A Coast of Trees

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

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 entire section is 1412 words.)