Obituary: Amy Clampitt

Amy Clampitt, poet: born New Providence, Iowa 15 June 1920; married Harold L. Korn; died Lenox, Massachusetts 10 September 1994.

THE CAMBRIDGE Poetry Festival of 1985 featured such international luminaries as John Ashbery, Seamus Heaney and Amy Clampitt, the American poet whose first collection, The Kingfisher, had only been published - on both sides of the Atlantic - two years before. Clampitt represented something of a conundrum on the poetry scene, where young writers tend to emerge in their twenties or thirties, endure the critical platitude 'promising' for a book or two and only then, if they are exceptionally gifted and terribly lucky, emerge into the rarefied air of the 'major poet'. But if Clampitt knew the rules she did not follow them: The Kingfisher had been published when its author was 63, yet with its publication her establishment as a major poet was instantaneous and virtually unanimous.

As one of the student committee members organising the festival, I jumped at the chance to arrange Amy Clampitt's lodging in my college and to serve as her Cambridge liaison. Reading her poems, I had been captivated by the way in which an exacting intellect and a crushingly childlike joy seemed equally to pervade her writing. My imagination could not quite conjure the woman capable of containing, let alone giving voice to, this combination of elements. Early indications from Clampitt herself seemed only to add to the mystery - she refused to fly, and was coming via QEII; and she was travelling with a 'companion' whose gender she studiously refrained from declaring.

A flurry of birdlike steps announced her progress up my stairs. A moment later, all was revealed: the aversion to flight was a phobia, and the companion was Hal Korn, a gentle and brilliant professor of law with whom Amy was to live for a quarter of a century before marrying. She was tall and thin and wildly happy - her habitual mood, I later learnt. She gave the impression of having reached a certainty of purpose in her life, and so there remained no reason not to give herself over to every permutation of delight. Hence, everything made her ecstatic: music, growing things, small kindnesses, and, perhaps most of all, the vast plunderable depths of language. That night at her reading in the Cambridge Union, she took our breath away with the intense, precise beauty of her poems.

What an antidote to youthful ambition she was. She had decided from the beginning that she would not marry and have children - though she adored children. She spent her first 30 years patiently groping towards the thing she felt called to produce, and then, having committed herself to writing, spent the next 20 years slowly reorienting herself from fiction to poetry. Along the way she wrote three novels which no editor was interested in publishing, while supporting herself in New York as a secretary for Oxford University Press, a librarian for the Audubon Society, and an editor for the publishers EP Dutton. Periodically she returned home to her native Midwest to wonder if she was really making the best of her life.

'I think I always felt very anxious when I was not writing,' she told me in 1986 when I interviewed her, 'that I had to justify my existence. I think that was drilled into me by the notion that I was bright and that I was the firstborn in the family, and because I had not found it possible to fit into a niche and become a part of society in the old sense of being somebody's helpmate and raising a family. I think there was this great anxiety about 'will I have produced anything?'.'

If she had been able to look into the future, she wouldn't have worried. From the moment her first poem was accepted by the New Yorker Clampitt's ascension was sure and swift. She wrote with the awareness of having to produce a lifetime's worth of work in far less than a lifetime's length, a challenge she met with grace. The Kingfisher was followed by What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), Westward (1990) and A Silence Opens (1994), as well as Predecessors, et cetera (1991), a collection of essays. And there was acclaim. The Academy of American Poets awarded her a fellowship for distinguished achievement, and a MacArthur Fellowship enabled her to purchase the small cottage she loved, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Amy Clampitt's funeral, held last week in the cottage's backyard, was infused with a strange, transcendent happiness. Her brothers, her editors, her friends and her nurses rose one by one to recount her particular shimmer, her winning oddnesses, her joy. Ann Close, Clampitt's editor at Knopf, recalled her first telephone call to her new author: 'She isn't here,' Hal Korn had told her. 'She's outside. In fact, I think she's outside skipping.'

Later, halfway through the long drive home, I felt myself slip back to our first meeting and that electric moment in the Cambridge Union. The poem she had read that night, 'Beethoven, Opus III', moved surprisingly between the composer's life and the life of Amy's Iowa farmer father, then wove the two men's deaths together into a moment of prescient rapture:

Beethoven, shut up with the four walls

of his deafness, rehearsing the unhearable

semplice e cantabile, somehow

reconstituting

the blister shirt of the intolerable

into these shakes and triplets, a hurrying

into flowering along the fencerows;

dying,

for my father, came to be like that

finally - in its messages the levitation

of serenity, as though the spirit might

aspire, in its last act, to walk on air.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital