A Journal of poetry and kindred prose

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Jeffrey Woodward

resides in Detroit. His poems and articles appear widely in periodicals in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia including, most recently, Acumen (England), The Barefoot Muse, Blue Unicorn, International Poetry Review, Poem, Re: Arts & Letters, The Christian Century, Galley Sail Review, The Hypertexts, Lines Review (Scotland), The Lyric, Envoi (Wales), Plains Poetry Journal, Raintown Review, South Coast Poetry Journal, Studio (Australia), Haiku Scotland, New Hope International (England) and many others.

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A Reading of Amy Clampitt’s On the Disadvantages of Central Heating and Lindenbloom

When Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher appeared in 1983, one might rightly describe the literary community as being caught completely off-guard. Rarely does a first volume of poems demonstrate such technical virtuosity and formal authority, offer so generous a sampling of verse (nearly 150 pages) and arrive from the hands of a poet at the age of 63. Despite the initial surprise, Clampitt’s sharply defined perceptions, luxurious diction and broad range quickly won admirers in high places who compared her poetry to that of figures as diverse as Keats, Hopkins and Marianne Moore. The comparisons were not wholly unjustified.

Of the fifty titles in The Kingfisher, I should like to pick two relatively short poems to explicate in order to understand, in retrospect, Clampitt’s immediate and triumphant reception. I might as easily have chosen any number of other excellent works—“Meridian,” “Slow Motion,” “Camouflage,” “Times Square Water Music” and “Balms” presently come to mind—but the two poems I will discuss have the great advantages of brevity and of being exemplary representatives of the poet’s style.

The title, “On the Disadvantages of Central Heating,” calls up curious echoes of Restoration and 18th century verse, undoubtedly with tongue-in-cheek intent, for despite the generic statement of motif that it affords, Clampitt’s aims are neither didactic nor expository. Her matter, in fact, is far more intimate as her casual tone and anecdotal method quickly demonstrate:

cold nights on the farm, a sock-shod
stove-warmed flatiron slid under
the covers …

Underlying the conversational manner, however, are the frequent would-be spondees in collocations of such long syllables as “sock-shod” or “stove-warmed,” plus a tendency for the strongly marked stresses to hover between three or four beats, with most verses resolved, due to the common phenomenon of stress demotion, to a three-beat or tripodic norm. The density of her diction, the tendency of the verses to run-on freely and the close approximation to a strong-stress meter explain why Hopkins and Moore were so often cited as influences on Clampitt. These same factors, also, account for the curious tension between the boldly marked rhythm and the intimately relaxed conversational speech-patterns.

“On the Disadvantages of Central Heating” continues through five balanced quintets to relate the author’s relived sensations of what occurred “decades ago now”:

damp sheets in Dorset, fog-hung
habitat of bronchitis, of long
hot soaks in the bathtub, of nothing
quite drying out till next summer …


… strong-minded
small boys and big eager sheepdogs
muscling in on bookish profundities
now quite forgotten

The liveliness of these recollections of a “delicious” youth is brought gently to the fore, at every turn, by Clampitt’s appeal to what still lingers by virtue of her five senses:

… what’s salvaged
is this vivid diminuendo, unfogged
by mere affect, the perishing residue
of pure sensation

Shades of Hopkins and Moore? Yes. Yet one has to return to the best of the first generation of vers libre innovators—to Stevens and Pound, to Williams and H.D.—to discover a cadence in free verse at once as supple and rich as this.

“Lindenbloom,” the other poem I have chosen for illustration, is deceptively simple: three verse-paragraphs of 10, 10 and 12 lines respectively, and as with “On the Disadvantages of Central Heating,”only occasional and irregular end-rhyme. The many incidents of alliteration, assonance and consonance are muted, largely, by placement in mid-verse positions and by frequent enjambment. An end-stop is here an exception and not a rule. Where “On the Disadvantages of Central Heating” coyly flirted with now three and now four beats, without committing itself wholly to either, “Lindenbloom” similarly teases now two, now three beats but, again, reconciles itself more commonly to the tripodic line.

“Lindenbloom” moves the reader far away from the sweet pastoral innocence of better days on the farm or in Dorset to the sensory voluptuousness and grandeur of a midsummer visit to the “pleasure- / garden of the popes / at Avignon.” Clampitt, again, trusts to her powerful sensory impressions of the past as the basis for her present creative understanding. Here, the activity of bees overhead in the aromatic blooms of the lindens recalls the decadence of the former high church seat at Avignon:

… a million
hanging, intricately
tactile, blond bell-pulls
of bloom, the in-mid-air
resort of honeybees’
hirsute cotillion …

until, remarkably, the humming of bees and fragrance of blooms so confounds the passersby that it is as if they’d

inhaled the ghost
of derelict splendor
and/or of seraphs shaken
into pollen dust
no transubstantiating
pope or antipope could sift
or quite precisely ponder.

Neither “On the Disadvantages of Central Heating” nor “Lindenbloom” proceeds by the method of logical exposition. Clampitt relies, instead, upon the conveyance of her acute sensory perceptions as well as her subtle modulations in cadence to “frame her argument.” In “Lindenbloom,” this is informed by the activity of the bees in pollinating the lindens, an observation that immerses one in the sensual excesses of Avignon’s past while demonstrating how illusory the pretended transcendence of the ancient church hierarchy was.

Read the poem, “On the Disadvantages of Central Heating,” at the Academy of American Poets website.

Read and hear the poet recite the poem, “Lindenblooms,” at the Dia Art Foundation website.