B. 1920 D. 1994
Man, you call yourself a poet and you don't know chickadees? Amy Clampitt
About Amy Clampitt
Amy Clampitt was born in Iowa in 1920 and grew up on the 300-acre farm owned by her Quaker grandparents in New Providence. She spent much of her childhood exploring the countryside which, coupled with the pleasures of naming and remembering, led her to become a bird-watcher at the age of five, when her Aunt showed her a rose-breasted grosbeak. This idyllic childhood was spoilt when her parents moved their five children to a new house on Pioneer Farm, which although only three miles away, was a windswept treeless place overlooking the graveyard of the prairie's first settlers. All through her life, Clampitt never forgot she was a "child of the child of pioneers", and as Mary Jo Salter writes: "The widespread modern experience of being uprooted, willingly or not, would be a signature theme in her poems."
After graduating from Grinnell College Iowa in 1941, Clampitt was eager to escape the Midwest, saying later: "There I was, in a community that had its feet on the ground, that looked askance at flightiness, at any imagination at all. So I wanted to get out of there". She moved to New York City and worked as a secretary at the Oxford University Press until 1951 and then as a reference librarian at the Audubon Society where she was able to indulge the passions for wildlife learned in childhood, when "knowing the names of birds had seemed a normal thing to do."
Amy Clampitt began writing poems in her mid-forties, and her first chapbook Multitudes, Multitudes was published in 1974. However, it wasn't until The Kingfisher appeared in 1983 – when she was sixty-three years old – that her work began to be noticed in the poetry world. In the Times Literary Supplement, she was hailed as " the most refreshing new American poet to appear in many years."
Clampitt was a prolific letter-writer and an anthology of her letters: Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt, was published by Columbia University Press in 2005. These letters reveal her attempts and failures at novel writing before she began writing poems and also in a 1959 letter to her friend Mary Russell, how she fought the impulse to become 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 saw herself from an early age as a reader, a custodian of literature, and almost every one of her lively letters urge the reader in the direction of a new book she had discovered. Her letters also reveal her enduring passion for travel – she particularly enjoyed bus journeys, which appealed to the Quaker in her: "It's a way of having solitude without feeling like a recluse."
In the introduction to The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, Mary Jo Salter, a correspondent of Clampitt's, writes: "Nobody can read Amy Clampitt without a dictionary. Her vocabulary may well be the widest of any modern American poet, making use as it does of various sub-lexicons (botany is a favorite) and foreign languages (French appears often) and, perhaps most important, the nearly limitless aural corollaries, as it were, to the often arcane words that came naturally to her." It was Clampitt's thirst for celebrating consciousness at its most alert that led her to say: "There is a limit to how far you can take a lot of technical terms. What I want is something else – to get down exactly what I saw." The baroque nature of Amy Clampitt's poetry has led reviewers to tangle with equally baroque descriptors. Alfred Corn attempted: "She is as 'literary' and allusive as Eliot and Pound, as filled with grubby realia as William Carlos Williams, as ornamented as Wallace Stevens and as descriptive as Marianne Moore."
In an essay entitled Predecessors, Et Cetera, Amy Clampitt cites Gerard Manley Hopkins as her own poetry predecessor, saying "I can't be sure I'd ever have become a poet if I had never been introduced to his poems – but in any event I find it impossible to imagine the kind of poet I would have been if I hadn't. It's like imagining a world in which one's own parents had never met."
There is an almost chaotic, urgency in the manner Amy Clampitt introduces the poems you can hear on this page – as if she were anxious to acquaint the listener with every detail that she could not incorporate in to the poems themselves. And she reads at a rattling pace, which heightens the poems' perpetually questioning, coiling, and uncoiling nature.