Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Gravelly Run” is a poem about the relationship of the world of human thought to the world of nature. American nature writing has long been concerned with this connection. What is the place of the human in the natural world? One of the great paradoxes of this issue is the desire on the part of some writers to be lost in nature, to shed the concerns and consciousness of the human world for the immediacy of the natural world. Transcendentalist thinker and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson sought exactly this kind of experience in nature, describing himself in this state as “a transparent eyeball.[T]he currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Yet, there is a contradiction in Emerson’s transcendence: Any attempt to make the natural world carry the intellectual freight of human consciousness obscures the natural world. Thus, people who attempt to lose themselves in nature are merely imposing human meaning on nature.

Like Henry David Thoreau, Emerson’s literary heir, Ammons had a lifelong interest in science. As a result, he viewed the natural world with the precision of a naturalist and consistently refused to anthropomorphize nature. Yet, like Thoreau, Ammons was powerfully drawn to the beauty of nature, which remained always before him like some Eden. “Gravelly Run” enacts this struggle. The speaker desires to be lost in the natural world, to lose consciousness, yet that very desire is itself an act of consciousness. The run, coming out of the dark mystery of the swamp and flowing through the banks of holly and cedar toward the highway bridge, seems to offer a place of refuge, a place of spirituality. In the end, however, the natural world remains beyond human thought. Ammons was too much aware of the complexity of the natural world to simplify it into symbols of human consciousness. Each thing, each tree, bush, and rock, remains sealed in “the air’s glass/ jail”; Ammons could not reduce the objects simply to serve the human desire for spirituality. Ammons recognized that philosophies may not be grounded in natural facts. The only proper ground for philosophy is human ground, and so the speaker is told to “hoist [his] burdens,” and “get on down” that other gravelly run, the road.