A. R. Ammons Essay - Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) (Vol. 3)

Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) (Vol. 3)

Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) 1926–

Ammons is a prize-winning American bardic poet in the tradition of Whitman and Emerson. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Mr. Ammons is decidedly his own man and possesses his own vision, his own accents, and even his own solicitude about the sheer sculptured appearance of each poem against its whitenesses and silences (once having examined a late and characteristic Ammons poem, you could never confuse his patterns with the patterns of anybody else). For another point, Mr. Ammons just might be our finest contemporary "nature poet," always excepting the incomparable case of James Dickey. Sometimes he employs nature—landscapes and waterscapes, the being and grave motions of creatures—as a source for metaphors by which to trace out subtle generalizations about crucial human experiences, about the perplexities and mysteries of consciousness. On other occasions, he deliberately halts short after displaying for us—no negligible feat—the bright and resonant thingness of things….

Mr. Ammons's best poetry will not heal us perfectly, of course. What could? Yet now and then it can return to us significant parts of our world and of ourselves, parts that we had always gazed at but had never before studied with loving closeness.

Robert Stilwell, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1969, p. 282.

Ammons' Collected Poems is the result of something that is often talked about but rarely seen: the process of poetic growth. His poetry gathers more and more together as it goes on, and the latest poems in the book are not only stronger, deeper, and richer than any he has written, they are also culminations of all that has gone before them.

Many true poets have been accused of not growing; in fact, St. John of the Cross did not "grow" as a poet; but the theory of evolution is not a final test of poetry. It happens that Ammons has grounded his work in the principle of growth, the "organic analogy" that is the one constant thing on his mind and the inner law of his style…. It is an improvisatory style, led by intuition to moments when everything that is in play comes together. It is characteristic of Ammons that he does not simply make use of free or patterned forms, that he has redefined the principles of form and made them express his way of seeing—his awareness of constant flow and change…. His sureness in allowing himself this freedom comes from his faith in the organic analogy between poetry and the processes that create forms and "nucleations" in the natural world. And this same analogy is the basis of his metaphorical speech, in which correspondences are constantly being born out of descriptions, in which the metaphor and its object become interchangeable….

Ammons is not a mystical poet, he is a cosmic poet. There is evidence enough for this statement in his work, though we can hardly use the word effectively. The implicit aim of his poetry is a picture of the cosmos, achieved by inclusiveness, not by penetration. His basic attitude is a joyful acceptance, delight in the variety and confluence of natural events. He is a cosmic humorist; he broods on the force of necessity, the sovereign ruler of all process, not like a philosopher but like a hen, giving it the borrowed warmth of his own body. His poetry hums with the self-delight that one might imagine is the state of mind of all matter moved by energy and conducted through infinite variations; its continuous flow overcomes its moments of arrest….

Ammons is a thoughtful poet, he pushes his thought into more and more complex nucleations, but his thought is always turned towards the observation of natural process, which means that his "organic analogy" is in danger of becoming a much stricter identification. Analogy is a free relationship, identity is determined. This crux leads him to two great questions, which he confronts in his later poems: the question of human freedom; and the question of what to say to his fellow men, or whether to say anything. One of these questions is metaphysical, the other is "cultural," but they both point away from the spectacle of the universe, towards the difficult realm of history, meaning, poetic content, the poet's place in society.

I believe that the conflict he works his way into is a conflict between the authenticity of his poetry of origins, with all that is implicit in it, and the inauthenticity of the bourgeois "world." And that the conflict is not between Ammons and the "world,"… but between Ammons and himself. It is possible to trace his approach to it, his reluctant struggle with it, and the increasing seriousness and darkness of his vision….

"Hibernaculum" is an end to the long improvisation of Ammons' poetry, a gathering up of the results and a recognition of what has been revealed. The poem is also, historically, a recapitulation of the elements that make up the bourgeois "world" and the bourgeois "spirit." I am not taking this partisan attitude lightly, nor do I mean it as a condemnation of the poem. Despite all the talk about rapid change, poetry moves very slowly and must carry a great deal with it. By that it is a faithful sign. Lucidity is the negative capability of thought. A hibernaculum is a winter burrow, a retreat, and a place of waiting.

Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 213-18.

A. R. Ammons's … poems seem to gain rather than lose by being brought together in quantity [in Collected Poems: 1951–1971]….

Ammons's triumph has been to state directly and with lyric persuasiveness concepts which would seem to lie almost beyond the bounds of language. His style is so simple and so much his own that the expected critical paraphrase, the attempt to sum up what these poems are "about", is likely to seem even more than normally clumsy. But let's have a go at it, first by way of a negation. When Ammons first came to prominence he was spoken of almost exclusively as a nature poet. Clearly this won't do, if we think of nature poetry as description for its own sake, the presentation of picturesque landscapes. Ammons is not primarily a scene painter; his appeal is more directly to the mind than to the eye….

The lack of surface emotion, the self-effacement in many of the shorter poems has led critics to label Ammons as "objective". This is a confusing epithet, for even when the first person pronoun is lacking the interest in an Ammons poem is less in the thing perceived than in the imaginative effort of the perceiver. If there is any ultimate reality, an absolute external to the self, Ammons is not eager to pin it down. His very uncertainty on this score allows him freedom to speculate freshly upon each day's appearances, to examine the periphery (to use a favorite word of his) with an unjaded eye….

Ammons is not yet a master of the long form as he is of the short…. [The long] poems … are too self-conscious for their own good. They are readable only for their brilliance as improvisations…. The instinct for accommodation becomes positively manic; the poems gobble up everything but the kitchen sink and go back to that for dessert. But by being about everything they fail to be about anything interesting enough. Some people will say that they are about the creative process; but, if that is so, they still have to stand on their own as creative products—and that they don't quite manage to do. They lack the severe inner logic that would justify their length…. Ammons may yet write a great long poem, but it will likely demand some alteration of his genius as it has thus far been manifested.

Whatever Ammons may write in the future, he appears now, in mid-career, as one of the very few of our poets whose work courts permanence.

Robert B. Shaw, "Every Day a New Walk," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1973, pp. 109-12.