ‘a face to meet the faces that you meet’ ”(66). Milly Theale’s performance in The Wings of the Dove— “her hired Venetian palace, at which she appears wearing pearls, looking wonderful, and being the perfect hostess” (65)—in the face of her impending death is, according to Clampitt what,  “transforms a really low and sordid plot, such as James’s novels tend to hang upon, into high drama”(65). Other  “great performances”(65) are also praised: Charlotte Stant’s in The Golden Bowl, Maisie’s view of  “her impossible mother making up to her”(65) in What Maisie Knew, and Madame de Vionnet’s performance—her sustained graciousness—for Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors, at the riverside inn when he unexpectedly comes upon her and Chad Newsome. Her performance in this scene preserves appearances, but only by masking what has already been unmasked. It becomes a way of dramatizing the unsaid, the deception underlying all human interactions. These performances serve momentarily to stabilize the self in the face of deception and to stage “the drama of interior awareness “ (68).

As with Clampitt’s own performances, social performances—gestures of self-fashioning in James’s fiction must also paradoxically be seen in relation to desires for intense solitude, the private need to recover “the remembered vision” (60), and a craving for a “sense of inwardness, of space set aside, of stillness at the center” (70).

Like most of us, Henry James wanted to have things both ways. He was very much a social animal, and being a writer, he could not but crave an audience. But it was in stillness that his own, and his characters’, insights came alive. And it is this inwardness, the consciousness of a centered being, that gives his novels their power. It is also what impeded him as a playwright, dramatist though, heartbreakingly, he very nearly was. (71)

Although Dickinson and James, Clampitt argues, used their sense of the dramatic and the drama to effect a particular aesthetic engagement with their material, Dickinson’s drama of consciousness allowed her to participate in the events around her, seeing the world as a performance to be read. James’s inability to stage a drama, to script a viable performance for the theatre, led him to turn inward, privileging in the process the drama of unspoken interiority. With his dual emphasis on stillness and “the coruscations of indirection and surprise” (42), James becomes a proto-modernist “poet’s novelist” (62), anticipating the poetry of Eliot, Pound, Moore, and Clampitt. By contrast, Dickinson, with her manic, impudent, excessive “explosiveness” (50), is theatrical, “surpassed only (just possibly) by the ‘cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces’ evoked by the very master of all things theatrical” (56).

Clampitt’s essays, like her best poems, may be seen as performances that demonstrate how reading, re-reading, and writing about literature and the lives of artists can create an inner world in which  “everything connects” (165). What I am suggesting is that Clampitt, like James, is only half at home in the world she finds herself in. Recoiling from  “what might be called Disneyitis, the kind of simplification that does away with the insides of things” (70), she looks for a  “true enclosure” (70)— “a sense of the sacred” (70), an interior space in which her  “solitary brooding” (70) can co-exist with her nostalgia for a culture that once valued interiority and stillness.




1. All quotations of Clampitt’s prose are from Predecessors, Et Cetera unless otherwise indicated. The following works are also cited: Clampitt, Amy. What the Light Was Like. New York: Knopf, 1985. Archaic Figure. New York: Knopf, 1987. Westward. New York: Knopf, 1990. Predecessors, Et Cetera: Essays. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1991. McClatchy, J. D. White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Poirier, Richard. The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

2. See her interview in Predecessors, Et Cetera (164), where she addresses her nomadism and kinship with Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Thoreau, and Hart Crane.