A. R. Ammons Essay - Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) (Vol. 9)

Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) (Vol. 9)

Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) 1926–

Ammons, a pastoral poet in the romantic tradition, has recently emerged as an American poet of stature. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Of the poets in my own generation, Ammons seems to me the likeliest to attain a central position in our imaginative history. He is less representative than Merwin, less dramatic than James Wright, and—while ultimately difficult—less immediately challenging in his difficulties than Ashbery. His centrality stems from his comprehensiveness, for he offers a heterocosm, an alternate world to the nature he uneasily meets, and also from his certain place in the Emerson-Whitman-Dickinson-Frost-Stevens-Crane succession that Roethke narrowly missed joining. Ammons makes a strong seventh in a line of major poets of the "native strain" or "native element" that various critics have identified for us. I am aware of how immensely our major poets differ from one another, but in a larger perspective than we ordinarily employ they can be seen to verge upon a common vision. Even Dickinson and Stevens belong to Emerson's universe of mind, as Whitman, Frost, and Crane more clearly do. Ammons, though a Southerner and a man obsessed with Minute Particulars, is the most Emersonian poet we have had since Whitman's petering out after 1860….

With Uplands and Briefings we have almost fifty short poems of nearly unsurpassed excellence, to match which I would have to go back past Roethke and Lowell to the final phases of Wallace Stevens. (p. 142)

Ammons … persuasively knows no other [home but the external world], and proposes a very grim radiance to us as our true dwelling place…. Ammons has no mythological emblem, yet from the mirror of the fallen world, Blake's Vegetable Glass of Nature, the dark double he disdains to regard keeps peering out at him. The darker temptation for the Ammons of Selected Poems was to merge himself with the natural mirror, but this temptation was set aside in a series of harrowing poems in which the poet, as "spent seer," yielded up all his ideas of order to the wind as "vehicle of change." (pp. 142-43)

The dialectic of earlier Ammons shuttles back and forth, incessantly, from the desire for "the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark" to the consciousness that "origin is your original sin," a consciousness of separateness as necessity. The two masterpieces of Selected Poems are "Corsons Inlet" and "Saliences," where this dialectic is most strikingly set forth. In the lyrics of Uplands and Briefings the dialectic has been allowed to recede into the background, and the spent seer, trapped in a universal predicament, broods on every sharp instance where the ideas of permanence and change come together in a single body. The body's (or area's) outer edges, the long peripheries or nerve endings of perception, now obsess this Emersonian seeker who has learned, to an ultimate sorrow, that indeed there is an outside or circumference to us. "The only sin is limitation," Emerson insisted in "Circles," but Ammons has translated limitation into origin. What remained for Emerson, once he had translated limitation by Fate, was the one part of Power in us that at given moments could overwhelm the ninety-nine parts of Fate. The later Ammons holds to his bargain with the wind. To claim even one part of Power is to claim order, and all of order now belongs to the vehicle of change. Permanence abides in the still-explicable sphere of origins, in the particulars of being that yield with marvelous slowness to the necessity of entropy, if they yield at all…. (p. 144)

[The] outward-opening conclusion of Uplands is Ammons' new mode, fearfully strong in its apparent tentativeness. The seer now praises a kind of sacred hesitation….

The gift of hesitation is the beauty of the particular. Hesitation is a symptom as the desire for unseasonal unity was a symptom, for hesitation like desire is a metonymy. The part taken for a whole allows wisdom, the wisdom that stops short of satisfaction. Seeking the Other in the Emersonian Not-Me of nature, the seer had learned indirection and finally resignation. Now, not seeking, not even watching or waiting, he is found—not by the Other—but by momentary visitations of radiance almost wherever the nerve endings give out. Emersonianism, the most impatient and American of perceptual traditions, has learned patience in the latest Ammons. (p. 145)

The greater lyrics of Briefings record the instances of a radiance that refuses not to be considered, that will not release its seer. "He Held Radical Light" defines this poet's burden: "reality had little weight in his transcendence." Wisdom, hard-won, yields to the Emersonian kind of Bacchic possession: "when the/light churned and changed/his head to music, nothing could keep him/off the mountains, his/head back, mouth working,/wrestling to say, to cut loose/from the high, unimaginable hook." Like Emerson, Ammons learns the necessity of guarding himself against the remedial force of the higher reason or imagination in him. The splendid "Countering" records the cunning of the unwilling seer who evades the crystal transparency that would engulf him…. (p. 146)

Yet I will misrepresent Briefings if I consign all its visions to an unwilling medium. Its finest poems do celebrate a radiance, a light seen and held, though only on the peripheries, the same nerve endings where Strand counts his litanies of what is always darker. Ammons in his backyard, in "Cut the Grass," gives me a sense of "the wonderful workings of the world," and then of the best sense of Transcendentalism, which means just what a lady once defined it to Emerson as meaning: "a little beyond."…

What begins to break through in the final poems of Briefings is a unique pride and saving comedy, yet still Transcendental in its emphasis. (p. 147)

Ammons is so much of a seer, however spent, that his comforts sometimes cannot be ours, any more than Frost's savage consolations console us, though they impress and go on moving us….

To find a lyric rival for "The City Limits" I have to go back to very late Stevens, to "The Course of a Particular" (which Winters has the credit of first acclaiming) and "A Discovery of Thought." The eye of the Southern countryman Ammons completes its first circle in this more-than-Emersonian evocation of "a high testimony," as even the spent seer, by implication, feels accepted into as much light as he can take…. (p. 148)

Harold Bloom, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1972, by Harold Bloom), Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1972.

Near the end of Sphere, a long poem in 155 sections, A. R. Ammons writes to the reader:

                           I don't know about you,
 but I'm sick of good poems, all those little rondures
 splendidly brought off, painted gourds on a shelf: give me
 the dumb, debilitated, nasty, and massive, if that's the
 alternative: touch the universe anywhere you touch it

So he touches the universe anywhere, catch as catch can…. Ammons does not admit that many long poems are merely many short poems strung together or that one victory is just as hard-won as another. Like other American poets, he feels an urge to go after the big one, the long poem, shooting the rapids, the Deliverance syndrome. Anything Whitman, Pound, Williams, and Stevens can do, Ammons can do too, more or less, better or worse. But in fact his best poems thus far have been little rondures splendidly brought off, painted gourds now on the shelf of the Collected Poems…. The idea of the long poem is fascinating, often more powerful in principle than in particle, but it has not been demonstrated that Ammons has a native gift for the big one, or anything more than a yen for it.

Conceding to the artist his donnée, I report that Ammons is sick of short, tight poems, and wants to write poetry rather than poems, a poetry capable of accommodating the flats and the peaks, prosaic stuff as well as the surges. He said as much in Tape for the Turn of the Year, and ever more explicitly in "Hibernaculum," a pretty long poem, 112 sections, three stanzas each, three lines to a stanza, and about fifteen syllables to a line. The same stanza, grouped in fours not threes, is the device of Sphere, and the formal source in each case appears to be Stevens' Notes toward a Supreme Fiction. Ammons starts by catching the universe wherever he can, usually with a weather report, the day is cold or hot, the temperature is so-and-so, the forecast is rain or sleet or snow. Once in motion, he moves flexibly between chance, whim, and choice, giving the poem his head. (pp. 19-20)

As to themes and tropes, Ammons specializes in the big metaphysical questions, the One and the Many, permanence and change:

              poetry has
              one subject, impermanence,
              which it presents
              with as much permanence as

division and unity, light and darkness, chaos and order:

        how much disorder must I learn to tolerate
              to find materials
                     for the new house of my sight!

On the back shelves he has a stock of subordinate themes: what the mind can do and what it can't, the nature of light, motion, variety, process, abundance. His current interest is in the form of a motion, a concern first announced in an early poem, "A Symmetry of Thought"…. (pp. 20-1)

Ammons has described his procedure in "Poetics" …:

          not so much looking for the shape
          as being available
          to any shape that may be
          summoning itself
          through me
          from the self not mine but ours.

What he sees is usually whatever is happening in his garden or along the beach or in the local bird sanctuary: weather, birds, fish, clouds, landscapes, trees, horizons. That makes a start. Call it Nature, however ambiguously. To get the poetry moving Ammons ruminates by recourse to meteorology, botany, geology; such things interest him, and help him toward the surges. Then there is Man, who comes into this poetry mostly in the role of perceiver, he is the one who brings the sundry of the world to order…. There is Man, there is Nature (the visible part of it), and there is the relation between them, asserted in Sphere …:

                                            a leaf cannot
  appear on or fall from the branch except via the total
  involvement of the universe: you and I cannot walk the street
  or rise to the occasion except via the sum total of effect
  and possibility of the universe: we are not half-in and
  half-out of the universe but unmendable integral: when we
  move, something yields to us and accepts our steps.
                                               (pp. 21-2)

Given these preoccupations, Ammons takes unto himself an enabling set of figures, mostly reducible to two, wind and mountain. He has other trademarks, notable an addiction to the following words: periphery, salience, loft, suasion, remnant (adjective rather than noun), curvature, meld, and flotation. But he is chiefly a wind-and-mountain man. In the early poems the speaker is rarely a person, finite, historical, but more often a spirit, mostly a spirit of place, genius loci. The poetic act is deemed to be an entrance, an intrusion upon the natural scene if it goes wrong, a dance or a symmetry of motion if it goes right. The mountain has the quality of being simply there, reality inescapable but inviting, not yet waving but with the promise of a wave. Wind is the poetic spirit, "the wind that is my guide." There is an early poem called "In the Wind My Rescue Is," as though the wind were consciousness itself, which it is—companionable guide, walking-mate, a good man for a long hike through the woods. Like consciousness, the wind "leaves no two moments on the dunes the same," provokes new "saliences of feature." Wind is the creative principle, making a virtue (variety) out of necessity (change); it is imagination, the correspondent breeze. "Saliences" is a hymn to the wind and (the same thing) to imagination. Ammons shows wind and mountain together, animation running both ways, in "Virtu," and in "Reversal" mountain rebukes poet for his arrogance, taking the harm out of the rebuke by saying:

                the wind in your days
                accounts for this arrogance.

Otherwise put: a sense of your imaginative powers, rushing through you like a wind, makes you rise above yourself. The mountain, apart from the wind, is a sad thing, a changeless prospect, an unalterable view: given half a chance, however, it attracts voices and furnishes replies. If it were utterly impregnable, Ammons could not deal with it, speak to it: "Firm ground is not available ground." Wind makes mountain available, imagination asks reality to wave. Ammons does not claim that these ingratiations are easily achieved, but he is honest, true to his word: "no humbling of reality to precept." He respects the given for being different.

This is well enough. Ammons approaches an ethic by way of an aesthetic; or he makes aesthetic forces do some ethical work, silently. The burdens of "Hibernaculum" include that one: to derive a way of life from a way of looking at objects. But Ammons is not hard on himself, he is too readily charmed by his own image: if things get rough, he wanders away down the beach. He treats the present moment as the gist of history, the present man (poet, ipse) as the gist of humanity, the present place as the gist of everywhere: so this triple-thinker can at one glance evade the responsibility of history, circumvent the claims of other people, and derive from the satisfactions of living in Ithaca, New York, the felicity of not having to bother with the horrors of living in the slums of New York, New York. Santayana has a sharp definition of the barbarian as "the man who regards his passions as their own excuse for being." No, that is too sharp for Ammons, but it points to the limitations in his art. He protests that he is concerned with Nature, including human nature, but he rarely makes me feel that he cares much about any human nature but his own. His poetry is rural in the sense that you can walk for miles in it without meeting anyone; so the dramatic sense of life never appears. Ammons could write his poetry if there were nothing in the world but mountains, winds, weather, birds, fish, sand dunes, beaches, and a poet accustomed to living in his art alone. What he can do with those things is impressive, but most of it leaves me unmoved; the true vine of feeling rarely climbs upon his trellises…. I can remember nothing of Sphere but incidental felicities and (as a general impression) the degeneration of feeling in routines and postures; this poet is not setting his chisel to the hardest stone. Nothing in the poem convinces me that Ammons has anything comparable, so far as language is evidence, to the capacity of feeling which the finest work of Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, and (with some degree of reservation) Williams possesses. By these standards, much of Sphere is facile, the kind of poetry about which it is easy not to care. (pp. 23-5)

I can't help it, the achieved poems seem to me not the big ones but the little rondures splendidly brought off. (p. 25)

Denis Donoghue, "Ammons and the Lesser Celandine," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1975, pp. 19-26.

Up to now there have been two versions of A. R. Ammons. First, the tough and restless Emersonian, intent on the task of seeing for himself alone: the geologist-explorer as sage, a sinewy, inexhaustible raconteur of "errors of vision, errors of self-defense," who at his height yields to the approach of a Whitmanian pathos ("that is the/ expression of sea level,/ the talk of giants,/ of ocean, moon, sun, of everything,/ spoken in a dampened grain of sand"). Then there is the abstract realist and man of reflection: inventor of a strange, new, laboriously pseudoscientific patois, the cultivator of "closed and open infinities," of "that point in the periphery where/ salience bends into curve," of "attenuations of interstices, roughing the salience" and other examples of what he modestly calls "unfathomable stuff." Does anyone have to be told that Ammons No. 1 is one of our surest necessary poets while Ammons No. 2 is one of our loopiest almighty carry-ons? A generous portion of No. 2 appears in Diversifications, but I write to announce the emergence of yet another version of this protean man, with a voice that was heard tentatively in Briefings but has since grown more assured.

The newly salient presence is a master of the sudden near-absolute plummet into the trivial: what used to be called the art of sinking—only this strikes one as a baffled fling at entertainment. He is the poet who can write, in the middle of a poem filled with evidence of the public violence of our age, "I had a little pony:/ his name was Dapple Gray:/ and every time I had him,/ he tried to get away." This sort of thing, more or less refined, supplies the entire content of an alarming number of poems in the book. "Ballad" is the finest piece here: a dialogue between the poet and a willow, about the battle between the willow and a nearby water oak, which begins "I want to know the unity in all things and the difference/ between one thing and another." It is slight enough, moving in a genre Mr. Ammons has tried more ambitiously elsewhere, but it is charming, unexpected, and deeply human in its feeling for things outside the human thrall. What persists most seriously and hopefully in Mr. Ammons is his sense of vocation, and that is as it should be. As he calls out to himself we call to him, too, and ask that he return to the place where we all live—and read. (p. 1027)

David Bromwich, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1976, by the University of Georgia), Winter, 1976.

[There is a] kind of nature poetry, rooted in times when most towns were small and many highly intellectual poets were rusticated for one reason or another, that has returned during this century in often rather baffling, footloose guise. Its shaping ritual is the walk, the climb, the trip, and the voyage, actions lending themselves all too easily to a vaporous abstraction.

A. R. Ammons began his career as the latter sort in full eclectic spate. The plot of his best poems of the Fifties and early Sixties before he started teaching at Cornell was largely a swift, sometimes brilliantly executed play of dis-jointed perceptions fleshing out a very private psychodrama. Charming and appealing digressions there were, to which I'll return. But the dominant voice seemed to have been sired on The Duino Elegies by an Emerson, a Dickinson transsexed, a Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, or Roethke—all the intoxicated solipsists of an age that requires such minds to fabricate their own plots, to expect little aid from tradition. Recently, though, with admirable recklessness and uneven results, he has been remaking himself closer to the Frost or Hardy model. Joining the academy just when its boom times were passing, assuming its by now well known and often dramatized responsibilities, he gave his existence a new visibility not unlike Frost's out there "north of Boston," a life gently freighted with old solemnities, not too far and not too near.

So much for the gains. Now the difficulties. Readers of his newest long poems, "Extremes and Moderations," "Essay on Poetics," "Hibernaculum," and especially Sphere: The Form of a Motion—a rambling, confiding, button-holing poem of 155 12-line sections—will know what they are. In Sphere Mr. Ammons makes a grand broken field run and a curious performance it is. To dodge about and reach a point not already plotted for him by one or more of the imposing exegetes lured to his earlier work by its obvious need for exegesis required some fancy footwork. You can think of Ammons as a sort of country-and-southern Prometheus nailed down on Cayuga Heights (above Ithaca!) by the Zeus of respectability, tormented by the eagle of higher criticism in the shape of Harold Bloom. Or, what seems more likely, you can detect in all his recent work clear notes of irreverence mixed with affection and amusement toward the gaudier theories of his friends. (pp. 49-50)

Like the Ammons of Sphere [James Dickey] seemed ready to join the philistine opposition as far as his lively professional conscience would allow, to look back on his energetic early cult of naiveté from as remote a vantage point as possible.

Ammons is cooler, more reflective, absorptive, and self-contained than Dickey ever was and in him the Southeast may be making one last convulsive effort to put its message across; namely, that throughout its now expiring century of gothic, baroque, and neo-classical flamboyance it was secretly nurturing a middleness, an ordinary absolute centercut Americanness, second to none. Faulkner's Ratliff and Horace Benbow suggested as much, so did the Faulknerian humor; but the message was ambiguous. Sphere, however, is not; it's an amiable but firm rejection of any highstrung ideologue's project for Ammons' apotheosis either as a sainted solitary or as a panurgic prophet of spiritual democracy. One must salute him for braving the pitfalls of such an operation—occasional forcings of tone, unwitting smugness, sententiousness, cuteness, blague. Denis Donoghue [see excerpt above] thinks he has isolated the problem by conceiving it to be formal, by accusing the poet of surrendering to an American mania for mere size, for imagining that a few dozen short poems strung end to end might make a qualitative leap into grandeur. But the fact that Ammons is keenly aware of such objections, has worked them into the poem, seems to indicate that he had no choice. The American atmosphere forced him into the optative mood—maybe these topics and digressions would make the orbicular leap, maybe if the poet's heart were pure enough a trip around his head would emerge as a mystic sphere. No choice in any case but to try.

Let me suppose for the rest of this review that a kind of intractable confusion may be the real entelechy, the formal and final end, of Dickey and Ammons who began so suavely and self-assured. And that we should make of it what we can and not waste time advising them to return and seek their lost innocence. Harold Bloom, always generous when his feelings are stirred, is prepared to call Ammons "great" but at the price of sternly reproving him for swerving from the path of Whitmanlike prophecy that his Emersonian instincts, again according to Bloom, fatally marked out for him. "Ammons has got to learn to be a different kind of poet than he was, and he is still in the process of learning that this different kind will return him to origins again, though with a more exacting music than he set out to bring into being." And why should he do this? Because he had early discovered a way to be transcendental and modern at the same time, by identifying the true American Sublime as the Void, by projecting the lyric pain of this discovery in a new species of Counter-Sublime. Like a man always seen going beautifully downhill. Which, Bloom finds, is quite in keeping with the "disastrous" times and makes Ammons the very latest of his cherished latecomers. The poems he chooses as the most telling expression of such counter-prophecy—"Corson's Inlet," "Saliences," "Gravelly Run," "Guide," "Bridge," "Peak," and the lovely passage in "Hibernaculum" that begins "… to lean belief the lean word comes,/ each scope adjusted to the plausible:"—are the right poems for his thesis.

Still, one must pause to ask if in his zeal to consecrate only this high-tragical, philosophical Ammons Bloom may not be reserving too much drama to himself and making it too neat. There are facetious or whimsical notes in all but a very few poems that set us on our guard. Also many fine poems that don't cast so much as a glance at these elevations. Maybe Bloom should ask himself whether, if Emerson is the fountainhead of our poetry, we ought not to read as Emersonically as the sage's descendants write, with the same hospitality toward wide swings of mood and purpose, with the same dexterity in matching tone to technique, form to theme. (In formal variety Emerson's own poetry is as "romantically" unstable as Byron's. Sometimes he sounds like Plotinus arranged for a German village band, sometimes, as in the beautiful "Threnody" on the death of his son, like a pure-bred Metaphysical.)

My guess would be that it is neither Emerson nor Whitman (certainly not Whitman) that Ammons is currently undermining but a too portentous Idol of the Tribe called Poetry which, in some of its current academic investitures—subtlety piled on subtlety like the shawls of an Eastern princess—has become a real spook. Bloom is a great potentate who having been given an eloquent nightingale sends it out to be gilded and fitted with a clock-work larynx.

As a matter of fact, Ammons' poems had already begun to group themselves into thematic clusters a good while before he began writing long poems in earnest. To my mind it's the interplay between these clusters that gives Ammons his chief vitality. (pp. 50-2)

Even Bloom acknowledges that this poet was never a naive visionary. Rather, a rueful, sportive, lyrical civil engineer, a musical geo-physician. Who would want to scuttle his prose sense of this transmogrifier of our prosiest disciplines, when he offers so novel a mixture of the contemplative and the suburban-saturnine, makes of "Extremes and Moderations" a pungent ecological fable, turns aside to tell us how to drain a swamp or dig a well, how to pick pears so the branches won't jerk the best ones out of reach, who above all is one of the most accomplished celebrators of the seasonal backyard drama since the great Alfred Lawn Tennyson himself? Rarely dropping his role as homme moyen américain Ammons can flourish a vocabulary of "saliences" and "suasions," motions, forces, and forms in mountain, wind, brook, and tree, with no missionary intent to substitute his vocabulary for ours. If he shaped his normally elegant style from examples of Williams, Marianne Moore, Dickinson, Cummings, Dickey, Roethke, or Merwin, he also aspires to their modesty.

Transplanted from the relative solitude of North Carolina to the goldfish prominence of Cornell, he issued a lowbrow poetics to balance the high, a Leopold Bloom to enliven the Harold. (pp. 53-4)

Diversifications features 65 new poems, most quite short, and two showpieces, "Three Travelogues" and the 19-page "Pray Without Ceasing." Its general effect is of the usual charm, of compactness, assurance, good-humored summary and mild second thoughts. Most of the poems seem thrown off in the intervals of harder work…. "Three Travelogues" is another handsome syncretic exercise in auto-intoxication out in the boondocks, pregnant with phrases like "a white-sailed cloud's blue hull of rain."… It's too early to say much about "Pray Without Ceasing," a phantasmagoria or verbal happening wherein passages of characteristic eloquence or quiet elegance are answered by tormented newsreel episodes from the Vietnam war, with frantic doodling, demented witticisms, and grim premonitions. My shaky opinion is that he had very little new to say about the poem's ostensible subject, or else put thought aside and ruffed like a grouse, spread like a peacock or cobra. The time of mutation is not yet, not for him, not for us. (pp. 55-6)

R. W. Flint, "The Natural Man," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 49-56.

No matter how they deny it—and many do—what writers want is communion; not communication, communion. They want the reader right in there with them, soul to soul. It's a hunger. (And by no means, says the voice at my shoulder, limited to writers alone.)

Once writers could solve their problem by making a story, an allegory, some invented world, into which they invited or enticed the reader, so that both could live there together for a while, soul to soul, in the "willing suspension of disbelief." It worked; it worked for a couple of thousand years. But more and more in our century writers came to feel that the suspension of disbelief was failing, was down-right fraudulent, and they turned to formalistic means. They thought, if you can just make the reader participate in the technique of writing, then you will have him caught, a willing (but nicely subservient) collaborator in the artistic process. Hence Modernism in all its aspects. Today some poets even publish random words or lines and ask the reader to make his own poem. Conceptualists, I believe, is what they're called.

A. R. Ammons has not gone that far. But he does lay his procedures open to view, often ingratiatingly, so that when he has second thoughts about a word, for instance, he does not cross out the original and substitute the new, he leaves them both there. The correction, amplification, set out in repetition, is not laziness but a real way to make us see how poetic language moves toward intensity and precision. At other times, when he writes a longer piece that isn't quite satisfactory, he puts a paraphrase or counter-thought in the margin. And it's true, afterthought adds to fore-thought, stylistically and substantially, a resonance that lets us see the poet's mind in process. It's like reading Emerson's journals, the gathering fragments that became the essays.

Which brings us to Ammons's topic. Emerson's mind was focused on something—many things, tough, resistant things. Ammons writes about anything, randomly. "The Snow Poems" is a long sequence in diary form, even though the poems are undated. I have never read so much verse about the weather in my life; also about decay of consciousness, separation from nature, the sorrow of knowledge; in short, the trivia of a professiorial mind in daily academic and domestic life. Often passages of simple word-play intervene, like infantile regressions ("egad, gasso, glorybe"), or invented or half-invented proverbs ("intercourse is better than no course at all"). Much of this incidentally is bright and attractive. But how it does go on!

              Why? He says,
              hello from one who knows nothing
              (and never lets you hear
              the end of it)

But we all know nothing, and we all talk of it endlessly, and this is the human condition; there is value, indubitably, in establishing its presence in art, much value. The poet, ignorant and agonized, at least establishes his existence; he survives. But what of us, his readers? Do we survive, too, by attending to this random scribbling? Ammons doesn't say….

Ammons is famous now, celebrated, a prize-winner, with lots of good poetry behind him, real created poems. But he has begun to maunder. He thinks he is inventing himself in these new poems; but he is only reporting himself. And that is not enough.

In spite of a bright, attractive technique, which could be used perfectly well in real poems, and in spite of occasional lyric parts that remind us of earlier work, "The Snow Poems" is a dull, dull book. The best a reviewer can do for everyone concerned, including the poet, is to say so.

Hayden Carruth, "Reader Participation Invited," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1977, p. 30.