Amy Clampitt’s “Nothing Stays Put” opens with an allusion to Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us,” and the turn her allusion takes is indicative of what she makes of the excess of the world: “The strange and wonderful are too much with us.” That line itself can be heard numerous ways: the description itself, “how strange and wonderful” is too often spoken and heard; we are too often confronted with what has traveled from distant, exotic lands and is now within reach (the poem is largely descriptive of non-native flowers for sale in NYC); unexpectedly, she might stress “too much” so that it seems that “with us” is doing the real work, implying that we make too big a fuss over the strange and wonderful; “with us,” in our perspective etc. She seems at any rate to distance herself from the sentiment or the reality, the “too much” conveying exasperation even if admiration is in the mix. But then the final stanza of the poem opens with the same phrase:
But at this remove what I think of as
strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan
on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom,
a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above–
is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift
of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we’re
made of, is motion.
In that return of the phrase (“nothing stays put,” the poem says, and means it: not the opening phrase, and not the words of other poets, to whom she alludes), she seems to have embraced it, or at least to have clarified, for herself and for us, what she meant by its first appearance: that we are focusing on the wrong “strange and wonderful” things, that having so much strange and wonderful with us is neither inherently worth complaint, nor inherently worth praise, since there are, as she recognizes here, strange and wonderful things that are worth cherishing. The poem resolves both attitudes, and finds its resolution in the final stanza, in the final lines, which come to rest on the word “motion,” and which come to rest prematurely, as if complete, sated with thought, before their time; the previous three stanzas have twelve lines apiece, this only has nine.
Those two attitudes towards abundance are everywhere in Clampitt’s poetry, which is as great as any American poetry after the Second World War (a realization I was slow to arrive at, and which I’m only now exploring): indeed, abundance is her great subject, as it was the great subject of Whitman. If we are inclined to set American poets in the traditions of Whitman and Dickinson, the unfortunate cover illustration of the Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt a delicate sketch of a wildflower, suggests she is in the latter, which is no insult but also not accurate. She is more the heir to Whitman; there is nothing rickety, evasive, riddling in her metaphors or similes; the riddles are how all of the stuff in the poems gets in there at all, why it fits and relates, and not why she relates it the way she does. The answer would seem to be that the world has put it before her, and that the world, in an argument her poems imply but do not affirm, is maddeningly knotted up with itself. In the stanza I’ve quoted from “Nothing Stays Put,” the word “petalfall” represents a characteristic verbal trick, the compound word, sometimes hyphenated and here not, registering the distinctness of the world’s occurrences and objects, deserving individual names for their individuality.
Hopkins is the obvious precedent for this sort of attention to dense particularity (among her contemporaries, she most reminds me of Geoffrey Hill), but I think that Clare is also relevant for thinking about what sort of poet she is, and reading her makes one reassess her predecessors to ask whether they admit abundance or deny it in their poems, whether they view it as bounty or waste, and to what extent they organize it or register it, whether it serves as a vehicle for thought, in the extended similes of metaphysicals, say, or whether it is itself to be thought, to be disclosed by thought.
Like Hopkins and Clare, and Whitman, she seems to admit its abundance, to view it mostly as a bounty, to register it, and to think it, to disclose it in her poems; this is to very roughly describe her cosmology. But she is more like Wordsworth in not knowing whether she feels entirely positive about it, whether she ought not to worry about waste and lost powers, about the world’s abundance as it might have been, rather than the world’s abundance as it is. Exuberance is freighted by wariness and weariness; wariness and weariness are animated by the compulsion to see, read, think, write, record.
Like Hopkins, Clare, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Stevens, she is a poet of self-consciousness,not in the sense that she is especially (for a poet) self-aware or that she has more sense of identity than others, but that she takes seriously that Romantic insight into self-hood (I’ve tried to write on it here and here and here ) that comprehends that self is self-consciousness and that self-consciousness is to be conscious of the world, and to know oneself to know it; this is what it means for poets to “think the abundance of the world” rather than to testify to the abundance of the world by reaching out for any and all of it in order to give figure and form to thought (this the metaphysicals); this is what it means to be a Romantic poet, which Clampitt is.
“An Anatomy of Migraine” rises from the middle of the Collected Poems not as the most impressive peak, but as the peak whose contours and exposures lay bare the underlying geology of the entire range, and so reveal to view what many of the poems are about too. It is so long as to preclude my fully quoting it, but in some fashion it can be read on The New Yorker website (it appeared in print there).
The New York Times review of Archaic Figure, the 1987 collection in which the poem appeared, was right to say it revealed her essential subject matter, but wrong to say that subject matter was pain. The consciousness of pain, the pain of a migraine, recurrent but not perpetual, occasions the poem’s broader engagement with the mysterious phenomenon of self-consciousness. It opens:
Inquire what conscioues is made of
with Galen, with Leonardo, Leewenhoek
or Dr. Tulp, and you find two hemispheres,
a walnut in a bath of humors.
So there it is, baldly stated (Tulp is the subject of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson). The reckoning with self-consciousness follows soon after:
Go back, step past the nadir of whatever
happened to divide our reckoning,a faction
of an anti-millennium, a millennium and more
ago, and hear Hippocrates declare
the brain is double. Since then, as to
where, in these paired hemispheres, the self–
with its precarious sense of I am I,
with its extremes of possibility–
resides, we’ve come no nearer than
Descartes, who though he’d found it in
the pineal teardop. (Now no one’s sure
what that gland is for.)
Inquire what consciouness is made of
Of Simone Weil, and she answers: Pain.
The drag of gravity. The sledge of time.
A wretchedness no system
can redeem, extreme affliction that
destroys the I; nothing is worse, she
It’s difficult to stop quoting Clampitt, not only because the lines are so good, but because the syntax is ceaseless, the lists so extensive, suddenly, when they do seem to be coming to a close, issuing forth into a further delta of thought. What is surprising in a poem that is very much about pain, and not only the pain of migraines, and its immediacy, the consciousness of it, and how it can warp and deflect consciousness, is how eager the writing seems to admit no pain into itself, in much the same way that Elizabeth Bishop (whom I detect more here than elsewhere, in the parentheses but also in the mode of direct, unsentimental reporting, neither insisting on the significance of the first-person, nor so coyly effacing the first-person as to draw attention to it anyway) in “One Art” seems to admit no sadness; in both poems, the effort to turn away, to keep a chin up, testifies poignantly to there being something to turn away from. In Clampitt’s poem, the consciousness is known, perversely, not through pain itself, but through the reflection on pain that comes to feel a conscious exclusion of pain from the self-conscious mind.
How to close a poem that seems all digression, all evasion of pain by digression of the consciousness through reflection, memories, reading, description, held together in orbit around the mind thinking of itself? Wordsworth offered an answer in “Tintern Abbey,” and Stevens found something similar to offer scope and pitch to “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction”: the second-person address. Clampitt’s poem is not to her own mind, but of her own mind to a friend who was not, she says, enough in it, through no fault of either party. Here, then, is how Clampitt’s poem ends:
happy.” Anny, friend by mail, what I would give
for time to talk of this! We met just once; at ease
at once, walked barefoot on the sands at Malibu,
the blue air that afternoon, by
some semantic miracle, angelic; picked up stones,
observed the dolphins. A last letter, in that script
her unemphatic beauty stanched without a trace.
Then, in a hand I did not recognize–
cramped, small, precise–one from the husband
who’d survived her: dead in her sleep. No
warning. But she’d known, had written of, in
one half-retracted note, a premonition.
I miss her. Though our lives just touched,
the torn fabric of some not-yet-imagined
prospect hangs there, streamered, splendid,
vague: well-being rainbowed
over a lagoon of dark: all that I’m even
halfway sure of marked by that interior cleft
(black, white; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim), I
live with shades of possibility,
with strangers, friends I never spoke to, with
the voices of the dead, the sunlight like gold
water on the wall–electron-charged, precarious–
all tenuously made of consciousness.
Thus the poem rises to greatness. What I hear in the lines, and what I then see in the form of the lines, is a turn to another that resembles (the thought arising as I typed them out) Tennyson’s turn at the end of “Tiresias,” when he published it years after he had composed it, and addressed his old friend Edward Fitzgerald, who then died before it could be published, moving Tennyson to write an additional coda mourning his friend. That can be found here. Without knowing for sure whether Clampitt knew Tennyson’s poem, it is difficult, given the extent of her reading, and given her investment in Victorian literature (poems about Alice, about George Eliot), to think she wouldn’t have, and difficult then to think she wouldn’t have admired Tennyson’s virtuosic syntactical extension, so like her own, across the space of thirty or more lines; and then it is difficult not to think, when we consider Clampitt’s own tone in the poem, affectionate but reserved, friendly but not overly-familiar, of Tennyson’s quatrains in the epistle to F.D. Maurice.
Clampitt’s poem is “In memory of Annette Leo” and when she turns to address the absent friend, she calls her “Anny,” which both respects her as an individual, knowing what she would have wanted to have been called, but which cannot but help suggesting that she is “any,” and even “any” one reader, no longer being “someone” at all, the poem itself not being the letter that Clampitt could not write back. Being “any,” and being dead, “Anny” is one of the “shades of possibility.”
The lines soar, however, wings releasing, with the word “I,” aloft over the line space in the penultimate line of the penultimate stanza. The “I” is very much Clampitt, just as “Anny” is very much a person, but it is also evacuated at that moment, detached from the identity of the poet (as blank as the space on the page that it abuts), just as “Anny” is simultaneous “any” second-person, detached from the facts of her life. Instead, the “I” is the bare statement of self-consciousness, so that we might imagine quotation marks around it, ” ‘I’ live with shades of possibility”: this is how any I lives. It is self-affirmation in the most austere form; a relation of “I” to others, and then to “all,” where “all” takes in not just what she has named, but “anything,” it being the equivalent of the sign for infinity, but then acknowledged to be only “tenuously made of consciousness” both in the sense that consciousness can only make tenuously and that the world can only ever be tenuously made, depending as it does on the “I.”
“Shades of possibility” beguiles with its gossamer expanse; containing so much, and bound by so little: being only a shade, the possibility cannot be realized, but can be known nonetheless; the shades perhaps are like those Dante encounters in the afterlife (Clampitt has alluded to Dante already in the poem, to the Inferno, to damnation, and now seems to have ascended into a Paradise), in which case they are shades of the living who are now dead, and who have, as a consequence of dying, become mere possibilities, possibilities who will be realized in the living selves who speak to them, or else who were only ever possibilities, when alive, and who are now shades of their former selves; in the latter, we would say that any “I” is only a possibility, a potential waiting to be realized, by an exertion of the powers consciousness–which Clampitt’s poems, beautifully, are.