Poets You Should Know About: Amy Clampitt, The Sea-Singer

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

To make something boring interesting, see it through someone else’s eyes. If you’re reading nature poetry, I recommend Amy Clampitt’s enraptured vision. For Wordsworth, the nature poem was a meditation; for Frost, a parable; but for Clampitt it was pure detail:

A vagueness comes over everything,

as though proving color and contour

alike dispensable: the lighthouse

extinct, the islands’ spruce-tips

drunk up like milk in the

universal emulsion.

from “Fog”

Has fog ever been this sensuous? She remade straw (“running platinum,/ the yellower alloy of wheat and barley”), sea-foam (“so single/ it might almost be lifted,/ folded over, crawled underneath”), the ocean itself (“playing catch or tag/ or touch-last like a terrier,/ turning the same thing over and over”). The coast of Maine was her field of play, as the New Hampshire forest was Frost’s. But where wood offers us stillness in Frost, for Clampitt water is flux and spontaneous overflow:

Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,

the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up

the scree-slope of what at high tide

will be again an island …

from “A Hermit Thrush”

It makes sense that Clampitt was a novelist before she began writing her poems, which, at their best, move narratively: she and her lover climb the isthmus for a picnic, she dwells on their “prolonged attachment”, and a hermit thrush “distills its fragmentary,/ hesitant, in the end// unbroken music.” From where do such “links perceived” arrive? Why have we come to this instant? It is here that “there’s// hardly a vocabulary left to wonder,” she writes. (And wonder involves both puzzlement and awe.)

The poem answers Thomas Hardy, who wrote “The Darkling Thrush” a hundred years earlier:

… I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

from “The Darkling Thrush”

For Clampitt, the singing was hope. “Uncertain/ as we are of so much in this existence,” words grant us continuity, give us narrative. Like the ocean water of Clampitt’s coast, they mix and surface. Clampitt, who lived by this cold, beautiful element, made from it ever-moving music.

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