A Coast of Trees
Harold Bloom called A. R. Ammons’ Collected Poems: 1951-1971 (1972) “the most distinguished book of American verse . . . since the publication of Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems in 1955.” Ammons’ volume received high praise and the 1973 National Book Award for poetry, and it still ranks as the major poetic achievement of the last decade. Ammons’ Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974) won the 1973-1974 Bollingen Prize in Poetry, further solidifying his stature. His most recent offering, A Coast of Trees, sustains this poetic achievement, offering with profound and vital voice a deeply emotive message about where the poet puts his faith. Based on keen observations of natural phenomena and on sharply articulated intellectual concepts, the message defines a vision of order amid the possible chaos of the contemporary world.
Ammons’ vision evokes strong images of the mind and man behind the poetry, shaped by this century’s intellectual and scientific revelations yet linked to timeless trends of thought. While his vision incorporates a cosmology and universal structure in tune with relativity theory and principles of indeterminancy, it finds its greater harmony with the ancient Taoist Way and a general reverence for nature’s specifics. Ammons’ faith is an Oriental faith, and in some ways it is generally akin to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Ammons, however, goes much further than his Transcendentalist predecessors, detaching himself from Occidental rigidity and encompassing the Oriental mind more completely.
Ammons views the world in much the same manner that Thoreau did, on walks home, ranging over the countryside, sitting at a window looking out at a cluster of spider-egg-sacks. The objects of his observation often resemble those that quickened Thoreau’s eye, the particular, detailed phenomena close at hand in nature, yet Ammons’ vision surpasses Thoreau’s and Emerson’s and thereby seems to define a new romantic vision, one both enriched by empirical knowledge born in the twentieth century and evolved from spiritual precursors who explored the ancient traditions of Taoism. Ammons’ cosmology has the benefit of modern physics and astronomy, including principles of relativity and indeterminancy, space exploration, atomic speciation, and so shapes a thought fundamentally different from that of early American Romantic thinkers and poets.
Having chosen the simple path, the Tao, Ammons also chooses “the cleared particular” and seeks “a composure past sight,” realizing as he encounters life and its intricacies “that whatever it is it is in the Way and/ the way in it, as in us, emptied full.” The empty, being full of emptiness, can fully receive. The particulars of experience fill the void. They assign meaning to experience and shape consciousness. “Seeing” them leads to unity, composure beyond the sum of the parts. Ammons’ declaration, with its intentional ambiguity and implicit vagueness, must satisfy, must suffice as an explanation of some spiritual order. For Ammons, with his intense curiosity about natural phenomena and his devotion to articulating a message that is for others, the simple declaration is enough. The life made possible through such an affirmation becomes the Way, an embrace of living delighted by complexity of being yet bewildered as to outcome or definitive meaning.
Every poet should know the feeling, the emotive force that Ammons touches here, at least every poet inclined to late evening or very early morning walks, to puttering in the greenery of the backyard or strolling along neighborhood byways, stopping to look at snowbanks and their resultant trickles or “the moon up nearly/ full, splintering/ through the tips of street pine.” The image Ammons presents is a comfortable one, a relaxed look at a man generating wonderfully engaging poetry by looking long and hard at particulars, at details seen vividly and thoroughly absorbed into consciousness. Creating such vision is the poet’s way, and the rendering is authentic.
His life itself becomes a ritual, a way of living that defines reverence so personally and compellingly that it is never far away. Walking becomes a major part of this ritual, engaging the poet amid the wealth of natural images. Certain poems in A Coast of Trees exemplify the act, seeming to be products of recent walks. “Getting Through,” “Eventually Is Soon Enough,” “Density,” and “Vehicle” all seem sprung from the same fount, a wellspring found by walking, observing, ruminating, and writing. “Poverty,” however, provides firm evidence:
I’m walking home from, what,a thousandth walk this yearalong the same macadam’s edge............................................. . . and Irealize that it is not the same forme as for others, thatbeing here to be herewith others is for others.
In between these lines the poet observes “a rose cloud passed to the east,” and he hears “the hermit lark downhill/ in a long glade cutting/ spirals of musical ice.” These are the cleared particulars. Thinking of them, articulating a poem, reaching out to involve an audience with his message, the poet achieves ritual and continues on his way. Inspiration comes from the commonplace, and from that inspiration come connections with mankind, a reach toward unity and vision.
Achieving unity in a fragmented world is no small task, for every kind of divisive and distracting stimulus intrudes on the alert mind busy engaging its surroundings. Creating a workable order takes reflection, expressing it takes talent, and the two must be given the chance to work. The poet must process the power to concentrate, gather, and disseminate his words to redefine relationships between objects and ideas. Ammons holds such power.
In “Distraction,” where he raises the complaint of all writers, that quotidian events interrupt the muse, the ending note remains philosophical and affirms his power:
. . . Ican’t quite rememberwhat call I went to findor why so muchfell to me; in fact,sometimesa whole green sunsetwill wash darkas if it could goright by without me.
The world, in its inevitable way, having presented opportunities and their resultant obligations that distract from what seem clear paths, offers natural power in its constantly changing variety. Ammons, as creator, feels central to this world, knowing that his relative awareness of it depends upon his way of looking, his position relative to the universe and its phenomena, his chance moment without distraction when heart and intellect recognize unity.
Some basis in relativity, a delight at randomness, has been a recurrent theme throughout his canon, and Ammons’ readers should understand something he uttered in the poem Hibernaculum (Selected Longer Poems, 1980) nearly a decade ago:
nothingness, far from being failure’s puzzlement,is really the point of lovely liberation, whengloriously every object in and on the earth becomes justitself, total and marvelous in its exact scope,able to exist without compromise out to the preciseskin limit of itself.
The recognition voiced in Hibernaculum sustains hope despite despair and affirms action. Action, though ephemeral, confirms being, registers the individual’s presence and underlines its importance. For humanity the implications are clear. Meeting life simply but directly involves observing and ruminating, absorbing into consciousness the details of experience, concentrating on the thing to see its “thingness.” Life will persist; its continuance remains independent of human participation. Man has only to find out how it will persist, in what forms.
Ammons offers his optimistic statement as an end to A Coast of Trees. “Persistences” depicts human endeavor, civilization, as ruins in the desert subject to the “theorem of the wind.” Into these ruins man comes, inevitably, to “thrash out the/ snakes and mice,/ shoo the lean ass away,/ plant a row of something.” Man thus creates a place, a definition, a conception of what he would have there: “in debris we make a holding as/ insubstantial and permanent as mirage.” The intense spiritual quality pervading A Coast of Trees has come to a close with an affirmation, a faith in human persistence. This notion, strikingly romantic yet strikingly realistic, carries weight because the vision behind it has been well defined. The spirit moving in this collection of poems entwines with the natural spirits of place and time, the intellectual and emotive currents of scientific inquiry, the personal longings of certain souls given to roam the byways and secret places of any locale. Ammons commends a way of living, and he trains his words upon the natural images that his way reveals. The result is pure poetry, work that marches with the cosmology of its age and articulates a message harmonious with its form. This book is delightful, producing the same kind of effect an autumn walk in crisp moonlight will produce in the mind of the poet seeking a way to continue.
Book World. XI, May 3, 1981, p. 8.
Commonweal. CVIII, December 4, 1981, p. 691.
Hudson Review. XXXIV, Autumn, 1981, p. 429.
Library Journal. CVI, April 1, 1981, p. 799.
New Leader. LXIV, June 29, 1981, p. 14.
The New Republic. CLXXXIV, April 25, 1981, p. 28.
The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, October 8, 1981, p. 45.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, May 10, 1981, p. 12.