“Corsons Inlet” is a poem of 128 lines recounting the poet’s reaction to what he sees, thinks, and feels during a morning walk along a seashore. It becomes an almost ecstatic celebration of change, of form as temporary but beautiful because it cannot endure. The poem is written in what seems to be free verse, but while it avoids rhyme there are frequent echoings of sound. While the line lengths vary from one syllable to as many as fifteen, there is something approaching a pattern in the arrangement of the lines; while there are no stanzas or strophes, the patterns formed by groups of lines bear a shifting resemblance to one another.
This avoidance of clear patterns while suggesting that patterns do exist is a reflection of the central idea of “Corsons Inlet.” As the poet walks, he finds himself liberated from the “straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds/ of thought” into a world of sensation and motion. His mind can move freely, and he characterizes his work as “swerves of action” like the changing shape of sand dunes. He can cope with details, no matter how small, but the question of whether there is a single meaning in the process, some all-encompassing pattern, is not his to answer: “overall is beyond me.”
Having rejected wide-ranging philosophies, the poet proclaims his openness, his willingness to accept what he sees and to allow the forms to define themselves. He describes the transitions in the natural world, which have no clear boundaries, no sharp edges. He paints a vivid picture of the violence of nature: a gull eating to the point of vomiting, a different gull cracking and eating a crab. In the natural world “risk is full: every living thing in/ siege: the demand is life, to keep life.”
His attention then turns to a small system. Autumn is bringing “thousands of tree swallows” to eat bayberries and to gather themselves for flight, and he sees that what appears to be chaotic may be part of an order: “the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness.” He recognizes that there is order also in the small details. Still, he insists that there are, “in the large view, no/ lines or changeless shapes.”
As the poem moves toward its close, he arrives at a point of serenity; he will accept, but not try to force anything. There are orders, but around them “the looser, wider forces work.” In his poetry he will try to “fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder” but will revel in the freedom of the knowledge that he will never find definitive answers, that change will continue, “that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.”
The appearance of total disorder when in fact there are large kinds of order is both the theme of “Corsons Inlet” and its form: change is “not chaos.” The poem is divided into groups of lines too irregularly to allow the divisions to be called stanzas, but these divisions are not random. Many consist of two or more long lines followed by very short lines, sometimes consisting of a single syllable or a single word, which are followed in turn by more long lines. The divisions are of different lengths, but generally range between three and nine lines, with most containing six or seven.
The movement of the poem is also less random than it seems at first. If there is no regular meter, there is rhythm, conversational for the most part, with stresses used chiefly to emphasize significant passages. The narration follows the course of a walk along the dunes, returning...
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“along the inlet shore.” The imagery of sight, sound, smell, and touch is all drawn from the natural surroundings, as are the metaphors; early in the poem, the poet says, “I allow myself eddies of meaning,” drawing the metaphor from the movement of water and sand. In his poetry, he says, there is “a direction of significance/ running/ like a stream through the geography of my work.”
The imagery is precise, for the most part, but it is sometimes complex, as when he plays with different meanings of the concept of order: “pulsations of order/ in the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,/ broken down, transferred through membranes/ to strengthen larger orders.” Throughout the poem, imagery alternates with his thoughts about what he is seeing; conclusions are drawn constantly, not saved for the end, and these conclusions also change. At one point, he sees what appears to be chaos in small things but suspects that there are larger orders which he cannot see; at a later point, the order he sees is in the minuscule.
The observer notices shapes in small things—flowers and the shells of small animals. The actual appearance of the poem on the page suggests order in movement and change:
I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,shutting out and shutting in, separating inside from outside: I have drawn no lines: asmanifold events of sandchange the dune’s shape that will not be the same shapetomorrow.
Throughout the poem, the idea of formlessness becoming form, at least temporarily, is presented in A. R. Ammons’s descriptions of his ideas and conclusions, interwoven among his observations of the natural world. Even the punctuation used in the poem maintains Ammons’s theme: He uses only commas and colons to mark pauses and rests. Until the end, where a single period closes the poem, there are no periods or even semicolons used, as if to suggest that such marks would be too positive and final. Except for the personal pronoun “I,” he capitalizes only two words, both for ironic effect: “Overall” and “Scope” are capitalized to suggest godlike qualities too huge for his comprehension.