Amy Clampitt’s poetry, like the poetry of earlier twentieth-century poets such as the modernist H. D., is nature poetry, often with an oceanic setting. ‘The Cormorant in Its Element’ is a great way in if you haven’t read Clampitt’s work before: it’s a sonnet, albeit a technically innovative and interesting one. You can read ‘The Cormorant in Its Element’ here.
In summary, this is a poem describing the sea bird the cormorant in its ‘element’ or natural habitat. Unlike many earlier Romantic poems about birds, from Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ to Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Clampitt chooses a decidedly non-majestic and ‘unpoetical’ subject for her bird-poem. The cormorant, she tells us, is ‘pot-bellied’, dogged (‘with a ramrod’s rigid adherence’), but with hidden talents. (And ‘discloses talents’ is a masterstroke: one can almost hear the bird unsheathing or, indeed, disclosing its talons or claws.) It has ‘big black feet’. But its movements, at the same time, are graceful, delicate, precise, with it dancing with almost balletic finesse (‘involuted arabesque’), like a coin spinning (‘turn on a dime’). Clampitt concludes that the bird’s movements are as deft as that of an escapologist like Harry Houdini – only without the desire to show off, which mars stage performers like ‘Homo Houdini’ (and perhaps, by extension, all human behaviour).
In terms of the poem’s form, it follows the rhyme scheme for an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, rhyming abba abba ccd dcd – although, in keeping with many modern and contemporary poems, the ‘rhymes’ throughout are frequently closer to pararhyme or consonance (and ‘vermilion-’ ‘rhymes’ with ‘glance’ only if we heed that hyphen and read the poem’s run-on line in such a way so that the ‘s’ from ‘striped’ runs straight out from the ‘ion-’ of ‘vermilion-’, i.e. ‘vermilions’).
Clearly the poem is describing the movement of the cormorant, but does it contain a more self-referential meaning too? An interesting aspect of ‘The Cormorant in Its Element’, and a difficult one to analyse, is where the ‘turn’ in Clampitt’s poem comes: most sonnets have a volta or ‘turn’, when the argument changes direction, and in a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, this usually takes place around line 9. Is Clampitt self-consciously referring to the tradition of a sonnet having a ‘turn’ when describing the cormorant’s movements in lines 8-10? Note how she even begins line 10 with the very word, ‘turn’ – and, to expand on this, she uses the enjambment of ‘vertical turn’ to make a double pun: the word ‘vertical’ is ultimately from the Latin for ‘turn’. Clampitt has already referred to the bird ‘turning and turning’ in line 6.
Clampitt’s use of the very word ‘turn’ in a sonnet raises interesting questions about the self-referential quality to her poem. There are also some allusions to other poems here, notably Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’, another innovative Petrarchan sonnet about a bird, characterised by numerous run-on lines (and which even features the unusual word ‘vermilion’: Clampitt’s use of this specific word here is her way of signalling her debt to Hopkins).
If Clampitt is using the cormorant as a symbol for the poet, it may be interesting that ‘Homo Houdini’ (a reference to not only the Latin for ‘man’ but a specific male performer, the escapologist) implies that Clampitt associates the cormorant with female artists who, unlike male ones, are free from ‘ego’ and ‘ambition’. The female poet, like the cormorant, is not a performer, even if she does endeavour to perform an elegant ‘arabesque’ (a term from ballet, which, once again, is likely to take us to female dancers rather than male performers). In this analysis, then, Clampitt’s poem is about poetry, and about the figure of the poet: specifically, the female poet.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
Your contrast with The Windhover is most instructive. Not for Clampitt the awe and majesty of the natural world. Instead of an “impressionistic” account, she gives a more precise, accurate, “representational” account. Not a riding of the rolling underneath him steady air, but a ramrod’s rigid adherence, airborne, to the horizontal. She does permit herself a brief rumination on the bird’s motives, or the meaning behind it all, but ego, guilt etc are rejected. Just a hint that the thing in itself might be enough. And no mention of Christ our Lord.
This is the Windhover, but for materialists!