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 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...
(The entire section is 2511 words.)