An Interview with Amy Clampitt by Elise Paschen
You first published a collection of poems entitled Multitudes, Multitudes (Washington Street Press) in 1974. How marked do you find the difference between this initial collection and The Kingfisher (Knopf, 1983) which received such critical acclaim? Do you feel that your style changed dramatically within those nine years or, was it, instead, a question of the readers' response?
No, I don't think my style has changed dramatically. I'd like to think I'd learned to be somewhat less discursive than I tended to be in Multitudes, Multitudes; and just possibly I've acquired a lighter touch - become, on occasion anyhow, more playful.
In what may be interpreted, perhaps, as an 'autobiographical' poem, "Imago" (The Kingfisher), a young girl, attempting to write, is chastised: "But it has no form!" Your poems, so precisely crafted, display a heightened awareness of form. Do you remember a particular moment when you felt you had made a breakthrough, finding yourself 'at home' in a poem, discovering, as it were, your own voice?
Everyone who has commented on "Imago" has supposed that that quotation was a comment from a mentor when I was still a student. In fact, what I was remembering was a friendly remark by a contemporary to whom I'd shown a sketch (in prose) after I'd come to New York and was finding it difficult to write anything at all. I felt that the comment was entirely justified. As a student, I don't recall any really discouraging comments from anyone. When I wrote poetry during my teens, it had plenty of form: I could handle the sonnet quite competently, or, perhaps more precisely, the form took over all too completely. But by the time I finished college I had come to think of myself as a novelist; and the novel seems now to have been a form I couldn't handle at all. No, I don't remember anything quite so specific as feeling that I'd "found my own voice"; what happened was that, sometime in the late fifties, I sat down to write about an experience I didn't quite understand, and found myself doing it in verse rather than prose. This actually frightened me, as though I'd been taken over by some uninvited guest and told what to do - which is not at all the same as feeling 'at home" with what was happening.
In the note to "Imago," you say that Hans Christian Andersen's story of the Little Mermaid "affected [you] more powerfully than anything else [you] read as a child." The sea figures prominently in your poetry and in at least one other poem, "Chichester" (What the Light Was Like), the image of the mermaid resurfaces. Could you explain why this fairy tale exerted such a hold on your imagination as a child?
Further than my note to "Imago," I don't think I can explain why images of water held such an attraction for me. I think there is some connection with my earliest memory (described in "The Woodlot") - of a patch of blossoming violets, which has always been associated in my mind with the look of water. It also attaches to the (improperly called) bluebells in "Botanical Nomenclature." Lately, I've been trying to write about my earliest childhood memory of an actual body of water. I've been conscious ever since then (or so it seems in retrospect) of a wish to be near the ocean. As for the Andersen fairy tale, I think what drew me was some truthfulness about the pain of being an adult - the cost of growing up - or maybe, more accurately, the omnipresence of pain and sadness in being conscious at all. The mermaid in "Chichester," though, is simply Keats's; "half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed"; I don't know that it would have occurred to me to introduce her otherwise. But the sea is certainly important to me. If I hadn't begun spending time on the coast of Maine, I'm not sure whether much, if any, of either The Kingfisher or What the Light Was Like would have been written. The Greeks associated water with the source of inspiration. Life came from the sea. Being in sight of it puts everything into perspective. Just now I'm living among hills, which I find mesmerizing in the same way - though whether to the same degree I'm not yet sure.
You have said that you "heard the echoes of Milton and Keats and couldn't get rid of them." Is it possible to pinpoint one poet who has most influenced you? Can you recall a particular poem or book of poems?
"The Eve of St. Agnes" was one of the poems that excited me most. It was the totality of sensation, the visual images, the extremes of heat and cold, the appeal to touch and taste, as well as the sounds of the poem, that made it unforgettable. I remember being similarly thrilled by Shakespeare's sonnet beginning 'That time of year thou may'st in me behold." In college, I read "Lycidas" for the first time, and - maybe most overwhelming of all- discovered Hopkins. The poem I remember is "Pied Beauty"; I'm not sure I knew any others (it had been in an anthology) until I bought the Poems - the first book by any poet that I'd bought because I wanted to own it and not simply because it was assigned for a course. I think those four are the poets who influence me most to this day. More recently, I was electrified by reading Sylvia Plath. l owe a special debt to Marianne Moore; a similar but also special one to Elizabeth Bishop; and a different but quite specific one to Anthony Hecht. But I've left out many others who could be mentioned, or whom I admire intensely.
You first visited England in 1949, and you stayed here during the spring of 1983. In "A Baroque Sunburst" (What the Light Was Like) you write: "you might suppose/the coast of Maine had Europe/on the brain or in its bones, as though/it were a kind of sickness." As an American raised in the Midwest, yet now an inveterate New Yorker, can you gauge this relationship between yourself and Europe (and, in particular, Great Britain)?
The importance of Europe (and of Great Britain in particular, as you rightly put it) is so great for me that I can hardly exaggerate it. 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. The music of English poetry was already ringing in my ears; being present on the soil of England itself established a continuity that made me feel not quite such a total misfit. The Midwest may not produce any more misfits than any other region, but just about anyone with small confidence but large imaginings is going to be a misfit out there. New York is, of course, full of such misfits - which makes it not the most comfortable place for any of us to settle into. Until you start thinking your own thoughts, and not just fumbling around with received ideas, it's hardly possible for anyone to be comfortable in any environment. The experience of travelling in Greece, some years later, carried the whole process another step. What I've only begun to do is to puzzle out what all of this means in relation to the place I came from. I think about it more and more, though I have no plans for going back there except as an intensely interested visitor.
Robert Shaw has called you' America's oldest celebrated younger poet.' What is your attitude towards recognition? What are the assets and the drawbacks of being commended later in life'?
It's very pleasant to have had one's books published, and to hear from people who've read them: pleasanter, in fact, than I'd supposed it could be. My impression of literary people for a long time was that they paid for recognition with misery; and so I was only halfway willing to admit any real ambitions of my own. I think one is Iess in danger of being totally messed up by recognition if it does come when one is relatively well along in years - and the sudden notice I came into was near enough to being disastrous that I don't minimize the hazards at any age. (For the first time in my life I was reduced to taking antidepressants, which I hated the idea of doing, to ease the wear and tear on my closest friends - and I gather this isn't at all uncommon. But it is humiliating.) On the other hand, there is a consciousness of having only so much more time. On the whole, I regard myself as lucky.
In a recent interview, you mentioned that what you were writing in the late sixties and early seventies did not conform to the vogue then, which you called 'Minimalist' poetry; that you felt you "used too many words." When you write, do you have a particular poetic unit in mind? And to what extent do you revise your poems?
It's seldom that I have any notion in advance of what form anything is going to take. Sometimes a stanza form takes shape with the first few lines: that is, a matter of line length, number of lines, rhyme scheme if any. Sometimes I change my mind about the form midway. Sometimes a stanza form will be scrapped entirely, and I'll start in all over again, without necessarily starting a new poem. I do a great deal of revising: I'd say that twenty or twenty-five retyped versions is not unusual. And I usually let a thing sit for a while after I've completed a draft; it's easier to spot what doesn't work if you come back to a thing after having put it out of your mind entirely. A good part of the revision is in getting rid of things - that oversupply of words that seems to come all too naturally. I suppose that once in a while I may sit down with a form in mind - as when I wrote that pseudo-sestina, "The Reedbeds of the Hackensack." By the time I had a hundred lines of a newer poem, "An Anatomy of Migraine," I knew that it would be in two parts of a hundred lines each; but this was dictated by the notion of the two halves of the brain, the pairing of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and so on. I've not often been that schematic, and I'm not sure anyone is going to care about the chiasmus that became part of the structure. I've heard from a number of people about that poem, and nobody has yet mentioned the structure: mostly they're people who're subject to migraine, or doctors who treat people who are. But that's going beyond the question.
How difficult is it to find verbal equivalents for the visual world? The title poem, "What the Light Was Like," of your latest volume seems to address this dilemma...
I don't think finding verbal equivalents for the visual world is what is difficult; it's addressing oneself to the non-visual, the invisible, that's the challenge. I've been thinking a lot lately about Wordsworth (I'm teaching a course about him and his circle, especially Dorothy) and am struck by his observation on the tyranny of the eye. (Possibly the great power of Milton to envision was made possible by his blindness. Has anyone gone into this, I wonder?) How to find verbal equivalents for physical pain, for instance; or for the effect of music. That's what I was doing in "Sunday Music," and, of course, in "Beethoven, Opus 111." I was startled when a critic, a favorable one at that, remarked that that latter poem exemplified "the fallacy of imitative form." I didn't know what he could be talking about, and I'm not sure that I still do, though I've since come across the dictum of Ivor Winters on that subject. It would seem as though finding verbal equivalents would almost necessarily entail being imitative. I don't understand critics a good deal of the time. Look at the number of people who write poems about paintings, and who do it so that one in fact sees the painting. That suggests to me that rendering visual impressions isn't all that difficult. My earliest ambition was to be a painter, and certainly I'm interested in how things look; but I think the poems that are merely verbal equivalents of something visual, in my own work, tend to be the slighter ones.
In a note to "Rain at Bellagio" you suggest: "The scheme may be clearer if this poem is thought of as a meditation in the form of a travelogue". You once wrote a travel book. Is there something unique about a place which inspires you to write about it, and why does a poem seem better suited for this type of description than prose?
If I'm asked to describe myself as a poet. what I end up saying is that I'm a poet of place. Places inspire me all the time. I don't like to think that I'm a poet of travel, but poems do certainly come out of my travels. It's a good deal easier to say something about a place that's totally unfamiliar, of course, than about a place you've known all your life. I have a series of poems about Greece, most of which came out of a visit I made there three years ago; some of them are relatively slight, as compared with the longer poems in the Heartland section of The Kingfisher, or the Hinterland in What the Light Was Like - all of which I would identify as predominantly poems of place. The first poems I wrote about the coast of Maine were relatively slight; I couldn't have written the title poem of What the Light Was Like until I'd spent some time in that particular fishing village. My effort at a travel book was based on detailed journals I'd kept; and in fact "Rain at Bellagio" came out of journal entries, set down twenty years before. I'd like to think it was a distillation, though I must have kept some phrases from the original. But it has the flavor of a travelogue, as distinguished from that of a poem of place; or at least I think it has. I don't know that any other poem of mine is as close to a prose original. Since I'm something of a nomad, and like travelling, I've done a number of travel poems. "A Procession at Candlemas" and "Witness" are about travelling by bus: "Losing Track of Language" is about travelling by train, and I have a newer poem called "Babel Aboard the Hellas International Express," which isn't much like any of the others - it's about people rather than scenery or solitary rumination. I don't think the question of why these weren't written in prose would have arisen. When I kept those voluminous travel journals, I hadn't found any other form to write in. Now that I've gotten to think of myself as a poet, I don't keep the journals; I just make notes for future reference.
I don't write in prose any more, given the option, because the shape of a poem now seems to come more naturally - or maybe' I should say it curbs my natural verbosity more effectively than trying to write in prose.
Recent poems of yours which have appeared in The New Yorker seem more preoccupied with the situations of women. Is this, perhaps, a new direction your poetry is taking?
Thinking about women, and trying to write poems about the situation and experience of women, isn't new to mc; but it's a preoccupation that has come to the surface more consistently in the last year or so. I have a new book, Archaic Figure, scheduled for March 1987, which will include those two recent poems, "An Anatomy of Migraine" and the one on Margaret Fuller, along with others on Dorothy Wordsworth and on George Eliot. The figure in question is that of a woman, from the Archaic period in Greek sculpture, that I saw at the Pergamon Museum in East Berlin. The epigraph to the book is Virginia Woolf's remark about how in the heroines of George Eliot "the ancient consciousness of women ... seems to have brimmed and overflowed." The three poems I've written on George Eliot are recent, but I had been wanting to write them, and had notes, and unsuccessful attempts at a beginning, for all three, that went back several years. I just hadn't been ready to write them, I'm not sure why. So it doesn't feel like a new departure tome.