CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the early 1980s, a New York bookstore sympathetic to struggling writers returned four of the five copies of Amy Clampitt's self-published poems she had asked the store to try to sell. The only one that was sold was bought by one of her friends.
But by the beginning of this year, she had four collections published by a large publishing house, and her work was being likened in significance to Lowell, Stevens and Plath. One specialty publisher is now even producing a handmade volume of some of her work that will cost $700 per book.
Now, at age 70, Amy Clampitt is enjoying success rarely visited upon American poets.
She first attracted attention with the 1983 publication of "The Kingfisher," which unleashed, to use a phrase from one of her poems, "a shower of bloom." The praise has largely continued through three more volumes, most recently, "Westward."
"All I can tell you is that it wasn't any cinch," Clampitt says.
For decades she wrote in the deep obscurity of a New York artist's life, even as the popular appeal of poetry seemed on a death spiral, especially the sometimes demanding verse--critics call it allusive--that she writes.
Clampitt must have hardly seemed up to such hardscrabble work when she left the farm in New Providence, Iowa, a town of 200 people in the heart of the heartland. She was a nervous, elfin kid who had a Phi Beta Kappa key from Grinnell College, but who had not been enough of a hand around the farm even to have milked a single cow.
"I wasn't very muscular or inclined to do strenuous things," she concedes.
But she learned how to fetch a phrase. She learned mostly from her grandfather, a lover of reading and nature who once awakened one of his children and carried her into the night to point out the sound of a whippoorwill.
Clampitt's poetry is alive with such pastoral sights and sounds: the "cheekily anarchic dartings and flashings" of birds, the "vaporous fripperies" of clouds, of "bog laurel and lambkill," the "blurred flute note" of a warbler. They all come out in "torques, in curdlings, cadenzas by the earful."
Even when the reader is wading through "seaweed-clodded polyphloisboio thalasses" or trying to see "chiasmus through the looking-glass," her wordplay is resonant, musical.
Over the years, as her splendid words went unnoticed, she sustained herself with a few attempts at traditional work, including a brief stint as an assistant librarian at the Audubon Society in New York. But she worked mainly as a free-lance editor.
By the 1970s, she was reconciling herself to never being widely read. But she kept writing.
Then, in 1978, the New Yorker--one of the magazines which had "been rejecting me for years"--took a long look and decided to publish some of her work. She had found a kindred spirit in poetry editor Howard Moss.
"He knew what a sundew is," she says, recalling with a fresh giggle one of their early conversations about her writing.
After the New Yorker, many of the other important magazines followed. When "The Kingfisher" came out, the little world of American poetry was stunned by the thrill of, the achievement of, the thing.
Clampitt, meanwhile, suffered the letdown that comes after publication of a first major work. She also suffered from all the attention.
"This kind of fame is limited to a little circle, but it is very different," says Clampitt, who was in Cambridge for a reading of her poems. "I thought I was going to be a person who spent her life in obscurity, and then this came. It jolted me. I wasn't ready to have people know about me."
Then, when the windfall of attention had subsided somewhat, the gainsayers who had been crouching in discontent emerged. And it hurt.
The comeuppance came mainly by way of three poetry magazine contributors--she calls them "aspiring critics"--who took issue with her dense language and literary allusions.
"They were all women," she says. "I guess some of them just don't allow for throwbacks like me."
Some of the criticism was well-reasoned, for at times Clampitt can be excessive in her reference to other texts or in her language--i.e. her preference for classical traditions over the sparse style so much in vogue.
But, oh, some of the things they said:
"Clampitt is not a poet of emotional depth."
". . . it would be better for Amy Clampitt if, at least for a while, she tucked her notes from Poetry 101 away in a trunk."
". . . all her prosodies tend to cacophony (sic)."
Clampitt can be vague, but her work is more likely to sparkle with the bright particulars she has enjoyed in her long romance with the language. She can be quick in her borrowings from other writers, but she is also a jewel thief who can pick the pockets of Hopkins or Wordsworth when they have just what she needs. She is stylistically somewhat outdated, but refreshingly so.
Her poems already are finding their way into anthologies, and many critics are talking as if her work will "last."