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Nothing is Beneath Consideration: Christopher Bakken on the Letters of Poets
Posted By Christopher Bakken On March 23, 2008 @ 3:42 pm In Reviews | No Comments
Reviewed: A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright. Edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
The Letters of Robert Lowell. Edited by Saskia Hamilton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt. Edited by Willard Spiegelman. Columbia University Press, 2005.
By my count, the greatest collection of letters ever produced by a poet advances at least one exquisitely rendered thought per page, and many of these thoughts match in wit and wisdom, and often in beauty of expression, the intensity of that poet’s best poems. Before I reveal the obvious, let me quote my favorite passage in all those letters:
Yesterday I got a black eye—the first time I took a Cricket bat—Brown who is always one’s friend in a disaster applied a leech to the eyelid and there is no inflammation this morning, though the ball hit me directly on the sight—it was a white ball—I am glad it was not a clout—This is the second black eye I have had since leaving school—during all my school days I never had one at all . . .
This passage, from an extraordinarily long letter written by (who else?) John Keats to his brother and sister in 1819, has always satisfied me in a way the undeniably beautiful, highly precocious purple passages in his letters cannot: here I am allowed a peripheral glimpse at a meteoric life in progress, at the actions of a physical beast, in this case the soon-to-be tubercular human being of John Keats. I am moved and instructed knowing that while he tinkered with early drafts of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “Ode to Psyche” the young poet also played cricket (rather badly, it appears), played cards until dawn, and spent hours guzzling cellar-cooled claret, enjoying a rarefied buzz which, according to him
mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments like a bully in a bad house looking for his trul and hurrying from door to door bouncing against the waist-coat; but rather walks like Aladin about his own enchanted palace that you do not feel his step.
In short, in his letters I make the acquaintance of Keats the hilarious and charming, in addition to the Keats the great poet whose bones have been picked clean by a thousand scholars.
To make a truly complete appraisal of any poet’s work, one of my teachers always insisted, we need the collected poems, plus all the poet’s prose, plus as many of the poet’s letters as can reasonably be gathered into print. Without the letters we can evaluate only the performances rehearsed, polished, and spotlit for public consumption. Without the letters we cannot know the diva as she looked backstage, with her hair in curlers, her wrinkles showing, her gown crucified on its hanger. In addition to opening a window into a concealed portion of a poet’s practice—those missed steps and rehearsals and smudged drafts that make up the main portion of a writer’s life—letters also offer the kind of intimacy we seek when we come to real poetry in the first place, not to mention the makings of biography we long for with poets we adore.
Therefore, even though I know better, I almost always allow myself to believe in the fiction that letter-writing exposes parts of a literary mind that aren’t likely to be revealed in poems. At the very least, letters would seem to spring from a different department of the poet’s mind, since the conventions that power the composition of verse (meter and rhyme in particular) are rarely much involved in the composition of letters. The poet’s inner editor, otherwise leering into each phrase with the eye of an enemy, or scything away at the rough edges of stanzas, is typically banished—if not into the next county then at least to the other end of the couch. Revision, that alchemical process through which poems become poems, is not a requirement of the letter-making convention. So when there are ideas (where would poetry be without Keats’s letter defining “Negative Capability”?) they are meant to come unencumbered by titles, stanzas, and lines; fallaciously or not, we read letters expecting a spontaneous honesty and levity, a lucidity of thought and a revelatory surprise that, in truth, only the best letters—like the best poems—ever attain.
Letters are performances, of course, one half of a duet meant to be completed by another. While a poem, as Paul Célan describes it, is “a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the—surely not always strong—hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere . . . .” it is worth remembering that actual letters were once folded into carefully addressed envelopes (not bottles) we expected to have punctually delivered (through rain, sleet, snow, etc.) and responsibly answered. Hope, according to the U.S. Postal Service, should have nothing to do with it.
The slight formality of that process is now presumably lost in the literary ice age of e-mail. Who could imagine wanting to read the selected e-mails of most of the poets writing today? (God knows mine are hopelessly mundane.) It is precisely this formality, and this blurriness of convention—what kind of writing goes into a letter anyway?—that makes letter-reading a particular thrill, at least for me, especially when the correspondents’ prose measures up to the almost guilty enthusiasm of my voyeuristic impulses, as it does frequently in the selected letters of Robert Lowell, James Wright, and Amy Clampitt.
In addition to satisfying my hankerings for intriguing prose, these three volumes open a window into the curious, fragmentary state of American poetry in the middle of the twentieth century. After an immediate, meteoric ascent with Lord Weary’s Castle, Lowell enjoyed an almost unprecedented position of authority in the world of poetry for the majority of his writing life—only early death dislodged him. By contrast, Wright’s letters, especially those written early in his career, reveal how isolated a young poet from the Midwest could be—banished to the periphery in every way. There is no sense of entitlement for Wright from Ohio, only doubt and bewilderment. Even after winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize, his career was marked by a kind of staggered, agonized progression, one dictated by his outsider status as much as by his dynamic and tempestuous personality. Finally, there’s Clampitt, living at the very edge of invisibility. While Lowell and Wright raged, Clampitt was disengaged from the bad business of poetry in America until the last few decades of her life, when a string of publications in The New Yorker altered her life so suddenly and dramatically that she had no choice but to become Amy Clampitt, American poet.
The letters of Robert Lowell were just what I expected them to be: crackling with introspection, brilliance, and upheaval. They reward both a cover-to-cover inspection as well as the quick glance at the random page, stuffed full as they are with delicious phrases, indelicacies, and surprises. Lowell’s letters were clearly written for an audience larger than the addressees who originally received them—they spring from a mind perfectly assured of its value and from a hand perfectly suited to that mind’s expression. In the selection’s very first letter, sent by the Harvard freshman to Ezra Pound in 1936, Lowell confesses that he had been “wanting to write” to his elder “for several months,” though he hadn’t “quite had the courage until now.” “You will probably think that I am very impudent and presumptuous,” he continues, “but I want to come to Italy and work under you and forge my way into reality.” Of course Lowell includes a few of his own poems, since he was, yes, entirely impudent and presumptuous. “My career, I hope, will be exceptional rather than queer,” he writes to Merrill Moore the same year, “. . . flaunting convention by penetration rather than by eccentricity.”
Lowell invents the terms of his vocation in letter after letter, stopping only occasionally to remind himself what the terms of this predestination will require of him:
My qualifications are a wide reading in English and an ability to read poetry extremely closely; a knowledge of the classics which should enable me, in say three or four years, to read fluently not only Greek and Latin but all the Romance Languages. I have need of a thorough acquaintance with history, particularly American history . . . . I have need of a knowledge of sciences and mathematics, and here I am totally ignorant.
It is not hard to locate where Lowell’s sense of entitlement came from—born pure Boston as he was—though it is tremendously moving, and at times entertaining to watch how hard he worked to shake that silver spoon from his mouth. At nineteen, the Harvard dropout has plenty enough assurance to write his parents a scathing letter to inform them, in the form of a perfunctory and prickly list, that their “attitude toward a self-supporting job” is “sentimental,” and that he has no intention of
leading a sort of platonic-non-money-making existence. I have already made a few valuable connections, not because I was a Lowell at Harvard but by my writing and general attitude. I expect in a year or so to show my power in perfectly definite ways.
Oh, and “for reasons hardly worth mentioning,” he declares to them, in item number four on his list, his intentions to marry a woman named Anne Dick “as soon as possible.” Clearly mom and dad endured the monumental thrust of Lowell’s prose before the rest of the world got to endure it in his poetry. When Lowell writes to F.D.R. (and simultaneously The New York Times) a few years later, in order to declare himself a conscientious objector, he knows he has enough New England Puritan in him to frame his decision in the patriotic, historical terms any president should comprehend:
You will understand how painful such a decision is for an American whose family traditions, like yours, have always found their fulfillment in maintaining, through responsible participation in both the civil and the military services, our country’s freedom and honor.
But he chooses not to mention the fact that he’d failed numerous physical examinations while trying to enlist voluntarily.
To be fair, Lowell matched every gift of pedigree with an endless fund of determination and labor. His energy, which has him spilling over the edge of graphomania at all times, is both inspiring and disconcerting. Although confidence usually has very little to do with the making of poetry, it certainly had a lot to do with the making of this poet; how else would he have found the audacity to turn his back on Harvard and pitch his “translucent green umbrella tent obliquely under a lotus tree” on Allen Tate’s lawn in Tennessee, re-casting himself as a Southern poet?
How else would he have felt a compulsion to write to George Santayana to tell “some of his story,” describing himself as a “mild, secular quietist—usually in trouble though—and an anarchical conservative”? In another letter he tries to turn the old philosopher on to Wallace Stevens, while predicting that Santayana may find Stevens’s “organization disquieting,” and despite the fact that Stevens “tosses off too much.” “But he has a wonderful ear,” Lowell retorts, “a richness and a moderation. I’ve sometimes wondered if some of his ideas didn’t derive from yours.”
But Lowell’s best letters are inspired by more than bravado. The warmest series of correspondence to be found in The Letters of Robert Lowell chart the relatively forgotten friendship between Lowell and William Carlos Williams, and between Lowell and Ezra Pound, as well as Lowell’s celebrated relationship with Elizabeth Bishop. These letters, if I read them correctly, show Lowell at his most vulnerable; they also display his uncanny talent (which we also see in abundance in the portrait sonnets of his book History) for nailing down, in a neatly tossed-off phrase or two, the bottom nature of fellow poets and human beings. Do we have another poet who explored his own the shadowed reflections so ruthlessly? Lowell was clearly capable of seeing through the looking glass as well, beyond reputations and hype, deep into other selves, with an intensity of focus that is not inclined to make everyone comfortable.
In many cases, these result in prose caricatures which, by definition, reveal much more than exaggerations of the truth. By the early 1950’s, Pound’s centrality in American poetry had already been compromised by his insanity, which Lowell is at pains to set aside out of sympathy, though he is willing to concede that he finds some of Pound’s ideas “deadly and frivolous—his map of the world is an enormous Italian boot with a little fringe of lace at the top, labeled ‘Europe.’” Sylvia Plath writes with a “dare-devil desperation.” He tells T.S. Eliot that “she came to my class one spring in Boston, and I only thought of her as sensitive, accomplished, and anonymous—now she seems as brilliant to me as Emily Dickinson, and with something of the same nervous compression.” Berryman’s work, he informs Berryman himself, has a “strange heart-cutting poet maudit and late Elizabethan tragedy quality.”
Through his correspondence, the young Lowell seems bent on “converting” the old foes William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot to one another in person, hoping to close a gulf in American aesthetic that Lowell doesn’t want to believe exists. He understands both writers in deeply idiosyncratic terms. He sums up Williams to Williams by remarking “You know how to hit like thunder . . . . and yet you can be most practical and courteous. I think being a doctor made you as a writer, and that that freedom for full artistic concentration and perfection would have taken away far more than it would have brought you.” And he sums up Eliot to Valerie, Eliot’s wife, by way of condolence on the occasion of the poet’s death, declaring
there was no one else who could both write and tell us how to write, no one who spoke with such authority and so little played the roll [sic] of a great man. There was no doubt of the greatness, even in the modest silences and the patient courtesy with the boring and humdrum, and least of all in the loud laughter and little phrases and whole narrations of wild irony.
In the end it was Lowell’s own poetry that would come to bridge this aesthetic distance, combining as it would in Life Studies and For the Union Dead the stratified historical sense of Eliot with the demotic candor of Williams.
Randall Jarrell is always there in the letters too, usually as a character Lowell must explain and defend to others. “Randall’s something with people he doesn’t like,” Lowell explains to Elizabeth Bishop, and to be fair there’s not much evidence here that Jarrell liked many people. On another occasion, he confesses that he finds Jarrell “emotionally immature, puritanical, monstrous, odd; but his peculiarity is part of his excellence.” Yet there is a touching, protective and competitive warmth between the two of them. Praising Jarrell for his translations of Rilke, Lowell remarks that he expects “they took as much pain and intuition and humble uncertainty” as Jarrell’s own poetry, boiling down beautifully—pain, intuition, humble uncertainty—the almost spiritual complications faced by any serious literary translator, not to mention any serious poet.
And he characterizes the poetry of his beloved Elizabeth Bishop to Elizabeth Bishop this way: “You seem to have a loose seemingly careless style, very humorous, very ‘I am saying what amuses me and saying it without breaking my back’; but of course I know all [the] fierce labors you really go through. What I mean to say is that this last poem [“Manuelzinho”] and your long wonderful Nova Scotia story [“In the Village”] both give themselves, as though you weren’t writing at all, but just talking in a full noisy room, talking until suddenly everyone is quiet.” That’s a pretty solid assessment of Bishop’s peculiar angle to the universe. Lowell’s exchanges with Elizabeth Bishop are full of such observations, and they are worth reading on their own, as they were so convincingly and carefully by the late David Kalstone in his book, Becoming a Poet.
Alas, if we exclude those written to Bishop, Lowell’s letters to the women in his life—those with whom he had failed marriages, or near misses (including the most excruciatingly ridiculous love letters to Giovanna Madonia Erba, his more or less imaginary Italian lover)—do not shine a flattering light on his character. The letters from Lowell’s periods of madness are also excruciating, in part because it is difficult to read their author’s blistering self-critiques. “I was a prophet and everything was a symbol,” he remarks of one of his manic periods, “. . . shouting, singing, tearing things up—religion and antics. Then depression (extreme) aching, self-enclosed, fearful of everyone and everything anyone could do, feeling I was nothing and could do nothing.” Others can and probably will continue to work their Freudian archeology on these letters, adding to the pile of razor-sharp biographical shards and fragments that Lowell’s letters don’t do much to discourage us from wielding against his poetry.
Granted, by the end of the collection it’s hard to tell if the tone of these letters is dominated by their author’s grotesqueness or his brilliance and tenderness. Lowell describes the working life of the poet as “a dog’s life; and none of the verses will write themselves.” But his letters clearly did write themselves (the seven hundred pages selected here is only a portion of his terrifying output), evidence that Lowell wrote to preserve himself in spite of himself, and they are entirely worth reading for that fact alone. This is the Lowell I am left wanting to know, the one who wrote things like this, things full of Lowell’s signature rambling pathos, things usually sealed into envelopes addressed to Elizabeth Bishop:
I am at the end of something. Up till now I’ve felt I was all blue spots and blotches inside, more than I could bear really, if I looked at myself, and of course I wanted to do nothing else. So day after day, I wrote, sometimes too absorbed even to stop for lunch and often sitting with my family in a stupor, mulling over a phrase or a set of lines for almost hours, hypnotized, under a spell, often a bad spell. Now out of this, I have seven poems and seven translations, just about a book . . . . Now I say to myself, “Out of jail!” I look back on the last months with disgust and gratitude. Disgust because they seem so monstrous, gratitude because I have lived through the unintelligible, have written against collapse and come out more or less healed. Oh dear, have you ever felt like a man in an unreal book?
James Wright, if I allow myself to trust the persona he creates in the early letters collected in A Wild Perfection, had considerable trouble imagining himself in a book at all. From the start, he was an insatiable reader—of everything from Latin and German poetry to contemporary fiction—but harbored an endlessly self-defeating idea of himself as a creator. I did not bother to count the number of times he refers to himself as a “bad poet” in the first hundred pages of this collection. “If I slip into dramatics in this or my other letters,” he writes to his friend Susan Lamb
remember that I have a hideous time in expressing myself clearly. I mean it. Perhaps the ability to write a single sentence from beginning to end and the same time make clear sense out of the words is one of the rarest of human achievements. And yet, I still need to write, and extensively . . . . It always exhausts me, and yet I can’t help writing like a fire hose.
Soliloquies of doubt alternate with overtly florid expressions of romantic longing in his early letters, when at least part of the time Wright was play-acting the role of the young bohemian. He frequently allowed himself too much enthusiasm and lyrical latitude, and thus often wound up being too honest and earnest for his own good, confessing affections that ought to be left concealed, for instance, or writing his way into furies he’ll later come to regret. He’d lost numerous friends, he understood, because of his “failure to control the great winds which tended to come up unexpectedly out of [his] solar plexus.”
In short, the early letters allow readers to watch Wright’s sometimes gorgeous, but often garish attempts to test how language can be made to perform, with almost complete disregard for the person whose name is printed at the top of each letter. So he began missives like this, in medias res, with a kind of un-lineated lyrical outburst, perhaps the first stirrings of a James Wright poem (this one written from Japan, where he has been stationed by the army):
I threw away my cigarette and began to make little mystic symbols in the sand with the rubber toe of my left combat boot. Two early fire-flies left the limb of a willow, and drifted past my face in two trailing arcs of yellow that remained marked in the twilit air in afterimages of green and blue. It was the first time in my life that I had left the world as it was, and had become nothing. There was meager consolation in the remembrance that the western world was not breaking into fits of weeping because I had left it to sit near a riverside at Sagami, smoke an American cigarette as if it belonged to me, watching the amorous airdances of two lightning bugs, and hear the musical raindrums thudding in pagan cadences up out of Atsugi five miles down the river.
Indeed, he wrote like a fire hose; so much for “hello, I hope you’re enjoying the weather back there in America . . . .” The letters were not a complement to this author’s poetic output, as is ordinarily the case, but a veritable substitute for it. Correspondence was the only kind of literature Wright believed he was qualified for—he allowed himself the luxury of trying his hand at literary translation on occasion, turning out respectable English versions of his beloved Rilke, but when he included some poems with his early letters they always came with apologies and disclaimers: “They are weak, but I cannot escape writing them.” He recognized that his prose was guilty of being “too musical—that there was a certain want of body on my pages—that I was drowning, as Shelley almost did in pale lemon jelly.” But he doesn’t ever seem quite ready to believe that it was a life of poetry writing he was preparing himself for, not a life of prose.
Not surprisingly, then, Wright’s entry into the business of a literary life is painful to follow. He’s clearly brilliant, yet hopelessly self-isolating and often a bit paranoid; these are the symptoms, he believes, of something larger than himself: “I think you must agree,” he remarks to Jack Furniss, “that one of the grandeurs of America is its loneliness . . . . the brooding sense of the great spaces which fills us all who were born here and possess in our blood the sense of largeness.” That more or less sums up the plight of the Midwestern poet in 1950, and it certainly sums up how James Wright felt about himself.
His gaze is often directed toward Europe and South America, but Wright spent the best part of his career trying to find a way to look inward at America’s mid-section, at towns like Martin’s Ferry, which had not found their way into poetry before. “I long for some of that glorious barbarism,” he writes to Robert Mezey, “that gratifying bleakness and loneliness which is so much of America to me. There is no denying that country America is crude and strange and frightening, but man I love it with my whole person.” To do this, Wright must tug against the bit of his good fortune. W. H. Auden chose Wright’s first book, A Green Wall, for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956, and that selection seems to have haunted him as much as it privileged him. Auden’s versifying army will not long be the one James Wright feels comfortable serving. Two months before Auden chose his book for the prize, he wrote this to Donald Hall:
I wonder if it has ever occurred to you how much power [Auden] has over our generation, as a reviewer, as a contest judge, and as a direct influence. Sometimes I don’t like it. He has many noble things to say about poetry, and many noble poems of his own; but there is also a streak of smart-aleck in him which is easy to imitate, and which, I think, is sometimes too easy for him to exercise.
When he does win the Yale Prize, having received Auden’s influence and power with alarming directness, he can only write this back to Hall, the shortest letter of this entire collection: “I’ve won the Yale Prize! Dear Don, I don’t know what to say to you, I am so happy.” His happiness was short-lived. As he summed it up to Robert Bly:
It is true that my stuff contains ‘umble, ‘sincere’ displays of all the current cute tricks in meter and rhyme. But what I am trying to say is that—still with the exception of two or three breaths of vision . . . . The Green Wall might very easily have been written by any normally educated Englishman of, say, the eighteenth century, if he ever took time off from his work as Master of the Fox Hounds in order to play around with a little polite versifying. If it is nothing else, my book may well be the most insipidly polite book of verses in the past twenty years . . . it could have been written by a dead man, if they have Corona-Corona typewriters in the grave.
After all, he has published a book on the eve of the mid-century war against New Criticism and traditional form. Paradoxically, this little war is waged mainly by poets who began their careers submitting themselves to the pleasures of meter and rhyme.
Annoyed and amused that every one of his printed poems in magazines seems to be accompanied by the poems of another young upstart, W. S. Merwin, Wright remarks that he finds Merwin “so good it is astonishing.” “Some objections to his earlier pieces,” he continues, “had to do with his concern for technique over deeper emotional effects.” These are the very charges Wright will begin to level against his own work in the years to come. Irritated into diatribe by poets like Robert Bly and his magazine The Fifties, the choice to write in form begins to seem less like a stylistic choice and more like a crime against humanity. Of course, these are the very same claims Lowell is making about his own first books, excuses that allow him to create the fiction of his “breakthrough” into the free-verse poems of Life Studies. And such ideas are the firmament upon which Allen Ginsberg is constructing the spontaneous aesthetics of his “Howl”. Viewing this by now familiar, if not rather wearisome battle from the front lines—as those battles are recorded in Wright’s letters—is surprisingly poignant. Like Bly, he approaches matters of style as matters of life and death—he too is a rebel with a cause—but unlike his ever-polemical friend, Wright refuses to be governed by a manifesto:
any absolute position in the discussion of poetry is a position that something deep inside me instinctively rejects. Somehow every absolute command that my imagination hears is almost immediately turned into an insistence on its opposite—and this takes place not only as an assertion of the imagination’s freedom; but also as a desire to subversively overthrow all the critical absolutes.
Reviewers of the time also seemed compelled to line up on one side or the other, using the venue of the literary review for the purposes of their style wars. Wright, who was ecumenical in his tastes, sampling honey from almost everyone writing, found himself in this “idiotic position” more than once. “In Epoch magazine,” he tells Wayne Burns, “a guy favorably reviewed my book (which is okay), but he used it to flog the San Francisco writers. Now some of the San Francisco stuff I like (Ginsberg’s ‘A Supermarket in California’ is a beautiful poem), and some I don’t like. However that may be, I don’t want to be used as a polemical weapon either for or against anybody. Can you imagine a more farcical position to be in?”
And yet this very predicament is the catalyst for the most boisterous series of letters in A Wild Perfection: those between Wright and Robert Bly (debating Bly’s “fanatical absolutism”), those between Wright and Donald Hall (who seems rather secure in his style and sanity throughout), and especially the letters filled with sound and fury written to Wright’s elder, James Dickey. Few literary friendships have started so strangely. Dickey eviscerates a book by Philip Booth in print and in the review he merely mentions Wright’s name, which earns him a vituperative bit of hate mail from the young James Wright, located somewhere on the outskirts of the poetic nation:
. . . . I am friends with very, very few current poets, and most of them are students who have never had anything published. I think, however that generosity is not only a moral virtue. I think that it is also an act of intelligence. Sometimes students have cautiously and tentatively brought verses to me . . . . when their verses were sentimental and inept, I believe that I have criticized them honestly and severely; however, I have never greeted a student by telling her to go fuck herself and shove her hideous poems up her ass because they have blotched my soul and insulted the names of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. I believe your attack on Mr. Booth’s verses amounted to something similar. I do not like it.
Dickey’s abrupt retort and Wright’s subsequent apology for this hysterical outburst is touching, if only because it allows us to see Wright flailing about for a mentor and a style and some direction. His doctoral dissertation is unfinished; he is virtually un-employable; and he’s about to write his greatest books, The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River, out of the arguments he is having with Bly, and Dickey, and himself.
Wright’s breakthrough did not result from abandoning form, as Bly might have hoped, but from a rather gradual synthesis of Spanish surrealism (viewed through the lens of Neruda and Vallejo), epigrammatic Chinese verse forms, Rilkean profundity, and his own Midwestern isolation. Behind all that, his guides were Whitman and Robinson, the two American poets who remained crucial to Wright for the duration of his writing life. The letters detail this recipe for poetry as it was lived in the rather tumultuous laboratory of Wright’s life. “I can survive in Minneapolis,” he declares to Theodore Roethke, “The students are wonderful. Allen Tate is friendly. It’s not a town to commit suicide in, at any rate (the waterways are always frozen over).” About a decade later he opens “The Minneapolis Poem” with these lines:
I wonder how many old men last winter
Hungry and frightened by namelessness prowled
The Mississippi shore
Lashed blind by the wind, dreaming
Of suicide in the river.
Much of the raw material of Wright’s poems, eager scholars will be happy to know, is often right there in his letters—the visits to the Bly Farm and the Duffy Farm in Minnesota, his eagerness to “exchange some views and feelings about the coming football season” with Dickey, as well as the bouts of alcohol and depression, all of it waiting to be cooked down into Wright’s minimalistic version of American mythology.
The kind of poem he was born to perfect, he is on the verge of discovering for much of this volume of letters, arose out of subtraction: “I am starting to learn that the smaller a poem can be—in length of lines, in number of lines, in number of images, etc.—the more power it can have.” He means poems like his tiny, “In Fear of Harvests,” for example, which runs seven lines long:
It has happened
The nostrils of slow horses
And the brown bees drag their high garlands,
Toward hives of snow.
“I don’t know just how to handle this poem yet,” he remarks to Bly, “but I look at it, and say it to myself, and I now have a path struck through its wilderness.”
To my surprise and delight, of the three poets under discussion here, if I could have cocktails with only one of them, I’d be drinking several very good gin martinis and talking politics with Amy Clampitt. Without a doubt, she’s the only one I’d imagine wanting to spend any time with at the bar, and her letters testify to the fact that lived much of her adult life attending and occasionally hosting great parties. With Lowell and Wright, I’d want to have an ambulance—or at least an off-duty deputy—double-parked outside the bar at all times. The famous volatility of Lowell, whose mind’s not right, is actually matched by the volatility of Wright, who describes himself as “way off in the darkness and sometimes the light, dazzled beyond vanity, at war with sloth.” Bad drinking company, for sure.
By comparison, in her letters Clampitt is all charm, balance, and breathless enthusiasm—adjectives we might readily apply to her poetry. “For the ocean,” Clampitt writes in her poem “Beach Glass,” “. . . nothing is beneath consideration,” and one of the joys of her letters is encountering that same outlook: this author’s gaze is entirely devoid of pretension and it takes in everything with an equivalent, oceanic curiosity. Clampitt’s poetry has been redundantly derided for its degree of decoration, its baroque abundance of botany, its propriety, charges that do not hold up very well—almost all of her poems are more ironic, raw, and humorous than I had remembered. Her letters help correct such errors too, since in them we find an Amy Clampitt embarrassed by the speeches given at a friend’s funeral because “they were in such desperately good taste” and a Clampitt who joins “anti-nuke” marches wearing plastic pinwheels on her head. At least half of the book details Clampitt’s life before poetry, when she was more than anything an ardent, tough-minded political activist, marching, protesting, worrying her way through the tumultuous middle decades of her century.
Her letters are also fascinating to read because, unlike Lowell and Wright, for example, two male poets who determined (in very different ways) that they would be, like Keats, “among the English poets after their deaths,” Clampitt does not have any idea that she will become Amy Clampitt, the author of The Kingfisher—her first book—published in 1979 when she was sixty-three years old. As Willard Spiegelman puts it (in an introduction that is a model of responsibility and insight), “although not young when she died, she was nevertheless still a young poet.” Her actual literary career spans an astonishingly small period toward the end of her life and the letters selected in Love, Amy, reflect that. In these late letters, suddenly filled to the brim with the names of poets and editors any reader of contemporary American poetry will recognize, Clampitt seems almost bewildered, conjecturing about the sexuality of John Ashbery, for instance, and chattering on about the celebrity guest-list at cocktail parties thrown by Knopf.
Among the most endearing letters from this period are those written to a young Mary Jo Salter, who discovered Clampitt’s work when she was reading for The Nation. Having spent most of her lifetime corresponding with family, friends, and co-workers, Clampitt confesses: “I’ve yearned secretly for a poet I could write to.” Not surprisingly, she’s at first giddy, framing herself as a novice, revealing that she does not “enjoy the company of literary types—the more literary they are, the more miserable they seem to be as human beings” and yet she is almost immediately unabashed in her opinions of the literary scene. She wonders if William Carlos Williams is to blame for the “current monotony of manner,” or whether “the whole generation has been so deadened by rock music that an ear for the music of words may be obsolescent.” Though such opinions sound a bit matronly, Clampitt’s age doesn’t prevent her from throwing herself headfirst into the New York literary scene, submitting her work regularly to magazines and dragging her companion, Hal, to poetry readings. In a single month in 1980, they hear a young Gjertrud Schnackenberg read one night, Joseph Brodsky another, and they are audience to “a high-powered foursome” of Derek Walcott, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, and E. L. Doctorow (reading prose) yet another. “We liked Hecht best of all,” she confesses to Salter, “and I was sorry he didn’t turn up at the cocktail party on the third evening, or at least not while I was there.” It was a grand time for contemporary poetry in New York, I say with real regret for not having been there (even as a waiter) myself.
The really precious letters in Love, Amy, at least for me, are not the letters that inspire such bookish titillations, but those that reveal to me the most about Clampitt’s eye. I especially loved the letters she wrote in the sixties while traveling (almost always by ship, though most other people had given that up by then) to England, Italy, and Greece. These are mostly rambling documents, with only an occasional paragraph break, in which Clampitt rushes from one observation to the next, and yet they are filled with the kind of filigreed attention to natural detail and human activity so readily available to us in her poems. Padua, as viewed from her “otherwise dismal room,” is “built on the slopes of a hill radiating outward and down rather like the rays of a starfish, on dozens of different levels, so that there are views, views, views, in every direction.” By night the hills of Naples look “like a nest of fireflies.” Another night, aboard the T.S.S. Olympia, Clampitt and the other passengers whoop it up “in a part of the ship where the fun didn’t begin until midnight,” spurred into a frenzy by the Greeks, whose music inspires them to dance “in their own exuberant fashion—a kind of blend of English country dancing and Russian gymnastics.”
Here’s a poet I want to know better, one I wish I’d known personally—and I am thankful enough for that. But more importantly, they did the one thing a book of poet’s letters really ought to do: they made me hungry for Clampitt’s poetry and they illuminated whole new ways of seeing into her work. The letters do not merely fill in biographical gaps in my understanding, they instructed me in the politics of Clampitt’s descriptions. In a letter from 1980, by way of enticement to Salter, who is about to visit her in Maine, Clampitt offers this news from her provinces:
What’s going on in the bog right now is that cloudberries are in bloom—locally referred to as hayth-berries. They’re pure white, like some first-communion version of a primrose or a buttercup, with a pair of claws uncurling into leaves that, once opened, reveal the plant for what it really is, a kind of raspberry. I wonder if there would have been any of those in Nova Scotia. They’re yellow tinged with red, and taste, amazingly, like baked apples.
The religious simile—denoting innocence, if not chastity—collapses into lovely complications: the blossoms are adorned with claws and the plant conceals its true identity. The letters collected in Love, Amy, cannot help but emphasize the fact that Clampitt, raised a Quaker, knew a faith composed of action—her letters reveal her near glee at being arrested for protesting—and it’s difficult not to consider this description in the context of her attempts to reconcile organized religion with those causes, something she ultimately fails to do. She waited in vain for the Church to show its claws. The passage led me back one of Clampitt’s poems that I hadn’t looked at in years, her fascinating “Good Friday,” in which she asks us to
Think of the Serengeti lions looking up,
their bloody faces no more culpable
than the acacia’s claw on the horizon
of those yellow plains: think with what
concerted expertise the red-necked,
down-ruffed vultures take their turn,
how after them the feasting maggots
hone the flayed wildebeest’s ribcage
clean as a crucifix . . .
and implores us, a few stanzas later, with another kind of evisceration, to
think how Good Friday
can, as a therapeutic outlet, serve
to ventilate the sometimes stuffy
Lebensraum of laissez-faire society . . .
Viewed through the lens of her letters, Clampitt’s poems are utterly illuminated. She was the New Yorker naturalist all her critics made her out to be, yes, but thirty years of urban picket lines precede her entry into that poetry of plants. Because they reveal this fact so subtly and compellingly, Clampitt’s letters are the correct introduction to her poems. She is much more a poet of engagement than I had ever recognized, a thorny social critic, a fact that is written into her profusions of flora and fauna, as it turns out, with astonishing delicacy. Her perspective on human animals, as they amassed themselves into movements, only to be tossed about by forces larger than they could manage, is no less acute. In 1954, she writes to her brother Philip:
I read somewhere about a man who acquired a belief in God, or immortality, or the soul—they all mean approximately the same thing—from watching a “wave” of migrating warblers, and I think I understand this perfectly. Once you really sense the life behind a mass movement like that, or behind a single bird, or behind a single human being, no matter how stupid or miserable, then you know that all the science in the world can never explain it, and you do not ask to have it explained. And implicit in all art, I think, is a respect for this mystery; it is a homage to the inexplicable.
The reputations of Lowell and Wright are secure. Let the scholars loose upon their letters! What I find inexplicable, thanks to this last small, but staggering collection of letters, is that Clampitt’s reputation has not risen along with theirs. Here’s hoping that Love, Amy, which made me return to poems I had stupidly ignored, can draw new readers to her work, where they will be richly rewarded.
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