The Poetry Porch 3: Poetics

In the Subtropics with Amy Clampitt
a memoir by Katherine Jackson

The Atlantic Center for the Arts is located in one of those ambiguous Floridian zones somewhere between dry land and marsh. (The postal address is New Smyrna Beach, FL, but the beach is a mirage two miles away). Slatted walkways connect the pavillion-like wood buildings, and travel up and down among saw palmettoes, magnolias, live oaks and longleaf pines. Walking from one building to another produces a sensation of levitation, as if you were floating slightly above the ground, which of course, you often are.

There were ten of us, poets "in mid-career," come for a three-week immersion called a "residency." We had been drawn there for many reasons, among them, certainly, an intimation that going south in the winter was as good for poets as for other plumed creatures. But above all, it was poetry that drew us--poetry, and Amy Clampitt, plumed creature par excellence, who was to be our "Master Artist." She assumed this role with a fitting lightness of touch. As a result, I and the others in our group with whom I have spoken in preparing these reminiscences, find that now, over a year later, we are still learning from her.

Late on the afternoon of my arrival, I strolled alongside a small, shimmering bay whose surface was beginning to take on the roseate-spoonbill-pink of a Florida sunset. Occasionally, there was a silver splash, as something--was it a mullet?--leapt, a good foot out of the water; and then a crash, as a pelican went after it. Throughout my walk, the fish leapt, or another did, and the pelican crashed, pink turned to flamingo, and I began to understand what it meant to be in "Florida, the state with the prettiest name." For poets such as Bishop and Stevens, after all, Florida was both a geographical state and an aesthetic condition.

The ten poets were called "Associates," and in addition to us and Amy, there were Associate and Master Artists from the visual arts and from music. Collaboration was encouraged, certainly interaction, both within and across disciplines, but not, thankfully, at the expense of solitude. We each had a clean, white, Zen-like room with a wall-length desk. There was also a window that looked away into the subtropical foliage, where an occasional chameleon leapt from leaves to a slender trunk, turned instantly brown, opeíd its ruby mouth, and then, after a time of unearthly stillness, leapt back into greenness.

I spent a certain amount of time trying to write a poem with long lines. This was Amy's idea. She said she felt American poets, herself included, were too constrained by certain well-wrought urn notions of the lyric, that it had to be "tidy," "polite" (her words), that it worked best with short lines. She was reading Vallejo, who, she said, "put everything in." Perhaps we all might try, as she was doing, writing a poem with longer lines, lines more able to follow the vagaries of consciousness, the unruliness of the world, than those we were used to. She made her suggestion one evening when we had gathered, as we did each evening, in her cottage, to talk--mostly, but not exclusively about poetry. One night we talked about Heavy Metal.

"What is this Heavy Metal? Does anybody know?" She asked us. We were seated in wicker furniture around a coffee table. The cottage was commodious, stylish, with zooty angles and level changes, a study in mauve, pale green and natural wood.

Being poets "in mid-career," we were mostly too old to know much about Heavy Metal. I think Tim, who had spent the last few years in Spearfish, N. D., was the only one able to enlighten us at all, but the question precipitated some interesting talk about how much poetry should try to draw into its purview. This didnít quite satisfy Amy. She wanted to know about Heavy Metal. Of course, Vallejo was a current guide, but I suspect those compacted, heterogenous conceits of which her verse is constructed are born of a lifetime of such forays into whatever strikes her at the time as terra incognita. So too, with her anxious, staccato, self-interrupting rhythms: who can say what extra-poetic sources underlie them? And here she was again, foraging for new sounds, new rhythms. As with her Vallejo exploration, she was pressing the sufficiency of the lyric.

Certainly, Amy was no stranger to popular music in general. One night, the poet Barbara Jordan invited her to join us for dinner. (There was a communal dining area in the Field House, where the associates fixed their dinners--as collaboratively as possible where a range of taste buds and dietary/cosmological attitudes is involved.) While Barbaraís fabled vegetable curry simmered in the skillet, Margaret Mayer, a composer, put on a tape of the Grateful Dead. According to various witnesses, Amy took herself off to the sidelines and for the next twenty minutes or so, danced contentedly.

If, in revisiting our evenings with Amy, I find a thread, a continuity, it is in her openness, and her encouraging us to be open, rather than defensive, in response to much of what seems to imperil poetry in late twentieth century America. As a result, her questions were never merely rhetorical, Socratic devices. They were a means whereby she could learn from us, another generation of American poets, as well as share her abundance of insight and experience. She would begin each evening with a topic which we were invited to consider, but as things progressed, she always seemed more interested in following the stutter-step of tangential discussion than in holding us to a pre-determined program.

One evening, she told us she had been thinking a good deal about "the line." In a subsequent interview with Ann Knox, another of the Associate Poets, for Antietam Review, she presents some of her meditations on this theme:

What determines the pulses of sound, those modulations of breath that comprise a poem once the traditional structures no longer suffice? Amyís openness to the ambient sounds and language of our time continually revitalizes her own art, which all the while sounds the deep notes of its abiding loyalties: to Marianne Moore, Keats, the Metaphysical Poets, et al.

On another evening, she read us a long, astonishing poem, by Charles Bernstein, created entirely out of junk mail (real or imagined), and led us into a discussion about noise. We are encircled by it, invaded by it, and as poets, threatened by it, aurally and psychically. Is our lot worse than that of other poets in other times and places? Amy was loath to speculate about whether we were more ignored or cursed or outshouted than our predecessors. But she did suggest that we "at least think about" incorporating junk mail, Heavy Metal or whatever it is, somewhere in our artistic consciousnesses, at least "acknowledge what is out there." Amyís speech tends to dart like a waterbug, here and there, and then light briefly on a word, usually a verb, which thereby acquires special emphasis. Then she is off, never less than lucid, but airborne, darting. Soon we were talking about certain poets' use of four letter words, and explicit sexual imagery. "Well," said Amy, matter-of-factly, "thatís fine if you arenít a prude. I happen to be a prude so I donít use that sort of thing, but a lot of poets arenít prudes and they do."

Amy read her own challenge to the "polite" lyric on the last night of our stay. This was "Sed de Correr,"2 a fiercely unkempt poem that ends up by fluttering away from its own grasp as so many leaves of a doomed, great-rooted tree. Here, as with much Clampitt, openness to the encircling, imperilling cultural forces certainly in no sense means endorsement of them. But it does provide the poet with a kind of existential ground, however unsettling. "The axe is laid at the root/ of the ash tree," warns the Cassandra-like poet, as the ash she once stared at from an Iowa schoolroom merges in her mind with the catalpa, dying outside her window on West Twelfth Street. What is to become of the tree of poetry--of those haunted witnesses, Kafka, Vallejo, Lorca, the tree of her own anxious, uprooted growing? "Who/will hear? who will gather/ them in? Who will read them?" she asks, as "the runaway pages," "the leaves of dispersal," scatter from the shaken branches.

* * * * * * * * * *

We were each invited by Amy to present to the group a poet whose work has influenced our own. This we all did happily--what more pleasing task for a poet?--arriving with xeroxes, anecdotes and insights. I was struck, as I had been before, by Amy's way of listening--rather as a fox listens, head cocked to one side, eyes abstracted... attuned to sound as an entree to understanding. These tutelary voices mingled with our own work, with the ferns, fronds and palmettoes outside our windows, with the lizards and pelicans. Our writing grew luxuriant and expansive, longer-lined.

One evening, some live visitors came to the cottage. Amy had invited the composers to join us, and to bring tapes of their work for us to listen to. I wonder how many of the other poets felt as bereft of a vocabulary in which to make intelligent observations about what they heard as I did. I felt a bit like a Nabokovian Russian at some cultural exchange event with Westerners. Brimming with goodwill and a common sense of purpose, I could do little but beam my approbation of the proceedings. Others were more intrepid, or music-literate than I. But most of us, I think, including the musicians, found ourselves peering across a highly intriguing border, made the more tantalizing by our sense that much was being lost in translation. Our conversations circled this theme.

At one point, Zygmunt Krause, the Master Composer, who had flown over from his native Warsaw for the three week session, queried why poets donít notate their poetry as musicians do their music. "Itís impossible to read most poetry," he commented, his quiet, philosophical air contrasting oddly with his provocative observation. "One doesnít know how a poem should sound; how long to pause at the end of a line, for example. The poet might have quite a definite conception of this, but the reader never knows what it is. I would find it very disturbing that no one is reading my poems the way I hear them. It would be so simple to include a system of notation that would tell how ones poems should be read. Why donít poets do this?"

We groped for answers, unable to convey the negotiations between the inner, private voice, the precinct of what I.A. Richards called the readerís "deep freedom," and the public, oral component of poetry. (The Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof reminds us that there must be "an empty setting at the ready-laid table" left for the reader).3 But when Zygmunt observed that, for him, music was really about silence, there was, I think, a moment of shared comprehension. The unheard, the unseen, the unspoken--perhaps this is the common ground beneath all our attempts at form-giving, and the source of our fascination with artistic Otherness. Arenít we united in our consciousness of the limitations of the tools at hand, and our amazed discovery that someone else has found another way, is opening some other door, into the region of the inexpressible?

Re-reading Amy's poem, "A Silence,"4 which she sent me sometime later, I find myself wondering whether that moment in the cottage had contributed somehow to the poemís conception. Concerned with revelation and its proximity to death, the "limitless interiority" behind the word, the poem contemplates its own inner spaces, line breaks and rhythmic pulses which create a shifting staccato of thought. This is a short-lined poem, terse in its refusal to succumb to the embellishments of language. The finale, however, is a great spilling forth--not of words, this time, as in "Sed de Correr," but of silence:

Amy effected another memorable encounter with artistic Otherness, if not with silence, when she invited the painters to show us slides of their work at a pot luck supper in the Field House. The ten painters arrived with a Caesar salad, a taco salad, a spinach salad, vegetarian casseroles, home-made cookies, jugs of wine--you name it. Whatever the poets brought hasnít stood a chance in my memory next to this array. The painters were a voluble, cheerful lot, full of the camaraderie that comes from having spent long hours together in the studio, often working until late at night, striving to produce in three weeks what would normally be the work of months. They joshed around, laughed uproariously at (to us) quite unexpected moments, razzed each other during the slide-showing, often causing whoever was in the process of presenting work to collapse in laughter, and generally acted not at all like misanthropic Cezannes and reclusive OíKeefes. The poets must have struck the painters as equally anomalous. Most were teetotallers, wholegrainers, introspectors. Hardly the Rimbaud set. After the slides, the painters clearly anticipated a few more hours of revelry before repairing to their studio for another all-nighter. But we were early risers, and slunk off apologetically, abashed at our easily-jangled nerves, our lack of fortitude.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Now there is this matter of the shuttle launch," Amy declared one evening. For there was to be a launch--of the shuttle Discovery, the first space flight with people aboard since the Challenger explosion. As launches were easily viewed from the vicinity of the ACA, which was only about 25 miles from the Kennedy Space Center, Amy suggested we meet and walk to some nearby, suitably pastoral space for the viewing. I think she felt, perhaps we all did, the need to view such an assertion of earthly might from the proper perspective.

But launches, of course, are early morning events, and the morning of this launch arrived, Florida or no, with frost on the windows. After failing to connect with my comrades at the appointed, chilly, hour, I came upon two composers in a warm-looking car, and set off with them to the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, a shimmering mecca of estuarian life and mirrory inlets, shell middens and citrus groves just a few miles (this was Florida, after all) from the Space Center. There we stood on a drawbridge over a small tidal river, while pelicans crash-dived around us, and stared through the ground-mist towards the shadowy, towering silo, five miles away. The mist cleared, and suddenly, where there had been a silo, there was now a vast cloud of billowing smoke, incommensurate in scale with the bridge and the birds and the small fishing craft that had just put-putted through. Then the flame of a rocket could be discerned amid the blackening smoke-clouds. With its trail of smoke, the flame (Amyís "vaporous, ribboning frond") rose into the sky, and then went out, leaving only a silver, people-filled pellet, a magic beebee, curving over the blue Atlantic and away.

All those probing evenings in Amyís cottage, along with all the other nights on which one asks the question privately to oneself... why poetry? what do poets do? How do they connect themselves to the events of their time, which so often threaten to explode the fragile constructions of their art? How do they connect themselves to the always mind-boggling experience of being alive?

On my last full day in Florida, I drove with my husband and son, who had been touring Florida on their own, to Blue Spring State Park, a winter haunt of the warmth-seeking manatee, who are drawn to its thermal spring. Here, in a shallow river-cove, we were approached by one of these bulbous, pacific creatures, who began gliding back and forth beneath our canoe, giving us what we took to be soulful glances. This is the encounter described in "Blue Spring," and it culminated in our disregarding the injunctions of park officials and stroking our visitorís nose. But it took Amy, in her poem, "Discovery," to see the connection between the shuttle launch and patting the manatee.

Late that same afternoon, I stopped by Amyís cottage one last time. Despite a tooth problem that had hounded her through most of the three weeks, she looked as perky and eager as she had on the first day. Only now I sensed her eagerness was for solitude, and I stayed only a moment, having come to return some books. I couldnít resist, though, giving her a synopsis of the manatee adventure, for she too had been to Blue Spring. "That manatee will come into your poetry one day," Amy remarked--prophetically for, about two months later, in bleak, end-of-March Brookline, sure enough, the manatee swam into the middle of a poem I was writing. Perhaps it was the long lines that drew her, for I was still producing manatee-length lines that terminated only when they encountered the margins on my computer screen. But on this visit, the manatee appeared as a kind of tutelary spirit, an embodiment of much of what I had learned in Florida--about the multiplicity of being, about silence.

Some weeks later, Amyís poem, "Discovery," arrived in the mail. A classic piece of metaphysical wit a la Clampitt, the poem conjoins the manatees, "come upriver" in "a pod" "lolling, jacketed, elephantine," and the astronauts, the "discoverers," in their space-pod, "out of their/element, jacketed, lolling/ and treading...clumsy in space suits." The poem looks over its shoulder at Disney Florida, and the "cozy mythologies/weíve swindled ourselves with," in contrast with the morning of liftoff, when "the fabulous itself could be seen." "Fabulous": a Florida word if ever there was one, its promise of some kind of visionary "liftoff," inevitably left unfulfilled. Unless it be in the transformative eye of the poet, which turns, paradoxically, earthward--a trajectory that recalls the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Following the "trailing frond" as if to its "kelp bed," the poem ends by peering back at us through the "dimly imaginable" gaze of another:

Once again, Amy has effected a conjunction across the divide of Otherness: space-probers, manatees, poets--past as well as present, for isn't this moment, too, of perceived kinship where we wouldn't expect it, remindful of Bishop? "Edging towards discovery" that what poets do, feeling their way along the "dimly imaginable tightrope"--the line--towards whatever lies "out of their element," letting themselves be touched?

1.Antietam Review, Spring 1992, vol. xii.
2.The Yale Review, vol 81, no. 1.
3. Rika Lesser, trans., A Child is not a Knife, Selected Poems of Goran Sonnevi, Princeton, N.J., 1993, p. xiv.
4. A Silence Opens by Amy Clampitt, Knopf, 1994.

* This essay first appeared in Verse, Winter 1993.

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