Oct 31, 2010
Amy Clampitt at the Newark Airport
A few weeks ago, I was in New York for a wedding and I stopped by the apartment of a former professor of mine to catch up. We talked for a while about what he was teaching, the students in his workshop, Houston, the election, and he read me one of his new poems. As I was leaving, he offered me a copy of the new Amy Clampitt selected from Knopf. It had come in the mail, but he already had all her books, and he thought I might not. I took it, graciously.
If someone asked me--prior to receiving this book--to describe why I dislike Amy Clampitt I would've said, "Because she's boring." I might've been able to call up "The Kingfisher" if asked to name one of her poems, but probably not. Honestly, I would've been sure of only one thing: Amy Clampitt is a poet from the second half of the last century who falls into a group of poets who I think are boring.
There are plenty of poets that I haven't read closely for similar reasons. I have a vague feeling that I dislike Dryden. I couldn't say why exactly, and I wouldn't make a serious argument against him, but it's enough to keep me from picking up "Mac Flecknoe" next time I'm at the library. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. There are more poets than I'm going to read. And yet, maybe because it was a gift, maybe because I was in the airport, I started reading Amy Clampitt and I saw immediately that I was wrong about her. This isn't boring poetry. Poised, articulate, unafraid, even fierce. Look at this final stanza from "Letters from Jerusalem": The latest letter, with no date, begins Shalom! Tomorrow his leave ends, then back to the desert. Tanks are less accommodating even than the Talmud to a divided mind. The promised land more and more is dense with engines. Converging overhead, in skies that swam, the distances grow predatory and explode with burning seraphim.
It wasn't at all what I was expecting. I was excited by the syntax, the images, the form of the stanzas, the mind behind the poems. Ultimately, I found there were things I really liked even in those few poems, like "The Outer Bar," which I could remember disliking in the past. I maintain: read what you want. It isn't important that every aesthetic tradition get equal coverage on your bookshelf. Theodore Roethke's mom isn't going to call after school gets out to ask why you skipped his turn. But what I am saying is this: thinking about poetry too much in terms of schools and traditions is dangerous. Reading that way, we miss poets who might be important to us, just because we dislike their friends. And worse, we give ourselves an excuse not to challenge our assumptions; we give ourselves an excuse not to think.