Politics, purses, poetry: the letters of a poet

How did shy Amy Clampitt of Iowa emerge as an acclaimed poet at the age of 63?

The late Amy Clampitt has always been something of an enigma. Even now, 11 years after her death, many readers still don't know what to make of this literary late bloomer who published her first full-length book of poems, to great acclaim, at age 63. How did she rise to fame so quickly, after decades of writing failed novels? And how did those poems - layered, sinuous, and dense - come from a woman who seemed so childlike, with a wide, enthusiastic grin, and a high, girlish voice?

In "Love, Amy," a selection of her letters, readers find answers to these questions. More important, they get to see Clampitt's life - which defied convention in many ways yet maintained it in others - through her eyes. The view is as surprising as her writing style, which is clear, vivid, and engaging.

In the opening letter, dated 1950, a young Clampitt sounds both progressive and charmingly naive as she thanks an English friend for a new purse. "You are right about the popularity of plaids, but the clever design is quite unlike anything I ever saw here - it's so thoroughly Leak-Proof, and what could be more important!" From there the shy Iowa girl turned New-Yorker moves from topic to topic - a recent election, British films she has seen, and the absurdity of the mayor consulting a rainmaking expert about the city's water supply. She has a keen eye for detail, a sharp wit, and firm opinions, especially when writing to her brother Philip, 10 years her junior.

As the book progresses, Clampitt works for the Oxford University Press and the National Audubon Society, and later as a freelance editor for Dutton. She also travels extensively, experiences a religious conversion, and continues to write novels that publishers find long on description and short on storyline. Religious fervor is eventually replaced by political zeal, and Clampitt campaigns for various causes, attends protests, and gets arrested several times.

The contradictions of her character - she was discreet in many ways, but also owned a dramatic black cape, for example - were constants in her life, as was her love of nature and literature. Keats, Wordsworth, and Dickinson were among her "teachers," who shaped her imagination and planted seeds for her poems.

Another anchor was the man she called her best friend and severest critic: Harold Korn, a law professor at New York University and later Columbia University. The two met during a political campaign in November 1968 and were partners throughout their lives. Korn and Clampitt, neither of whom were fans of marriage, wed three months before her death.

"Love, Amy" is full of colorful details - some of which are superfluous. What readers won't find is an epiphany, a moment when Clampitt realizes that poetry is what she's meant to write.

Nor is there much reflection about how she writes or what she hopes to achieve in her poems. This insight, from a March, 1978 dispatch, is a rare treat: "I seemed to know in a vague way what it was that wanted to be said, or perhaps more accurately that I myself wanted to say - it was to lament the waste and the ugliness, and in the process to say something about what poetry might do but somehow doesn't."

Instead, comments about her writing are woven into the letters, as in this dispatch dated Christmas, 1968: "In the midst of all the running around at night - which goes on even now, with the election all but forgotten, but things like the grape boycott and rent control rising up in its place - I'm also on the biggest poetry-writing binge in my history."

"Love, Amy" does little to illumine the poems, but it does offer insight into the life of a writer who had to claim her voice twice, so to speak. The woman who so confidently discussed politics sounds bashful about her first public reading, and when corresponding with influential literary critic Helen Vendler. "It was a delightful surprise to receive your letter," she wrote to Vendler in 1982. "Though I'm not a teacher myself, I do know what the pressures must be - so I hope you won't feel obliged to reply to this one."

Eventually, Clampitt claims the role of poet completely. By the time of her death, she had published five books of poems, won prestigious prizes, and earned a reputation as a major, original voice, one who amazes and puzzles readers still.

Elizabeth Lund regularly writes about poetry for the Monitor.

Beach Glass

While you walk the water's edge,
turning over concepts I can't envision, the honking buoy
serves notice that at any time
the wind may change,
the reef-bell clatters
its treble monotone, deaf as Cassandra
to any note but warning. The ocean,
cumbered by no business more urgent
than keeping open old accounts
that never balanced,
goes on shuffling its millenniums
of quartz, granite, and basalt....

Fog

A vagueness comes over everything,
as though proving color and contour
alike dispensable: 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...

Nothing Stays Put

In memory of Father Flye, 1884-1985

The strange and wonderful are too much with us.
The protea of the antipodes - a great,
globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom -
for sale in the supermarket! We are in
our decadence, we are not entitled.
What have we done to deserve
all the produce of the tropics -
this fiery trove, the largesse of it
heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed
and crested, standing like troops at attention,
these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons
grown sumptuous with stoop labor?...

Excerpts of poems by Amy Clampitt, with permission of Knopf

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