No Taproot: Amy Clampitt at 100
Faculty Fellow, Department of Religious Studies, Colby College
Evening has arrived. I am attending a poetry reading sponsored by the English Department at Colby College. Per departmental tradition, a creative writing undergraduate student introduces our guest poet. The tradition is designed to give developing writers the opportunity to exercise accountable attention—to read closely and speak responsibly in public about a set of poems, in the presence of their author, to an audience eager to extend charity toward the podium.
It is a lovely ritual, but on this night, my charity hits a snag. The student, a young woman, introduces the poet—a woman I knew to be my age, in her early 40s. With an awed smile and dramatic pause, the student punctuates her take on our guest with a simple compliment:
Her words are so…young.
I am not miffed at the student. Finding salutary words for wordsmiths is difficult, and she is giving a far better introduction than I would have at her age. But it troubles me that her cultural thesaurus lists young as a synonym of good—one too obvious to warrant qualification. As is often the case at public arts events on campus, the median age of the room is no lower than 40, and it is that low only due to the introducer herself and some creative writing students sprinkled sparsely among the gray and graying hairs. I wonder how young falls on other ears; the student’s cultural thesaurus is ours, too, to some extent, so perhaps my concern is unique. Perhaps the student believes she is reversing the sometimes-patronizing references to youthfulness (for example, the first sentence of this paragraph). But it dogs me. I keep revising the line in my head, wondering over the historic guilt of associations presumed innocent: her words are so…old…new…dignified…fat…current…feminine…masculine…white.
Night rides over the day in Maine—state of extreme tides, whose population is the oldest of any in the union. State of compromise. State of first light: the Dawnland. I return to my old house that evening. I read:
The meshes of a life
at close attention
went dense; the heaved
limbs upended slowly,
the white scut half-
lifted in a lopsided
wigwag, as though
even the wildest of
surmises need be
in no great hurry.
It is the final stanza of Amy Clampitt’s “Slow Motion,” in which the narrator observes a deer. The poem is not Clampitt’s best-known, but it bears her many signatures: attention, paid and paid back; line breaks, studied but unconventional; diction, a mixture of the idiomatic and scientific; adjectives, packed and plentiful; verbs, alternatingly simple and complex. It is like Maine’s tides: pressing, ardent, unrushed.
Are these young words? Amy Clampitt first published them, in book form, in The Kingfisher, in 1983. It was her first full-length poetry collection. She was 63 years old. She died ten years later, having won a MacArthur Fellowship just two years earlier. On June 15, 2020, she would have turned 100, though according to Mary Jo Salter, her friend and perhaps her best reader, no one likely would have known, as Clampitt kept her birthday a secret. Over the past few years, as my feet have followed hers, Clampitt has gently and surely insisted her way into my consciousness.
In 2018, I began splitting my time between Maine and New York City. I was non-tenure-track faculty at Colby, filling one of those long-term visiting positions that are becoming more rule than exception in the 21st century academy. My spouse works as the Minister of Older Adults at New York’s Riverside Church. In the contemporary job climate, we can claim with a straight face that ministry is the more stable of our two gigs, so she keeps our home base in Manhattan while I live in Waterville, Maine. About every other weekend during the school year, I commute through New England, passing back and forth across the Piscataqua River, the sidelong salutations of Maine’s border signs escorting me into and out of the state: Maine. Welcome Home. Vacationland. Worth a Visit. Worth a Lifetime.
At 40, I found myself living alone for the first time, a native Midwesterner at the far lip of the lower 48. The consequent yawning of time and space compelled me to linger at the edges of the edge; I spent my open days exploring the interior and the Downeast coast. As I had done each of my prior moves, I sought out the works of artists who had lived in my new home before me. Since knowing Vacationland, and my place in it, involved untangling its knotty, manifold terms of belonging, I was especially interested in how the seasonal residents had been set up. Nativity is off the table if you are not born in Maine, and gold-star citizenship is unlikely if you don’t live there all year. But Mainers confer degrees of residency, and as long as you keep a place in state, and your attendance is regular, your unbelonging is of a higher order than that of a mere tourist. Unlike all of those dainty summer people, I wintered in Maine, so I hoped to earn more than seasonal credit. But I was down to explore all options. It actually felt like grace, for someone who has never felt like I really belonged anywhere, to know certain types of belonging were impossible for me to earn. It opened up space for a more intimate, authentically two-way embrace between the state and me. You can’t embrace an other if there is no other. Maybe that is why Maine draws people drawn to permanent elsewheres. I sought the crossers and dwellers alike.
“As I had done each of my prior moves, I sought out the works of artists who had lived in my new home before me. Since knowing Vacationland, and my place in it, involved untangling its knotty, manifold terms of belonging…”
“It’s so hard for a Midwesterner to find out who he or she is,” Amy Clampitt wrote a friend in 1980. A self-described “poet of place” who later changed the moniker to “poet of displacement,” she was born in New Providence, Iowa, a tiny town in the center of the state, founded by Quakers in 1855. Like many poets who came of age in a Quaker orbit—most famously, the one who published his first edition of Leaves of Grass the year of New Providence’s founding—Clampitt was friendly with some of the Friends’ sensibilities: patience, deep attention, and a commitment to social justice. But Iowa was the Midwest; those cold, grey winters dim even the most luminous inner lights. When she turned to theology in letters to her brother Philip, Clampitt’s sense of sin and the need for transformation, both individual and structural, were as acute as that of any New England Calvinist. Her poem “The Dahlia Gardens,” whose occasion is the 1965 self-immolation of Quaker Norman Morrison outside the Pentagon, synthesizes with chilling clarity her theological acumen, and her awareness of the stakes of cultivating a well-wrought social spirituality. Never quite at home in any particular religious sect—she left the Episcopal Church after a brief but headfirst sojourn, citing the ostensibly progressive denomination’s sluggish response to the American war machine—she was conversant with a number of them.
Shortly after graduating from Grinnell College in 1941, Clampitt moved to New York City. Greenwich and West Village would function as much as home as anywhere for the rest of her life. After some brief, disappointing study at Columbia University, she worked for years at the Oxford University Press and the Audubon Society. Although her satisfaction at both positions ebbed and flowed, the Press gave her polymathic instincts a venue, and the Society gave her an outlet for her specific interest in birds (and in the eccentric people who claimed to be their best observers). All the while, she wrote and tirelessly reworked two novels, neither of which would ever find a publisher. It is heartrending to track her relationship with those works across the decades, through her letters, given the outcome. But Clampitt’s persistent re-visioning of her craft—and, necessarily, of herself—would produce Clampitt the late poet. The letters evince the vocational woodshedding essential to any serious cultivation of artistry. The fruit is unpredictable in substance, but not in essence.
In the late 1960s, Clampitt met Columbia law professor Harold Korn. Amy and “Hal” did not marry until the final months of Clampitt’s life, but they were lifelong companions, and by all accounts had a mutually-fulfilling partnership from the outset. In the mid-1970s, the two began spending their summers in Corea, Maine, a village on the Schoodic Peninsula, east of Mount Desert Island. For two decades, Corea would be her home for the warm months.
The natural variety of the Schoodic was certain to attract a person so roundly attentive as Clampitt, and her love of the place is on full display in both her poems and letters. I wish, though, I had access to her very first impressions. To witness people like Clampitt making their first landings is like being present for a star’s birth: the colliding of energies transfers epiphany to all bystanders, verges on fatal.
I wonder if she, like me, sought precedents. Marsden Hartley, who had Midwestern and New York connections, lived in Corea late in life, using the tower of the town’s Baptist church as his painting studio. Louise Dickinson Rich was Clampitt’s closest literary predecessor in the area. More self-consciously regionalist than Clampitt, Rich lived in Corea for a while and wrote extensively and lovingly about the Schoodic Peninsula. She receives one of the two dedicatory epigraphs to Clampitt’s famous long poem, “What the Light Was Like,” and may have been the reason Clampitt became apprised of Corea. It is easy for me to imagine Clampitt—the Iowan-New Yorker-Mainer, the rejected novelist, the poet keeping watch over nature at the cracking fringe of the Anthropocene before many of her literary contemporaries would realize the radical import of “mere” nature poetry—enthusiastically scribbling down lines from Rich’s 1958 The Peninsula: “We are overcome by a sense of being alien, of not belonging in the world in which we find ourselves, of being out of step with the times and out of sympathy with the attitudes that we encounter.”
Situated east of the most frequented portion of Acadia National Park, the Schoodic Peninsula remains relatively quiet all year. It has its summer people—more than when either Rich or Clampitt lived there—but Mount Desert Island constitutes the littoral terminus for most vacationers. Like all of Maine’s lobster villages, Corea is experiencing the effects of a warming ocean, of partially-committed money from the lower latitudes, of the disappearance of a generation who knew the place before either phenomenon became discernible. But the traps are still stacked by the hundreds along the roads, the lobster boats pack the harbor, and residents will tell you the place has stood resilient against some of the most regressive iterations of progress.
In early December 2019, I drove to Corea after having spent a weekend on Mount Desert. It was not my first trip to the village, but it was my first in the snowy season. Winter is my favorite time to visit the region, when the snow streaks the rocky coasts, the spruces bridge the year’s bluest skies and waters, and the place abounds with the silence of ordinary time.
“Winter is my favorite time to visit the region, when the snow streaks the rocky coasts, the spruces bridge the year’s bluest skies and waters, and the place abounds with the silence of ordinary time…”
I turned off U.S. Highway 1, onto the undulating road that led into the peninsula, blown toward the land’s bow by the bluster of New England sports radio. I typically avoided such programming (why break the silence?), but I had chanced upon a segment discussing Dwight Evans, the Red Sox outfielder who recently had barely missed election to the Hall of Fame. One of my favorite baseball rants concerns the underappreciation of Evans due to his late career bloom. Evans became a better player in his 30s—upper-middle age, by professional baseball standards—and the national pastime, like the ageist national culture, does not know what to do with late bloomers. It was gratifying to listen to Evans’s nonrhotic defenders (“he had more ah-B-I’s than Cahlton Fisk!”), on my way to the summer home of the woman whom Willard Spiegelman called “America’s oldest young poet.”
I was headed for Gouldsboro, the Peninsula’s major population center, at 1,700 people, to visit the town’s library. I hoped they might possess some region-specific materials on Clampitt, or even better, that some of the staff may have known Amy and Hal. It was called the Dorcas Library: a good omen. According to the New Testament, Dorcas was a prominent older woman in the early church—an artist of great charity, who fashioned clothing for the widows of her community.
In this late American moment, it is easy to despair of the American project. A caring, cared-for public library works like a vitamin shot to the body’s hope centers. When I entered the little building, I was struck by the liveliness. While few people were present, everywhere were signs of activities: a poetry writing group, a Shakespeare reading group, a youth gaming group, a program for delivering books to the homebound. Looking out onto Prospect Harbor on that snow-fringed, sunny winter day, the library’s main reading room rivaled any space in which I have worked in its spare beauty. To be sure, money was tight, as evidenced by the signage soliciting donations. Dorcas was like everything out here, like every jut of democratic earth: hearty and fragile.
“In this late American moment, it is easy to despair of the American project. A caring, cared-for public library works like a vitamin shot to the body’s hope centers…”
Dorcas was curated mostly by older women. Faith, the library director, possessed the concise, staid helpfulness I had come to love from Mainers; it resembled the southern Missouri where I grew up, only it was not seared with mock Confederate cheeriness. Faith plucked several Clampitt volumes off the Dorcas shelves for me—a surprising highlight being a signed copy of The Kingfisher—and welcomed me to work in the reading room. I found out later that silver-haired Faith and her husband were planning to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2020 to raise money for the library. Of course, I did not learn this from Faith.
People trickled in and out, and before I knew it, my project had become communal. Martha, a volunteer who was old enough to have some vague memory of Clampitt in Corea, thumbed through phone books and her own memory, brainstorming with Faith the names of area people who might be willing and able to speak to me about those days. Martha was the first of many residents whose eyes lit up when she spoke of “What the Light Was Like.” She knew the poem before I mentioned it. She also knew the family of Ernest Woodward, the second of the poem’s dedications. Woodward was a Corea fisherman and Clampitt’s neighbor, and his death just off the coast was the occasion of “What the Light Was Like.” The verses exhibit Clampitt’s capacity to bear “elegaic witness,” to borrow a phrase from Susan Snively—chronicling the region’s tricky luminosity; the aids to navigation, natural and human-made; and the full-bodied particularity of a man who, like Clampitt, kept faithful watch. Woodward and Clampitt possessed their own special vision, but it seemed to me that every dweller on the Peninsula exercised integrating vigilance. Martha knew much. I left Dorcas with more resources.
Not all older women are the unacknowledged ministers of the world, but I am increasingly certain the world’s unacknowledged ministers are older women. Thanks to Martha, I later met Donna and Peg. Donna was another Midwesterner who had found her way to Maine. Born in Kansas, she had spent years as a licensed nurse practitioner, providing health care to marginal and compromised populations—some in the remote regions of eastern Kentucky. Her partner Peg was a gregarious West Coast academic whom I realized incidentally over conversation was one of the reasons the contemporary American academy has robust women’s and gender studies programs. Donna had moved to the Peninsula in 1977, just a short time after Amy and Hal began summering there (“but I don’t count as a native”). Peg arrived many years later.
“Not all older women are the unacknowledged ministers of the world, but I am increasingly certain the world’s unacknowledged ministers are older women…”
When Donna talked of Corea, the light in her blue eyes was like the Downeast winter sky: widely reflective, generously radiant. She spoke of the trees, the animals, the people, as neighbors. Donna and Peg had a formidable collection of books on Maine history and culture, but I was more drawn to the breadth of genre and subject matter represented on their many shelves. They were wholly inquisitive about their whole world—the sort of women for whom disciplinary parameters were but useful organizational tools in their sizable archive. Entering their orbit fortified every precinct of my person.
“I’d describe her as a coiled spring,” Donna told me, half-chuckling, remembering her encounters with Clampitt. Amy and Hal lived on Corea’s Youngs Point, a peninsula on the Peninsula. There was one route into the village center, where the post office was located. Donna lived on that route. Walking to retrieve one’s mail has functioned as a daily social rite in Corea for a long time, which meant Clampitt—who sent and received much correspondence, especially as her poetry career blossomed—regularly walked past Donna’s house, and they saw each other frequently. They did not talk much, but they were both Midwesterners, so they were adept at passing pleasantries. They also were kindred in their sensitivities to the life and motion of the place. Donna fondly remembers Amy inquiring about the flowers in her yard, noting new appearances and bloomings. And, of course, there was the wild, diurnal dance of atmosphere and ocean to discuss. Mainers are the only people I have met who could talk Midwesterners under the table concerning the weather. Midwesterners in Maine, the crash site of the continent’s every passing system, become walking almanacs.
It was a crisp, sunny January day, just above freezing, and we walked out to Amy’s old place. The last portion of the road was a stew of ice and mud. The house was square and stout—the standard Maine frame for dwellings and dwellers—not one hundred feet from the water. You can see several islands at high tide. At low tide, tidepools abound on the rocks, and the congregation of islands nearly becomes a single piece of land—another peninsula, in fact, since you can walk to the nearest across a sand bar. The near island is Outer Bar, the site of Clampitt’s poem of the same name. The first two stanzas:
When through some lacuna, chink, or interstice
in the unlicensed free-for-all that goes
on without a halt out there all day, all night,
all through the winter,
one morning at low tide you walk dry-shod across
a shadow isthmus to the outer bar,
you find yourself, once over, sinking at every step
into a luscious mess—
Too wild and scruffy with sea matter to be “calm,” Clampitt’s corner of Maine was somehow still a place of peace, provided you accepted the sloppy terms of welcome. Amy did. Donna seemed to as well; as we wandered on the rocks, she wistfully noted the sonic interplay of waves and wind. Could anything rattle a woman born in tornado country?
“Could anything rattle a woman born in tornado country?”
I imagined Amy keeping watch out here, as her access points appeared and vanished by the hour. I imagine her waiting, then bounding to the bar, so as not to sink all the way. Like a coiled spring.
Donna’s memories of Amy square with other testimonies, and with the impression I gleaned from her writing—always moving, but possessed of a soul stillness that gathers then translates the witness of the trees and the hills. It is a prophetic synthesis—the wait, the watch, the silence poised to pass into proclamation. Did Amy’s various homes grant her this disposition, or was she already this way?
As with all New Yorkers who make their way to remote New England during the summer, it is tempting to say that Maine provided Clampitt a solitude and a connection with nature that New York could not, and the city provided opportunities and intercourse with a diverse multitude—”culture,” in a word. That is true as far as it goes; no one of Clampitt’s means keeps two properties out of love of redundancy. But her writing testifies to a woman attendant to the full ecologies of both places. While her Maine poems demonstrate her fascination with meteorology, botany, and ornithology, they include quite a number of humans. Letters from and about Corea catalogue the activity of tides and people alike, and they are saturated with solicitation for visitors. She knew New York was flush with nature and culture, and she marked it all, from surprising urban tumbleweed to barely-perceptible water seepages in Times Square stairwells. In her letters about city life, she is as likely to wax Thoreauvian about the flora, the fauna, the crackle of ice on the Central Park Reservoir, as she is to describe a Broadway show or social gathering. Her description to Philip of the mystic experience she had in the mid-1950s, at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan, places her in the visionary company of Hart Crane, Alfred Corn, and Walt Whitman—poets of the New York ecstasy, private and populous. As with all seers, her vision fell unbroken on what was barely there.
A poet of the world’s motions must master stillness. This means not simply knowing how to be at rest, but also knowing when to vault out of one’s mark—when to be coiled, and when to spring. Maine and Manhattan are both regions of relative, wildly-converging velocities: profound tidal shifts, shifty corporations of clouds, multitudes containing specimens whose pacing constitutes, but is only partly explained by, the tempo of the whole. To get the full sense of both requires sometimes stopping to let it all whiz by, sometimes running with a pacing partner, tracking a watermark, sometimes skipping across the city blocks and the tidepools, each a universe with its own velocities. It requires competence enough to navigate the everyday uncanniness of these places; only true artists can chart them.
The self-described poet of displacement was herself a displaced poet, through a combination of circumstance and choice. By most metrics, Clampitt did not have the luxury of a single, “true” home. But given her homelessness, she had made prudent arrangements. Maine and New York City are places of, by, and for the displaced. That is not all they are, nor are they destined to remain that way. Paradoxically, the quality of their hospitality, and of those they welcome, is in direct proportion to the piety paid to their older populations. Lose the latter, lose it all. It is a precarious situation; Americans have a bad record of honoring elders and natives.
It is 2020. I revisit the student’s introduction, trying on another synonym:
Her words are so…urgent.
I could go with that one. Given the quantity and quality of the problems we face one hundred years after Clampitt’s birth, this feels like a time when we need urgency expressed in art. I also understand the urgency of the artistic vocation itself. In the mad scramble of social media branding and influencer culture, the spoils seem to go to the person with the best hustle. Get while the getting is good: think, write, and publish (are they the same?) at the frenetic, character-per-second tempo of a live feed—the tempo, we are told, of the young. Otherwise, someone else will say it better, louder, faster. It is the old irony of the American ethic of scarcity: during those epochs when the technocrats claim to have liberated us from the limitations of time and space, we operate as if there is no time, no space—no outlet, not a moment to spare, no sanctuary.
“Given the quantity and quality of the problems we face one hundred years after Clampitt’s birth, this feels like a time when we need urgency expressed in art…”
It is tremendously difficult to keep these forms of urgency separate, but their entanglement causes us major problems. Patience is not always a virtue, but ultimately patience may be all we have to navigate these waters, for the simple fact that time is not ours. All we have is the watch, the charting of every migratory pattern, including our own. When Clampitt describes Ernest Woodward’s vigilance for the hummingbird in “What the Light Was Like,” she is both the lobsterman and the seasonal bird, the crosser and the dweller: “He kept an eye out // for it, we learned one evening, as for everything that flapped / or hopped or hovered / crepuscular under the firs […]: ”
I am looking at a picture of Amy Clampitt. It is 1942. She would have been fresh out of Grinnell, about the age of the undergraduate at the poetry reading. She is seated in Riverside Park in New York—judging by the buildings behind her, just a few blocks from my city apartment. In most of her photos she has a gleeful, wide-eyed grin, but this young Clampitt—seated, arms across her knees—looks a little troubled as she gazes down a grassy hill. She is looking away from Columbia, toward the Hudson, back toward Iowa. This young woman has gone east. As she ages will proceed eastward, slowly, against the American current, with the motions of the clouds, toward the dawnland.