Interviews

Amy Clampitt, The Art of Poetry No. 45

Interviewed by Robert E. Hosmer

Amy Clampitt’s childhood was spent in the small farming village of her birth, New Providence, Iowa, where at the age of nine she began to write poetry. Taking a bachelor’s degree with honors in English at Grinnell College and a Phi Beta Kappa key as well, Clampitt began graduate study at Columbia University, but left to work for the Oxford University Press. In 1951 she spent five months in Europe, returning to work as a reference librarian for the National Audubon Society (1952–1959), freelance editor and researcher (1960–1977), and editor at E. P. Dutton (1977–1982). Since 1982 she has been a full-time poet, with occasional semesters as a college teacher.

Her first two books of poetry, Multitudes, Multitudes (1974) and The Isthmus (1981), both printed by small presses, attracted little attention. Though her first major book of poetry, The Kingfisher (1983), was published less than ten years ago, this poet from the American heartland has become a major voice in contemporary American poetry, respected not only here but in England, where Faber & Faber has followed Knopf in publishing each collection. With each of the books that followed (What the Light Was Like, 1985; Archaic Figure, 1987; Westward, 1990), she has fulfilled the promise Edmund White and others discerned in The Kingfisher. Critics laud her for “a brilliant aural imagination” (Joel Connaroe), for an erudition that is impressive, for a linguistic elegance that energizes her verse. Yet what may be most impressive is her passionate articulation of the pain experienced by those victimized and marginalized, whether the nineteenth-century American feminist Margaret Fuller, the Victorian novelist George Eliot, or an anonymous Greenwich Village neighbor.

Today she publishes regularly in the most respected journals and magazines. Few contemporary poets—male or female—occupy such a distinguished place in American letters. She was recently awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, the latest in a series of awards that have included a Lila Wallace Readers Digest Writer’s Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and a Rockefeller Foundation Residency at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio.

Clampitt’s writing extends beyond her own poetry. She has translated cantos from Dante’s Inferno as one of a number of contemporary poets participating in a project designed by Daniel Halpern. She has published a number of essays and reviews, many of them gathered in Predecessors Et Cetera. She is presently at work revising a play on Dorothy Wordsworth and her circle, tentatively titled “A Guilty Thing Surprised.”

Clampitt has devoted considerable time to teaching in recent years. She has held appointments as writer in residence at the College of William and Mary and at Amherst College; in December 1991 she was Elizabeth Drew Distinguished Professor of English at Smith College where, during the spring term of 1993, she will be the first writer to serve as the Conkling Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. When not holding appointments elsewhere, Clampitt lives in New York City with annual summer holidays taken on the coast of Maine.

The series of conversations that comprise this interview took place in Boston during the November of 1991 when Clampitt participated in a reading at Boston University and during her appointment at Smith the following month.

 

INTERVIEWER

You are a product of a place very different from where you now spend most of your time, from where we are right now. You were born and brought up in Iowa, a child of the prairie. How do you see your early experiences in America’s heartland? Did you really mean it when you once spoke of yourself as “a misfit from the Midwest”?

AMY CLAMPITT

I was in the middle, and I didn’t want to be there. I was conscious of that from as early as I can remember. My own sense was that nothing authentic was there, that everything was derived from somewhere else, and I wanted to get near to where things were derived from. It has something to do with the geographical nature of the region, its being a hollow, a depression. It isn’t like Europe, with its mountain barriers and raised places where you can get up and look out, all those edges and coastlines. For some reason I thought it would be more interesting, and that one would be closer to real things, if one was at the edge.

INTERVIEWER

Your poem “Imago” gives us a glimpse of you as a child, “the shirker propped above her book in a farmhouse parlor . . . eyeing at a distance the lit pavilions that seduced her.” What was home like?

CLAMPITT

That image goes back to the first house I remember, a farmhouse parlor I can picture vividly; I used to lie on the rug, propped on my elbows, and read there. One of the books I read was an old copy of Hans Christian Andersen with strange, very nineteenth-century engravings. It was so old that the outer covers were gone. There was some kind of awful fascination about those stories; they’re not cheerful, they’re a glimpse into the adult world, and I think I was entranced by them for that reason. I think the happiest times in my childhood were spent in solitude—reading such stories. Socially, I was a misfit. I didn’t know the right things to say to anybody. I had no confidence that I could prevail in anybody’s mind as having anything to say.

What I most enjoyed was the order of the seasons and especially the arrival of spring, which, when you are small, comes from a great distance. In the late summer there would be the threshing season, which totally vanished once the combine came in. In those days the grain had to be cut and tied into bundles, and the bundles put into shocks to keep the rain off, and then the day came when the entire community would be involved in bringing in the grain and feeding it into the threshing machine and taking away the threshed grain and stacking the straw. This is something I’ve written about. The boys in the family would be out bringing water to the men in the fields, the girls involved in the kitchen, cooking a huge meal at noon for all the crew; and this was something you looked forward to. Then at the end of the season there would be what they called the “settling up,” when the balances were arrived at—so and so contributed so much labor and so on, and that would take place at somebody’s house, and there’d be ice cream for everyone, games of hide-and-seek in the shrubbery outside, that sort of thing. Those are the pleasantest memories. I have some winter memories, too, of riding in a sleigh, of an evening of bobsledding on a steep hill; the whole community turned out. There were a lot of relatives, a lot of cousins, and at Christmas there would usually be a huge family gathering—pleasant in a way, yet I remember being miserable. I couldn’t deal with all the people who sounded so sure of themselves when I didn’t feel sure of anything.

INTERVIEWER

What texts, other than Hans Christian Andersen, became important to you now that you think back?

CLAMPITT

Strange things. Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta. I read many books at my grandfather’s house. My grandfather was the great solace. He didn’t have a lot of formal education, but he had a feeling for words and a sense of the past, a sense of being involved in something larger than his own immediate concerns. He subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club, and so I remember for instance reading Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock, with the Knopf borzoi on the title page. I remember reading The Bonney Family by the Iowa novelist Ruth Suckow. The books I read were not all great classics. I did read the sonnets of Shakespeare quite early. I discovered Keats when his poetry was assigned to me by a teacher in high school. Swinburne and Edna St. Vincent Millay were my favorites before Keats was, actually. I can’t give you a list. I met somebody lately who kept a list of everything she read from the time she was twelve. Now that would be an interesting exercise.

INTERVIEWER

If I’m correct, your earliest ambition was to be not a writer, but a painter. Does that take us back to those illustrations in Andersen or to some other place?

CLAMPITT

I vaguely remember my mother subscribed to some art magazines. I have a clear picture of what I thought a painting was—it was of a Madonna and child. When I was eight or nine, I thought that’s what I wanted to do, paint old masters.

INTERVIEWER

What sorts of things did you write when you first started? Were they modeled upon what you read, or were they just sheer invention?

CLAMPITT

I remember writing a poem in which the word beautiful appeared. What it was about, I have no idea. I think I knew that I had misspelled beautiful. I don’t think it was modeled on anything particular. Later when I started writing poetry, mostly I wrote sonnets. They would have been modeled on Shakespeare, I suppose. I also tried to write stories. I had a notion even before I went to college that a career as a writer of fiction was possible. When I graduated from college in 1941, it was really ridiculous to admit to being a poet. Poets were looked upon as figures of fun . . . a kind of threat, really, to the way other people lived. Edna St. Vincent Millay, whom I admired, was a ridiculous figure in a way. So in those days I thought it would be all right to be a novelist, publish something, and make a little money. Being a poet was too much to take on.

INTERVIEWER

Philip Larkin comes to mind because he always maintained that he would much rather have been a novelist than a poet. He wrote two novels and had them published, but the third one never really got finished. You wrote a couple of novels, didn’t you?

CLAMPITT

I wrote three novels. I can hardly remember them. I don’t have any wish even to think about them now. I didn’t know how to write a novel. For quite a while, I was really so caught up in just living from day to day that all I wrote were fragments. They had to do with memories of my childhood.

INTERVIEWER

How valuable were your days at Grinnell?

CLAMPITT

In some ways those four years were a kind of wandering, lost and not knowing what to do with myself. I knew how to get good grades, I could write papers and all that, but I can’t say I really learned how to think. The greatest excitement came from a course I took my senior year in the history of art. That for some reason made history real to me in a way that nothing else did. I couldn’t envision large public events; I couldn’t think the way historians think about armies and troop movements, but to see the buildings that had been left behind was tremendously thrilling.

INTERVIEWER

You once said, “My first visit to England, and in particular to Oxford, where for the first time I believed that the past could be experienced as something present, changed my life forever.”

CLAMPITT

That was eight years after I graduated from college. I had the good fortune to be entertained in England by people who worked for Oxford University Press. The reason Oxford was especially thrilling was all those towers, that “towery city and branchy between towers,” in Hopkins’s poem about Duns Scotus’s Oxford, were still there. It was that I expected to see and did see. I also remember being taken into Christ Church Hall and smelling the past—all that stone, those centuries of spilled gravy.

INTERVIEWER

In 1978 the late Howard Moss, long time poetry editor of The New Yorker, accepted “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” for publication. You had been writing poetry for some time; you’d published one collection, Multitudes, Multitudes, yourself; but this was “your big break,” and so Howard Moss was important to you, wasn’t he?

CLAMPITT

Oh, Howard Moss was very important to me. Having sent things to quite a number of little magazines and getting no response or if any, a very negative one, it meant something to have a figure like that pay attention. But it didn’t just happen all of a sudden. I’d been sending things to The New Yorker for years. Everybody who writes anything wants The New Yorker to publish it.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of relationship did you have with Howard Moss? What kinds of suggestions did he make about your work?

CLAMPITT

He made very few. He would sometimes suggest cutting out a line, usually the last one. We didn’t have an extensive correspondence, as some people have. I was devoted to him. He was a lovely man, really rather shy, you know, very appealing. He had no pretense at all. I didn’t see a lot of him. I never went to see him at The New Yorker; the first time we met was at the Algonquin. The headwaiter didn’t recognize him, and I looked so unlike anybody famous that we went down the street instead. Now and then, he came to dinner. We played Mozart. We didn’t talk about literature a lot, except in a most general way. They weren’t these huge discussions that you imagine go on. I don’t know how he did what he did. He had such amazing tact and kindness to so many people, his name was in the phone book; how he dealt with that I never knew. He had a huge social life. He went out all the time; the ballet was his special love. His poetry also has a special quality that is very much him. He was a very funny man. He was someone I revered, and of course I sent him poems. He sent a lot of them back.

INTERVIEWER

Your first major collection, The Kingfisher, was published by Knopf in 1983; it was lavishly praised, most particularly by Edmund White, who called it “one of the most brilliant debuts in recent American literature.” It has now sold over ten thousand copies and remains in print—as do all four of your major collections. Were you overwhelmed by the critical response to The Kingfisher?

CLAMPITT

It was very upsetting. I wasn’t ready to have that many people, whom I didn’t know, know about me. There was some inkling that it was going to do well, but I wasn’t prepared for four pages in The New York Review of Books. I remember that a friend called up and said, Well, what does it feel like to have half of New York City hate you? I thought to myself, You’re going to pay—you’re going to be sorry. I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t believe I deserved it and what I’d seen about writers suddenly successful, especially younger people, really scared me. I think if I’d been younger it would have been much worse, but it was bad enough. I just thought, I’ve lost my hold on who I am, it’s not going to make me happier. I was depressed, and finally I went to a doctor who put me on antidepressants. I hate medicines—I hated taking them. It’s very humiliating, you know. I didn’t really stop writing, though I think for a little while maybe I did when I was at my most distraught. I’m really not all that unstable, I don’t think, it’s just that I wasn’t ready to deal with the change in the way I perceived myself, and that I perceived other people perceiving me.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been able to move through and beyond all of that, haven’t you?

CLAMPITT

Well, it doesn’t bother me so much. Of course if you get that much positive attention you’re bound to get a fair amount of negative attention, and I don’t much enjoy that. One learns to be philosophical. One learns to discount a whole lot of stuff. If you can’t discount praise, then you’re in for a lot of trouble. I’ve tended to discount everything, and the longer I live, the more I discount it. It’s the only way to keep your wits, really, and not just be torn to shreds by being noticed or not noticed.

INTERVIEWER

Let me shift gears to the more mundane level for a minute and ask some of the typical Paris Review questions. Do you have a favorite place and time for writing? Do you need to retreat or withdraw into silence?

CLAMPITT

My favorite place for writing, the place where I’m most likely to get something written, is the coast of Maine, where I’ve spent some time—never more than six weeks at a stretch, usually less—nearly every summer since 1974. I find a place to put my typewriter where I can look at the water. I tend to work best in the morning—I’m not a night person, although I have occasionally woken up with a phrase in my head and not been able to sleep. I used to keep something to write with under the pillow just in case something like that came to me—sometimes it was very hard to decipher because I don’t like to turn the light on. I’m not an obsessive writer at all. I know of people who say that they write every day—I don’t. I wish I were that organized, but I’m not. There are times when there are other things I have to do. I need some time when I’m not going to be interrupted. I can sometimes write through interruptions, but that’s because I’ve sort of set myself in that mode. I’m very erratic about it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write in longhand, or do you prefer to use a typewriter or word processor of some sort?

CLAMPITT

I almost invariably begin a poem in longhand and often do several drafts that way before typing it up. But I’m lost without a typewriter. Currently I have an Olivetti portable (ordered by mail from the Vermont Country Store), which replaces the Olympia I’d used for several years that finally broke down forever. I’m totally ignorant of word processors and how they function; even an IBM Selectric is capable of far more things than I know how to tell it to do.

INTERVIEWER

What is the process of writing a poem like for you? That involves us in a discussion of inspiration, doesn’t it? I suppose the muses come quickly and inevitably to mind, and so does Auden’s famous line about Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”

CLAMPITT

I don’t feel comfortable with any of that language. It never would have occurred to me to say I’d been hurt into poetry. I don’t feel comfortable speaking of inspiration either. It’s more like a small bubbling thing, the spring the Muses have always been associated with—only interior and very small. And usually there is some sense of connection to be made, distance bridged . . . something like that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you work by finishing the first line before you go on to the second line of a poem?

CLAMPITT

No, I don’t anymore. It seems to me, looking back on my earlier efforts to write a fairly sustained poem that I did that. I would sit down and write line by line, and then the next day I’d get up and start all over again, copying out and maybe making changes, but now it’s much more—I don’t know the word to use for it—hit or miss. I get these glancing impressions of something, and I think my aim usually is to get to the end as fast as possible, so as to have some idea of the shape of the whole, and then I go back to winnow and rework. But of course sometimes you don’t know where the end is, and a lot of the time it doesn’t come to anything anyhow. So then it would be a kind of mad dash rather than deliberate effort to get it just right. That can vary; sometimes you can get stuck on one line and keep going over and over it and get no further.

INTERVIEWER

There’s not all that great blank space of a legal-sized page confronting you, and there’s certainly not a computer screen there, all blank.

CLAMPITT

Oh, the thought of it! I don’t understand how, but a lot of poets do relish computers. My own original handwritten drafts are usually on the backs of those silly announcements law firms send out, that so-and-so has just been appointed a partner, which would otherwise go into the wastebasket, and which my best friend Hal, a law professor, saves for me. They’re printed on fine creamy vellum, and they’re very small—four-by-six inches or so, though maddeningly there isn’t even a standard size. I’ve put away stacks of these things for a single poem. Here, let me show you—three beginnings of the same poem, going nowhere.

INTERVIEWER

That is precisely what I wanted to ask you next—how many versions might be needed before you’re satisfied with what you’ve written?

CLAMPITT

Oh, oh, it’s endless. As one who keeps every illegible scrap in the way of drafts and reworkings, I’m appalled at the amount of paper that gets used that way. I suppose it’s not unusual for me to retype a poem, after it’s been fiddled with and worked over in longhand, as many as twenty-six times. You may think you have a final version, only to have second and third and twenty-third thoughts along the way. It’s not that I’m necessarily satisfied at the end of all this; I just don’t know what to do next.

INTERVIEWER

As poems “emerge,” if that is an appropriate term, are you conscious of the extent to which they have a discernible line of development and movement?

CLAMPITT

That is something I can’t generalize about. Sometimes I think I see a shape, a development of some sort, from the beginning; but often something quite different emerges—yes, that’s a term I’d subscribe to. I’m generally conscious of connections and recurrences—themes, images, words that crop up, often seemingly out of nowhere. It’s not easy to make any useful generalization about what goes on.

INTERVIEWER

At what point do you give what you’ve written to someone else to read, and who might that reader be?

CLAMPITT

Well, it’s always Hal, who’s been very nice about listening when I think I’ve got something. When I’ve got it typed up the first time, if he’s not deep in something else, then I read it to him. The process of reading it aloud is important in itself, but I can’t read it to myself. I need an audience; he’s very obliging and will let me know how far I am from having something to say that will do. I remember one time he said, That’s the worst thing I ever heard.

INTERVIEWER

That’s a lovely expression, knowing when there is “something to say that will do.”

CLAMPITT

That notion of Paul Valéry’s that no piece of writing is ever finished, only abandoned—well, I think that’s the way I feel most of the time.

INTERVIEWER

In a recent article in The New Republic, Jacob Weisberg took editors to task for shirking their responsibilities, doing little if any work on manuscripts submitted to them, particularly when the writer has an acknowledged reputation. He complains about editors who no longer do anything at all except take the work wholesale and worry about “the bottom line.” As a former editor yourself, you must have a rather developed notion of what an editor should and should not do. What does your editor do for you?

CLAMPITT

Well it’s true, they have accountants breathing down their necks. They don’t have time to do it. I feel for them. When I was working as a freelance, there were some really good line-editors, really serious about getting into the skin of the writer and trying to be helpful. I have one friend who still does that, Phoebe Hoss at Basic Books. She’s well known for what she does. The most famous of those editors—she’s of a slightly older generation—is Catharine Carver, who lives in England. Any number of people have paid tribute to her skills. But there are almost none of those editors left. It’s partly economics—publishers feel they can’t afford to have somebody there whose purpose is to make the manuscript better. There are freelance editors around, but I’m afraid a lot of them don’t know what they’re doing. I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore, because of the computer’s having come into its own. I would have to master computers now in order to be an editor, and I have no intention of doing any such thing.

Whether there is much that any editor can do with a poetry manuscript, I’m not sure. I’m about as prickly as anybody when it comes to having my lines rewritten for me, where verse is concerned. One may cringe momentarily on being queried, but if the query is valid, one swallows hard and takes account of it. The same is true of those checkers at The New Yorker; now and then they do catch something, though a lot of what they come up with is irrelevant and wrongheaded. What copy editors do is partly showing how much they know. As an editor I worked largely with trade nonfiction, in which it isn’t so much a matter of craft as of clarity that is asked for; most writers of nonfiction don’t seem to mind having their texts tidied up and perhaps made a bit more coherent by a zealous editor. But zealous editors, of the kind I guess I was, seem to be about to vanish.

INTERVIEWER

From your earliest published work, the spiritual dimension has been important. How does this concern figure in your present work and, particularly, your latest collection, Westward?

CLAMPITT

At the time I wrote that poem “The Eve of All Souls” I would have described myself as a Christian believer, more or less. Since I wrote it, whatever dogmatic certitude I had then has pretty much evaporated. I find, in fact, that dogmatic certitude more and more troubles me. What I see in Christianity now is a kind of template of human nature—by which I guess I mean mainly human suffering, that I find undeniable—without any dogmatic certitude. And I have this notion, which may be more a convenient fiction than an actual belief, about Jerusalem (where I’ve never been) as a fixed center, a source of value. And thinking about the westward movement, which I see more and more as defining us, was bound to bring into focus the notion of a departure and a portage from that source.

INTERVIEWER

In an age somewhat given to a singular lack of form, to self-derived notions of free verse, and what can only be described as a tin ear, could you speak about the importance of these two aspects of poetry: the form and verse itself?

CLAMPITT

I’ve given a good deal of thought to the question of form just lately, but without arriving at any real conclusion. I like to think I have an ear for language, and certainly I write for the ear; so it would seem to be that melody and rhythm keep a poem going for me rather than anything identifiable as a form. Most of what I write has neither a noticeable rhyme scheme nor a metrical one; what I write has to be called free verse. The stanza forms I arrive at more often than not are a matter of looking neat on the page—and not incidentally, a means of curbing my natural verbosity. But they’re hardly the equivalent of the formal rigor you find in Homeric Greek or the French of Racine or the blank verse of Milton or the unmistakable rhyme schemes in the odes of Keats. For me, I suppose Hopkins is the real enabler—though Coleridge before him had opened the way, and so, of course, had Whitman. Lately, I’ve been more conscious of the example of Whitman than anyone else. I’ve begun to be uneasy about those tight little patterns on the page—though I go on producing them.

INTERVIEWER

Your dissatisfaction with some poetry in this regard has led you to say about a particular poem, “the music is a vibration in the brain rather than in the ear.” And that certainly puts you in good company, doesn’t it, for Frost’s notion that “the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader” comes to mind.

CLAMPITT

Taking note of that, I’ve been thinking lately of what’s happened over the centuries as an evolution away from the persistence and predominance of aural memory. The strong meter, as well as the recurring epithets, that tie the Iliad together, would have been a necessity when few if any could read, and poetry was handed down orally, from composer to auditor and from generation to generation. Hardly anyone memorizes poetry anymore. There used to be illiterate people, I gather, who knew reams of the Bible by heart. That kind of illiteracy is now rare. And as aural memory ceased to be essential, the character of poetic composition was bound to change, and so the music that vibrates solely in the brain, all but bypassing the sound of the speaking voice, became inevitably something somebody was going to explore.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetic form important to you in other ways, say as homage or as participation in a tradition?

CLAMPITT

As homage. A couple of years ago I wrote an elegy—or a sort of elegy; it’s also, on a certain level, a political poem—that began by evoking Keats at Winchester, where he wrote the “Ode to Autumn.” It’s in unrhymed stanzas of eleven lines, with indentations that follow those in the “Ode.” It’s called “Eighty-nine.” I had a lot of trouble with it and can’t but have doubts about whether it succeeds so far as the form is concerned. It does succeed with audiences, because among the subjects are events everybody knows about. I suppose it’s wanting to think of myself as belonging to a tradition that’s at work here. As for elegy as form—I think of it, I guess, more as a genre. There can be free-verse elegies; I’ve written more than one myself. Most lately, I’ve been teased by the notion of finding some way to do homage to the eclogues and georgics of Virgil; but that’s because they deal with a theme that interests me: the contrasts between rural life and one’s notions of that life, and life in the city.

INTERVIEWER

Hoping that I do not betray ignorance, have you ever written a sestina? I don’t know why that form intrigues me so much, perhaps because of Bishop, Hecht, Swinburne—poets particularly important for you, aren’t they?

CLAMPITT

Have I ever written a sestina? Well, not quite. The truth is, I’ve come to abhor the very thought of another sestina. Lots and lots of them are being written, and nine-tenths of the ones I’ve seen are wooden, mechanical, repetitious, and dull. Unlike the sonnet, which urges compression, the sestina seems to sanction drawing things out interminably. The whole notion of its being a musical form seems to have been lost sight—or rather hearing—of. But two poems of mine, “The Reedbeds of the Hackensack” in What the Light was Like and “Olympia” in Archaic Figure, were actually composed under the impression that I was writing a sestina, only shorn of the envoi. I didn’t have a handbook with me, and when I realized that I hadn’t arranged the final words according to the classical sequence, I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I still haven’t got that sequence through my head; the one I followed was much neater. In any event, I wasn’t trying to do homage to anybody. I knew Elizabeth Bishop’s sestinas, but they weren’t my favorites among her poems. At the time I hadn’t even read Anthony Hecht’s “Sestina d’Inverno,” which I really love. I wasn’t aware that Swinburne had even written any. I decided to try the form because I had a lot of unwieldy notions that I thought I might be able to pull together that way. “Olympia” took off, as I remember, after I had my pocket picked, and it occurred to me that pickpocket as a teleuton would be a challenge. The dexterity of the pickpocket, which I had to admire even as it enraged me, somehow suggested the dexterity of Mozart—and so on.

INTERVIEWER

It seems quite clear that you agree with Wallace Stevens that the worst poverty is not to live in a physical world. I wonder if you might speak about the relevance of that notion to both subject and form for your own poetry?

CLAMPITT

Possibly—just possibly—this is where a kind of residual Christianity comes in. I had occasion to think about that assertion of Stevens’s, which I suppose I do bring up fairly often, in connection with Dante. His images are so marvelously there, even when they’re quite imaginary; I’m thinking of those leafy, green-winged guardian angels in the Purgatorio, the coolness and freshness of them, verde come fogliette. But Dante couldn’t have subscribed exactly, he couldn’t have agreed with Stevens, because as a Christian he subscribed to a reality more real than the tangible one—the basis of Christianity being incarnation, the here-and-now embodiment of a more-than-tangible reality. The Divine Comedy would be tedious, it would be something of a bore, without the intense physicality Dante brought to it throughout—though one has to admit that for all the verve that runs through his vision of paradise, it’s hard not to regret the freshness of those green wings. I think one misses even that little swish, the mala striscia of the snake in the grass the guardian angels are on guard against. To go back to what Stevens said: yes, what attracted me immediately to the poems of Keats, and later of Hopkins, is the way they draw on and evoke physical sensation in all its luscious variety. I have to add that as one gets older, that freshness isn’t so accessible, so available as it once was, either as a subject or as an experience in itself.

INTERVIEWER

Marianne Moore praised the poetry of Thomas Hardy for what she called its “intense particularity,” a quality your work shares with both of these poets’. How important is detail to your work?

CLAMPITT

Particularity of detail is certainly something I admire in the work of Marianne Moore—not only admire but am conscious of having drawn on as an example. I think that sometimes rather dry particularity of hers did to some extent curb my own rhetorical tendencies—and those are tendencies that come before any conscious effort at precision. I’ve been somewhat misrepresented where the influence of Marianne Moore is concerned—I mean, the tendency amounts to a kind of late accretion as compared to the patterns of sound and syntax that seem always to have been lurking there—the way I hear language, and that could be looked on (I guess have been) as a kind of regression.

INTERVIEWER

In trying to discern a qualitative distinction between the work of male and female poets, it was Elizabeth Hardwick who suggested, “perhaps this greed for particulars is the true mark of the poetry of women of our time.” To what extent are you conscious of yourself as a “female poet”?

CLAMPITT

Though I’ve quoted it, I’m not sure I know just what Elizabeth Hardwick meant by that “greed for particulars.” Anyhow, a certain attention to detail is a trait I do associate with women—the kind of almost myopic care that goes into dressmaking, patchwork quilts, embroidering, gardening in and out of doors. The poetry of at least some women does seem to embody that kind of attention—to knowing the names of fabrics and stitches, of exotic plants, seasonings, herbs and spices, pigments and so on. Knowing the names of things, certain particular kinds of things, discovering new categories of naming—that’s something all poets have in common, only each poet will have her or his own particular vocabulary, a constellation of meanings and distinctions and gradations. Think of all the words that came into existence with the invention of ballet. The world is brimming over with vocabularies of that kind. It’s filling up with words. When you think of language in that way, I can’t see that knowing particulars has anything to do with gender. The act of naming is in no way a female prerogative or preoccupation. This being so, I don’t really think of myself as a female poet. Women are going to write differently from men, simply because the experience they start with is fundamentally, physiologically different; but if to be a “female poet” means to address oneself consciously and exclusively to exploring that fundamental difference, and/or to do so for a primarily female audience, I’m clearly not one. And just as clearly, I guess, lines are going to be drawn, have been drawn, in the minds of many readers—lines of distinction between this one and that one. And if the distinction is made, it is going to matter. There’s no denying that.

INTERVIEWER

Right from your first major collection, the female condition and experience has been of considerable importance—what you yourself have called “the whole trajectory of being female.” Perhaps this is one of the structures you’ve been trying to redefine, at least from “Rain at Bellagio” on?

CLAMPITT

I do seem to recall that the idea of a collection of poems having to do in some way with the lives of women was already there at the time I put together The Kingfisher. But if I remember correctly, the starting point was a fascination with Medusa. A fascination with myth was where it all began, rather than with interpreting my own or my contemporaries’ experience. “Rain at Bellagio,” though, wasn’t consciously about female experience; it just happened to be a thing that seemed worth writing about. So far as categories are concerned, it was a water poem. I’d already written a big fire poem, “The Dahlia Gardens”; and it may have been a conversation with Howard Moss the first time I met him—the only really extended conversation I ever had with him about my own work—that first suggested it: the idea of a big water poem to balance “The Dahlia Gardens.” But other poems from around that time, and earlier, did have to do with the experience of women. There was one that hasn’t been collected—“Eleusis” was the title, if I remember right—about the experience of sharing a hospital room with three other women, one of whom really grabbed my imagination; it ended up being about Demeter and Kore. Oh yes, and even before that, among the poems in Multitudes, Multitudes—that little privately printed collection—there is one about the island of Naxos, invoking Ariadne as a kind of private deity. Another poem, a really quite nasty one called “Models,” has to do with women—and with a vengeance. It dates back to 1971 and came out of some pretty disillusioning encounters with the feminist movement during a wildly militant phase.

INTERVIEWER

Well, would you describe yourself as a feminist poet?

CLAMPITT

If asked, Are you a feminist, yes or no, I would have to answer yes. But my very early experience with militant women, as I’ve suggested, was enough to put me off wanting ever to be thought of as a “feminist poet.” I suppose all this is a part of the drawing of lines I mentioned a minute ago.

INTERVIEWER

Are there characteristics that would identify poetry as being by a woman rather than a man?

CLAMPITT

Women who are inclined to write poetry at all are inspired by being mad at something. It doesn’t affect them in an obvious way but I suspect it’s there. You can’t help but be affected.

INTERVIEWER

Is that a common impulse, creating poetry from anger?

CLAMPITT

Rage? Yes, I think so. Everybody has to write out of rage sometimes.

INTERVIEWER

And that affects women more than men?

CLAMPITT

I think so nowadays. Women have been given reason to recognize a lot of things that have been covered up for a long time. What preceded the rage was a lot of anxiety. When you get over the anxiety you discover you should have been mad a long time ago. Women are full of steam, and mostly they’re making a lot of noise. I don’t necessarily like it, but some very plausible stuff is being written by women in a way that most men are not doing . . . But there is also a kind of poetry being written now that doesn’t derive from feeling. Rather it comes out of a notion that it’s time to turn over a couple of ideas in your head that have to be sorted out. These are often quiet books with nuances in them you have to listen for. For example, John Ashbery. He refuses to raise his voice; many poets have fashioned their work from him. He finds new tunes because he has a wonderful ear. He has so much to say . . . all these almost undetectable references. Since he gets a lot of attention, many poets are going to fashion their work on his. This kind of thing can be dull in the wrong hands—the distinction needs to be made between dull books and quiet books.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned poets who make a lot of noise. Is rap in this category?

CLAMPITT

I’d like to like rap, but it’s too loud. It’s one thing to get something out of your system, but not when it interferes with other people’s hearing.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have a consuming interest in neglected dimensions of life, whether plant or animal or human. One of the most affecting examples of that concern is “A Hedge of Rubber Trees” in Westward.

CLAMPITT

“A Hedge of Rubber Trees” is a poem I’d been trying to write for years—along with “A Winter Burial” and “A Whippoorwill in the Woods,” which are also in Westward. They’re about particular women, little biographies really, or anyhow that was the way I originally conceived of them. It’s a form that goes back to the time of Multitudes, Multitudes. The lives of marginal, overlooked and neglected women have a kind of analogue in growing things—the weeds that spring up in vacant lots and are the precise opposite of the showy, carefully cultivated blooms in a florist’s window. They have an analogue as well with the city pigeons I seem to go on writing about. Survivors. Nobody encourages them, many people find them an annoyance; but there they still are.

INTERVIEWER

In your recent essay, “Predecessors, Et Cetera,” you begin by asking a question, “What do you need to know to be a writer?” And you answer, “In one word, I’d say, predecessors . . . . There is less originality than we think. There is also a vast amount of solitude. Writers need company. We all need it. It’s not the command of knowledge that matters finally, but the company. It’s the predecessors. As a writer, I don’t know where I’d be without them.” What predecessors matter most to you and why?

CLAMPITT

The question about what a writer needs to know is not one I asked myself. It was assigned, when I went back to Grinnell, my old college, for a writers’ symposium along with three other graduates who’d published books. The question seemed to me a bit silly, or anyhow irrelevant, for a poet, and I was simply doing my best to go along with the program. As for naming names, or giving homage to the predecessors I’d declared indispensable, I was bound to mention Hopkins, whom I’m conscious of revering more than any other. After him I’d name Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Shakespeare, Milton, maybe Proust. After that, the list could vary from day to day, even hour to hour. Hopkins comes first because I simply can’t imagine having become a poet without having read his work—the delight in all things physical, the wallowing in sheer sound, in the extravagance of the possibilities of language. For me, there is still nobody like him, though Keats comes close, for similar reasons. Reading Virginia Woolf for the first time I thought, She’s writing for me. The book was The Waves. I don’t feel quite so strongly about it on rereading; but the diaries are something else, as are the letters and the essays. I began reading Proust while I was still in college, before I got around to either George Eliot or Henry James—both of whom have tended to mean more to me since—and the sense of discovery I felt, all that lingering over the hawthorns, Marcel having to inform the person he’d been, over and over, that Albertine is gone—the sense of discovery at the time was simply enormous. Now that I think of it, another, totally different writer who gave me that feeling of momentousness was Thoreau. As for Shakespeare, it was the sonnets I can’t imagine having been without. As for Milton, what I really mean is “Lycidas.”

INTERVIEWER

What contemporaries matter most to you?

CLAMPITT

Among writers more clearly contemporary, there are Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. Greatly indebted as I am to them both, in my own consciousness they figure as latecomers. I was greatly affected by Sylvia Plath’s Ariel when it first appeared, and likewise the work of Adrienne Rich, especially Diving into the Wreck and her latest book, An Atlas of the Difficult World. But any list of the contemporary poets I’ve admired and been influenced by would go on and on. I hope I can be excused from trying to produce one.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a test for greatness concerning literature so far as you are concerned? Who has passed with flying colors?

CLAMPITT

It could be that the sheer quantity of poetry being published these days makes it harder to think in terms of rank. It is rather as though the very possibility of greatness, whatever it is, had somehow been called into question. Among living figures my idea of a great poet is Czeslaw Milosz. He seems to tower in a way nobody else does. Perhaps it’s that he’s a bit forbidding, to a degree most famous writers aren’t, these days. I’m just now reading Les Misérables for the first time. Now there is a great book! Dickens’s novels, powerful as they are in their way, seem juvenile by comparison; and Henry James, whom I can’t imagine living without, seems lightweight. George Eliot, enormous as her sympathies are, just doesn’t approach the comprehensiveness, the serene mastery, and at the same time, the unrelenting outrage that Victor Hugo had to draw upon. Milosz seems to me to have something like that range. Pretensions to largeness of any sort are a thing we’ve all become wary of. So no wonder there are all sorts of strategies of avoidance: speaking in a whisper behind masks, from the obliquest of satiric angles, as Charles Bernstein does in a recent poem consisting almost entirely of junk-mail come-ons and psychobabble. It’s not egalitarianism so much as mistrust of large gestures that ends up with these strategies. They can be pretty paralyzing, I’m afraid, and they do guarantee that poetry is going to be in the minor mode.

INTERVIEWER

The whole question of the relationship of the poet to the public is something I’d like to ask you about. Do you sense a tension between the private and public dimensions of your art? Perhaps you may not feel any tension at all. Flannery O’Connor once said that “art is not anything that goes on ‘among’ people. . . . It is something that one experiences alone for the purpose of realizing in a fresh way, through the senses, the mystery of existence.”

CLAMPITT

The tension must surely be there. Perhaps it was manifesting itself in the impatience I’ve recently felt with those tight little patterns on the page, and the concurrent urge toward a larger, more expansive line, in the manner of Whitman. If you write in that discursive way, you’re almost sure to be less cryptic, and thus perhaps more public, in what you say. Since I live in New York City and read the newspapers, it’s hardly surprising that some things I write about should have to do with subjects from the common domain, rather than from some recess of memory or an obscure book I’ve come across. But just how far these excursions into the domain of the recognizable really take one toward speaking to a wider audience, I’m not at all sure.

INTERVIEWER

Within the last five years there’s been renewed debate about the situation of poetry in the United States, with most writers asserting that there’s widespread neglect of poetry. Joseph Epstein in Commentary, blamed the poets, saying they simply don’t write as well as those modernist poets of the early twentieth century and that their teaching in universities has made their writing academic and obscure. Donald Hall’s rebuttal in Harper’s noted impressive sales figures for some poets’ work and a burgeoning of readings by poets. Then Dana Gioia sided with Epstein in The Atlantic: while accepting Hall’s observations, he pointed out that those readings were largely on college campuses, where university writing programs have created a “subculture” of poet/teachers who service each other; he notes that, “like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers.” What is your own view of the state of poetry today?

CLAMPITT

The debate you speak of is one I’ve followed without quite knowing whose side to take. I mean, I tend to agree with everybody. Poetry does seem to become increasingly marginal the more it becomes institutionalized as a livelihood. More and more people do seem to turn up at poetry readings and not just on college campuses either; there is a subculture of amateur poets who make their living some other way but are driven to write (I think) in reaction to the growing inanity, and ubiquity, of popular culture. I myself take these amateurs seriously. They write better, as a rule, than their counterparts did a century ago—or anyhow the means at their disposal have grown more sophisticated. So I don’t think Dana Gioia and Joseph Epstein are entirely right, and on the other hand, I don’t quite share Donald Hall’s seeming optimism where the general public is concerned. The gulf I see between those for whom what’s to be found in books and nowhere else is indispensable, and those (many of them ostensibly well educated) for whom it means nothing much, is simply too vast. And it is a gulf that appears to be widening. What’s wrong is something far more troubling than any question of whether an M.F.A. in creative writing is a good thing or not.

INTERVIEWER

Louis Simpson has said that students enter “creative writing” programs thinking that “they will be made into writers” simply by virtue of exposure to comments from the poet/teacher and fellow students; evidently his experience has not been particularly happy, to judge from his statements that his students were “amazingly ignorant,” “blown about by every wave of fashion,” and learning absolutely nothing about forms of verse or meter.

CLAMPITT

My experience as an academic visitor has been generally happy. I have to say, though, that what I’ve enjoyed least have been the writing courses. Most (not all, but more than not) of my students have been largely ignorant of prosody, some invincibly so. Those are the ones I can’t unpersuade of the notion that any spontaneous jotting is ipso facto a poem. Even some very good students have turned out to be unfamiliar with the King James Bible. That was a shock. I’ve made it my business to acquaint my classes with poetry I admire. But in any writing course the exemplars are going to be subsidiary to the writing. I have insisted on some writing in rhyme and meter; it’s the least I can do. I much prefer teaching literature for itself, and I think the best graduate writing programs are the ones that lead to an M.A. rather than an M.F.A. Certainly there are some very serious people taking those programs. It would seem, thus far, that the product they turn out is a fairly standard and conventional one, but the entire development is too new for anybody to be sure what it means and where it might lead. The idea of a school of poets is, I believe, fairly ancient. As for the winds of fashion that Louis Simpson complains of, they’ve been blowing through literary society for as long as there has been such a thing; you have only to read the satires of John Donne to be reminded of that.

INTERVIEWER

Certainly this brings into focus the whole question of the poet and the public: Simpson has recently said that “it doesn’t matter in the least if a poet sells thirty thousand copies of a book or a hundred copies”; what does matter “is in the book and how well it is written,” and “the relationship of the poetry to the public is a matter for historians of culture to ponder—it is of no real concern to the poet or to lovers of poetry.”

CLAMPITT

The question of a general audience for poetry does puzzle me. I’ve thought about it lately in connection with Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was a favorite of mine when I was fifteen or so, and who goes on being read by people outside academia but is generally ignored within it. Something about her even now seems to correspond to the notion of what a poet is really, or even ought to be like. I think she’s now about to be given another look because she wrote as a woman, as a kind of forerunner of Anne Sexton.

INTERVIEWER

If you feel it important that poetry reach a wider audience, how might that end be accomplished, so far as you are concerned? Joseph Brodsky has suggested that poetry be sold in affordable paperback editions at the checkout counters in supermarkets.

CLAMPITT

I’ve just been pondering an essay by Charles Bernstein (in that collection put together by James McCorkle, Conversant Essays), who takes his cue from Gertrude Stein to argue against there being any middle ground, any center for poets who would appeal to a general public to stand on. He sees only what he calls “the hegemony of homogenizing processes.” The reason he gives is worth thinking about. He says, “The possibly good intentions of one art for all—and the related agenda of clarity, plainness, accessibility . . . tend to merge with oligarchic marketing imperatives.” He regards the subgroups, ethnic, racial, class, sectional, regional, for whom many poets now write as inevitable, and thus to be encouraged rather than deplored. In this I suppose he would come down on the side of Louis Simpson to the effect that the number of copies a book sells is irrelevant. Whether an audience can be widened by any sort of conscious effort, I certainly don’t know. One example I’m aware of is the poetry video magazine, called Off the Page, which is the brainchild of an actor, Norman Rose, who happens to love poetry. I found it entertaining. But it costs something like thirty dollars. Who’s buying it I have no idea. So far as my own efforts are concerned, all I can think of doing is to be as clear as I possibly can—but I’m afraid that intention doesn’t take me very much nearer a mass audience.

INTERVIEWER

Some say that we have no longer fierce and fearless critics of contemporary verse of the Randall Jarrell or Ezra Pound stripe, who did not hesitate to deride, mock, scorn, lampoon, excoriate those poets who failed to come up to their measure. What should good criticism do?

CLAMPITT

This is a subject I don’t feel qualified to speak about. I’m not myself a critic, in the sense that I’m out to set a standard, establish a canon, tell people what they ought to read and what to think about it. On the contrary. The kind of assignment I tend to take on, not without hesitation, is one that does no more than explore what is going on in the work of a particular writer, what makes it distinctive, what kind of person is behind it. Just lately I’ve found myself introducing poets who are about to read their work to an audience. Sometimes they’re people who have always baffled me, the most recent being Clark Coolidge. I was lucky enough to stumble onto one self-defining quotation, or I might have given up in despair—he being a poet not given to self-definition or accessibility. All one can really hope for is to be of some help to those who are about to listen. That’s something I enjoy. For me it’s educational. When it comes to formal reviewing, I’ve tended to demur since I don’t feel equipped to pass judgment. It’s partly that I’m just not tough enough; I know what it feels like to be the target of a negative assessment, and that makes me reluctant to inflict pain of any sort . . . especially when I’m not convinced that my own judgments are definitive. Admitting to this kind of diffidence is the only way I can proceed at all, sometimes. I was intrigued by the challenge of writing about Edna St. Vincent Millay, though I had no notion in advance of what there was to be said about her by way of a centenary observance; and I was still at sea until it dawned on me that one could at least say what she wasn’t—namely modern. From there I went on to try to place her in relation to her contemporaries, such as Williams and Moore.

INTERVIEWER

What about contemporary fiction? Do you read it for both pleasure and profit?

CLAMPITT

I don’t read a lot of it. Of those writers I know, Alice Munro is my very favorite. She’s a marvelously precise and subtle recorder of social change, and there seems to be no permutation of human oddity beyond the reach of her sympathy. I never feel that she is recycling her own experience under other names, as one does with even very good fiction writers a lot of the time. And along with the range of her sympathy she draws on a likewise endless permutation of method. There are always surprises. And the way she deals with change, what memory does to the past, is the way a poet would. A very different writer, but one who has something of the same tenderness for particular times and places, is E. L. Doctorow. I’ve just lately read Billy Bathgate—maybe his best book and a real page-turner besides. I’m a fan of Allan Gurganus. I devoured A. S. Byatt’s Possession—the perfect book to read while recovering from a bad cold. I’m invariably enthralled by Cynthia Ozick. That gives you some idea.

INTERVIEWER

I take it that you haven’t written another novel since those early three, so that we need not discuss your own prose fiction?

CLAMPITT

These days writing a novel is the last thing I can imagine doing. And much of the fiction I read is from the nineteenth century. Hal and I have been reading Dickens aloud for years; we find it more fun than going to a movie. There’s the sheer exuberance; though it says something about his limitations that doing the villains is generally what we enjoy most—Grandpa Smallweed, Mr. Pecksniff, Jonas Chuzzlewit, Alfred Jingle and Job Trotter. We recently finished The Pickwick Papers. Besides the fun, there’s the extension of one’s experience of human nature—the novel as a branch of history. The same is eminently true of Les Misérables, which we began reading just lately. And also of I promessi sposi, which I finally got around to during a three-day recuperation, not long ago—a real masterpiece, from which I’m conscious of having learned enormously, not only about seventeenth-century Lombardy, but in a more general way about society as an organism, which means seeing human behavior at its best as well as its worst. The only contemporary American novel I can think of to compare with it at all is The Make-Believers by Barry Fleming—a book I happened upon not long ago, and that is scarcely known. The author died recently, at the age of ninety or so. 

INTERVIEWER

If you had to construct a poet out of whole cloth, how would you begin? 

CLAMPITT

Well, I think it goes without saying that you’d start with someone who refused to grow up. I don’t know exactly why that’s important, except that if you’re totally grown up, you’re somehow set in your emotional ways so that you’re not surprised in the kinds of ways that poets tend to be. 

INTERVIEWER

Is there any question I haven’t asked that you want to ask and answer? 

CLAMPITT

Something I feel bound to mention is the part played by sheer luck in a writer’s career. Alison Lurie has spoken of this, and I completely agree with her that it tends to be overlooked. Over the past ten years or so, I’ve been very lucky. Being in the hands of good fortune can’t but be a humbling thing.

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.