- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005


Edited by Willard Spiegelman

Columbia University, $37.50, 304 pages, illus.


Edited by Saskia Hamilton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40, 852 pages, illus.


Two poets, two collections of their letters: What a contrast they form. Robert Lowell and Amy Clampitt were born three years apart, he in 1917 and she in 1920, but to say that they came from — and continued throughout their lives to inhabit — totally different worlds is truly an understatement.

If anyone was to the manner born, it was Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV. Not only was he the scion of a family generally accepted to be at the apex of American aristocracy (“the Cabots speak only to the Lowells/ the Lowells speak only to God”), but one that had also given American poetry two distinguished avatars, James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell.

And was he ever conscious of it. His letters reek of the arrogance and absolutely innate sense of entitlement that come from such a secure harbor in the haute aristocracy. In his letter to Franklin Roosevelt refusing induction into the armed services during World War II, he cannot forbear bringing in his forebears, complete with signatories of the Declaration of Independence; clearly, he thinks that this endows his particular political views with added gravitas. Given his generally antinomian attitudes, his aristocratic/nativist arrogance strikes a jarring note: It is hard, for instance, to imagine that if he had been born female, he’d have been a devoted member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Indeed, Lowell’s ancestry doubtless smoothed his path into the academic and publishing byways of the world of poetry. How else to account for the modest talent amid all that fanfare of self-promotion, entitlement, license and certainty that he is a Poet with a capital P. His letters provide a glimpse into a harsh, brutal man with a hard sensibility and a certain measure of hardheaded intelligence and even on occasion sensitivity.

Except, of course, when the demon of mental illness was upon him, and as with certain of the poems which show the effects of that dreadful affliction upon him, you can see their deleterious effect upon his mental processes. It may be that he was able to benefit from the personal anguish of his illness and its consequences upon his life to produce the kind of confessional poetry which established his reputation and was even a considerable (if to my mind unfortunate) influence on American poetry. But as far as his personal life was concerned, this collection of letters leaves no doubt as to the corrosive effect his pathology had on him and those around him.

And it must be said that Lowell moved in interesting circles. His three wives, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood, were all esteemed writers of fiction as well as complex and compelling women. Close friends included Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt and he was on intimate terms with a host of well-known poets from Ezra Pound to Elizabeth Bishop. From the groves of academe, to the world of the New York intellectuals and the literary society of London, to the corridors of political activism if not actual power, Lowell cut a swathe that is well-chronicled in these letters.

As a guide to him and these various worlds, “The Letters of Robert Lowell” is made all the more pleasant and valuable by the superb editing done by Saskia Hamilton, an academic at Barnard College. I cannot recall a better annotated collection of letters; each is numbered and a note at the back contains a wealth of information about people, places and context, all clearly, authoritatively and intelligently laid out. Add to this an excellent index, lists of where manuscripts are located and even of various addresses important in Lowell’s life, and you have an indelible portrait of the man in his milieu.

Would that Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, had done even a fraction of such fine editing on his admittedly incomplete edition of the letters of Amy Clampitt. (One can only hope that the fuller collection said to be in the works will be better done.) As it is, the minimal editing, which leaves the poor reader consistently frustrated and starved for information he is craving, fortunately cannot keep him from rejoicing in these vibrant, attractive, life-affirming letters. And it must be said that Mr. Spiegelman’s introduction to his subject is so imbued with understanding, admiration and affection as to set just the right tone for the volume, his deficiencies as an editor notwithstanding.

And indeed with a poet like Amy Clampitt, who hailed from the American heartland in Iowa, graduated from Grinnell College and did not until very near the end of her life mix in anything resembling exalted company, it is perhaps especially important to provide background information for her letters. Her correspondents are not celebrated folk about whom information is to be found elsewhere; we’d like to know a bit more about them and about other of the people, places, and events mentioned by Clampitt.

What we do get, however, in this slim collection of letters, is a wonderful sense of the delightful woman — simple, yet profoundly sensitive and intelligent; unassuming, yet full of passion, spirit and integrity — who gave American poetry a splendid body of work. We see her in the years when she still thought of herself as a writer of fiction (it never saw the light of day), and then the growth of this poet’s mind and consciousness. We feel her frustration in the years when this talent was underappreciated and share her satisfaction in the acclaim that found its way to her in the last few years of her life.

Publication in The New Yorker in the 1980s began to give her a wider audience, support from the celebrated critic Helen Vendler led to a Guggenheim fellowship, and Clampitt eventually received a MacArthur Grant in her early ‘70s, only to succumb to ovarian cancer a couple of years later in 1994. But everywhere in these letters, in obscurity and in the glow of success, in sorrow and in joy, in frustration and in epiphany, in sickness and in health, there is a poise, a groundedness, a grace, a loveliness, indeed a great spirit of the sort that is only rarely encountered.

In their intensity about poetic creation, Clampitt’s letters recall those of her lodestar, the English Romantic poet John Keats; interestingly, like some of his most famous letters containing his artistic credo, those of hers which do something similar are also addressed to a beloved brother. Yet she is also a moving letter writer about emotions of all kinds, about love affairs and the nature of love, and even about food, wine, and travel. Politics played an important part in her life; raised as a Quaker, she is a natural pacifist and an instinctive liberal. Still, she is never a knee-jerk reactor: Always thoughtful, she is a truly free spirit. A lifelong supporter of Israel, she took a keen interest in its struggle to balance democracy with security, as shown in her correspondence with a young Jewish friend whose decision to go there inspired her poem “Letters from Jerusalem:”

“…if he stays/ he must go into the army. The ‘sixties/ subversive pacifist he was must unadopt/ that arrogance or lose Jerusalem./ A bush burned once; volcanoes / tutored the patriarchs; Elijah/ was taken up in rafts of flame./ From Moscow, rumors arrive of new/ pogroms. He stays.”

She can even be clear-eyed about the nature of pacifism in general: “I doubt that organized pacifism can ever get far, except under the leadership of a saint like Gandhi, because as soon as they constitute a bloc they tend to become belligerents.”

But after all, no matter how attractive her nature and personality — and how graceful the manner in which she lived her life — it is as a poet that Amy Clampitt matters. And what these letters show is a mind which is the absolute antithesis of Lowell’s: modest, unassuming, prodigiously talented, abidingly, blessedly sane, filled with grace, a sense of who she is but with absolutely no sense of entitlement. And it is the mind revealed in these letters, almost simple at times but always subtle and distinguished, which produced those artful, well-wrought, surprisingly complex poems written in the great tradition of English and American poetry that are Amy Campitt’s great gift to us all.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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