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Amy Clampitt published her first book of poetry, The Kingfisher, at the age of sixty-three; then followed a wild eleven years of four more books, fame, MacArthur Fellowship, speaking engagements the entire academic world around, visiting professorships and writer-in-residencies, until her death in 1994. The anecdote I've heard most often of her is that she flatly refused to marry, her entire life long, until three months before her long-predicted dying she consented to sign papers with her lover of more than twenty-five years, because at that point, why not, anyhow.

I found her by picking her book Archaic Figure off a shelf in the basement of the Harvard Bookstore some little while ago, with [personal profile] sovay, and discovering that everything I opened to at random was readable.

This collection, of all her five collections, is readable also and somewhat more than readable. I can see why the critics jumped at The Kingfisher; few poets start with such a quiet, building certainty of voice. She starts with nature poems, better than most nature poems but still in subject matter very uncomplicated, and then weaves and redoubles on herself until by the end of the book she's thrown around you melancholy, loss, grief, joy enough to knock you sideways. By her later books, she had learned Greek, and there you get travel poems, also good, and too few amazing mythological syntheses.

Her language is ornate, but never cluttered. She was fond of the well-chosen syllable and is one of the few Western writers I have seen use the Japanese concept of turning-word/hinge-word. Her rhymes are internal, subtle, never where you want them, and she often accomplishes the rather confusing effect of having the poem jar you by rhyming, having it be genuinely shocking.

She was fond of writing about other writers-- there is a cycle here that is a life of John Keats, whom she liked much better than I ever will, there are poems on George Eliot and Dorothy Wordsworth. She is allusive but not usually cryptic, always willing to work in facts and dates as she goes by them, to tell story, and to work other writers' prose into her own shining metrics (seriously, she scanned George Eliot).

The problems I have with her, which aren't many, center around her nature poems-- there are too many of them, and a little too similar, and too dependent on the names of flowers etc. for color. You can say a bank is covered with celandines all you like and if I don't know what a celandine smells like I am going to feel I am reading a gardening manual, or a list of local wildlife. This may be a byproduct of reading her all of a piece, though. And sometimes she perpetrates political poetry, and I cannot like this when anyone does it, more than ninety-nine percent of the time, because it tends to fall into being heartfelt and obvious, the same images the last ten poets through that ground also picked up. But she doesn't do much of it.

A major poet, a wise and wry one, happy to write about both death and laughter. She will probably not be one of my perennial favorites, because I have more enjoyment of her work than empathy with the emotion in it, but that might change as I get older.

Have an excerpt. )


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