"Nobody Knows the Story": Amy Clampitt's Poems of Childhood

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AMY CLAMPITT (1920-1994) IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT AMERICAN POETS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY'S FINAL 15 YEARS, ALL THE MORE INTERESTING BECAUSE HER MAJOR PUBLICATIONS, THE ONES ON WHICH HER REPUTATION IS BASED, CAME OUT AFTER SHE WAS 63. IT WOULD SEEM LIKELY THAT FOR A LATE-STARTING POET MUCH WOULD DEPEND ON MEMORY, AND THIS IS THE CASE WITH CLAMPITT. SHE SAYS THAT ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURES OF HER LIFE WAS "BEING NATIVE TO THE MIDWEST--AND HAVING LEFT IT. AND THEN LOOKING BACK" (Predecessors 164). Young, she was anxious to escape the Midwest: "There I was, in a community that had its feet on the ground, that looked askance at flightiness, at any imagination at all. So I wanted to get out of there" (Fairchild 20). Having escaped to the East and still in the uncertainties of early adulthood, she began to write fragments about childhood memories (Hosmer 82). I think it is likely, however, that in middle age there was a more defining moment; a 1968 poem, "Untergang," (Multitudes Multitudes 25-29, not re-published in Collected Poems) tells of returning in a dream to the prairie farm of her childhood and ends with the image of "floodgates opening." Fact or dream, this suggests a deeper encounter with her past, which might have effected the imaginative release resulting in her first major volume, The Kingfisher, published in 1983.

Many of the poems of the extraordinarily fruitful decade that remained to her take her childhood as subject. The depiction is discontinuous, an image here, a stanza there, occasionally a whole poem, all transected by different lights and shadows. One poem, largely based on childhood, says "Nobody knows the story" (The Collected Poems 219). (1) Taken together, however, the childhood poems begin to admit us to some of the deepest sources of her feeling. They reveal the natural world as Darwinian in its sublimities of time and space and in the evolved interdependencies of creatures, a natural world only temporarily and deceptively manicured into something humanly habitable. Their view of inner nature is equally disquieting, one threatened by sexuality and dissolution. But there are childhood scenes as well that suggest a momentary transcendence of all this. These poems, and many others as well, are constantly asking how it is that we human beings seem both to belong and not belong to nature.

Of course nobody knows the full story of childhood, one's own or another's. Clampitt herself said that she did not usually care for "openly confessional poetry" (Fairchild 17), and her reference to memory on one occasion as "that exquisite blunderer" (25) is cautionary. The various childhood passages, assembled, show the poet revisiting a child who is growing up in, and deeply connected to, a particular Midwestern American landscape and rural culture. It is a portrait full of vivid details, a little girl reading a fairy tale, fascinated by a spectacular moth, playing in her grandmother's flower garden or out in a wet spring field, and a bored adolescent day-dreaming in a schoolroom. Such details might easily have been sentimentalized and pastoralized. But that is not how Clampitt presents them. Whether the depicted experiences and emotions are factual is not at issue here. We cannot know that until and unless a biography appears. What we can know is how certain experiences of nature, selfhood, parents, sexuality, and femaleness have been selected, re-imagined, and made originary to a unique and troubled adult imagination.

In mapping this imagination, the names of Darwin, Freud, and Gerard Manley Hopkins can be used as landmarks. It scarcely needs saying that they were not on a little girl's reading list, no matter how book-oriented her family was. It was only later that they became a part of her way of perceiving and comprehending experience, including experience remembered from childhood. They represent on the one hand the sciences of geology, biology, and psychology and on the other hand religion. …


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