This Old Poem #26:
Amy Clampitt’s A Hermit Thrush
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/29/02

  Amy Clampitt is the quintessential ‘style over substance’ poet. STOP! Before you think me heartless let me say that in the 1980s, when I 1st started writing poetry, AC was 1 of the few published poets I wrote to who actually wrote back, & NICELY. She was a very classy lady. A few years later I met her a few times at poetry readings in Manhattan- mostly at the West Side YMCA- & she was very supportive & cordial to the inevitable queries of younger unpublished poets. Why this difference from the standard arrogant MFA refugee? A brief scan of 1 of the many online bios may reveal why. 

  Amy Clampitt was born on June 15, 1920, and brought up in New Providence, Iowa. She wrote poetry in high school, but then ceased and focused her energies on writing fiction instead. She graduated from Grinnell College, and from that time on lived mainly in New York City. To support herself, she worked as a secretary at the Oxford University Press, a reference librarian at the Audubon Society, and a freelance editor. Not until the mid-1960s, when she was in her forties, did she return to writing poetry. Her first poem was published by The New Yorker in 1978. In 1983, at the age of sixty-three, she published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher.
  In the decade that followed, Clampitt published five books of poetry, including What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), and Westward (1990). Her last book, A Silence Opens, appeared in 1994. The recipient in 1982 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1984 of an Academy Fellowship, she was made a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1992. She was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and taught at the College of William and Mary, Amherst College, and Smith College. She died of cancer in September 1994.

    Note the most salient point within: ‘at the age of sixty-three, she published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher’. She did not succumb to the paralyzing early publication success that stunts the artistic growth of the few young poets who actually have talent. That all said, she still is not too good a poet. Yes, she’ll have a line or 2 or 3 strung together that has a nice image- but that’s about it. Little she writes has any sustained narrative thrust. She tries to be a Wallace Stevens, or even a John Ashbery at his best, yet her dervishes of verbiage come to naught. Here’s a snippet from another poem, Fog, that illustrates the ubiquitous need to just throw words up at the reader for words’ sake:

….the lighthouse
extinct, the islands' spruce-tips
drunk up like milk in the
universal emulsion; houses
reverting into the lost
and forgotten; granite
subsumed, a rumor
in a mumble of ocean.
definition, however, has not been
totally banished: hanging
tassel by tassel, panicled
foxtail and needlegrass,
dropseed, furred hawkweed,
and last season's rose-hips….

  Later the poem drops in this reference to a painter as iconized as Sylvia Plath for young female poets:

….as Georgia
O'Keefe might have seen it….

  Yet critics fell over themselves to say how this ‘formalist’ was a godsend to poetry in the 1980s. The New York Review of Books:  The poems are rich with geographical and literary texture, a texture that . . . gives body to the meditation--sometimes eager, sometimes resentful--that forms the main strand of each poem. Clampitt's poems, the best ones, are long, as painful ruminations have to be. . . . {Her} intellectuality and her curiosity about life give her the virtues of the essayist and observer of event. The two long elegies in memory of her parents admit us to precincts of deep feeling, intermingled with intense thought.Critic Richard Tillinghast: ‘When you read Amy Clampitt, have a dictionary or two at your elbow. Her curiosity and lovingly precise attention to the world, both natural and man-made, have their logical extension in her knowledge and choice of words….{Her} use of words, while dazzling, even overrich for some palates, is not done out of sheer ostentation. I have mentioned the way the vocabulary serves the poet's sharp eye. In turn the recherche words become elements in Miss Clampitt's extremely musical verse.’ Well, Dick, AC’s poems are precisely ostentatious- little baubles that ultimately go nowhere. & recherche’s lesser meaning is ‘too mannered’- not just mannered or studied. & I’ll show you how her poems are not that musical- nor formal. Even the New York Times Literary Supplement botched its assessment of her 1st book, The Kingfisher: ‘Amy Clampitt is the most refreshing new American poet to appear in many years. . . . She does not so much adhere to form as strew her poems with an array of metrical and musical devices that are too little employed in recent American poetry. . . .In the history of American poetry, a number of poets have come late to their first book--Frost at thirty-nine, Stevens at forty-three. Clampitt, whose poems only began to appear five years ago, is in her early fifties. There has never been anyone quite like her.’ Well, they’re right on the meter- but note how, again, they refuse to name the poets who do not employ the worthy metrical & musical devices. & AC really did not employ such devices. Her motto might best be described as ‘describe, describe, describe’- & if description fails, describe some more! Her poems are way TOO LONG! Excelsior!

A Hermit Thrush

Nothing's certain.  Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide***
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked***
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us***
back, year after year, lugging the***
makings of another picnic--

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons--there's no knowing what the slamming***
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,***

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.
Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there's no use drawing one,
there's nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
(holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or***
any no-more-than-human tendency--
stubborn adherence, say,***

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to***
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly***
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible***
to be held onto--

that no point is fixed, that there's no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor's knots, such stays
and guy wires as are***

mainly of our own devising. From such an***
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as***

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from***
year to year the earth's sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with***

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry's cool poultice--

and what can't finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that***
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic--today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet--

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,***
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under***
a monk's-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a***
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,***
hesitant, in the end***

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or***
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive--
diminished sequences so uninsistingly***
not even human--there's***

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this***
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

  The flaws are obvious- especially diacritically noted (***bad enjambment, clichés). Yes, there are clichés, & MY GOD- the enjambment is horrific. There is no metrical nor syllabic reason to break the lines where they are broken. No music, just a description of a description. In the rewrite I will drop the ‘finally’ before ‘be mended’- just really bad musically- same with the 2nd ‘a’ in ‘a broken, a much-mended thing’- it just rips the rhythm to shreds. The rewrite is clearly distilled & superior- it ‘shows’ what AC’s version tells (& tells’). The rest you cab figure out by your lonesome- I trust you.

A Hermit Thrush

Nothing's certain. The scree-
slope brings us back, lugging 
seas, the gales, the gust-
beleaguered single spruce,
ant-thronged, holding.

To seize any so-called virtue
means taking less and less.
Last night you woke me
to look at Jupiter, an apprehension
to be held onto- untethered.

What can't be mended is certain,
attachment may prove, at best,
a broken, much-mended thing.

Watching, we drop to listen,
a hermit thrush distills it: fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end what source
links to wonder, this botched,
cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.

  AC was never a formalist, & she was never really a good poet- that said, she’s not as bad as this poem might indicate. There is some vigor in some of her poems- as in this snippet from Syrinx:

….the wind itself, that's merely air
in a terrible fret, without so much
as a finger to articulate
what ails it, the aeolian
syrinx, that reed
in the throat of a bird…

    Of course, the poem plunges downward from there. AC cannot help but to gild the goddamned lily. Oh well. I’ve shown a glimpse of what she might have become, poetically. That’s the only part of her that really needed working on anyway!

Final Score: (1-100):

Amy Clampitt’s A Hermit Thrush: 52
TOP’s A Hermit Thrush: 78

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