“Nucleus of Fire”: Amy Clampitt’s Elegies for her parents


Jahan Ramazani


Clampitt’s elegies for her parents, “A Procession at Candlemas” and “Beethoven, Opus 111,” belong to the long and distinguished history of the American family elegy. This tradition descends from nineteenth-century poets as diverse as Emerson and the “nightingales,” and goes as far back as Anne Bradstreet, who wrote elegies for her parents, grandchildren, and other relatives. But to understand more precisely Clampitt’s contribution to the subgenre of the parental elegy, we need to view her work against the backdrop of unprecedented changes in the genre during the late 1950s and the 1960s.

In the twentieth century, the most momentous innovations in the parental elegy occurred when Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Ginsberg, Berryman, and Rich spectacularly reinvigorated the subgenre. At a time when mourning had become an increasingly private affair, when the dying were being shut away in hospitals in increasing numbers, these poets fiercely resisted the occlusion of death and mourning. They recast the parental elegy as a subgenre more intimate and skeptical, more flexible and immediate than ever it had been. While repudiating the postwar social taboo on public displays of grief, they also broke literary taboos, diverging sharply from age-old paradigms of the parented elegy. Eschewing the formal reverence of most earlier elegies for parents, they duelled with the dead, refusing to temper their belligerence and sometimes deliberately inflaming it. First inveighing against grandiose ancestors and denouncing a grandfather, Lowell is ready by the late Fifties to mock his mother’s pretensions and father’s failures. Soon thereafter, Berryman and Ginsberg take symbolic revenge on their dead parents, Berryman by ravaging his suicidal father in the grave, Ginsberg by ruthlessly exposing his mother’s acts of self-exposure. At the same time, women poets were rejecting the submissive role assigned to female mourners both in poetry and outside it. More than any of her forebears in the genre, Plath intensifies the mourner’s aggression toward a dead parent. In defiant confrontations with patriarchal power, Sexton refuses inheritances from her mother and father, and Rich repudiates the institutionalized androcentrism of the traditional family and the canonical elegy.

While rage, defiance, and ambivalence permeate the major parental elegies of this generation, Clampitt assumes a more receptive stance toward her dead parents and toward elegiac precedents, even assimilating her parents to heroic or divine prototypes. Where the earlier poets had written out of an anger toward tradition that was often inseparable from anger toward a dead parent, Clampitt’s poems suggest that a more traditionalist mode of elegy may have become viable once again, so long as it is sufficiently tempered by the skepticisms of our time. This is not to say that Clampitt’s elegies exclude revisionary anger. She rails in particular against the religious traditions that have constricted female mourning. Further, she acknowledges her parents’ failures and inadequacies. Like her recent precursors, Clampitt relates her psychogenesis in her elegies, and she too suggests that the development of her identity required painful rupture with her parents. Far from blandly rehashing elegiac traditions, she deepens the genre’s potential for intimacy and handles its analogical structures with exceptional freedom. Though not violently revisionist, her elegies too have helped to renew an ancient genre for our time.

Clampitt’s elegy for her mother, “A Procession at Candlemas,” has been acclaimed by Peter Sacks and Celeste Schenck as a strong revision of the patriarchal elegy—a revision that reinstates the once occluded figure of the mother.1 Perhaps the nature of Clampitt’s achievement can be further clarified. Whereas poets like Lowell, Plath, and Berryman had mourned and sought out their origins in a masculine source, Clampitt redirects the elegiac quest toward the womb. In this regard she resembles Ginsberg, but Clampitt is less threatened than he about uncovering and recathecting the maternal body. In “Kaddish,” one of the century’s most important elegies for a mother, Ginsberg had wanted to get closer to his mother than any elegist had been to his or hers, to love his mother more fiercely than any mourning son had loved his. But he had also recoiled from her monstrous body: the hairy “slash” of her “ragged” vagina, the legs and stomach mutilated and mended, possibly even a smelly anus.2 Clampitt’s imaginative re-entry into her mother’s body is far less equivocal. It exemplifies her quieter mode of generic revision, the significance of which should not, however, be underestimated. For while the iconoclastic Ginsberg ends up resembling canonical elegists in retreating from the female body, Clampitt champions it as the ultimate site, setting, and destination of poetic mourning.

Clampitt’s emphasis on the mother’s body also represents a shift in daughters’ elegies, despite Schenck’s argument that Clampitt extends a “distinct female tradition of funeral poetry.”3 In the nineteenth century, Felicia Hemans and other bereft daughters had relied on phrases like “the spirit of . . . love” and “the beautiful” to elegize mothers, but while Clampitt praises hers, she does not dissolve her into spiritual formulae.4 Eulogistic obligations had long obstructed the access of poet-daughters to their mourned mothers. More recently, the major impediment for many poets had been what Rich calls the “blind anger and bitterness” between mothers and daughters in “a male-controlled world.”5 In Rich’s poem about “A Woman Mourned by Daughters,” the dead mother has become the patriarchal law she once enforced:


You are puffed up in death
like a corpse pulled from the sea;
we groan beneath your weight.


Having compelled her daughters into heterosexual servility, she still dominates them, like the satin she once “pulled down / over” their “bridal heads.”6 Similarly, in “The Division of Parts,” Sexton needs to separate her mother from the Christianity hobbling and then surviving her, with its patriarchal “clutter” and “grotesque metaphor” of the crucifix.7 For Sexton, the work of mourning the mother requires dividing her into loved and hated parts. Clampitt’s maternal elegy is not without anger, but she, more than Sexton or Rich, narrowly focuses her elegiac anger on patriarchy, rather than the mother or the mother’s embodiment of patriarchy. Sexton begins to exalt her mother as a folkloristic “god-in-her-moon,” “gauzy bride,” and “brave ghost” at the end of her elegy, and the daughters in Rich’s poem briefly commemorate their mother as having once been free as “a leaf.” But Clampitt, having circumscribed her anger, can more forcefully cherish, esteem, and remythologize the mother.

Clampitt concentrates her anger on two religious traditions that have degraded mothers while seeming to celebrate them: the cults of Athena and of the Virgin Mary. On her bus ride westward to see her dying mother, the car lights on the highways seem to turn into a Candlemas processional. But in its patriarchal form, this supposed exaltation of the mother is a


. . . Mosaic insult—such a loathing
of the common origin, even a virgin,

having given birth, needs purifying. 8


Furious that maternity should be seen as something that needs purifying, Clampitt ridicules the theological concession that “God might have, / might actually need a mother.” Similarly, she is indignant that the cults of Artemis, Hera, and Athena should have centered on a “wizened effigy” —a small wooden object, “walled in the dark” and “kept / out of sight like the incontinent whimperer / in the backstairs bedroom.” Athena, though apparently a fertility goddess in her pre-Hellenic form, was divested of maternity by the Greeks and represented as a virgin. Her authority as the goddess of wisdom and war seems to have required not only that her maternity be suppressed but that she herself be motherless. Recalling the myth that Athena “had no mother,” Clampitt mocks the offensive notion that this goddess was ”born—it’s declared—of some / man’s brain like every other pure idea.“ In the myth of Athena’s birth, emblematic of the patriarchal occlusion of the mother, Zeus swallowed her mother, Metis, because he feared the birth of a more powerful deity. Impatient with ”the hampered obscurity that has been / for centuries the mumbling lot of women,“ Clampitt would recover the suppressed power of such maternal figures as Mary and (originally) Athena. Whereas elegists like Milton and Shelley had traditionally looked for solace in phallic gods, such as Orpheus, Adonis, and Christ, and whereas more recent like Lowell and Plath had aggressively satirized or demonized authority figures in their elegies, Clampitt mourns her mother under the auspices of the long-suppressed and devalued mother goddesses.

But Clampitt’s mournful quest for the mother, mythic and real, is a difficult journey—a journey that seems at first directionless, “anonymous of purpose” like the buses. The first half of the elegy lingers in Washington, D.C., and the first sentence stalls in a blizzard of contradictory prepositions (on, back, from, with, up, down, out, up, in). The mourner is unwilling to grant the finality of the journey, her mind “fleeing instead / toward scenes of transhumance” or seasonal alterations between lowland and mountain pastures, which contrast with the poet’s sadly one directional journey. Her literal quest—her bus ride westward on Route 80—is overlaid with other quests for origins, and not only her revisionary theological quest. Metamorphosing the buses into bison that drink at a rest stop named “Indian Meadows,” Clampitt suggests a parallel between her sad journey and


                                          The westward-trekking
transhumance, once only, of a people who,

in losing everything they had, lost even
the names they went by . . .


Searching backward in time, the poet recalls the mass bereavement underlying the historical origins of modern America. “Who,” she asks, “can assign a trade-in value to that sorrow?” Summoning an original “sorrow” uncontaminated by the “trade-in value” cherished by American colonizers, Clampitt would separate the mourning mind from commercial culture. Glittering jellies and candies, begotten by the insemination of coins, offer only a crass parody of birth: they “plop from their housings / perfect, like miracles.” Repulsed by the sight of cosmetics and toiletries, the mourning daughter decries them as embodiments of “the pristine seductiveness of money.” But later she suggests that her mournful tribute is itself a form of payment, however elevated the economy to which it belongs: it compensates her mother, unlike the

parents by the tens of thousands living
unthanked, unpaid but in the sour coin
of resentment.

While Plath and Sexton bitterly compensate their dead parents in accordance with the law of the talion —violence for violence, indifference for indifference—Clampitt recovers for the parental elegy a different economic strategy: she redescribes and remythologizes her mother’s bequest of an identity, thereby accepting and hoping to repay this fundamental inheritance.

On her inward quest into the origins of her own psyche, the daughter would illuminate her basic debt to her mother. Clampitt represents the psyche as a kind of embryo:


The lapped, wheelborne integument, layer
within layer, at the core a dream of
something precious, ripped . . .


Wrapped in layers of the mother’s bodily tissue, the mind is formed out of cohesion with the mother, yet also out of separation, the “I” torn from her enveloping membrane. In grief, the daughter re-experiences the traumatic division from the mother—a division that was, nevertheless, essential to the daughter’s psychic integrity. To the poet, people in sleep seem able to heal this rupture temporarily: returning to a sense of self as encompassed rather than discrete, they “rewrap themselves / about the self’s imponderable substance.” Grief, according to Clampitt, recapitulates not only the primordial separation from the mother but also the still more primordial continuity, a continuity that she contrasts with shallow commercialism and urban confusion:


beyond the torn integument of childbirth,

sometimes, wrapped like a papoose into a grief
not merely of the ego, you rediscover almost
the rest-in-peace of the placental coracle.


Alluding once more to Native Americans (“papoose”), she portrays a grief so profound that it resembles both a return to maternal origins (“the placental coracle”) and a prolepsis of death (“rest-in-peace”). The word “almost” saves this grief from tipping over into complete self-obliteration. Tennyson had likewise wanted to enfold himself in nullifying despondency: “In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,” thereby, as if with “dull narcotics, numbing pain.”9 But Clampitt feminizes the object of the melancholic drive, extending and altering the tradition of American elegists like Whitman, Stevens, and Ginsberg, who hailed a shadowy maternal figure as origin and end. Like them, she interrelates the original oblivion of the embryo, the near-oblivion of melancholia, and the ultimate oblivion of death. But unlike Whitman or Stevens, Clampitt proffers no metaphysical monster but a vividly imagined, anatomically detailed womb. And unlike Ginsberg, she imaginatively re-enters the mother’s physical body without terror or revulsion. Faced with the brute fact of final separation, she turns it into an occasion for reconnecting with the maternal body.

In the elegy’s many images of layering, wrapping, and integument, the daughter acknowledges the torn “fabric” that constitutes each separate life, yet honors the interwovenness of each life with its maternal source. Clampitt parallels her multi-layered elegy not only with an overhauled Candlemas but also with a rehabilitated pagan ritual—the annual presentation to Athena of “the fair linen of the sacred peplos.” Presided over by this goddess of spinning and weaving, the elegy abounds with figures for the textual mediation now substituting for the physical mediation of mother and daughter: “the mother curtained in Intensive Care,” the “red-tasseled” llamas, and the Kurdish women on “rug-piled mounts”; the “knotting of gears” and the “corn-stubble quilting”; the “shucked-off / bundle” of women’s history and the “thread of scarlet” slitting a bird’s yellow cap. This last image is the culmination of the daughter’s retrospective quest “down the long-unentered nave of childhood.” It is a memory that helps Clampitt to join the imagery of the “thread” binding mother and daughter with the “flame” of each fragile human identity, and thus suggests once more the necessary continuity with the mother and the necessary individuation of self. Clampitt interweaves and feminizes the elegiac tropes of fire (Milton’s sun “[f]lames” in the sky), bird (Whitman’s hermit thrush sings a “[s]ong of the bleeding throat”), and weaving itself (Shelley’s “web of being”). Like Whitman’s thrush, Clampitt’s image of the bird, “scarlet” and “stilled,” acknowledges the mother’s death yet renews an ancient figure for immortality. Clampitt would concede the fact of “the lost connection,” but celebrate the mother as origin, as reserve of “unguessed-at” possibility, as “the untouched / nucleus of fire.“ Hardly something to be suppressed, the maternal source is the fountainhead of the poet’s power. In this regard, Clampitt reverses a long poetic history of repression, since canonical elegists from Milton to Shelley and Swinburne had overridden as powerless or inadequate such maternal figures as Calliope, Urania, and the Géante, and even a woman elegist like Helen Hunt Jackson had denounced Demeter’s “foul shame to motherhood.”10 In defiance of this tradition and of the shadowy death-mother of American poets from Whitman to Stevens, Clampitt moves both the actual and the mythic mother into the imaginative center of elegy. Relegating death to a secondary status, she sees birth as the archetype of all transition: “Change as child-bearing.” The magnolias have “pregnant wands,” the tunnel heaves “like a birth canal,” and the day’s intentions are a “spawn.” More comprehensively than previous elegists, male or female, Clampitt maternalizes the discourse and landscape of the elegy.


But the maternal figures recuperated in her elegy for her mother disappear in her elegy for her father, “Beethoven, Opus 111.” Having restored the suppressed figure of the mythic mother in “A Procession at Candlemas,” Clampitt returns in her elegy for her father to the genre’s traditional male archetype of regenerative power, except that she links her father not to Adonis or Christ but to the mortal hero Beethoven. By her willingness to rehabilitate this androcentric paradigm in an elegy for a father, Clampitt marks another significant departure from recent generic precedent, though a departure of a very different kind from her elegy for her mother. Clampitt breaks with the sexual politics of daughter-father elegies by Plath, Rich, and Sexton—poets who had more often assimilated the father to a demonic than a heroic archetype. True, Plath’s father starts out as a sea-god and Agamemnon-like hero in her elegies, but he eventually turns into a “danger,” a “barnyard, ” a “barbarous” butcher, a “Fascist,” a “devil,” a “vampire,” and a “bastard.” Sexton also ends up branding her father a demon or “Dybbuk! Dybbuk!” Rich represents her father as a “terrible record,” maiming and mutilating her with its repetitive commands, and later writes about his “cruelty.”11 In contrast, Clampitt depicts her father as praiseworthy if pathetic, not an oppressor, abuser, or tyrant.

Yet, Clampitt accomplishes this change without merely reverting to unqualified encomium of the sort that had been traditional in the parental elegy before the Sixties. Her language is more detailed and candid than that, her analogy between farmer and composer more circumspect and self-conscious. In comparing her father to Beethoven, Clampitt humanizes elegiac typology, registers the inevitable differences separating the dead man from his distant counterpart, and fortifies her poem against vapid eulogy. And she further complicates this play of resemblances by subtly writing herself into the poem as a third term.

Describing a performance of Opus 111, Clampitt opens her elegy with a language that mediates the three protagonists of the poem—Beethoven, her father, and herself.12 Beethoven: the artist furiously creates “a sound he cannot hear,” a sound that transcends his “rage” to become “levitations,” that rises in the air, that joins the starry heavens, that is fixed in the “glassy cerements of Art.” But the music does not merely rise upward; it also digs downward. The music’s earthliness evokes her father the farmer: hobnails, mining, ores, plowshare, bulldozer. Here and throughout the poem, each man crosses into the domain of his apparent opposite, Beethoven creating a music that encompasses not only the stars but the earth, and her father working the earth without acceding to its limitations. As an artist and as a farmer’s daughter, Clampitt is somewhere between her father’s earthly and Beethoven’s airy tendencies, between the terrestrial labor of the farmer and the transcendental art of the romantic genius.

The chthonic associations of Beethoven’s music prepare somewhat for Clampitt’s surprising proposition: “my father / might have been his twin.” The comparison is deliberately strained, its dissonance suggesting the difficulty of the poet’s intermediary position and guarding tile elegy against pat equation. Her introduction of her father impedes any immediate apprehension of the resemblance between the two men:


                                        . . . a farmer
hacking at sourdock, at the strangle-
roots of thistles and wild morning glories . . .


But slowly, in telling an anecdote she begins to furnish pieces of the puzzle. Even though her story—her father dug up and burned poison ivy—hardly seems to justify her description of her father as Beethoven’s “twin,” it begins to suggest his Romanticism in spirit:


                                        My father
was naïve enough—by nature
revolutionary, though he’d have
disowned the label—to suppose he might
in some way, minor but radical, disrupt
the givens of existence . . .


Romantic, revolutionary, radical—he might have been a farmer, but in his own way, he reconceived the physical ground and perhaps the ultimate ground of reality. A Promethean hero, he brings fire to the “malefic” poison ivy and must suffer torment for his rebellion against the real. He inadvertently fashions a venomous shirt that he, like Hercules, “writhed inside” for weeks. The description of his air-borne creation as “sowing,” “braceleting,” and “spreading” invites comparison with Beethoven’s music —“mounting,” “wandering,” “disrupting.” The venom is like a “mesh” and a “shirt,” much as the “diaphanous” music is like “cerements.” For all their obvious dissimilarities, the text-like creations of farmer and artist dilate and grow. Spawned in rebellion, they exceed the grasp of their authors—the music bursting into sounds Beethoven cannot hear, the “well-meant holocaust” filling the air with its poisonous mist. But unlike the traditional elegist’s conflation of deceased and immortal paragon, Clampitt’s multiple comparisons between composer and farmer are sufficiently improbable and strange that the reader must help to construct them—an involvement of the reader that inhibits the erasure of differences between prototype and father. The reader, working out Clampitt’s extravagant correlations, is never allowed to forget that Beethoven’s music differs from her father’s air-borne poison ivy, or that the composer’s transformation of musical “givens” is distinct from the farmer’s pathetic rebellion against the “givens” of agriculture.

While depicting the two men, Clampitt has also been quietly inscribing a discrete self-portrait within the diptych, a self-portrait as elegist whose work is at once earthly and transcendental (unlike the more rigorously antitranscendental elegies of her immediate predecessors or the more comfortably transcendental elegies of earlier poets). But to sketch in greater detail her difficult position, Clampitt now steps back from her intricate analogy between composer and farmer. Having considered art from an artist’s perspective and farming from a farmer’s, she now ponders “High art” from the perspective of the farmer, implicitly contemplating her own elegiac art from the viewpoint of her father. Clampitt admits that in the rural Iowa where she grew up, high art was not thunderous and ecstatic, like the music she remembers at the beginning of the poem or like the terrestrial-transcendental art of this very elegy; instead, it was rigid, snobbish, nearly irrelevant:


                 harpstrings and fripperies of air
congealed into an object nailed against the wall,
its sole ironic function (if it has any)
to demonstrate that one, though he may
grunt and sweat at work, is not a clod.


Unlike the upward “levitations” and “downward” disruptions of Clampitt’s elegy or Beethoven’s music, art in this world shrinks into a commodity fastened on the wall. High art, at least for her father, was little more than a signifier of class, “a susurrus, the silk and perfume / of unsullied hands.” While conceding that her artistic commemoration of her father might well have seemed superfluous to him, Clampitt writes into her elegy an apologia for the elegy: she legitimizes her poem by showing her father to be, despite himself, a farmer-artist of the sublime, and showing his “twin” Beethoven to be, despite his levitations, a musician-plowman of the earth, and showing herself to be, despite her artistic vocation, a skeptic of “High art / with a stiff neck.” She has already established that her father need not “demonstrate,” through a fondness for art, that he is “not a clod,” since he proves his artistry and spirituality by his “radical” struggle against the laws of existence. Having acknowledged their differences, Clampitt suddenly fuses the manual labor of farmer, composer, and elegist in her image of “[t]hose hands” (recalling the famous trope that conjoined deceased, mourner, and God by the end of In Memoriam). The three individuals share an anguished labor to create “another life entirely,” whether in music, agriculture, or an elegiac poem, and they all fail to achieve their impossible if heroic aims: each is a voyager in a “doomed diving bell.” Much as Clampitt traces back her psychic and bodily origins to her mother in “A Procession at Candlemas,” she now locates the origins of her identity as artist in her father’s rebellious art of farming. Yet she also indicates that, as part and parcel of inheriting his defiant outlook, she has had to reject his view of high art in becoming a sophisticated poet. Clampitt intimates the narrative of her own antithetical genesis. An “impressionable” daughter whom music drove “wild” for more art, she wanted “another life entirely” from her father’s; but even as she fell in love with music and separated herself from her father, she nevertheless internalized his drive to “disrupt / the givens of existence,” beginning with the givens of her own existence as a farmer’s daughter.

In the elegy’s last verse paragraph, Clampitt switches ever more boldly between farmer, composer, and poet. Beethoven is characterized not by self-satisfaction or self-completion but by the wreckage of his crockery, his piano, his hearing, the composer uselessly striving over and over “to hear himself.” And out of this despair and suffering rises the beauty of his music, “out of a humdrum squalor the levitations,” much as Clampitt’s own elegy emerges out of the doldrums of her grief, and much as her high-art poetry springs from the humble world of her farmer-father. To secure these comparisons without concealing differences, Clampitt resumes the wily synthetic technique that closed “A Procession at Candlemas.” She runs together the ancient elegiac figures of the flower and of music, one image associated with her father and the other with Beethoven:


                                    the Arietta
a disintegrating surf of blossom
opening along the keyboard, along the fencerows
the astonishment of sweetness.


The syntax oscillates between composer and farmer, finally merging them in the metaphor of “sweetness.” Rehabilitating a great Romantic myth about suffering and beauty, about humble origins and high achievement, Clampitt represents “sweetness” as arising from its opposite—a transfiguration exemplified by the poet’s life and by this very poem. But like the anemones, violets, and poppies of elegiac tradition, the figure of the flower signifies not only beauty and transcendence but also mortality: the mourning daughter sadly recalls her father’s failed effort to transplant a flower, a “prickly poppy most likely.” Figuring his romantic sensibility and foretelling his death, the doomed flower also foreshadows the daughter’s longing to transplant her father into her elegiac text: the flower is a potent, radiant, libidinal object that recalls the elegiac motif of generational transmission, “its luminousness / wounding the blank plains like desire.” Perhaps the words prickly poppy themselves encode this difficult mutation of man into text, poppa into poppy. In her description of her father’s terrible, protracted dying, Clampitt further elaborates the unlikely analogy between father and composer, comparing her father’s angry isolation to Beethoven’s enclosure within his deafness, linking her father’s physical suffering to Beethoven’s calls for “Freiheit!” At the end of the elegy she returns to the airy freedom or “levitation” with which she began, except that she now correlates the experience of artistic transcendence with the “serenity” of death itself. In this last comparison, the Nirvana principle or death drive becomes the common impetus of Beethoven’s art, her father’s final fury, and her own poetry. Although Clampitt is hardly the first poet to end an elegy with the motif of death as freedom—one of the commonest endings of nineteenth-century consolation poetry—she manages to articulate three separate quests for oblivion all at once. The ending moves vertiginously through a swirl of the poem’s repeated images of earth and air, enclosure and freedom, pain and bliss, mesh and flower, recreating in this verbal tumult the father’s last agony, the composer’s turbulent work, and the daughter’s intolerable grief, until breaking at last into a description of final “serenity”—a verbal serenity that simulates the ultimate release sought by all.

Clampitt, like such postwar American poets as Lowell and Ginsberg, Plath and Rich, uses the parental elegy to renegotiate the fundamental inheritances and resistances that have defined her, both as an identity within a domestic nexus, and as a voice within a poetic tradition. Again like her predecessors, she repeats in her elegies the necessary separation from and continuity with her real parents (torn from her mother’s body yet threaded to it, uprooted from her father’s farming yet bound to it) as well as her literary parents (reinstating yet modifying the elegiac archetypes of the divine mother and father). But as we have also seen, she differs from many of the best postwar American family elegists in her greater susceptibility to both parental and literary authority. “Beethoven, Opus 111,” for example, concludes with a more sanguine representation of death than these earlier elegists allowed:


                   . . . as though the spirit might
aspire, in its last act,
                        to walk on air.


Clampitt is still vigilant in qualifying this apotheosis, constraining it with words like “as though” and “might aspire,” and seeing death not as the first but as the “last act” of a free spirit. But while Lowell, Plath, and Sexton deny their parents transcendence in death, Clampitt tries to balance the claims of transcendence and oblivion, both here and in her many subsequent elegies for family and friends.13 Similarly, in symbols like the “wizened effigy” and the “prickly poppy,” Clampitt is more receptive than Plath, Sexton, or Rich to the elegiac motif of the potent object that figures inter-generational bequest. While this departure reflects personal differences, it obviously also resonates with a broad cultural shift from a more rebellious to a more accommodating historical climate, traceable in many other genres. Indeed, despite important national, gender, and poetic distinctions, Seamus Heaney’s elegies for his parents are comparable in their receptivity to tradition (“Clearances” for his mother in The Haw Lantern and the elegies for his father in Seeing Things). Written in the Eighties, both Heaney’s and Clampitt’s elegies for their parents reclaim a more pliant poetics for the genre. In doing so, they may even successfully rehabilitate one of the most archaic features of elegy: praise for the dead. In both Heaney’s and Clampitt’s elegies, the dead once more become tutelary beings, discretely honored and idealized. Perhaps encomium has become possible again, after great revulsion against it, after a protracted period of generic rupture. As Heaney writes, “we pine for ceremony, / customary rhythms.”14




1. Peter M. Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 320–25; Celeste M. Schenck, “Feminism and Deconstruction: Re-Constructing the Elegy,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 5 (1986), 18–20.

2. Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish” and Other Poems, 1958–1960 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1961), 24.

3. Schenck, “Feminism,” 19.

4. Hemans, “No More,” The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Co., 1856), 330, 331.

5. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976), 225.

6. Adrienne Rich, Poems: Selected and New, 1950–1974 (New York: Norton, 1975), 57.

7. Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981), 43, 46.

8. Amy Clampitt, “A Procession at Candlemas,” The Kingfisher (New York: Borzoi-Knopf, 1983), 22–28.

9. Tennyson, In Memoriam 5.8–9.

10) Helen Hunt Jackson, “Demeter,” Verses by H. H. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1874), 181.

11. Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper & Row, 1981): “Full Fathom Five,” 92; “The Colossus,” 129; “Little Fugue,” 188; “Daddy,” 223, 224. Sexton, “Divorce, Thy Name Is Woman,” Complete Poems, 545. Rich, “After Dark,” Poems, 82, and Sources (Woodside, California: The Heyeck Press, 1993), 15.

12. Clampitt, “Beethoven, Opus 111,” Kingfisher, 62–66.

13. Clampitt’s other elegies include “Urn-Burial and the Butterfly Migration” and “Burial in Cypress Hills” in What the Light Was Like (1985); “An Anatomy of Migraine” in Archaic Figure (1987); “A Winter Burial,” “My Cousin Muriel,” “A Hedge of Rubber Trees,” and “Nothing Stays Put” in Westward (1990).

14. Seamus Heaney, “Funeral Rites,” Poems, 1965–75 (New York: Noonday-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 171.