In one of A. R. Ammons’s early poems, “So I Said I Am Ezra,” from Ommateum, with Doxology, the speaker is whipped over the landscape, driven, moved by the natural elements. He is at once ordered and disordered, close and far, balanced and unbalanced, and he exclaims, “So I Ezra went out into the night/ like a drift of sand.” The line is representative of Ammons’s entire body of work, for it announces a search through language in an attempt to mean and to be clear, and failing to succeed completely in such clarity, the line ends by affirming a presence of radiance.
Expressions of Sea Level
Ammons’s poems have a tendency, like most contemporary poems, to take their own process, their own making, as a theme. Wanting to express something changeless and eternal, Ammons is constrained by his own intricate mortality. So in the title poem of Expressions of Sea Level, he presents the ocean as permanent and impermanent, as form and formlessness. He is interested in what humanity can and cannot know, giving full sway and expression to the ocean’s activity: “See the dry casting of the beach worm/ dissolve at the delicate rising touch.” The range and flow in Ammons’s poetry, his search for balance, moved him to create his philosophical music, using a vocabulary drawn largely from everyday speech. He celebrates the need in every human being to discover a common experience in the least particular thing.
Poems of North Carolina
Ammons attempts always to render visual details accurately. Some of the most moving poems in this regard are the poems inspired by his background in Columbus County, North Carolina. “Nelly Meyers” praises and celebrates a woman who lived on the farm where Ammons grew up; “Silver” records Ammons’s love for and rapport with a mule he used for work. “Hardweed Path Going” tells of his life as a boy, doing chores on the farm, his playtime with a pet bird (a jo-reet) and a hog named Sparkle. These poems re-create Ammons’s past, particularly his boyhood, which he renders in astonishingly realistic details.
Ammons infuses the natural world with his own attuned sensibilities, acknowledging in the title poem of Corsons Inlet that “Overall is beyond me.” The form of the poem is a walk over the dunes. What lives beyond his perception reassures, although he knows “that there is no finality of vision.” Bafflement is a primary feeling in the poem, which may be studied for what it says about the relationship between logic and reason, imposed order and discovered order, art and life, reality and illusion, and being and becoming. “Corsons Inlet” concludes the walk/quest on the note that “tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.” Ammons’s desire to say something clearly, therefore, is not so much a search for the word as it is an attempt to find original ways to make and shape poetry.
Tape for the Turn of the Year
With Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons writes a long, narrow poem on adding-machine paper. The poet improvises and spontaneously records his thoughts and moods in what resembles a poetic diary. In one place, he praises how writing gets done, suggesting that doing it is almost its own practical reward, as the speaker acknowledges in another poem, “Identity,” “it is wonderful how things work.”
By the mid-1960’s, Ammons’s major themes had emerged, his sensibility oscillating between extremes: formlessness-form, center-periphery, high-low, motion-stasis, order-disorder, and one-many. One of his most constant themes has been the self in the work and in the world. He...
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is concerned not only with the form of natural fact but also with form in the abstract sense, that is, with physical laws that govern the way individual entities act and behave. Ammons reaffirms the resonance of his subject, as in “The Eternal City,” in which destruction must “accept into itself piece by piece all the old/ perfect human visions, all the old perfect loves.”
Motion within diversity is perhaps Ammons’s major theme. In “Saliences,” from Northfield Poems, he discovers continuity in change. In “Snow Log,” from Uplands, recognizing that nature’s intentions cannot be known, he responds simply as an individual to what he sees in the winter scene: “I take it on myself:/ especially the fallen tree/ the snow picks/ out in the woods to show.” In “The City Limits,” from Briefings, a poem whose urban subject removes the speaker from nature, Ammons celebrates the “gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped/ guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit.”
Collected Poems, 1951-1971
Receiving the National Book Award in Poetry in 1973, Collected Poems, 1951-1971 comprises most of Ammons’s first six volumes, except for Tape for the Turn of the Year and three long verse-essays—“Extremes and Moderations,” “Hibernaculum,” and “Essay on Poetics.” In “Extremes and Moderations” and “Hibernaculum,” Ammons is a seer, lamenting humankind’s abuse of Earth and appreciating the immediacy of a world that takes care of itself. “Essay on Poetics” considers the structural advantages and disadvantages of poetry. One reads this essay to appreciate more fully Ammons’s views on writing.
In perhaps his major work, the book-length poem Sphere, Ammons explores motion and shape in a set form: sentences with no full stops, 155 sections of four tercets each. He relies on colons, perhaps suggesting a democratization and a flow. Shifting freely, sometimes abruptly, within a given stanza, phrase, or word, Ammons says, “I do not smooth into groups.” Thus the book explores the nature of its own poetics, the poet searching everywhere for a language of clarity. In one place, he says that he is “sick of good poems.” Wanting the smooth and raw together, Ammons reminds the reader that his prejudice against neat, traditional structures in poetry relates to the natural world where “the shapes nearest shapelessness awe us most, suggest the god.” He regards a log, “rigid with shape,” as “trivial.” Ammons, therefore, makes his case for the poem of the open form as opposed to strong, traditional verses.
Ammons demythologizes poetics and language, while testifying to an Emersonian faith in the universe as flowing freely and spontaneously. At the same time, there is a counter feeling always working. He refers often to clarity and wants his poems to arrive and move forward “by a controlling motion, design, symmetry.”
While he is writing the poem, commenting on it, writing himself into it, he shows his instinct for playfulness, for spoofing. This aspect of his work—the clowning humor—adds an inherent drama to his work, as critic Jerald Bullis has written:The tone of the poem or, I should say, of the voices of its “parts,” ranges and range from that of the high and hard lyric, the crystalline and as if final saying, through a talky and often latinate professorial stance, to permutations of low tone: “bad” puns, catalogues that seem to have been lifted from a catalogue, and, in the example below, the high-pressure pitch-man tone of How-To scams: “Now, first of all, the way to write poems is just to start: it’s like learning to walk or swim or ride the bicycle, you just go after it.”
The poem goes on, praising the ability of humanity to write and to appreciate being alive.
Reverence for creation runs throughout Sphere, investing the work with a vision beyond and through the details of the poet’s aesthetic. This religious strain has its source in Ammons’s absolute reverence for the natural world. A religious vocabulary, then, is no surprise in his work and connects with his childhood, when church services and hymn-sings were dominant parts of his life. As in Sphere, he questions what is “true service,” saying “it must be a service that is celebration, for we would celebrate even if we do not know what or how, and for He is bountiful if/ slow to protect and recalcitrant to keep.” Ammons goes on to say, “What we can celebrate is the condition we are in, or we can renounce the condition/ we are in and celebrate a condition we might be in or ought/ to be in.” Ammons fuses and plays on the relationship between creation and imagination, hoping and trying to discover “joy’s surviving radiance.” In the presence of this radiance—the hues and bends of Ammons’s music—exist the crux of his aesthetic, his art and his being: the solitary man never surrendering as he is being imposed on and whipped about, as he writes in one of his earliest poems, “So I Said I am Ezra/ and the wind whipped my throat/ gaming for the sounds of my voice.” However, the self is not dwarfed by the world. Ammons understands his moral and aesthetic convictions and will not cease to assert them. Such desire allows the visionary in Ammons constantly to discover new ways to see and understand his life. In this regard, key words crop up often: “salience,” “recalcitrant,” “suasion,” “periphery,” “possibility,” tentative words that tend to illuminate or seek the proper blend in experience. So Sphere ends as it began, clear and free of all encumbrances except the spoken voice: “we’re ourselves: we’re sailing.” The ending is right for the “form of a motion,” the sense of wonder and uncertainty going on beyond the finality of the poem. Past, present, and future are one, and the poem and its end recall Walt Whitman’s absorption into the dirt in “Song of Myself.”
The Snow Poems
In The Snow Poems, Ammons continues his experimental attempt to arrange a poetic journal, recounting in lyrical splendor the concerns of daily life, including details about weather, sex, and the poet’s attempt to write and to experience a dialogue between the specific and the general. Ammons’s work since the mid-1970’s marks a return to the more visionary tendencies contained in his earlier terse, fierce lyrics of short or moderate length. “Progress Report” is an epigram from Worldly Hopes: “Now I’m/ into things// so small/ when I// say boo/ I disappear.” The words flow in natural motion.
Lake Effect Country
Lake Effect Country continues Ammons’s love of form and motion. The whole book represents one body, a place of water, a bed of lively recreation. In “Meeting Place,” for example, “The water nearing the ledge leans down with/ grooved speed at the spill then,/ quickly groundless in air.” His vision comes from the coming together of the natural elements in the poem, rising and falling, moving and forming the disembodied voices that are the real characters in his poems: “When I call out to them/ as to the flowing bones in my naked self, is my/ address attribution’s burden and abuse.” “Meeting Place” goes out “to summon/ the deep-lying fathers from myself,/ the spirits, feelings howling, appearing there.”
A Coast of Trees
A major contemporary poem is “Easter Morning,” from A Coast of Trees. Based on the death in infancy of the poet’s younger brother, the poem is filled with reverence for the natural world, Ammons’s memory ever enlarging with religious and natural resonances. “I have a life that did not become,/ that turned aside and stopped,/ astonished.” The poem carries the contradictory mysteries of the human condition—death, hope, and memory—working together in a concrete and specific aesthetic. Presented in the form of a walk, “Easter Morning” reveals the speaker caught in the motion, as two birds “from the South” fly around, circle, change their ways, and go on. The poem affirms, with the speaker in another poem (“Working with Tools”), “I understand/ and won’t give assertion up.” Like Ezra going out “into the night/ like a drift of sand,” the poet celebrates “a dance sacred as the sap in/ the trees . . . fresh as this particular/ flood of burn breaking across us now/ from the sun.” Though the dance is completed in a moment, it can never be destroyed, because it has been re-created as the imagination’s grand dance.
Another major contemporary poem is “The Ridge Farm” from Sumerian Vistas. In fifty-one parts, the poem renders the farm itself on a ridge, on the edge of everything and nothing. Ammons’s speaker joyfully resigns himself to the “highways” and the dammed-up brooks. The implication is that poetry—like nature—breaks through and flows, exploring the motion and shape of the farm’s form. The farm itself is a concrete place wherein Ammons explores the nature of poetics and other realities.
The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons
In The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons, the poet continues his necessity to really see the natural world. That seeing becomes the poem; its motion, the story moving through the images. The form and subject move in a terse, fierce way as the poem discovers itself. In “Winter Scene,” for example, the natural world changes radiantly when the jay takes over the leafless cherry tree. The landscape transformed, the poet notes what he sees: “then every branch/ quivers and/ breaks out in blue leaves.” Motion formerly void of color brightens with vision and sway.
Many consider Garbage to be a capstone of Ammons’s maturity. Inspired by a massive landfill along Florida’s portion of Interstate 95, this book-length poem continues Ammons’s contemplation of and reverence for nature, this time positing the theme of regeneration following decay. It is a theme he applies to the human condition as well as to the sorry condition humanity has brought to nature. According to David Lehman, in his profile of Ammons published in the Summer, 1998, issue of American Poet, Ammons was attracted to the garbage mound for several reasons, including its geometry. Writes Lehman,The mound struck him as a hierarchical image, like a pyramid or the triangulation of a piece of pie. The pointed top corresponded to unity, the base to diversity. This paradigm of unity and diversity—and the related philosophical question of “the one and the many”—has been a constant feature of Ammons’s work from the start.
Ammon’s penchant for stretching out his thoughts and words is nowhere as evident as in his 1997 volume, Glare. Comprising two sections, “Strip” and “Scat Scan,” and written in his familiar couplet style, it is a work that is self-deprecating and spontaneous. Ammons speaks of “finding the form of the process,” and critics have noted that his apparent ambition in Glare was “to make the finished form of the poem indistinguishable from the process of composition.” In doing so, it reveals an immediacy of experience and thought, a kind of poetry in real time. In “Strip,” he writes, “I have plenty and/ give plenty away, why because here/ at nearly 70 stuff has bunched up/ with who knows how much space to/ spread out into.” The themes of “Scat” are harder to discern. Overall, he uses twisted proverbs and recalls Robert Frost’s poetry to sum up his life.