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 a particularly strong foot. The book is arranged chronologically, and so the first poems that we encounter are the Ezra poems from Ammons' first volume, Ommateum. The problem with the speaking voice mentioned above is once again present here, though in a different way. These poems are written not in the disastrous confessional voice of The Snow Poems, not in the objective-meditative voice of Ammons' best poems, but in the voice of the biblical figure, Ezra. One of the recent vogues in American poetry is the portentous mythic or pseudo-mythic poem which purports to give modern man sage advice drawn from a less complicated but more spiritually authentic time. We ought to be the wiser for having read such poems, and for a time perhaps we were. But the mode now seems predictable and obvious, even dated, and one longs to...
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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 honest about himself. He appears to be riding the crest of a wave with no descent in sight. In that state of grace it looks as if he could go on forever.
The Snow Poems contains 119 poems in which an admirable craftsmanship is indisputable. But taken together the poems also read as one long poem. The sense of the book is best assimilated through this approach. It is refreshing to encounter a contemporary long poem that is not just another self-indulgent joke, another tedious and forgettable specimen of "literature." How tired we are of encountering poems in which there is nothing more substantial than random words on a page. The Snow Poems has little to do with such a tradition.
Ammons brings to his new work familiar concerns: the ongoing, minute examination of his inexhaustible world, the continual reduction and reconstruction of the Self. There are new wrinkles as well: encroaching middle age (the poet's fiftieth year) and the gradual deterioration of memory. All are linked together by the symbolic snow. It is an apt device that functions ably on two levels. There is the level that Melville pondered in the whiteness of the whale, the sacred, white dog of the Iroquois, the white bear of the polar ice, the white stallion of the plains. "This elusive quality it is," Ishmael says, "which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds." For Ammons the "object terrible in itself" is the oblivion of which Death is the gatekeeper.
Snow also functions on a more prosaic level that reminds the poet of the shutdown of exterior exertion. He finds himself deep in a severe East Coast...
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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 included in this selection, "the problem is / how / to keep shape and flow:"—a problem momentarily resolved in those lines by the speech unit-line coincidence and the eye rhyme, on the one hand, and the asymmetrical stanza and the characteristic colon, the one punctuation mark that urges forward, on the other. Ammons tries to merge form and flux, to make himself "available / to any shape." If nature continuously changes, he will not come to a full stop during a poem; but if in nature "through change / continuities sinuously work," he will develop a...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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)
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