Amy Clampitt’s Dahlia Gardens


Vijay Seshadri


The reader who turns from the magnificent parental elegies, “A Procession At Candlemas” and “Beethoven, Opus 111,” which dominate the center of Amy Clampitt’s first book, The Kingfisher, to its penultimate poem, “The Dahlia Gardens,” finds him- or herself in an altered poetic world—a world different enough to suggest how little the extraordinary plasticity of Clampitt’s verse (its most immediately recognizable and characteristic quality) is merely a matter of external effect, and how much it actually goes to the heart of who she is as a poet. The earlier poems are remarkable for the ways in which their free-wheeling associations and enormous lexical range contribute, paradoxically enough, to a feeling of spareness and balance. They present us with a continuity of surface and depth that, for all of Clampitt’s baroque impulses and stated allegiances to Romanticism, it would be fair to call classical. Their perspectives are carefully worked out; their transitions seamless; and both unfold as one large, unified imaginative gesture, with no sense of strain marring the gravity and dignity of their movement.

Things couldn’t be more dissimilar in “The Dahlia Gardens,” and the makeover both reveals the extent of Clampitt’s freedom as a writer and the kind of control that freedom allows her to exercise over her materials. The principles of construction here, expressionistic in the extreme, generate the poem in a set of massive fragments that slip and slide against each other in a kind of tectonic frenzy. Perhaps because of the obdurate and harrowing subject matter—the story of the attempted self-immolation, in front of the Pentagon, of a young Quaker protesting against the Vietnam War—Clampitt’s typical lushness and the expensive materials, verbal and intellectual, with which she fashions her work, seem themselves called into question. And no one exhibits more eagerness to entertain this questioning than the poet herself, who not only subverts her enterprise throughout its progress with ironic interspersions from Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind,” but at its very inception, through the epigraph she attaches from Norman Mailer’s Armies Of The Night (“There are places no history can reach).”

Also, “The Dahlia Gardens” is tinged with prophetic overtones; conflates the political act with the poetic and the sacred ones; possesses moments of suspense and terror which would have made Hitchcock proud; asserts, in confronting an anguished period in American history, a complicated moral stance unlikely to leave anyone happy; and is everywhere informed by a peculiarly homemade mysticism of the material—the material in this case being the fossil fuels which run the engines of war and peace in the modern economy.

Clampitt’s status as a literary phenomenon, and as an exemplar of an athleticism and an acrobatic skill for poetry whom it wouldn’t be too far-fetched or impertinent to compare to the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan, has had an ambiguous effect on the ongoing appreciation of a poem like “The Dahlia Gardens.” The unusual facts of her career, so interesting in themselves as literary folklore, and so illuminating about the workings of American poetry’s social order, tend to interfere with the kind of critical conversation proper to such major achievement; and enthusiasm for her work, in my experience, lingers in the pleasures offered to the instincts by the sneaky outlet passes, the cunning picks and screens, the triple-reverse syntactic slam dunks of her high style. For a practising poet, such a circumstance isn’t, of course, at all bad: that Clampitt’s work continues to instruct, entertain, and, in some cases, infuriate, a large and knowledgeable body of readers, that she herself continues to have so much presence, celebrity, and review constitutes probably all the critical affirmation she could want or need.

But for poems like “The Dahlia Gardens,” now made widely familiar through the passage of time, a renewed attention is long overdue. One of the things such attention reveals is the extent to which Clampitt’s work still resists domestication by the standard mental shorthand with which we classify our writers. In poets who strike us as having introduced a new way with the language (even in the very best of them), a lineage, a tradition can eventually be discerned. But, in spite of the fact that her references and themes are so unabashedly historical and historicizing, this is untrue of Clampitt’s poetry, and is likely to remain untrue. She has often been compared to Hopkins and to Marianne Moore, but the real sense of this comparison, rarely made explicit, doesn’t lie in her borrowings, though borrow from them she does, but in the fact that, like them, she remains sui generis, and like them, the critical apparatus with which her work should be approached is to be found within the poems themselves, rather than in a surrounding critical consensus.

And Clampitt is different from these, her not quite predecessors, in one crucial respect: unlike them, she lives in an era bereft of a larger cultural consensus from which a poet can operate. The breakdown of this consensus not only informs the local significance of a poem like “The Dahlia Gardens” (the war in Vietnam and the political turmoil surrounding it being, after all, for Americans, a central symbol of this breakdown), but provides many of the underlying conditions of Clampitt’s art. In a very important sense, her work would not have been possible without it. The things that make her unique are to be located not deep within her personality, but along the now ragged borders where the personal and the social realms meet. Her historical ransackings and the subterranean struggles not so much with form but with the idea of form evident throughout her work, constitute a recognizable, self-conscious attempt to re-create, for the sake of the imagination, what elsewhere has been lost to history. The kind of boundaries imposed upon Moore by modernism, and upon Hopkins by the Tractarian movement and, subsequently, the Catholic Church, reflecting as they did a still coherent imaginative order, are ones that Clampitt has had to impose upon herself. It is a tribute to her genius (and to the feral quality which marks a true poet) that, with a clear idea of its cost, she has nevertheless seen this situation not as a cause for lamentation or nostalgia, but as an opportunity on which to pounce, and has managed, amazingly enough, to appropriate the entire semantic field of Christendom and its archaic antecedents as her chosen terrain.

Lines, for example, such as these,


Hermaphrodite of pity and violence, the chambered
pistil and the sword-bearing archangel,
scapegoat and self-appointed avenger, contend,
embrace, are one. He strikes the match.


which initiate the climax, the actual immolating act, of “The Dahlia Gardens,” accelerate the drama to its tragic conclusion while at the same time providing a terse index to the dualities of both the poem and, because of what the poem sets out to do, Western culture itself. Christianity and the Greeks, male and female, Heraclitus and Parmenides, natural and supernatural gather in the background like the ghosts of the pagan underworld, waiting for their turn at the spilt blood as the poem’s giant assimilative engine narrows to its task.

It could be objected, with a certain amount of justice, that all this is too much, that the verse is at times unbearably top-heavy and over-ripe, that the speed is too excessive, the metonymy too extravagant. One can easily imagine the future criticism of Clampitt’s work revolving at some point around such objections, much as past criticism of Shelley did, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.

For those of us who find flights like these thrilling rather than problematic, the pre-emptive response to such hesitation would be to return attention to the work itself. The most terrestrial (and, in the case of “The Dahlia Gardens,” downright chthonic) of the major American poets, Clampitt has a way with the land and its life and a descriptive passion for the humidly organic that serve her well by acting as a continuous moral and dialectical corrective to her abstract ardors, her love for the adventures inherent in English syntax, and the conceptual deliquescence of her accretive, serial methods. We feel safe with her in away that we never feel safe with her in a way that we never feel safe with Shelley. The lines quoted above are prepared for by careful, intelligent labor—a labor accompanied by constant rumination, by metaphysical day-dreaming, but nonetheless shrewdly, possessively economical and diligent about its own progress and its goals. They are, in fact, as direct and efficient as the poet can possibly make them.

In Schiller’s sense of the word, Clampitt is a naive rather than a sentimental poet. Like Schiller’s great model of the naive, she is sedulously, prodigiously explicit in her treatment of her subject matter. The digressive material in “The Dahlia Gardens”—the reflections on natural and manmade systems; the talk about crude oil and its products, malign and otherwise; the quotations from the “Ode To The West Wind”—are designed to retard (again, in Schiller’s phrase) the narrative, in order to give it its proper, justified elaboration. If they also function to intensify the suspense, this is accidental to their real purpose, which is to help render, in as complete a way as possible, the actual nature of the drama before the poet’s mind.

The same is true of the kinetic image-making, the constant rhetorical pressure on the sentences, and the touches of melodrama. They give to the poem its appropriately garish, technicoloured quality (Clampitt’s palette is as wide and strange as any poet’s writing today), and, speeding up the action in a manner akin to time-lapse cinematography, reveal the sense of the vast processes, historical and natural, which Clampitt is so determined to recognize as an inextricable part of that action.

And, finally, this extensive elaboration and the unprecedented technical inventions that serve it are what make the awful bitterness of “The Dahlia Gardens” so convincing. Early on in the poem, the poet speaks, with a dry, ironic ambiguity, of


. . . a system that seems, on the face of it,
to be all waste, entropy, dismemberment;
but which perhaps, given enough time, will prove
to have refused nothing tangible . . .


When these lines appear again, at the poem’s end, they have come to bear the burden of an irreconcilable anger, all the more powerful because it can find no object on which to expend itself.

Like those other public poems of the American tradition, “When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloomed” and Robert Lowell’s “Waking Early Sunday Morning” (its proper companions), “The Dahlia Gardens” succeeds in that most difficult task for poetry—that of properly modulating and calibrating the private echo of the great public event. In Clampitt’s case the echo is not one of grief but, for all the lucidity of her exposition—and perhaps because of it—one of rage and pain. That she can suffer such an echo at such a level testifies not only to enormous imaginative resources but also to those qualities of strength, humanity, and a curious courage and will to see that distinguish a poet of her order. In “The Dahlia Gardens ” she has performed an act of retrieval, of recognition, that by itself can justify the art she practises so triumphantly. For all of its disenchantments, her poem’s effect is ultimately therapeutic, and for this a whole society should be grateful. Given the undeniable permanence now apparent in her work, it is more than likely that society eventually will.