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
the blister shirt of the intolerable
into these shakes and triplets, a hurrying
into flowering along the fencerows;
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.