Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) (Vol. 25)
A(rchie) R(andolph) Ammons 1926–
Because of his poetic adaptation of natural forces, forms, and phenomena in the American landscape, some critics consider Ammons, more so than Whitman, the fulfillment of Emerson's call for an American bard.
Although his first book, Ommateum with Doxology, was a commercial and critical failure, Ammons has since received much favorable recognition, including a National Book Award in 1973 for his Collected Poems: 1951–1971. Harold Bloom has stated that, "No contemporary poet, in America, is likelier to become a classic than A. R. Ammons…."
Remarkably prolific, Ammons has produced three new volumes of poetry (The Snow Poems, A Coast of Trees, and Worldy Hopes) and two collections of selected poems in the past five years.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 8, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
When A. R. Ammons goes wrong, I think the problem is primarily one of voice. At his best, he is an objective poet who speculates on the nature of reality and its possible underpinnings. There is an observer present in such poems, to be sure, but his explicit role is a small one. Ammons is at his best when he most follows Emerson's inspired standard: "I become a transparent eyeball." In such cases, little or no attention is drawn to the speaker-observer. In The Snow Poems, however, all attention is consciously directed at the speaking character himself, and this fact accounts, I think, for the book's monumental failure. Good confessional poetry achieves its success by drawing on the tensions, neuroses, and self-destructive impulses of the poet's own life. Judging from The Snow Poems, Ammons lives an altogether too sane and ordinary life for him to operate successfully in this mode. The book has the form of a versified journal in which Ammons talks endlessly about the weather and professional football. The forms are pedestrian, as if the author's prose diary entries had simply been broken into lines. Occasionally, the words that comprise the lines are further broken down into letters, so that we think we are reading concrete poetry [but] … it is not good concrete poetry either. (pp. 944-45)
Happily, Ammons' other recent volume, The Selected Poems 1951–1977, is more than good enough, although it does not begin on...
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After he has published a "major" collection, a poet can be excused for some time. A few may groan a little, but nobody will long lament if he never approximates that height again. They will think that you were lucky to have been there once. It would be still more rare for a poet, in the span of seven years, to follow two "major" collections with a third. But in his new book, The Snow Poems, that is exactly what A. R. Ammons has done. In Collected Poems: 1951–1971, in Sphere: The Form of a Motion, and in The Snow Poems this prolific poet shows no signs of letting up.
In an age when most poets have pulled in their claws to confront us with mushy, probing soft paws, Ammons comes at us with his talons bared, aiming at the Universal Heart. The man's drive is unique in that it does not produce bulk at the expense of quality. Few poets match his productivity or his level of excellence. When we sit down to Ammons we need never grieve about warmed leftovers. With a painter's eye for color and detail he writes about the things he sees. You will not catch him astride the dark merely imagining—he reports and imagines. This way, for the true poet, is the one way. The risks and rewards are infinitely greater. There are pitfalls, but they are overshadowed by sustained periods of unbridled flight. Even when Ammons stumbles, even when he makes mistakes, he is never sloppy or less than completely...
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Although they shade off into one another, there are basically three kinds of poem in [A. R. Ammons's The Selected Poems: 1951–1977], and they all have to do with nature. First there is the quasi-imagist poem that usually describes a scene or develops a single metaphor while doing so ("Rectitude," "Right On," and "Winter Scene," for example). These poems are the slightest, on the whole, but usually charming. Then there is a parable, distinguished from the preceding by the prominence of the moral and, often, by a dialogue between the poet and his favorite solitary, the wind, or some crusty gulch or sage old mountain ("The Wide Land," "Terminus," "Dunes"). In this mode Ammons can be as winsome as Cummings and as pithy as Frost. The wonder is that he can be both at once. The meditation on nature differs from the parable by virtue of the sweep of the vision, the scope of the speculation, and, sometimes, simple length and a left-hand margin that traces out a "waterline, waterline inexact, / caught always in the event of change" ("Corsons Inlet," "Expressions of Sea Level," "Identity"). This is the most provocative Ammons, the man who puts you in mind of Emerson, Whitman, D'Arcy Thompson, and Whitehead, and whose language and movements are still unpredictable as jumping beans. (p. 96)
It is wonderful how Ammons's poems work, which is as much like the world he loves as possible. As he defines it in "Summer Session," too long to be...
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Ammons is hard to read, not because he is hard to understand, but because his vatic poems make the reader want to get everything from them. Ammons's usual persona is a prophet in the sense that E. M. Forster meant the word—not that he predicts outbreaks of war or encounters with handsome strangers but that he speaks as though inspired. A glance at some of the shorter poems (using the texts in Selected Poems 1951–1977 and Diversifications) bears this out. In an early one, "Bees Stopped", the persona derives complete satisfaction from his understanding of nature's quiet but ceaseless activity…. In another early poem, "The Wide Land", nature's noisier aspects are broached, but still the persona is happy. The wind blinds him and then apologizes, yet the doughty persona is unflappable…. Bee song or blizzard: anything nature throws his way is fine with him.
Lest this persona seem smug and overweening, a third poem from roughly the same period should be cited as evidence that he is taking his vatic duties seriously. In "Choice" the persona comes to a stair that goes in both directions. He spurns "the airless heights" and sinks into what seems to be "the inundating dark", but there is a surprise in store…. Though he tries to descend, the persona ends in a place much like the airless heights he wanted to avoid. The idiot happiness of the two earlier poems is absent here; the persona takes seriously his struggles with a...
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A. R. Ammons means to be a meditative poet, but he keeps getting distracted. He would, like Wallace Stevens, write the poems of the mind in the act of finding, but what he finds, as often as not, is natural appearance or natural fact. He is thus led around to a conflicting tradition, that of Frost, in which ideas are presented not directly but through the medium of natural imagery. His poems shuttle back and forth between image and abstraction, description and discursion, even seeming, on occasion, to blur those distinctions. Confusing those opposites, Ammons at times successfully accommodates both; when he attempts to compromise, he more often falls down between them.
"A Coast of Trees" shows Ammons working in the vein of such earlier volumes as "Briefings" and "Uplands," short lyrics annotating a single perception or enclosing a single inflection of thought. The voice Ammons assumes in these new poems, that of the reflective, perambulatory naturalist, is familiar from his earlier work, as is the peculiar mix of lofty argument and plain wordplay; botany, metaphysics, punning and alliteration tumble freely one after another through the poems. If anything, Ammons's characteristic inwardness and reticence are more than usually pronounced in this volume. Proper names and pronouns other than "I" scarcely appear, and the rhetorical eruptions Ammons has occasionally indulged in are absent. Familiar, too, is the goal toward which these poems,...
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Ammons' work is almost always about man in nature, attempting to make the visible yield the visionary. His writing, Harold Bloom reminds us, confirms his "vital continuities with the central Whitmanian tradition of our poetry."
I could take issue with the Whitman parallel. Of course Ammons writes pastoral poetry, of the common man, and frequently achieves the mystical. But Ammons' voice and line and vision are ultimately anti-Whitmanesque. His poems are nearly always brief, his lines nearly always narrow. He does not conduct self-interviews, and he never sermonizes. Moreover, he has never attempted a real epic. (His longest poems are his lightest.) Rather than attempt to change the reader's life, he is content to report, vividly, what he has felt and seen.
This makes Ammons sound simple. He is not. Often, in the course of a brief poem, he will zig-zag wildly away from a linear thought construction (—but he always returns!). While his language is usually of the simplest kind, the poems deal with the complex. (p. 429)
A Coast of Trees collects Ammons' most recent shorter poems written since The Snow Poems and Highgate Road. It contains several that rank with his best. These include "Swells" (which reveals his intense interest in science, as if we didn't know), "Rapids" (beginning with a case for the superiority of autumn over spring and ending in the nature of the universe...
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Ammons deals with his world immediately. The macrocosm and microcosm of nature occupy his imagination, and he defines himself by his way of facing these ultimate challenges. In his engaging new collection [A Coast of Trees] he has some exquisite love poems and a couple of tender descriptions of old men trying to look after their frail wives. He also has an elegy on his own boyhood.
But as usual, nine-tenths of the poems invite us to stand with the speaker isolated in a landscape, sharply observing some particulars of the scene while responding with quasi-didactic reflections. The most densely populated of the poems is centered on a graveyard.
As if to make up for the lack of human agents, Ammons regularly personifies the features of landscape that hold his attention. Sometimes this habit can give sharpness to an image, as when a thawing brook "steps" down a ledge;… But when the poet exchanges opinions with a mountain (as in "Continuing"), I balk.
Selfhood, for Ammons, means the establishment of healing continuities in the face of unpredictable, often withering disruptions. So it is restorative for him to notice how the elements of landscape survive and establish a new balance after destructive assaults. On such images of change, loss, and restoration he concentrates an attention sharpened by scientific training.
Ammons's handling of free verse evokes the process he...
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Ever since Schiller distinguished naive from sentimental poetry, we have been worried by the pathetic fallacy (as Ruskin named it). It is the aesthetic version of the tree falling in the woods; does it make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? Is nature hospitable of itself to meaning (by its rhythms and its orders, its catastrophes and its variety) or are our symbolic uses of it truly abuses, a foisting of our sentiments onto an inert and indifferent scenery? This question has become one that no modern "nature poet" from Wordsworth on can avoid addressing in a perfectly conscious way. (p. 26)
In Ammons, the question of the pathetic fallacy is raised again and again, most luminously and painfully in his great poem "Grace Abounding," where the title makes explicit his claim that in states of inchoate feeling he finds a relief so great in the clarification offered by a visual image chanced upon in nature that the feeling corresponds to that which Bunyan named "grace abounding." We recall that in the Biblical formulation, where sin abounds, grace will the more abound: in Ammons's frame of things, the emphasis changes from sin to misery. In the poem, where he is trapped in a vise of misery, the sight of a hedge completely encased and bound down by ice so strikes him that he realizes that it is an image, perfectly correspondent, of his inner anguish, the more anguishing because it had as yet remained unimaged, unconceptualized, and...
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Few human beings inhabit the typical Ammons landscape—indeed, the poems that home toward the center of his visions are landscapes: either literal mappings of place and event or philosophical graphs of the questing mind and spirit. The powerful imprint of a primal communion between poet and place that informs Tape for the Turn of the Year is never entirely erased from Ammons' pages, no matter how quickly they are written and gathered into books. That Ammons must remember one-ness and is forced—by inner compulsion as well as by conscious choice—to measure each new walk, each new moment, against those "blackcherry" days gives his voice both its great particularity and its pathos. (p. 4)
Surely no poet actively writing today observes with Ammons's precision—he captures each flick and rustle with clean, indelible strokes. Yet, faced with displays of such meticulous calibration of mainly transient phenomena, we may properly recall Ammons' injunction for us to pay heed to what he has "left out," to what has fallen outside his gaze. And here we will wish to turn back once more toward an earlier Ammons, toward the author of "Corsons Inlet," who could still both record and praise…. (pp. 4-5)
In "Corsons Inlet," Ammons walks the shore-edge of possibility, at the extreme and shifting border of the sea which, alone—in this austerely beautiful but, for Ammons, forever alien landscape—can offer wholeness:...
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