How One Poet's 'Genius Grant' Became A Gift To Future Generations
The recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" will each receive $625,000 over five years, no strings attached. That made some of us wonder what past MacArthur fellows have done with their money, a question that led us to 1992 winner Amy Clampitt.
Clampitt, a poet, was on vacation when she heard from her friend, writer Karen Chase, that she had been named a MacArthur genius.
"She was furious with me because she thought I was teasing her," Chase recalls. "And by the end of the conversation she said, 'I'm gonna buy a house in Lenox!' "
That's Lenox, Mass., home of Edith Wharton, one of Clampitt's favorite writers. Chase helped Clampitt find a small, clapboard house that became the 72-year-old poet's first major purchase. The next year, Clampitt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Chase reads from notes of conversations between Clampitt and her husband, Harold Korn:
"What's going to happen to the house? I don't want it broken up," Clampitt said.
"It's ours," Hal replied. "It's ours together, it always will be. I'll keep it that way the rest of my life."
After his wife's death, and before his own in 2001, Korn dreamed up a fund to benefit poetry and the literary arts. Since 2003, the house Clampitt bought with her MacArthur money has been used to help rising poets by offering six- to 12-month tuition-free residencies.
'A Quiet Place To Write'
Clampitt herself didn't publish her first volume of poetry until she was 63. In a 1987 interview with NPR, she recalled her big break.
"The first real publication that counts for anything was in 1978, I think it was August, when The New Yorker published a poem of mine," she said. "I'd been sending things there for years and years and they finally took one."
That poem caught the eye of poet Mary Jo Salter, who was then a junior editor at the Atlantic Monthly. "Beach Glass" is one of Salter's favorite Clampitt poems from around the same time. Here's an excerpt:
of so many mussels and periwinkles
have been abandoned here, it's hopeless
to know which to salvage. Instead
I keep a lookout for beach glass--
amber of Budweiser, chrysoprase
of Almadén and Gallo, lapis
by way of (no getting around it,
I'm afraid) Phillips'
Milk of Magnesia
Salter helped shepherd Clampitt's work to editors at the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, and Clampitt soon became a star. She thinks Clampitt would be delighted that her house is helping give poets the kind of opportunity that she didn't have when she was coming up.
This was the kind of thing that would've meant something to Amy, if she herself had been given six months or a year not to worry about earning a living and just having a quiet place to write.
"This was the kind of thing that would've meant something to Amy, if she herself had been given six months or a year not to worry about earning a living and just having a quiet place to write," she says.
A Poet's Enduring Presence
John Hennessy was selected for a Clampitt residency in 2007. He says he could feel Clampitt's presence in the house when he was living there.
"You'd take a book off the shelf, and a train ticket might fall out — it had been a book mark," he says. "But more importantly, you would find her notes to herself in the books. You would leave your work and go into someone else's and then get rejuvenated and come back to your own."
Hennessy composed a healthy portion of his book Coney Island Pilgrims in Clampitt's house. He says he's grateful that her MacArthur grant money is continuing to have an influence, which is not always the case with grants.
"There's this story of Anne Sexton getting a Bunting Fellowship at [Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study] — they're now called the Radcliffe Fellowships — and supposedly she put a pool in," Hennessy says. "But I think that's an exception, right? Most of us live off grants that, if we get them, they go for food."
This December, the 19th resident of the house Amy Clampitt purchased with her MacArthur purse will settle in, get to work and very likely draw on some of the same things that inspired Clampitt. Among them is a small box on the mantel filled with the late poet's beach glass collection.
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