A Thrush singing in Dorsetshire
Dear friends and readers,
This foremother poet blog on Amy Clampitt, is done differently from most. I was so taken by her “The Hermit Thrush” after reading a review in Women’s Review of Books of a newly published book of her poems, that I wrote a brief foremother poet posting and then put this poem on Wompo — at whch there was an outpouring of Thrush poems in reponse. So this is Amy Clampitt amid the thrushes. I found 2 UTube videos where one can hear the thrush’s song and watch a couple: the one above and one at the end of the blog.
Jim and I don’t share that many favorite poems but one is Basil Bunting (Yorkshire poet)’s (part of which forms the epigraph to my Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two):
A thrush in the syringa sings.
‘Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.
Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.
Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things,
fear, hunger, lust.’
O gay thrush.
Syringa is sweet-smelling lilacs and Austen planted one in her first garden in Southampton for the sake of a line by Cowper that includes the syringa.
The latest issue of Women’s Review of Books (Jan/Feb 2012) is particularly rich and fine, and among its essays are no less than three on women’s poetry. One of these Amy Clampitt whose name I’ve heard before was written about in such a way I longed to read her poetry. In no time I found this masterpiece:
The Hermit Thrush
Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,
to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic—
the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons—there’s no knowing what the slamming
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,
the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw
but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.
Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there’s no use drawing one,
there’s nothing here
to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
(holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or
any no-more-than-human tendency—
stubborn adherence, say,
to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly
certain, as that the longest day
will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,
that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto—
that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor’s knots, such stays
and guy wires as are
mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as
in the end untenable. Base as it is, from
year to year the earth’s sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with
thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry’s cool poultice—
and what can’t finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.
Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic—today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet—
and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,
with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end
unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive—
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human—there’s
hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing
Said to be a hermit thrush
A biography with reviews and poetry linked in.
I can contribute this brief life too:
Amy Clampitt was born on June 15, 1920, and brought up in New Providence, Iowa. She wrote poetry in high school, but then ceased and focused her energies on writing fiction instead. She graduated from Grinnell College, and from that time on lived mainly in New York City. To support herself, she worked as a secretary at the Oxford University Press, a reference librarian at the Audubon Society, and a freelance editor.
Not until the mid-1960s, when she was in her forties, did she return to writing poetry. Her first poem was published by The New Yorker in 1978. In 1983, at the age of sixty-three, she published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher.
In the decade that followed, Clampitt published five books of poetry, including What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), and Westward (1990). Her last book, A Silence Opens, appeared in 1994. The recipient in 1982 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1984 of an Academy Fellowship, she was made a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1992. She was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and taught at the College of William and Mary, Amherst College, and Smith College. She died of cancer in September 1994.
I have read that she is accused of being bookish! if so, all the better (see poems in comments). If this woman be not a foremother, where are foremothers to be found?
And here is the outpouring of thrush poetry from the women poets and lovers of poetry from Wompo (Women’s Poetry list) whence we had an outpouring of thrush, with photos and another UTube performance of a bird. These were placed on Wompo over three days. Friends, were Congress to enact this draconian censorship bill on behalf of the movie and music industry and other powerful corporations who the Internet takes business from (narrow public media owned by a few) and other powerful institutions threatened by the Net this is the sort of thing they’d silence, black out.
By Margo Berdeshevsky (which she shared with us):
Of the Song Bird
Legend tells of the community of birds who had wings but no song as yet : of a contest offered them by the god : of the prize of song—offered to that bird who could fly the highest : of the tiny dun white-spotted-thrush who knew it had no powers to fly high enough to win and wanted to—
Who crept, instead, who hid her small self in a white eagle’s feathered crown to fly far higher than all others : who dozed there, dreamed there, concealed in her carrier’s flight, and longing—and when her eagle tired, she who knew, and bounded out and upward farther still—
Legend tells of the coveted prize of song she heard and learned there, in the heights : of the thrush who returned with the song of spheres in her thirsty small throat, who knew she had won by cheating : who saw the gathering of birds below—a community, receiving, each, their entitled songs—
Legend of the thrush who went away then, hid in the deepest of forests out of shame—but who could not help her song from rising, even in those stands of webbing vine and shadow—of a quest for beauty, of goodness as we barely know it but beg to receive it—that it brings us to longing, only—
Frailty, that rarely, like the thrush, the gorgeous song in us climbs, a bird ashamed of its arriving at a possession of beauty by unsanctioned means, a slouching off to such a dim-lit place where the song erupts in spite, its open-winged remembering, seining from the quiet—
We decided that these thrush poems project world views and tell us much about their poets:
The Laughing Thrush
O nameless joy of the morning
tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there
song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it
and the lost visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future
here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening
White-crested laughing thrush
— W. W. Merwin
Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,
More coiled steel than living – a poised
Dark deadly eye, those delicate legs
Triggered to stirrings beyond sense – with a start, a bounce,
Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing.
No indolent procrastinations and no yawning states,
No sighs or head-scratchings. Nothing but bounce and stab
And a ravening second.
Is it their single-mind-sized skulls, or a trained
Body, or genius, or a nestful of brats
Gives their days this bullet and automatic
Purpose? Mozart’s brain had it, and the shark’s mouth
That hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own
Side and devouring of itself: efficiency which
Strikes too streamlined for any doubt to pluck at it
Or obstruction deflect.
With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on horseback,
Outstripping his desk-diary at a broad desk,
Carving at a tiny ivory ornament
For years: his act worships itself – while for him,
Though he bends to be blent in the prayer, how loud and
Furious spaces of fire do the distracting devils
Orgy and hosannah, under what wilderness
Of black silent waters weep.
A cruel poem, embodying the cruelty of the natural and human worlds.
A darkling thrush
The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Turning back to women’s poetry and thrushes, it’s been suggested that in women’s poetry one finds women poets who identify physically and intimately with small animals. (See Women’s faery poetry). For a near contemporary we have Mary Oliver
Am alert watchful thrush
And to go back in time, two from my favorite era, the 18th century. This is in the spirit of Robert Burns’s To a Mousie, or a similar vein. It really belongs to an early part of the animal rights movement; other poems (often by women) against experiment and really empathizing with (for example) cats are part of this earlier context.
Elegy: On finding a young THRUSH in the Street, who escaped from the Writer’s Hand, as she was bringing him home, and, falling down the Area of a House, could not be found
Mistaken Bird, ah, whither hast thou stray’d?
My friendly grasp, why eager to elude?
This hand was on thy pinion lightly laid,
And fear’d to hurt thee by a touch too rude.
Is there no foresight in a Thrush’s breast,
That thou down yonder gulph from me would’st go?
That gloomy area lurking cats infest,
And there the dog may rove, alike thy foe.
I would with lavish crumbs my Bird have fed,
And bought a crystal cup to wet thy bill;
I would have made of down and moss thy bed,
Soft, though not fashion’d with a Thrush’s skill.
Soon as thy strengthen’d wing could mount the sky,
My willing hand had set my captive free:
Ah, not for her, who loves the muse, to buy
A selfish pleasure, bought with pain to thee!
The vital air, and liberty, and light,
Had all been thine: and love, and rapt’rous song,
And sweet parental joys, in rapid flight,
Had led the circle of thy life along.
Securely to my window hadst thou flown,
And ever thy accustom’d morsel found;
Nor should thy trusting breast the wants have known,
Which other Thrushes knew, when winter frown’d.
Fram’d with the wisdom Nature lent to thee,
Thy house of straw had brav’d the tempest’s rage;
And thou, thro’ many a spring, hadst liv’d to see
The utmost limit of a Thrush’s age.
Ill-fated Bird! and does the Thrush’s race,
Like Man’s, mistake the path that leads to bliss;
Or, when his eye that tranquil path can trace,
The good he well discerns, thro’ folly miss?”
——Helen Maria Williams
Ode to the Missed Thrush
The Winter Soistice scarce is past,
Loud is the wind, and hoarsely sound
The mill-streams in the swelling blast,
And cold and humid is the ground[;]
When, to the ivy, that embowers
Some pollard tree, or sheltering rock,
The troop of timid warblers flock,
And shuddering wait for milder hours.
While thou! the leader of their band,
Fearless salut’st the opening year;
Nor stay’st, till blow the breeze bland
That bid the tender leaves appear:
But, on some towering elm or pine,
Waving elate thy dauntless wing,
Thou joy’st thy love notes wild to sing,
Impatient of St. Valentine!
Oh, herald of the Spring! while yet
No harebe1l scents the woodland lane,
Nor starwort fair, nor violet,
Braves the bleak gust and driving rain,
‘Tis thine, as thro’ the copses rude
Some pensive wanderer sighs along,
To soothe him with thy cheerful song,
And tell of Hope and Fortitude!
For thee then, may the hawthorn bush,
The elder, and the spindle tree,
With all their various berries blush,
And the blue sloe abound for thee!
For thee, the coral holly glow
Its arm’d and glossy leaves among,
And many a branched oak be hung
With thy pellucid missletoe.
Still may thy nest, with lichen lin’d,
Be hidden from the invading jay,
Nor truant boy its covert find,
To bear thy callow young away;
So thou, precursor still of good,
0, herald of approaching Spring,
Shalt to the pensive wanderer sing
Thy song of Hope and Fortitude.
The above too has a larger specific context from the time: poems about nature in a time of war (Napoleonic). It fits in with some eighteenth century poetry by poets like Thomson and Cowper, discussed by Favret (her last name) in a recent brilliant moving article in PMLA (“Still Winter Comes”, PMLA 124:5 (2009):1548-61
Just listen to that gay song and watch at the Metro Toronto Zoo with people commenting.
Read Full Post »