Thursday, June 30, 2011
Box 11, The Neglected Novels
Amy Clampitt had always wanted to be a novelist. But that is not how we know or remember her. We remember her as a poet, as an eccentric American poet with a penchant for the English Romantics, baroque diction and for stunningly complex syntax.
Born in 1920 onto a farm in Iowa, she came to the reading public’s attention after she published her first major collection, The Kingfisher, in 1983 with Knopf at the age of sixty-three and was immediately lauded by Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom as a canonical heavyweight.
But this was no overnight success. Clampitt had been writing for a life-time, writing since her bookish days on a farm as the eldest daughter of Quaker parents. The farm in fact was not a hostile environment for a budding writer: it gave Clampitt much of the inspiration for her writing; I’m thinking of the close and detailed observation of the natural world we see in her poems as well as the nuanced record of farm life, its community and hinterland which found its way earlier into her unpublished novels.
After taking a B.A. in English at Grinnell College in Iowa, Clampitt moved to New York to pursue graduate studies at Columbia College, but dropped out to follow her dream of becoming a novelist. ‘She had written a few poems while at Grinnell College in Iowa,’ Mary Jo Salter writes, a friend to Clampitt and the writer of the preface to her Collected Poems, ‘but by the time she escaped the Midwest for New York City she was fairly sure she would become a novelist.’
Salter also goes on to say that ‘the manuscripts, which I haven’t read, were recently discovered in an overlooked cupboard more than two years after her death.’ Clampitt died in 1994, so we are talking about 1996/7 here. The woman who found the novels was Karen Chase whom I met on my travels to discover the neglected and unpublished novels of Amy Clampitt. Since then the novels have been transported to Clampitt’s editor’s office at Knopf and then brought back to her house in Lenox before they are to be conveyed to New York Public Library sometime in the future.
Salter writes that ‘the novelist Edmund White knew nothing of Clampitt’s attempts at fiction when for The Nation in 1983 he wrote his extraordinarily canny review of The Kingfisher.’ He praised Clampitt for “a strange fusion of an ambition to narrate and a talent for suppressing the tale. . . . No story has been told, but the high heat of alchemy has been generated.” A close friend from the forties on, Phoebe Hoss, read the novels as they were written. She remembers them as intricately plotted and ornately descriptive, and as illustrating a difficulty Clampitt had in real life: so morally charged herself, she couldn’t always accept the shades of gray in people. Yet the portrayal of character independent from plot—character in itself—could be one of Clampitt’s fortes.’
These references to Clampitt’s novels are intriguing. The prefaces to both the collections of Clamptt’s poetry and letters hold the clues to the existence of the ‘rejected’ novels exist. Not only Mary Jo Salter’s references to Clampitt’s attempts to write novels, but Willard Spiegelman’s preface to The Letters of Amy Clampitt makes mention of these forgotten novels. And in one lecture, Spiegelman says, ‘In the nineteen fifties, Clampitt quits her job at OUP to write …. The novels are awful.’
Clampitt had, after dropping out of Columbia College taken a job at Oxford University Press in 1943. She started as a receptionist. Then she became the Press’s secretary and soon rose up the ranks to become an editor, so that by the end of the 1940’s she was head of permissions for foreign rights. By this stage, Spiegelman believes, ‘she thought of herself as a novelist.’ He mentions three unpublished novels. ‘They are un-publishable … having looked at part of them,’ he writes.
This last caveat seems to be part of the problem. Had anyone actually read an entire novel by Amy Clampitt? Were readers and critics and editors and scholars making their minds up on the quality of Clampitt’s prose by a simple cursory glance at the books, each one taking the other’s opinion as to their unsuitability to be published, their paucity of plot and character development, their poorness? Shouldn’t someone actually read one of the novels the entire way through?
Spiegelman dismisses Clampitt’s novels as ‘long on description … long on philosophy … and long on debate of theological issues …’ Such a description may not be a recipe for mass market commercial fiction, but it would certainly have done, and did do, for many of the great novelist of the twentieth century, for example Musil, Beckett, Joyce or Proust, not to mention a host of lesser, but at least published and read novelists. None of these writers is actually invoked by Spiegelman in his assessment of Clampitt’s novels. He says instead that ‘if Bernard Shaw wanted to write a novel it might end up looking something like this.’
This last qualification does not seem such a bad thing really. Shaw was a playwright of great comic wit with an earnest moral message. But he was also a novelist. He is not really known as one today and during his own life-time his novels were not considered a great success, but he did write five novels between 1879 and 1883, at the start of his career. Clampitt and Shaw shared a humanitarian zeal and sense of political righteousness and social justice, but whether their novels resembled each other is not really the point. Spiegelman goes on to say that Clampitt’s novels ‘are very short on plot and character, the things that we would like to see in a novel.’
Together with the confession by Salter and Spiegelman to not having read all the novels, the discrepancy between what Hoss says about the novels being intricately plotted and Spiegelman’s description of them as ‘short on plot’ suggest anotherl story concerning Amy Clampitt’s unpublished novels.
A study of the novel lends extra insight into the development and slow maturation of a very complete and now fixed presence of late twentieth-century American poetry. It becomes clear when reading Clampitt’s fiction that a woman capable of putting together such beautiful sentences in her letters would not be capable of inferior writing when it came to transferring this skill to narrative.
Clampitt’s novels were ‘boxed’ and ‘unrachived’ in her house in Lenox, MA, a house which she bought after being awarded a MacArthur Prize in 1992. While poet John Hennessy was in residence at the house during the planned time of my visit, Jennifer Dowley, President of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, an organisation which houses The Amy Clampitt Fund, arranged for copies of the manuscripts to be made available to me in Great Barrington where the Community Foundation’s offices are.
As all of the logistical arrangements were being made, it gave me a chance to look at what Clampitt says about her novel writing in her letters. The first mention of her attempts to write novels comes to our attention through her letters as early as February, 1952. The letter in question is a missive to her brother Philip. ‘It doesn’t seem likely that the book is going to be published,’ she writes. A literary agent she sends the first three chapters to replies to her that though the novel is well written, there is no market for it. Clampitt writes to her brother that she doesn’t care very much. ‘It would be nice to make some money,’ she writes, ‘of course, but I have gone ahead writing it and am having the time of my life.’ Clampitt had dropped out of graduate school and not ‘gotten a job’ or ‘looked for one.’ She writes that ‘though the money is beginning to run rather low even that doesn’t bother me.’ She admits to not being bothered again and to being ‘happier with a very little money.’
Clampitt had worked until now at OUP which makes her own frugal existence an act not of ‘defiance’ as she sees it, but one of ‘transcendence.’ This sense of transcendence is a condition which recurs in Clampitt’s plight as a writer. In 1952, it was a state which confirmed her resolve and conviction to at least try to become a novelist. She writes in her letters that she feels she is now going on to write a good book, but that if it doesn’t work out she won’t feel too discouraged. ‘I shan’t feel too badly,’ she writes, ‘because I will have found out that I didn’t have it in me, and if I hadn’t tried I never could be sure.’
Clampitt at this time is living in New York, a bohemian, unpredictable and exciting place for her. She lives on West Twelfth Street and admits to not feeling at home anywhere except in New York. A letter to a friend the next year sounds the same note of cautious resolve. The self-deprecation is sincere, but the indifference to not ‘caring much’ whether the novel is published seems somewhat feigned, especially if one considers how often her ‘not caring’ recurs in other letters she writes and how this blithe tone contrasts with the commitment Clampitt gives to her writing by actually giving up paid employment to pursue it:
As for the book, it has been finished and revised and looked at rather kindly - so far as I can make out - by several publishers, but none of them has gone so far as to offer a contract. A literary agent is taking care of it for me, so I hear only the nicer comments, of course! I have doubts about its ever getting published but don’t care too much. The main thing was to have written it, and I’m hoping to get myself organised confidently one of these days to write another one. No, the subject is no secret, though it is a little difficult to explain. The setting is New York, and in general it is about young people with jobs. Of course there is a love story - there always is, no doubt. If it ever sees print you shall have a copy, and I shan’t even require you to like it.
The literary agent in question is Lurton Blassingame, a well known New York agent who had well known writers of the time such as Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, John Barth, William Nolan and Gerald Green on his books. Clampitt is not as nonchalant about the possibility of her novels being published as she feigns and in a more intimate and honest letter to her brother in 1955 she reveals how strongly she feels about the matter, but not before a short discussion on some other writers. Clampitt was an avid and voracious reader. In terms of fiction she was a great admirer of Henry James. She writes an essay on him in her prose book Predecessors, Et Cetera. Her admiration for his inversions and circumlocutions gives us a clue to her own methods of composition and these ‘maddeningly ponderous’ traits are to be found more in Clampitt’s poetry than in her own fiction which, though redolent with long and complex sentences, does not digress as much as her master James. Her admiration of James also reveals something else which Clampitt would have agreed with, namely that the narrative twists and turns James takes were intended and based on ‘a conviction that everything is complicated.’
And it is with James in mind and his relation to J.D. Salinger, that Clampitt refers to ‘the search for a pure heart.’ Of course, everything Clampitt says about James is revealing of her own attitude to and methods of composition: ‘What makes James a great writer and Salinger a mere touching one is a matter of intelligence, of seeing things whole.’ Clampitt suggests that James makes great demands on one’s attention ‘as a great writer should’.
Salinger’s appeal for Clamplitt lies precisely in that ‘he feels confusion, communicates confusion, and in a sense justifies it; he doesn’t ask you to think, but on the contrary asks you to feel along with him how utterly useless it is to think at all …’ Clampitt’s preference is for the more refined and thoughtful James. Her work also has his patience, his sense of what culture or at least high culture is or should be. It is something we also see in her poetry: an urge for the civilised, the cultured, the refined and the elegant. This urge to heighten the cultural cache of her work results in strange and sometime incongruous parallels. For example, in one poem Clampitt’s father’s death is compared to a piece of music by Beethoven. In another poem, her forebears’ travels across America are compared with Chekov’s travels across the Steppe. She writes that ‘periodic rereading’ of James’s work can ‘become an antidote to certain prevailing tendencies in what we have to call our culture.’ James as ‘an antidote to prevailing tendencies’ sounds a little too prescriptive; one has to surmise that these prevailing tendencies have something to do with the dumbing down of culture, its vulgarities and its technological advances too; if one takes into consideration Clampitt’s sympathy with James’s particular brand of ludditism:
Henry James, with what seems an uncanny prescience, described New York as it was a little after the turn of the century toward whose end we are plunging headlong, with less and less time to spare. The thing that irked him most, apparently, was what (in The American Scene) he called ‘the great religion of the Elevator.” In place of the dreamlike leisure of the Old World’s grass-grown open-air staircases, he went on to say, the “semidiurnal lift” became “an almost intolerable symbol of the herded and driven state and of that malady of preference for gregarious ways, of insistence on gregarious ways only, by which the people about one” even then (to James at least) seemed driven.
It is worth noting that Clampitt did not like to drive, or fly, but liked to travel rather by bus and boat, the more old-fashioned means of travel. It had, I believe, less to do with any fear of flying or driving, but more to do with taking one’s time and having that time to think and compose. Her own fiction, like her travelling habits, certainly takes its time and is thoughtful and considered. In fact, Clampitt shares many of James’s traits and preferences in this respect, e.g. a reverence for James’s eccentricities, his love of New York and his attraction to Europe as a haven for culture and romance.
Later in this letter, after her discussion of James, she writes about her own novel and how she has delivered a large segment of her manuscript to her agent. The agent tells her the mnuscipt is ‘cold and detached and lacking in feeling’.20 She is told the writing is good, beautiful even. But the agent doubts that the novel will sell:
One has to fight rather hard for a little while against this prognosis, knowing that the feeling is there, else there would have been no incentive to write in the first place, and that intelligence and self-control are in effect being condemned as defects, that depth has been written off as mere detachment.
Clampitt is less nonchalant about the rejection of her work here and one can detect a certain ire and frustration in her reaction. Her resolution however remains intact: ‘I know what I am doing, and I have to do it, for quite other than market considerations’.
Certainly, in the wake of rejection after rejection of her novels, one could argue that Clampitt when she later turns to poetry uses less ‘intelligence’ and more intuition, less ‘self-control’ and more freedom and excess. Her resolve reveals a number of telling characteristics about her and her sense of vocation as a writer. From these letters, she displays a confidence in her own abilities, an urgency and need to write and an integrity in her aims. She does not write commercial fiction. As she puts it, ‘market considerations’ are not why she writes; in other words, she will not sell out.
In her letters, Clampitt’s sense of vocation as a writer is intertwined with an almost religious sense of healing. While Stephen Dedalus might want to forge the uncreated conscience of his race, Amy Clampitt talks of putting together ‘the broken halves of a national consciousness’. No mean feat for a writer with nothing yet published, but one has to stand back and admire the scale of Clampitt’s ambition. She seeks wholeness and meaning. In a letter to her brother dated 16 July 1955, she wrote: ‘I sometimes have the feeling that it is my career to put together the broken halves of something that seems to have split apart because of growing too fast - if it didn’t sound too presumptuous, I would call that thing our national consciousness’.
Clampitt explains that on the one hand there is:
a fatalistic sense of evil and damnation, and on the other the reckless and frantic effort to smash it, kill it, get away from it somehow which only ends up in a sense that nothing means anything after all. If I have succeeded after a fashion … by the grace of God in becoming a whole person, maybe that is all I can hope to do. Of course I would still like to carry it over into a book that a few hundred people might read with appreciation, but it begins to appear that in the book I have been working on anyway it simply isn’t going to work.
Clampitt’s faith is not shaken with another rejection of her novel. Scribner’s turn it down with ‘lukewarm half praise’, then Knopf. The next year marks a significant time for Clampitt. ‘Something quite astonishing has occurred’, she writes to her brother in March. She hasn’t fallen in or out of love, she hasn’t changed jobs, she writes. Nor has she been offered a contract for her novel. In fact, she has asked the agent to refrain from submitting the manuscript to publishers. Though this decision seems to have caused ‘some slight ego-mortification’, it seems to have lifted a weight from Clampitt. Her relinquishment appears to have been caused by a crisis of self-confidence:
I had not only admitted that the novel would have to be rewritten from the beginning if it were to satisfy me; I had also admitted that though I knew to a certain extent what needed to be done, I was not at all sure that I was, or ever would be, capable of doing it.
This was a difficult admission for Clampitt to make, but once she had brought herself to the point of making it, Clampitt writes that it came as ‘a kind of relief’. She recounts her happiness and wonders whether writing is for her at all or whether her talent was ‘for living, for being happy’. Retiring, or postponing at least, her ambitions to be a published novelist was a great relief to Clampitt. It freed her from the pressure she put on herself to be a successful novelist. It also allowed her to explore other forms of expression. Having giving up her ambitions to be a novelist, Clampitt goes to visit The Cloisters, which is part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and is devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe28. There she experiences something of an epiphany. She continues in her digressive and garrulous style, a style which would infiltrate her poetry, to describe the experience:
(I begin to think now that such a talent is after all much more prevalent than I suspected – but this is to anticipate. But I see you skipping lines already, or at least wishing the creature would come to the point. But the creature is garrulous, you know, and besides the point, if you skip at all, is likely to become invisible. Patience and forbearance, I pray – I threatened a long letter, and it is barely started.)’
The letter she refers to next is the letter to the agent asking him to shelve her novel. After posting it, she takes the subway to Overlook Terrace to pay a visit to The Cloisters:
It is a beautiful place, both in its contents and in its location. On a sunny afternoon, as this one was, its location high on a bluff above the Hudson, facing the Palisades, is bathed in light, both direct and reflected. There are ramparts where you can walk in the open, and inside there are gardens where, just as I had hoped, some hothouse daffodils and crocuses and narcissus were already in bloom – the Cloisters proper. Or rather, not proper – a true cloister does not exist in any aggregate, but is simply an enclosed courtyard, quite generally, if not always, open at its center to the elements, and attached to a church or a monastery – a place not for formal worship, but simply for walking and meditation.
This is from one of the ‘miracle’ letters as Spiegleman calls them, chiefly because it refers to a ‘miraculous’ happening and also because it is remarkable for the insight it gives us into a crucial and pivotal time in Clampitt’s life. Her sense of destiny is definite with the admission that ‘I feel as if I could write a whole history of English literature, and know just where to place everybody in it, with hardly any trouble at all. The reason being, apparently, that I feel I am in it.’ The year 1956 was a very significant year for Clampitt: a year of crises and resolution. She falls out with a close friend, they make their peace, she stops writing novels, she is ‘confirmed’ to the church, she has a religious experience, writes a critical essay on Henry James, and starts to write poetry. It was to say the least a frenzied frenetic time.
After her experience at the Cloisters where she experiences something of an epiphany while considering the medieval tapestries The Hunt for The Unicorn, Clampitt goes home to record the experience in her diary. The results is the start of her vocation as a poet:
I decided to try to make a short story out of it, purely for the exercise. And then something happened which I could absolutely never have predicted: I have not altogether recovered yet from the surprise, though I suppose I shall get used to it in time. Quite as though they had a will of their own, the sentences broke in a way that was not my usual style at all. Rather frightened, I must admit, for the moment, I let them break. The next thing I knew, they had begun to reach out for rhymes. This frightened me almost more, until I discovered that finding a rhyme could be almost as natural a process as the resolution of a dominant chord: I didn't have to look for them, they simply came.
Surprisingly however, her renunciation of the novel is short-lived. The following year Clampitt is again agonising over her commitment to writing. In fact, she considers giving up work to get back to work on a novel. Two years later in 1959, she writes to a friend that
after having once again finally abandoned the novel as a dead duck and a lost cause, I found that it hadn’t heard the death sentence after all.
With some trepidation I got the Audubon Society to let me take two weeks’ leave of absence.
The book is now, if I keep it to the volume and symmetry it has in my mind, about two thirds finished. I am over the hump; the stumbling block which kept me writing and rewriting the same episode over and over without getting it right, and which led me to think it had already been worked over too long, simply evaporated, and one morning, in the space of perhaps ten minutes, the resolution I had despaired of achieving simply opened up like a map, as though it had always been there. Sometimes it scares me. A couple of days ago I found myself immersed in a broth of such sheer frightfulness and misery that I thought that story and I would drown in it, and hardly dared to go on. But the next morning saw us both safely through. I don’t yet, but I think I shall probably leave my job to finish it.
Clampitt does not relinquish her ambition to be a novelist. As she nears the age of forty, she remains preoccupied, and tells us in her letter that she is within fifty pages of retyping and revising the first draft. The next year, Clampitt writes to her brother again, in 1961, ‘Did I tell you that I have started a new novel? A first draft of a first chapter is now extant.’ Then there is a silence about her novel writing. She is probably finishing the novel. And then as late as 1965, Clampitt is hopeful about the prospect of one of her novels realising publication. She has been travelling a lot, but also writing. In a letter from 1965 to her friend Rimsa, she writes about her travels in Greece, the Greek islands, and also to Salzburg, Paris, London, Cambridge, Norwich, Lincoln, and Oxford, ‘my favourite city of them all’, where she visits a friend who is a Benedictine nun, (Clampitt once considered becoming a nun) until she winds up on the Sussex coast, before sailing back from Southampton … ‘and since then a month long writing jag … has brought me to the end of the novel I’d been working on at odd times for the past couple of years.’
The final letter we have about her novel writing strikes a note of quiet desperation, at least on the part of Clampitt’s agents. Her agent enters the novel in a contest sponsored by Putnam, McCall’s, Fawcett Publishing, and Warner Brothers. Clampitt tells the agent that she thinks the notion a silly one, ‘but to go ahead’. She does not win the prize. In fact no one does and Clampitt remarks that her heart isn’t broken,
The last I heard, my agent had a brainstorm and sent the thing to Henry Fonda, who seems to be producing movies these days. Well, anyway she likes the book. At best the audience for it is probably quite small, so whether any publisher will care to bother remains to be seen.
By this stage Clampitt had changed agents, but still to no avail. After 1966, there is no more mention of her novel writing. It seems that gradually her aspirations faded with the continual rejection. Her poetry replaces her novel writing. Her vocation for writing remained a driving force in her life, even if the genre of that vocation changed from prose to poetry. Within seven years Clampitt had published in 1973 her first chap-book of poetry, Multitudes, Multitudes.
It has been written that Clampitt’s novel-writing preoccupied her during the1950s, but a close reading of her letters reveals that she was in fact writing, rewriting and revising up until the mid 1960s, as far back, in fact, as 1966. Unlike Spiegelman’s notion that Clampitt’s ‘visit of grace’ at The Cloisters in 1956 caused a prolonged renunciation of prose and a new avowed allegiance to poetry, Clampitt in fact kept writing fiction for the next ten years after her transcendent moment in front of the medieval tapestry The Hunt for the Unicorn. She starts to write poetry, but her ambitions for her prose do not fade until long after this ‘visit of grace’ which I believe had as much to do with the repeated rejections her fiction received than it did with any religious experience.
The journey to read Clampitt’s fiction may have resulted in an adventure into an aspiring novelist’s un-publishable morass of papers. Hints as to how Clampitt had become the poet she became may have been dicovered. What were presented to me in Great Barrington, at the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, an organisation which houses The Amy Clampitt Fund were the facsimiles to two novels: The Sound of a Bell and The Parapet of Choice. Both were without dates. What became clear to me quite quickly was that these two novels were not two separate novels, but versions or drafts of the same book. They contain the same characters and similar, and sometimes identical, situations. The main difference between the two manuscripts is that The Parapet of Choice opens with more detail on Selina, the heroine of the novel, and casts the reader a little further back into the past. It also goes into more detail about the high school exploits of another main character, Rudy Piper. Also, The Parapet of Choice ends abruptly at page 240. This either suggests that the rest of the draft of the novel is lost, unfound or misplaced, or that the rest of the novel is in a handwritten state somewhere among Clampitt’s papers or had been discarded by Clampitt. Willard Spiegelman comments that the novels were written in a spidery hand. I could not find handwritten copies of the novels, but only typed script. It is clear either way that The Parapet of Choice is an earlier draft of The Sound of a Bell. Episodes are more fully fleshed out in The Sound of a Bell, not to mention that The Sound of a Bell is actually a finished piece of work. The opening of both manuscripts also gives us a clue: The Parapet of Choice opens with a series of character descriptions, whereas The Sound of a Bell opens with a dramatic situation; the characters are subsumed within the scenario and are revealed over the course of a number of chapters rather than presented to us as character studies. Other significant sections in the book read more completely and more evocatively in The Sound of a Bell, for example what I call ‘The Harvest Scene’ and ‘The Snow Scene’.
So, if there is only one complete extant novel, where are the other two novels Salter and Spiegelman mention or Clampitt herself in her Paris Review interview? After meeting John Hennessy, the writer-in-residence at Clampitt’s house, he suggested we look in the single bedroom where Amy Clampitt’s papers had been boxed, numbered and filed before they were conveyed to The Berg Collection in the New York Public Library and archived: Box 11 was the fiction box. What it contained was The Sound of a Bell and The Parapet of Choice, some short stories and the synopsis for two other novels: Blue Vervain, and Stranger, Tread Light. The complete manuscripts of Blue Vervain, and Stranger, Tread Light were not among the papers: but it is my belief that at one time they were finished. Karen Chase, Clampitt’s friend and Board member of the Trust told me that Amy and Harold talked of her ‘three’ novels. Clampitt in one letter to her literary agent writes that she has enclosed the final instalment of a novel, and is now working on a new novel which, if he is free, she would like to talk to him about.
Stranger, Tread Light is about a twenty-four year old New Englander who ‘comes to New York.’ As in The Sound of a Bell, The Parapet of Choice and Blue Vervain the protagonist leaves a small rural community to return at a later date. Blue Vervain itself begins in 1939 again in a small farming community settled by Quakers less than a hundred years previously. The story centres on two sisters, Charlotte and Sophie. Similarly to The Sound of a Bell and The Parapet of Choice, one of the main characters, in this case, Sophie, is a pianist. Similarly again, to the other novels, her father wants to write a memoir and asks the daughter for help. This incidentally, like the farm setting, is a somewhat autobiographical detail. Both Clampitt’s father and grandfather wrote and self-published short memoirs. Clampitt’s father, Roy J. Clampitt (1888–1973), wrote an autobiography, A Life I Did Not Plan, and Frank T. Clampitt (1860-1943) wrote Some Incidents in My Life: A Saga of the ‘Unknown’ Citizen. The novels also share a common exploration of love ‘gone wrong’, including an engagement which is called off. Incidentally, this is also something which has a basis in Clampitt’s own life. Karen Chase told me in conversation that Clampitt was once engaged to a man who was deaf, and a drunk. A date had been set for their wedding, and Clampitt’s parents had flown in from Des Moines before Clampitt reconsidered and ended the engagement.
Eventually in Blue Vervain the father dies and Sophie returns to the house she grew up in. It is clear, whether Clampitt wrote after Blue Vervain or not, though she probably did, that she is reworking a variation on a theme: a young woman grows up on a farm, shows artistic talent, leaves for the big city only to return to the farm frustrated.
But let us focus now on the one complete novel: The Sound of a Bell. Initially, what might put some readers off The Sound of a Bell is the rather portentous epigraph from The Confessions of St. Augustine which reads thus, ‘his nature then, being such, I thought could not be born of the Virgin Mary’. The epigraph of course makes more sense by the end of the novel, but at the beginning it gives the reader a clue to what might be ahead: a worldly tale or the story of a worldly character within a pious community. Perhaps so. Before the action begins and we can find out, there is a prologue, less portentous and more poetic. There is, in fact, an epic sweep to the prologue:
Travelling in land, after two months and more than a thousand miles they arrived at a place without a name and a history … Rooted not so much in time or space as among the patriarchal place-names of the Old Testament, they staked their claim in that place and called it Canaan.
Clampitt was always interested in the past. In her poem ‘The Prairie’ she tracks the travels of her forebears to the Midwest where, though it developed a keen sense of the natural world within her, she felt very far away from the centres of civilisation which had produced the great writers she loved:
Acre by acre the sod had been turned, the slough drained; a clotted net of windbreaks pulled in the fluid shimmer of the horizon. Fences had gone up; what had been limitless had shrunken to the smallness of the identifiable. Canaan itself was a mere tufted cluster, a large windbreak among the quilted undulations of the prairie. Here, on the first day, of the week, a bell clanged from the wooden tower of the sole church; on other days from September into May, another rocked and clattered above the brick walls of a consolidated school, beside whose entrance an ash tree grew. Monumental and solitary, it overtopped the second story; for it was older than the town, and such was the prairie-dweller’s pagan veneration for a tree that it had been allowed to stand - an anchorage in an existence cut adrift from the shores of history.
Europe had been left behind. Its sparse and jejune mementoes, not less than the scattered chips of flint or the rare, timeworn tomahawk unearthed by the plow, were irretrievably detached as the yellow leaves that each September drifted past the schoolroom windows from the tree beside the door. Sacrament and ceremonial had been abolished with scarcely remembered forebears; a diffident inherited relic of their rage against idolatry kept the church bare of these even now …
Would a history have helped? Was the answer in the Europe that had been left behind? There had been one world war; now, persistent as heat lightning or thunder in summer, there were rumors of another. But in those days Europe was still far away.
Canaan, where the novel takes place, is a small rural farming community. There is a real place Canaan in Connecticut, which very well may be the place Clampitt is thinking of40, but the Canaan of her novel is also a kind of Anyplace of the American Midwest. Using the name Canaan also produces a religious echo. It is a place in the book of Genesis where Noah and his son fight. The religious echo is deliberate. There is a good deal of talk about religion in the book, whether it is the Corey family arguing over the efficacy of a minister’s sermons or the church’s stability. It is the kind of talk which Clampitt would have heard in her own home growing up. A look at Clampitt’s father’s memoir shows the moral and religious tone and context of the family she grew up in. The Clampitts’ conversations perhaps were not so different to the Coreys’.
The Corey family are in many ways a typical farming family. Gifford Corey is a sixty-five year old farmer, a widower, who has a stroke early on in the novel precipitating the return of Selina, ‘the youngest child and only daughter of Canaan’s leading citizen’, his daughter, from New York. The family, which includes three sons, their wives and children, are church-goers ‘by habit’, we are told by an omniscient and detached, but eloquent narrator, ‘rather than inclination’. One son runs a filling station, another is nothing more than his father’s tenant, all of which disappoints their father who feels his sons ‘lack something in imagination’. Their guffawing, bigoted banter attests to this. For example, one of the brothers wonders whether Rudy Piper, the antagonist of the novel, is a ‘wop or a gypsy’.
The family gathers at the homestead and discuss among other things Hitler and the Sudeten Germans, placing the opening of the novel near the end of the 1930s. Rudy is asked to paint a stage backdrop for the school’s theatre and on a whim, it seems, Mr. Corey agrees to foot the cost. A character in The Parapet of Choice wonders if Rudy will become ‘the Gauguin of the Midwest’. Selina is curious about Rudy; she is the one who brings the whole subject of the school’s resources up. She is also by far the most interesting of the family members, probably because she is the most unusual. She has a certain aloofness and an aura of disappointed ambition about her, a result perhaps of her thwarted studies at piano in New York. After having won a competition to study for four years at a college conservatory, Selina is described as ‘a real musician gone to waste’. The Parapet of Choice is more critical of her talent and describes Selina’s musical prowess as something based more on confidence than talent:
Selina played very well, and not at all in the gentle, ladylike fashion, betraying a fondness for appogiature and ritardando, which would have suited a mere casual impression of her. Debussy was not the sort of thing she did best. She had a technique of such surprising firmness that it seemed better than it was, concealing what it really lacked - some deeper joy as begets self-confidence, some confidence such as can flower in ecstasy. Her most brilliant performances were without that sense of their own importance which would have made them more than performances too; often they were merely conscientious. From time to time a teacher attempted to tell her this, but she had never known quite what it meant: one cannot after all, conscientiously get rid of conscience. The sense of obligation which lay behind what her talent had accomplished was still larger than her talent. So perhaps she had been right in concluding that she was not deeply musical.
One reason her ambition to become a concert pianist is thwarted is because Selina has had to return to the farm to take care of her ailing father. In The Parapet of Choice we are told that she has been enjoying the social life in New York with its concerts, dinners, cocktail parties, night clubs, theatre and ‘real wealth’, though at times she is made to feel like a country bumpkin, or at least ‘a docile innocent’, especially when an urbane lawyer seduces her only to tell her she does not belong in the city. ‘Nothing ever happened you’, he chastises her. Others, on discovering her Mid-Western origins, ask her insultingly whether she can ‘milk a cow’44. Some observations of city life are sharp and witty. Here Clampitt is writing about trawling through the newspapers on Sundays, ‘Whole Sundays can pass in the involuntary solitude to a million happenings of no interest whatsoever: it is the nirvana of the metropolis.’ But the truth is, Selina has been a sheltered creature, knowing few cities at all; she has been to Des Moines, we are told, and twice to Chicago.
Such treatment coupled with the fact that Selina has been neglecting her piano practice makes the decision to return to Canaan, and more importantly to stay in Canaan, somewhat easier for the twenty-four year old. When a teacher at the local school is needed, Selina is asked to deputise and reluctantly accepts the temporary position only to feel, as a single woman in rural America, something of an ‘old maid’. But this soon changes when Selina receives the not un-wanted attention of Ted Turner, also a farmer, and once the town’s sports-star and one-time professional baseball player. Selina is flattered by the attention and finds herself in a ‘complicated and weightless happiness’. She even imagines ‘throwing her arms about him [Ted], opening the way herself for the advance his bashfulness continued to prevent’. The writing becomes lyrical here:
Stirred by that imaginary first embrace, she lay awake for a while in the solitude of her moonlit bedroom. The pines murmured among themselves as they always murmured even when there was no wind, while overhead the moon, weightless but firm as a wafer of bone, unhurried, unerring, rode the deeps of space; until finally, her mind a mirror of its mirroring serenity, she was asleep.
All this excitement does not stop Selina finding no real frisson between herself and Ted, however, and she ends up complaining that it was ‘an uphill struggle simply finding things to talk about’.
What is clear immediately to any reader of literature is that Clampitt can write and write well and in many ways The Sound of a Bell is a very dramatic novel. It contradicts most, if not all, the criticism of those readers who had read some of the manuscript form of the novel. There is a love story, star-crossed, and at times tragic, a story set against the background of a World War where characters develop and change: Selina from a resigned and subdued young woman, from a girl really who accepts what is handed to her to a fiercely independent parent who has experienced shame, forgiveness and acceptance, one who has accepted her own limitations too by not pursuing her talent as a piano player in New York. Rudy too has experienced great vicissitudes in his fortune; he has changed from being a feckless student, to a narcissistic artist, to an army veteran and father.
There certainly is not too much theologising, but there is a definite spiritual search which the two main characters pursue, a search for Selina which is hinted at in the prologue and which echoes throughout the novel:
Some times in the humid inland night you woke to no sound but the trilling of a million frogs, choiring somewhere, vacant and serene; and in that mindless, multitudinous single voice, unaware of time, labour, grief, even of its own existence, you met the mad, lurking question - Who am I then ? That heedless music had not asked and would not answer.
Selina’s search then is a search of self-discovery. Within this search, there is a journey. One underlying theme in Stranger, Tread Light is, as Clampitt describes it, ‘love as a search for a spiritual reality’. The same can also be said for The Sound of a Bell. Selina is desperately trying to find a meaning for her life. In fact, one of the most surprising elements of the novel for me was its movement. The stasis of a conservative and moral farming community contains the origins for the dramatic characters of Rudy and Selina. Love affairs, broken engagements, pregnancy, illness, heart-break, death and war are surely enough to whet the appetites of even the most action-hungry of readers. But that is not to say that any of these elements are dealt with in a garish way: there is a felicitous patience to Clampitt’s prose and revelation. Little is described in a vulgar manner.
But plenty happens and with a drama and movement which reminded me of other epics set at war-time, for example novels by Ernest Hemingway or Sebastian Faulks. In fact in the synopsis to her novel Stranger, Tread Light, dated 1952, Clampitt writes about her narrative method as being similar to that of a ‘motion picture’. It is an interesting admission. The third person narration Clampitt employs moves the scenes from one set of characters to another not in the swift succession of modern movies, but with the patient and confident directorial hand of the oldies. Of course one advantage her fiction has over any motion picture is its ability to delve into the psychological make-up of her characters and describe the nuances of their thought processes.
In Clampitt’s discussion of Henry James in Predecessors, Et Cetera, she writes of the ‘architectural form’ of James’s novels. No one, she notes, ‘ever handled form more masterfully’. The indicators of architectural form, Clampitt argues, have to do with, for example, how The Portrait of a Lady opens and closes on the grounds of Gardencourt. ‘The symmetry is straightforward enough50.’ But symmetry is obviously something which appeals to Clampitt; she herself puts it into practice in The Sound of a Bell by opening and closing that novel on the family farm: at first with the entire family present and finally with Selina, her son and returned lover. It is a narrative strategy which emphasises the extent of the journey taken by each of the main characters and frames the novel neatly. This rage for symmetry is carried over later into Clampitt’s poetry.
It is interesting to note also that the next analogy Clampitt uses to illuminate James’s architectural technique is a musical one. She writes of ‘a dominant chord’ which is used by James. ‘In the later novels, the dramatic resonances are less schematic, more musical; and they are everywhere’. She writes of ‘variations’, ‘sadder keys’, and ‘a succession of tones that vibrate’ through one particular disturbing episode in a James novel. The musical metaphors manifest themselves in Clampitt’s own fiction and are embodied in The Sound of a Bell in the character of Selina herself, the musician:
These modulations, which go to make up the drama of interior awareness, of what goes unsaid, are not of the sort to be rendered in a Puccini aria, or perhaps by the human voice at all. Better suited perhaps, are the wordless colloquies among the strings in a Mozart quintet.
Selina, an alter ego of Clampitt, it could be argued, and heroine of the novel embodies the musical metaphor Clampitt likes so much. Like a good piece of music, there are melodies and counter melodies, dominant chords and minor keys to her character, all suggesting the complexity of a ‘real’ person. Clampitt may admire the architectural structure of Henry James’s novels and strive for the movement of a ‘movie’, but the musical preoccupation is perhaps most revealing to the form of her novel. Like her description of the James novel, we can say the same thing about The Sound of a Bell that ‘the dramatic resonances are less schematic, more musical.’ There are ‘movements’ within Clampitt’s novel. The leitmotifs of the Christmas cactus and the Japanese doll recur throughout the novel to create ‘chords’ and the writing is itself musical, cadenced and patterned. But this was not enough to sway the publishers. Not with the rather dull location of Canaan where the action takes place.
Canaan is a constricting environment for the temperamental and artistic Selina. What aggrieves her and causes her ‘bursts of spleen and hauteur’ is that Canaan is a town which recognises ‘no distinction between grand opera and Victor Herbert or the virtuoso of violin and a player of the marimba xylophone’. Selina quite righteously believes that no one in Canaan has any idea of what originality means. This hauteur does not stop Selina being the favourite of her father’s and though Ted becomes ‘a libidinous fantasy’ for Selina, he remains to her an unsuitable match, not least because ‘talking about anything much, aside from baseball, was hard enough for him’. But Selina is conflicted, because at the same time Ted represents a ‘deliverer’ to her within a community she feels curbed and constrained by, a community whose highlight, even for Selina, is the harvest, ‘the very culmination of life’. And it is at times like this in the novel, when Clampitt is describing the harvest itself, that the quality of her writing becomes apparent:
What the agora had been for Athens, cathedrals had been for Bourges, the harvest, whether Canaan knew it or not, had been for Canaan …. It had been, in her own remote and half-legendary childhood, a vast pageant sweeping across summer. Toward it the grain fields leaned, altering, underneath the prevailing winds, from green to silver and from silver into waves of hirsute gold. Then there had come the long days of reaping and binding, or setting up the sheaves on into the sunset, even into the moonlight on the nights when there was a moon. There was an art, which before very many years would have been forgotten, of buttressing five sheaves against each other and capping these with a sixth to keep the moisture out. And then there began the daily procession of racks and wagons rattling over country roads to that day’s particular rendezvous: from miles around one heard them and knew where they were bound. And it was here that the great central scene had already opened: late one evening the steam engine, a black, breathing hulk, turned past the gateposts and rolled into the barnyard. With it came three strangers: they were the engineers …Everybody on that day was busy, idleness was a relic of the dull forgotten past. There had been a time when the engine’s stay in the barnyard lasted for days, and the state of the high festival came almost to seem the normal one. All day, day after day, the heart of the engine throbbed and roared; the racks and the wagons came and went, delivering the bundles from the field, taking the thrashed wagonloads of wheat and barley to the granary; the air was full of chaffy dust, the drive was strewn with the shattered awns of barley and oats; boys still too small to manage a team trotted between the field and the windmill, jugfuls of water to the sweating bundle-pitchers who stayed in the field …
And so on, Clampitt continues describing in intimate detail a rural rite which only someone who had experienced it could write so vividly about. Ted and Selina’s courtship progresses predictably until Christmas time with its ‘oyster stew’, ‘crystalised grapefruit’ and ‘boxful of balsalm and holly’ when Ted decides to propose. Selina who is ‘anxious’ that her world will now be ‘reduced to a safe snow muffled town’ refuses Ted his wish. Again in compelling prose, Clampitt writes:
everywhere, all over the world, the snow was falling and through it a part of her was running’. And in her own complicated and inimitable way by breaking Ted’s heart something of Selina envies him. Besides, ‘the madness with which the summer nights had secretly throbbed was long since gone’. Winter had arrived and Selina is pensive trying to ‘peer past the reflected silence of set table and the soundless reflected bell, into the dark garden and at the snug row of lighted houses on the other side; and it was then that she saw it had just begun to snow.
How many times, looking out into the yellow arc cast by the streetlight, she had made through the misted windowpane the identical discovery! - a discovery scarcely less ravishing than the anterior one, of waking on the farm to the tinkling, muffled, morning queerness of the first snowfall. But where the child’s prodigal anticipation had been, she found this time only a vacant sort of panic. Another month, she thought, and I am going to be twenty five. It would have been a relief, in the face of this sudden knowledge that life passes, that one is not forever young, to give way to anguish, to any emotion at all; and so, for a histrionic moment , she pressed her forehead against the glass and waited for her heart to break.
This act of self-will and free choice seems to go against everything her family expects of her and it takes an ‘ultimate effort … to have cut oneself adrift from the inevitable.’ In this significant action, Selina remains true to herself as an individual apart from societal norms and expectations. She is emphatic in her own self-assertions: ‘I chose it. I chose this’.
Ted, humiliated, is determined to get to the jewellers to return the ring as quickly as possible, but before he does he enters a church where he experiences a vision, not of the Virgin Mary, which at first he thinks it might be, but of another woman in the community, whom we are told he eventually marries at a later date.
For Selina, ‘the old world was dead.’ And all of this drama is described and revealed in beautifully eloquent and patient prose. ‘Outside the moon floated high and white in a sky of flawless indigo’.
In the world, outside of this small community, with its personal dramas playing themselves out, we are told that Prague has fallen to the Nazis. It is 1939. But in Canaan, the one great worry on people’s minds is that there is a drought. The War has not yet reached American shores:
Along the fencerows the wind plum and shadblow had whitened and shattered ahead of season; now the apple trees were bursting prematurely into stunted bloom. The sky for a week had been veiled by a windless haze, the sweet, sickening, autumnal ghost of forest fires somewhere to the north. Night after night was breathless, and what one missed, without knowing what, was the absent springtime chorus of the frogs. Scripture began to be quoted beyond the pulpit; there was talk of setting aside a day for prayer. And then, that morning, the wind had begun to blow. By midday the sun was a disk of brass in a sky of ochre; mid-afternoon was a howling dusk and dusk a darkness more choking than any blizzard in January.
Clampitt is brilliant in her description of the cycle of the seasons and the novel interweaves the changing fortunes of a family and the community it comes in contact with and the gradual change of seasons in seamless fashion. Even though Selina has spurned the one love interest in her life and chooses a path less travelled than the one expected of her she still has ‘desperate fears of being alone’. Enter Rudy Piper, ex-student of Selina’s and artiste. It was he who Selina’s father sponsored earlier in the novel to repaint the school’s theatrical curtain. After having completed his task to some people’s consternation, but mostly to others’ praise, he receives a generous fee and decamps for a series of adventures in New York, including two intense love affairs, one of which ends with a woman’s suicide.
After his return, this enigmatic character, an artist who does not fit into the small rural society of Canaan, meets Selina again. Her curiosity about him has remained and they begin an affair. Selina worries that she is being used and wants to cement the relationship by getting Rudy to meet her father. This is about the time her father has had a stroke, but not before he has decided to leave Selina the family house in his will.
Selina’s relationship with Rudy creates a great deal of unease and ill-will within her family. They do not approve of the relationship or Rudy. Ted Turner would have been a much more apt suitor and companion in their eyes. As for Rudy, he is a frustrated artist. He has been working on a painting called The Destroying Angel; it is to be his masterpiece, but like all narcissistic artists he blames Selina for his own lethargy and failure to finish his great work. His is proud and petulant, a selfish egotist at heart, and in temperament he is an opposite to the enduring fortitude and patience of Selina:
Where was she? He sat down once more, shivering but resolute. He would show her. He would not stir from this room until she came and made due acknowledgement of what he had done for her. Until then, even if it meant staying shut up here all night, he would not so much as open his mouth. He would ignore her exactly as she was ignoring him. He would forget her very existence. Who was she, what was she that he should condescend to think of her? He had work to do. Let her oppose to the end, if she would. Let her entreat him to come down until she cried herself hoarse; he would not come down from the moated and bristling solitude of his lonely masterpiece. Let her whimper at the gates forever, he would not let her in, he would not answer, he would not relinquish a particle of his misunderstood dignity, his grim martyrdom. He thought, in fact, of going on a hunger strike.
Selina has had a certain amount of sympathy for the plight of the artist in general and believes in artists being ‘accepted as respectable members of society’. Her own failure to become one adds to her sense of justice for the artist and lends her support for Rudy more strength than it might otherwise have had. But Rudy is ungrateful and thankless. His masterpiece is going to waste because of her, her family and her ailing father, or so he believes. The ensuing tensions eventually come to a head: Christmas is the scene for a dramatic crisis in the novel.
The Corey family’s disapproval of Selina’s relationship is compounded when she becomes pregnant and Selina’s sister-in-law insists on taking the ill Mr. Corey with her and her husband to their own home in order to take better care of him. Selina is devastated and in the following weeks thinks only about getting her father back. Her desperation is met by an ultimatum. Rudy will leave her if she takes her father back. Selina lays out a $10 bill for Rudy and he takes it and leaves. The pathos of the moment is powerful. ‘Everyone leaves’ Selina and she is acutely aware of it: now she is left in the house she grew up in, pregnant and alone.
With America’s entry into the War, Ted joins the army, as does Selina’s brother and her estranged lover Rudy. Selina we are told ‘in shame and secret’ turns to ‘the vice of poetry’ to help sustain her. Selina then gives birth to a son, Mark, and eventually makes a reconciliation with her sister-in-law and family. They take pity on her and forgive her. ‘She had been forgiven, but without the humiliation of having to explain herself, the ignominy of being understood; she had been allowed to take back her father without having, in so many words, to ask for him; in payment for all of which she meekly suffered the continual scathing ointment of a charity that asked no questions, made no references, and did not even mean to patronize’.
Even with her father back and a son to care for, Selina still is isolated and alone. Her father cannot speak after his stroke and her son is also slow to articulate himself. ‘Alone, linked in silence to the silence of her father and in mute love to a child not yet articulate, she had suffered her memory, and with it the wild colloquies and shrieking questions of past days, to be stilled. The piano, beside the stand where the still tended cactus still thrived, remained unopened as it had done for more than two years’.
The war ends and the soldiers return. Selina’s brother is wounded, Ted is changed, and Rudy somewhat deranged but chastened by the experience. A strange dénouement involves an ignominious episode with Rudy returned from the War and intent on revisiting the ex-girlfriend he lived with after receiving the generous fee for the painting in his old school only to discover that his old lover had killed herself when he left her. Shocked by the news, Rudy goes with a prostitute and drinks in bar after bar, before he has an alcohol-addled vision of his father and returns to Canaan and Selina. Rudy sees his son for the first time and there is the possibility of a reconciliation between him and Selina and a future for their family. Within a tale of unrequited love, war, illness, death and family strife, the novel ends on a hopeful, even a quietly optimistic note.
Clampitt’s difficulty in finding publication for her novels was compounded by the lack of precedent, not for her, but for any woman writing novels in mid-century twentieth century post war America. Flannery O’Connor was predominantly a short-story writer. She only wrote two novels in her career and only one of these was published in the 50s, the decade which Clampitt tried most ardently to write her novels. Wise Blood has by the way a male protagonist. Next I thought of Carson McCullers. She published four novels, none of which appeared in the 50s. Both McCullers and O’Connor are part of a Southern Gothic which had a certain cache in 1950s America. Clampitt’s fiction has fewer of the traits of the grotesque which their fiction might hold. The popular selling fiction of the decade included pulp fiction, mass market fiction, genre fiction, in other words science fiction in the form of Asimov and co., and crime novels like the ones Raymond Chandler wrote.
Of Eudora Welty’s novels, another Southern writer, only one is published in the 50s. Katherine Anne Porter published only one novel in 1962 after a successful career as a short story writer. Perhaps Willa Cather in her Prairie Trilogy would provide the best model and precedent for the literary world to accept a writer like Clampitt.
Yet, they did not. At least they did not at the time. Whether this is the fault of a less than zealous agent or the climate of popular taste can only be surmised. But serious woman’s fiction was not much of a seller in 1950s America. Of all the National Book Award winners of the decade there is not one woman. As for the Pulitzer Prize awarded only eight times in those ten years, again it is men-only affair.
The scarcity of quality women’s fiction may have made it more difficult for Clampitt to find a publisher. There was less of a precedent for a publisher to take such a risk. Hemingway and Faulkner were still publishing, Bellow and Malamud were high profile, as was Cheever and O’Hara. The climate was not a good one to take a risk on an unknown writer, and a woman writer at that. And yet Amy Clampitt does fit into a tradition of 20th century American women novelists. Why would her interest in religion be something to distract readers or publishers when Flannery O’Connor’s did not? The action of the novel also tells us that her failure to publish is not a case of ‘nothing much happens in Canaan.’
Whether The Sound of a Bell remains a research interest of Clampitt scholars is hard to say. I certainly think her prose has been overlooked, now, and particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, but it is my contention that The Sound of a Bell deserves another chance to be considered as publishable material. It is not only a very readable novel, it offers an engrossing panorama of mid-century America. The book also, the Prologue in particular, holds some tantalising clues to what would one day preoccupy Clampitt in her poetry: America’s isolation from Europe, religious zeal, her own personal spirituality and a brilliantly observant eye for the natural world.
There are too indications that she may have gone on to become a significant American novelist of the twentieth century: with one complete novel, an unpublished one at that, it is impossible to say for sure, but in this case, prose’s loss is poetry’s gain. When I think of Ezra Pound’s famous dictum that poetry should be as well written as prose, I think of Amy Clampitt and the example she gave herself: beautifully cadenced lines of prose, which were for her contemporary readers unavailable, but are or could be to us, and which taught and served her so well when she eventually moved on to write her poetry. Her poetry would not have come about, would not have been they way it is, without the prose she wrote. With Pound’s dictum in mind, it is my contention that Clampitt’s poetry was as well written as her prose. She learned from writing novels and when she finally relinquished the intelligence and self control of her novels, her imagination found its way to the associative and free-wheeling nature of her poetry. In many ways, Amy Clampitt fits Sartre’s notion that prose writers tame language and that it is up to poetry to set it free again. Rejection from the commercial publishing world, a resolute and resilient vocation to be a writer, and the enigma and lure of the medieval tapestries, The Hunt for The Unicorn, all conspired together to form a writer who first tamed language with her novels and freed it with her poetry.