A. R. Ammons Essay - Ammons, A. R. (Vol. 2)

Ammons, A. R. (Vol. 2)

Ammons, A. R. 1926–

Ammons, an American, won the National Book Award in Poetry for 1973. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Not the least of A. R. Ammons' virtues is that he is an original philosopher in his poetry, though often he parades in the guise of poet-as-anti-philosopher, much as Plato wore the guise of philosopher-as-anti-poet…. He comes at each idea a little from the side, obliquely, with a chuckle of ridicule in the voice of the poem every time the meandering river of the speaker's mind inclines to become trapped by any one idea or perspective, or threatens to take ideas in-and-of-themselves as having supreme consequence…. Though ideas and things may exist separately, they can have no importance or vitality, for Ammons, unless they disturb each other, interact. When this interaction is carried to the point of total engagement, the poet achieves his vision, a state in which elements of thought and elements of nature mix freely, and exchange identities, in a kind of ecstatic flux of poetic imagination….

[In risking to learn] to write all over again, [Ammons] stumbles, gropingly, the lines of the poem "inching root-like into the dark." Since he must slog through many failed poems "to find materials/ for the new house of my sight," he takes his place beside D. H. Lawrence and Whitman in the Anglo-American free verse tradition of blessedly "uneven" poets. Probably, that sort of unevenness will always be the sacred trademark of the most gifted and revolutionary poets, since most of our good writers seem satisfied, if not compulsively driven, to maintain a constant of external polish in everything they write…. The best of Ammons' poems point, finally, away from themselves, back to the most evanescent motions and vicissitudes of wind, leaf, stream, which first enchanted the poet and finally stole his heart away. The gentlest motions of things touch him most deeply, speak to him with a sort of ultimate, if non-human, intimacy. He is vulnerable, nakedly exposed, receptive to the touch of feather, pebble, birdsong—in fact, these phenomena have such command over him as to leave him looking helplessly struck (or struck dumb), as by indecent or obscenely overpowering forces….

He started in his own back yard, and fumbled into the impossibly new ground, into "unattainable reality itself." At his best, Ammons is willing to stake everything on the full health of the single imagination, cut loose from history and the genius that labored the language into monuments, to begin poetic art afresh.

Laurence Lieberman, "Of Mind and World," in Hudson Review, Summer, 1967, pp. 315-21.

The publication of A. R. Ammons' Selected Poems should bring him wider recognition than has come on the basis of his three previously published volumes. At forty-two Ammons is one of the most accomplished writers of his generation in America. His work, both in subject matter and execution has certainty and assurance, and he possesses a creative intelligence perfectly aware of what it can do and what it ought not to try, and happily at ease within its recognized and accepted boundaries. Within those boundaries Ammons' poems speak with settled authority, and are not afraid of repeating themselves, which they often do with conviction and without monotony. In this respect he resembles Wallace Stevens a little, although in most other ways the minds of the two poets come through very differently. But as with Stevens, so with Ammons: when one begins to read him, the best way to understand one poem is to read a great many. This is usual with poets obsessed with one or two central themes in their work to which they return on every creative occasion. Once the clue to Ammons' master pattern is seized (and it is not at all difficult) his poems are unusually easy to read. Nevertheless, a reader wholly unacquainted with Ammons' poetry and coming across one or two of his poems for the first time—especially if they were from his earlier work—might understandably be a little puzzled.

Ammons is not a religious poet in the sense that Edwin Muir was, but (and I see no alternative to the word here) he is a mystical poet in the same sense that Whitman was in much of his best poetry…. There are moments when Whitman's influence is strong enough to make Ammons' poetry seem somewhat imitative, yet this is by no means the overall impression left by his work. Usually Ammons transmutes the influence into an original strength and idiom…. The affinity of the two men seems to exist primarily in their respective views of Nature, and also (related to that) in sharing an Emersonian view of Divinity, which view seems almost as pervasive throughout Ammons' poetry as Whitman's.

Marius Bewley, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 713-18.

The poems of A. R. Ammons take their shapes the way water flows, moving with quick runs or slow eddies along an unspoiled landscape in which is revealed the immanence of a spiritual force greater than any found in the industrial world they avoid describing. His enterprise is founded on an implied Emersonian division of experience into Nature and the Soul; and indeed, Mr. Ammons places himself in the transcendentalist tradition, sometimes consciously echoing familiar lines from Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson.

Like Whitman's, his sensibility is best expressed in poems of some amplitude. In these, there's room to let his perceptions and his feelings flow, to let their bits and pieces silt down into the arrangements implicit in their natures. Among the shorter poems the liveliest are wry, mythopoetic dialogues between a speaker and the winds, the mountains, or the trees: fables of some unrecorded tribe, humorously suggesting a cosmos not centered on ourselves.

Daniel Hoffman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 14, 1969, pp. 54-5.

In 1955, Ammons' first book, Ommateum, discovered his tremendous theme: putting off the flesh and taking on the universe. For this poet, there is no windy abstraction in the notion, but a wonderful and rustling submission to the real, the incidental and the odd. Indeed, the poignance of momentary life in its combat with eternal design so haunted the poet that a decade later, in his magnificent second and third books, Expressions of Sea Level and Corson's Inlet, he had not yet come down on the side of transcendence, nor even taken off….

Between these two books, Ammons published a kind of satyr play of selfhood, Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), "a long thin poem" written on a huge roll of adding-machine tape run through the typewriter to its conclusion, a poem about the specifications of identity by the very refusal to prune or clip…. And these mediations led, or prodded, the poet, by 1966, to a further collection, Northfield Poems, in which the provisional is treasured as an earnest (through hardly a solemnizing) of survival…. Ammons rehearses a marginal, a transitional experience; he is a littoralist of the imagination because the shore, the beach, or the coastal creek is not a place but an event, a transaction where life and death are exchanged, where shape and chaos are won and lost. And then in 1968 Ammons chose from all these books (except for the indiscreet, revelatory Tape) a magnificent series of provisions, stays against chaos as against finality, articles of belief, a mastered credulity, his Selected Poems. Insufficiently attended to, this book is the masterpiece of our period, the widest scope and the intensest focus American poetry has registered since Frost, since Stevens, since Roethke….

[His latest collection, Uplands,] is an account—scrupulous in its details, its hesitations, its celebrations of minor incidents, lesser claims—of how a landscape or a man comes to realize motion, comes to be on the way rather than in it. There is, here, a place, then the discovery that the place can be left, then a sanctification of that discovery, its loss and gain. In other words, there are Ammons' three favorite words: ambience, salience, radiance.

Richard Howard, "A New Beginning," in Nation, January 18, 1971, pp. 90-2.

Uplands … will remind readers of [Ammons's] continuing devotions. Slopes, foliage, boulders, the textures and twinings of landscape—these are Ammons's materials. The convolutions of his syntax, the run of his sentences, emulate lines of natural force. But Ammons is hardly just a pastoral poet in new guise. Mind and feeling are loose in these thickets. The thickets may in fact be first of all camouflage. The game is often witty, often more intellectual than earthy. At times one does breathe in a fog of language, but when Ammons finds the balance he convinces us of richness….

Dan Jaffe, "A Shared Language in the Poet's Tongue," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 3, 1971; used with permission), April 3, 1971, pp. 31-3, 46.

Anyone who responds to Frost or Stevens, or knows A. R. Ammons's earlier books, will be prepared for "Uplands," for its tough wry explorations, as well as for the intensity and buoyancy with which Ammons makes a familiar kind of poetry his own.

He has always had a gift for recalling romantic promises as if there were fresh ways for them to be fulfilled…. What sound like visionary promptings—lightning weddings of the self to the outside world—become bewildering before his eyes. It is not only a matter of calling into question the easy ways we have for encountering what we see, but also of facing the frustrations of the most willing, the most ardent, the most open observers….

Two kinds of poems seem to satisfy Ammons's needs. One is a short lyric which makes momentary assertions against nature's obliterating powers: these are small-scale ecstasies, and often the most minimal claims must suffice…. By and large the short poems do battle against the "periphery," the profusion and separateness in the outside world, "thickets hard to get around in / or get around / for an older man." The alternative form for Ammons is a much more abandoned one: the long swirling interior monologue in which he gives himself up to fluidity and change.

David Kalstone, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1971, pp. 5, 20.

A. R. Ammons's work is probably to embody the major vision of nature in the poetry of our part of the century. But the 87 short lyrics [in "Briefings"] which record part of that vision have no obvious formal counterparts. Neither the loosely-versified scout manuals and ecological gospel-songs of the moment, nor epigrammatic modes of moralizing landscape descending from Robert Frost, nor the constantly refocusing, relentlessly uncaptioned snapshots of the unarranged that some poets have learned to take from William Carlos Williams, provide models for Ammons's intense and profound imaginative excursion.

John Hollander, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1971, pp. 5, 20.

At first sight A. R. Ammons seems a nature poet, and perhaps, with a difference, this is what he really is. He has the essential characteristic of the nature poet, which is to use observed pieces of nature as the reality of an organic order defending him against the reality of human disorder…. But, like Robert Frost, he is aware too of the evil within the natural order…. He passes the test of nature poets by doing very precise and beautiful things and by occasionally producing a line which has the effect of an explosion on the page…. At their best, his poems give the feeling of the opaque being rayed through to make it transparent, the most solid being hollowed with tunnels through which winds blow, time undermining timelessness….

Stephen Spender, "The Last Ditch," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), July 22, 1971, pp. 3-4.

Many of Ammons' poems are metaphysically framed sketches from nature. Some are realistic, some a kind of animated cubism, and some abstractly patterned. The "metaphysical" aspect is rather like that in Wallace Stevens: the same issue of reality and illusion…. Ammons does have certain advantages over Stevens: his knowledge of geological phenomena (an experienced knowledge) and his ability to use language informally and to create open rhythms. Everything he writes has the authority of his intelligence, of his humor, and of his plastic control of materials. What he lacks, as compared to Stevens, is a certain passionate confrontation of the implicit issues such as makes Stevens' music a richer, deeper force. There is a great deal of feeling in Ammons; but in the interest of ironic self-control he seems afraid of letting the feeling have its way, in the sense that Stevens lets his bitterness flood through "The Emperor of Ice-Cream."… What Ammons presents is a certain delight or dismay at the imponderable, while at the same time he refuses to strike for effects of power we yearn for in a poet with such a mind and such an ear….

Given his talents, it is fair to hold up such figures for comparison as Browning, Dickinson, and Stevens. None of them eluded the whole challenge of poetry; none feared the rhetoric of ecstasy or terror when the right moment for it arrived.

M. L. Rosenthal, in Shenandoah, Fall, 1972, pp. 88-9.

With these "Collected Poems" a lag in reputation is overcome. A. R. Ammons's 400 pages of poetry, written over the space of a generation, manifest an energy, wit and an amazing compounding of mind with nature that cannot be overlooked….

There is the problem of bulk. Ammons is a poetic Leviathan…. The intrepid mass and inner paradoxes of his verse delight and alarm at the same time. Perception is enough, Ammons seems to say, or too much….

Ammons yields to every solicitation from nature only to find he has no identity left, or no firm power of naming…. [He] subdues himself totally to love of perception, refusing all higher adventure…. Nature herself, as in Wordsworth, must lead to a loss of the way.

This means, however, that Ammons can only extend the Wordsworthian revolution: emptying lyric poetry of false plots, then keeping the emptiness open for a confluence (always gracious or chancy) of event and significance….

In these extravagant and beautiful poems—verse essays really—Ammons maintains a virtuoso current of phrasing that embraces all types of vocabulary, all motions of thought, and leads us back now to Whitman and now to the accumulative (if hopefully cumulative) strain of Pound's "Cantos" or Williams's "Paterson." Building on a non-narrative base, that is, on a will-to-words almost sexual in persistence, he changes all "fleshbody" to "wordbody" and dazzles us with what he calls "interpenetration"—a massively playful nature-thinking, a poetic incarnation of smallest as well as largest thoughts….

[Because] Ammons expresses everything in casual or pastoral terms, because he "lies low in the light as in a high testimony," there is a danger his achievement will remain self-limited. Instead of a true "saying, binding" he may be creating only an objet trouvé art—full of delightful nuggets of perception and self-perception, veined stones found on the beach of the mind which the child prefers to the rare or terrible crystal. But no one in his generation has put "earth's materials" to better use, or done more to raise pastoral to the status of major art.

Geoffrey H. Hartman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1972, pp. 39-40.

Ammons's first book, Ommateum, published in 1955, seems not to have attracted much attention; his second appeared nine years later. Recently he has been more prolific, and critics, particularly Harold Bloom and Richard Howard, have considered his work seriously and at length, but few had probably anticipated a Collected Poems of such dimensions (almost 400 pages, to which must be added the recent Norton reissue in a separate volume of his 200-page poem Tape for the Turn of the Year). If his importance was suspected before, it is now, as so often happens, confirmed merely by the joining of several volumes in one—not only because the solidity and brilliance are at last fully apparent but because, as also often happens, the occasionally weaker early poems somehow illuminate and give access to the big, difficult later ones….

Ammons's frugality and his relentless understatement are countered by the swarming profusion of the poems. This austerity could lose its point in the course of such a long volume: the restricted palette; the limited cast of characters (bluejays, squirrels, and other backyard denizens figure prominently, along with the poet's wife, child, and car, not to forget the wind with whom he has dialogues frequently in a continuing love-hate relationship); the sparse iconography of plant, pebble, sand, leaf, twig, bone, end by turning the reader back from the creature comforts he might have expected from "nature" poetry to the dazzlingly self-sufficient logic which illuminates Ammons's poetry and in turn restores these samples from nature to something of their Wordsworthian splendor….

John Ashbery, "In the American Grain," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), February 22, 1973, pp. 3-6.

The poems of A. R. Ammons say "Made in U.S.A." all over them. Reading his Collected Poems: 1951–1971, you'll recognize Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams among his ancestors. It isn't that Ammons is quite like any of them, but that his work is whittled from the same timber. He's a homemade visionary, a generous risk-taker, a singer with ample wind in his lungs, an appreciative chewer of native speech….

Ammons is fond of rather arbitrary unities. In his book-length Tape for the Turn of the Year (not in the collection), he once set himself the task of writing a poem on a ribbon of adding-machine paper. Not surprisingly, it ran a little thin. Another earlier book, Briefings, arranged all its poems in alphabetical order by first lines. Lately, as did [Wallace] Stevens, Ammons has picked up the challenge of the long verse-essay; and these Collected Poems include three such attempts: "Extremes and Moderations," "Essay on Poetics," and longest of all, "Hibernaculum," a winter meditation in 112 trios of tercets…. Like [William Carlos] Williams, who'd make poetry out of documents and statistics, Ammons incorporates an itemized car repair bill, a business note about scheduling English classes. It is as if he were trying to prove how much dull junk his barge can triumphantly float….

He works hard not to let the wondrous multiplicity of the world pass unnoticed by him. He stands above the present-day crowd of poets in his wisdom, his humorous view of himself, his unfaltering ear, his attractive humility.

X. J. Kennedy, "Translations from the American," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1973, pp. 103-04.

In Briefings (1971) Ammons brought his difficult form of short poetry to perfection. The poetry he is best able to write is deprived of almost everything other poets have used, notably people and adjectives (where would Whitman have been, shorn of his incandescent palette of adjectives?). Ammons has written some poems about "people," including his mule Silver, and even permits himself an adjective now and then, but rarely one more subjective than an adjective of color or measurement. "Half-dark," "massive," "high," "giant," "distant," "long," "broad," "noticeable," "late," "dry," "diminished," "passable" (implying height of hills), and "quiet" are the crop gleaned from two pages chosen at random (188-189) in the Collected Poems, and these "objective" adjectives, Ammons's own, are balanced by only one "subjective" adjective on the same pages ("taxing"—an opinion imputed to a hill trying to be a mountain and finding it hard). Such word-counts are perhaps not very gripping, but I found myself reduced to them in trying to understand what new language Ammons is inventing…. What he does is remarkable both in its sparseness and in its variety. One can't say "richness" because there is no sensual "give" in this poetry—but it does attempt an imitative recreation, no less, of the whole variety of the natural world, if not, regrettably, of what Stevens called its "affluence." But if, as Ammons seems to think, affluence is brought rather by the perceiving and receptive mind, as a quality, rather than inhering in nature itself (nature, who perceives herself singly, we may say, as an acorn here, a brook there, rather than corporately congratulating herself on all her brooks), then a poetry attempting this ascetic unattributiveness must refrain from celebrating the multiplicity of the world in human terms. Why it should be so wrong to let in human gestalt-making is another question; Ammons permits himself entry when the poem is about himself, but he won't have any of those interfering adjectival subjectivities when he's occupied with morning-glories or caterpillars or redwoods. This discipline of perfect notation is almost monklike, and, monklike, it takes what comes each day as the day's revelation of, so to speak, the will of God. Ammons wakes asking what the world will today offer him as a lesson and he is scarcely permitted choice: if it is snowing, he has to deduce the mantra in the snow; if it is a night with a masked aurora, it is to the aurora that he must compose that night's address. Ammons is like a guitarist presented every day with a different señorita in the balcony, and commanded, like some latter-day Sheherezade, to think up each day different but appropriate serenades reflecting the lady's different looks….

It is with his short poems, where Ammons does obstinate battle with both multiplicity and abstraction at once, being fair to the weeds and the vines and the grasses and the worms, and at the same time rising to grand speculations on man's nature and the design of life, that Ammons will win a permanent audience. Ammons's conversations with mountains are the friendliest and most colloquial conversations recorded in poetry since Herbert talked to his shooting-star ("Virtu," "Classic," "Reversal," "Schooling," and "Eyesight" belong to this group); another group includes poems rejoicing in the world, like the beautiful "This Bright Day": others retell, over and over, with a satisfying variety in imagery, the climb up to perspective and the slide back down to particularity, that process out of which lyric is built….

It is a severe poetry, attempting the particularity of Hopkins with none of what Hopkins's schoolmates called his "gush," trying for the abstraction of Stevens without Stevens's inhuman remove from the world of fact, aiming at Williams's affectionateness toward the quotidian without Williams's romantic drift. Since Ammons is only in his mid-forties, we can watch the experiment, we hope, for a good while yet: if Ammons can succeed (even granting the absurdity of some of the niches and odd corners of his enterprise) he will have written the first twentieth-century poetry wholly purged of the romantic.

Helen Vendler, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1973, pp. 419-24.