SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle: Last Poems, Fragments, and Wholes," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1964-65, pp. 537-43.
[Lieberman is an American poet and critic whose verse combines the particular and the visionary in its celebration of the physical world. The long, flowing lines and eloquent language of his poems set them apart from the works of his contemporaries. Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964-1977 (1977) collects Lieberman's reviews of the works of many important contemporary poets. His most recent book, Beyond the Muse of Memory: Essays on Contemporary American Poets, continues his exploration of modern American poetry. In the following excerpt from a review of Ammons' s Expressions of Sea Level and several books by other poets, Lieberman calls attention to the talent of Ammons and James Dickey in the long poem genre.]
James Dickey and A. R. Ammons are evolving a poetic line that works wonders in the extended lyric. In composing the longer poem, most poets rely on sectional subdivisions and distinct variations in form between sections to keep the poem from growing tedious. But in so doing they jeopardize the key advantage that Dickey and Ammons get from writing on a broad scale—the unbroken flow of language.
For Ammons, words on the page weave in and out like crosscurrents in a calm river:
There is a quality of hesitation and search in the variable movement of the line down the page. The center of gravity in the lines shifts from left to right to center. In most of Ammons's poems, a sort of variable but recognizable stanza pattern emerges from the movement. In others, there is a relatively unbroken thrust down the page, as in the passage quoted….
Many a contemporary poet handles language like a mason laying a foundation for a house—the words are so many concrete blocks to be cemented into a wall. Dickey and Ammons treat language with special attention to tone, modulation, and breathing space; all are suavely managed. Particular words and phrases rarely call attention to themselves; they must swing with the abiding rhythm and movement. It is hard to conceive of this poetry being composed slowly, word by word. There is too much continuity and rhythmic sweep….
Both Dickey and Ammons tend to write very long sweeping verse sentences that read quickly. There is more technical excitement for the reader of Ammons; I find myself moving down the page and weaving back and forth simultaneously, hunting the rhythmical center of each line. It's a poetry of crosscurrents, and a reader finds he is rowing with the current and into the current at once.
A quality that makes both of these poets better able to work on a larger scale than most of their contemporaries is the extraordinary power of mind they bring to bear on experience in their poems. In both, the depth and breadth of concentration is astonishing. Surprisingly, neither poet suffers from abstractness or obscurity, two hazards that poetry which thinks very hard is usually prone to. Their poetry seems to think its way into experience and things in life, not around them, and never loses a close touch with the contours of creature, landscape, and seascape:
Ideas in the poems seem less important in themselves, more important as conveyors or conductors that lead the mind into the center of happening.
I think the extended lyric is one of the most fertile and inviting territories for the poet of today, and I hope we can look to Ammons and Dickey for more solid achievement in this genre. It will take some...
(This entire section contains 637 words.)
doing to offset the movement toward fragmentation of experience set in motion by the shorter lyrics of William Carlos Williams in the twenties, and to initiate a return to structures that are large enough to cope with our most important experiences.
A. R. Ammons 1926–
(Full name Archie Randolph Ammons) American poet.
A prolific writer, Ammons is widely considered among the most significant contemporary American poets. Sometimes referred to as an Emersonian Transcendentalist for his visionary view of the relationship between humankind and nature, Ammons is praised for his sensitive meditations on our capacity to comprehend the flux of the natural world. Furthermore, he frequently endows his verse with resonant images of detailed landscapes rendered in a conversational tone and flowing style similar to that of an interior monologue. Though features of traditional literary movements are evident in his work, Ammons's poetry is pervaded by a modern skepticism that stems from his refusal to attach universal significance to religious or artistic doctrines. Abstaining from offering any facile resolutions to the tensions in his verse, Ammons is concerned with broadening his readers' perceptions of their relationship to the world. Donald H. Reiman observed: "A. R. Ammons has engaged the fundamental metaphysical and psychological issues of twentieth-century man—concerns about the relationships of the individual with the Universe and with his own familial and social roots—and he has shown us a way to triumph without relying on dogmatisms or on mere palliatives."
Born in the rural community of Whiteville, North Carolina, Ammons was raised on a farm, where his appreciation for nature was fostered. A good student, he graduated near the top of his class in elementary school and high school. Upon completing high school in 1943, Ammons worked in the shipyards in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in 1944 joined the Navy for two years of service. He began writing poetry while in the Navy and, after World War II, enrolled at Wake Forest College, North Carolina, receiving a bachelor of science degree in 1949. For one year he was the principal of an elementary school in Hateras, North Carolina, then enrolled for a short while at the University of California, Berkeley. Ammons returned to the east coast, settling in south New Jersey, and there held several jobs, including that of a vice-president of a glass company. His poetry began to appear in magazines in 1953, and an inaugural collection, Ommateum with Doxology, was published in 1955. With the publication of a second volume, Expressions of Sea Level, nine years later, Ammons garnered widespread critical attention that established him as an important American poet. That same year, 1964, he began to teach in the English Department at Cornell University,
Ithaca, New York, where he continues to work as a professor. Ammons has received many honors during his career, including the 1973 National Book Award for Collected Poems: 1951-1971, the 1982 National Book Critics Circle Award for A Coast of Trees, and the 1993 National Book Award for Garbage.
Ommateum with Doxology—the title refers to the compound eye of an insect—conveys a broad range of expression. In his attempt to present a multifaceted view of humanity's relationship with the universe, Ammons vacillates between a scientific and a transcendental perspective. In the collection Expressions of Sea Level, his conception of the interdependence between humanity and nature becomes more complex as he begins to focus on the educative and restorative aspects of the universe. Often using images of sea and wind to represent nature's perpetual motion, Ammons suggests that man is only partially cognizant of external forces. In "Unsaid," one of his most acclaimed pieces, Ammons acknowledges the limitations of human expression and apprehension as he asks his readers, "Have you listened for the things I have left out?" In Corson's Inlet and Northfield Poems Ammons continues to examine the complex association between man and nature.
During the period in which he produced the above-mentioned collections of short lyric verse, Ammons also published two book-length poems, Tape for the Turn of the Year and Sphere: The Form of a Motion. Noted for its innovative structure, Tape for the Turn of the Year takes the form of a daily poetic journal and chronicles Ammons's thoughts on the mundanity of everyday life. In Sphere Ammons focuses on humanity's futile attempts to impose structure on the environment and to halt natural forces. While this work is arranged in 155 numbered sections of four tercets each, Ammons's minimal use of punctuation endows Sphere with a fluid style that conveys nature's inexorable motion. In the much later volume Garbage, Ammons returned to the long format of Tape for the Turn of the Year and Sphere, composing a poem that comprises what appears to be a single extended sentence, divided into eighteen sections, arranged in couplets. Starting with the image of a trash dump beside a Florida highway, the poem develops into a series of meditations about different kinds of waste, decay, and debris, but eventually makes the point that what we term garbage is part of the cycles of nature, evolution, and renewal. In other volumes, Ammons has tended toward a less discursive style. In such collections as A Coast of Trees, Worldly Hopes, Lake Effect Country, and Sumerian Vistas, he employs short-lined forms to create increasingly philosophical explorations of the natural world. A Coast of Trees presents a spiritually oriented view of nature and aligns Ammons's work more closely with the Romantics in its adherence to the primacy of human instinct and emotion. In Worldly Hopes and Lake Effect Country, Ammons fuses his empirical perceptions with hymn-like tributes to nature.
Commentators have been almost uniformly complimentary of Ammons's work. Most commend his ability to provoke thought about the complexity of human nature through reflection upon our attitudes toward and understanding of the environment. Because of his iconoclastic views and association of nature and humankind, Ammons is customarily acknowledged to be a literary descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Clearly critics perceive Ammons's poetry to be distinctly American, and other comparisons find him frequently linked to Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson. Though Ammons has received high praise for his Whitmanesque extended interior monologues, some reviewers object that his poems can be self-indulgent and wordy, problems exacerbated by the occasional impression of structural arbitrariness and by his preference for minimal punctuation. Tape for the Turn of the Year, for example, has been called gimmicky because it was composed on an adding machine tape, which artificially prescribed the shape of the poem. Nevertheless, Ammons's manipulation of language is also recognized as one of his strengths. Commentators remark on the rhythm and phrasing of his poetry, finding them imitative of spoken language, and judge his vocabulary to be engaging and stimulating.
SOURCE: "Muse & Hearth," in Poetry, Vol. CVII, No. 4, January, 1966, pp. 330-31.
[An acclaimed American novelist, short story writer, and poet, Harrison is best known for his fiction but has published nine collections of verse. In the following review, he perceives some flaws in Tape for the Turn of the Year and Corsons Inlet but states: "In both books, I sense a poet on the eve of a breakthrough."]
A. R. Ammons' Tape for the Turn of the Year was composed on a roll of adding machine tape; it purports to be a long poem in the form of a journal covering some thirty-five days in the poet's life. There are a dozen or so things that make it fatally wrong as a long poem—the fact of its length alone was predicated by the size of the tape, its form determined by the width of the tape and the number of days. The whole idea is more than a bit fey; we have weather descriptions, nature walks, all manner of cracker barrel phenomenology; the poet pumping out large unleavened portions of his brain, the day in shorthand, creaking dross, rather house-broken observations on poetics, jokes, much fallow ground that might better have been left that way. It is a disastrously ambitious piece of work; the marriage of the poem and journal a bad one.
Despite these crude reservations Tape for the Turn of the Year has much to recommend itself. There are many fine short lyrics hidden within it, sections of incredible fertility, the texture rich, the poet in completely new territory. I think it is the poem's total intemperance that saves it. Ammons is a poet with an essentially sweet consciousness at home with the quality of strangeness that makes him a very individual poet. Ammons does not limit himself to colonizing like so many of his gifted contemporaries; he explores. When he invokes the muse he does not do so fatuously; rather than the small household god or mistress of the academy that we are accustomed to, she takes the form of the "perpetual other woman" whom poets have served for centuries. It is a tribute to the poet that he sometimes makes her whine in the same sense that John Skelton did in his "Merry Margaret," makes her yield to him the volatile gift of the poem. Ammons writes, "the predator / husbands his prey". He might well take this as a cautionary note for himself, an admonition.
Much of Corsons Inlet is perhaps too typical of the better conservative poetry being written now; a poetry of things closely observed and gracefully described, of the imagination at reasonable harmony with itself. There's a great deal of unpretentious technical solidity and little of the diffuseness and ambling that marred Tape for the Turn of the Year. I think, though, that the more successful poems in the collection are the least orthodox. Of the seven exceptional poems in Corsons Inlet (I would draw attention to "Moment," "Jungle Knot," "Dark Song," "Butterflyweed," "Two Hymns," "The Strait," "Libation"), "Jungle Knot" and "Two Hymns" are truly fine. Our senses rupture, are enlivened, awed; there are no false notes. I quote part of the first of the "Two Hymns":
So when the year had come full round I rose and went out to the naked mountain to see the single peachflower on the sprout blooming through a side of ribs possibly a colt's and I endured each petal separately and moved in orisons with the sepals …
In both books I sense a poet on the eve of a breakthrough, a poet who has far from exhausted his equipment. I think A. R. Ammons' success—it could have very large dimensions—will depend on his ability to harbor, to cage his gift with greater cunning while still taking those steps in the dark that make his best work so radically original and fresh.
Ommateum with Doxology 1955
Expressions of Sea Level 1963
Corson's Inlet 1965
Tape for the Turn of the Year 1965
Northfield Poems 1966
Selected Poems 1968
Briefings: Poems Small and Easy 1971
Collected Poems, 1951-1971 1972
Sphere: The Form of a Motion 1974
Diversifications: Poems 1975
For Doyle Fosso 1977
Highgate Road 1977
The Selected Poems: 1951-1977 1977
The Snow Poems 1977
Breaking Out 1978
Six-Piece Suite 1978
Selected Longer Poems 1980
Changing Things 1981
A Coast of Trees: Poems 1981
Worldly Hopes 1982
Lake Effect Country: Poems 1983
Sumerian Vistas: Poems, 1987 1987
The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons 1990
The North Carolina Poems 1994
Brink Road 1996
Other Major Works
Set in Motion: Essays and Interviews 1996
SOURCE: "Interior and Exterior Worlds," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 204, No. 17, April 24, 1967, pp. 541-42.
[Logan is an American poet and critic whose verse is generally regarded as intense and personal as well as distinctly humanist in its central concern with humankind and its potential. He has served as the poetry editor of both the Nation and the Critic and is also the founder and coeditor of Choice, a magazine of poetry and graphics. In the following review of Northfield Poems, Logan comments on the relationship between the external world and the poet's internal life, as they are depicted in Ammons's early poetry. Logan concludes by declaring Ammons "a major talent."]
A. R. Ammons is one of the most prolific and, at the same time, most intelligent gifted poets of recent years. North-field Poems is his third book to appear in two years—with Corsons Inlet and Tape for the Turn of the Year— and there were two others in the previous ten-year period; Ommateum (which was privately printed) and Expressions of Sea Level.
Tape for the Turn of the Year, perhaps the most interesting single volume, is a continuing poem, mainly unrevised, which Ammons composed by inserting one end of an adding machine tape in a typewriter and proceeding to the other end. The imposed limitation of form apparently provided a pressure which helped to produce some very beautiful writing, all 200 pages of it in the mode of a journal extending over a period of about a month. The long, thin poem is occasionally ascetic in its effect (as an El Greco figure) and again it is snakelike. There is a passage where the poem shows a striking self-recognition of its phallic character:
If I had a flute: wdn't it be fine to see this long thin poem rise out of the waste- basket: the charmed erection, stiffening, uncoiling?
Another passage catches from inside the work, toward its end, the speaker's sense of his own utterance:
I wrote about these days the way life gave them: I didn't know beforehand what I wd write, whether I'd meet anything new: I showed that I'm sometimes blank and abstract, sometimes blessed with song: sometimes silly, vapid, serious, angry, despairing.
The free form of the poem (despite its strict limitation on line length) and its willingness to risk "prose" and looser diction, has given it an utterly original tone, a curious blend of confession, lyricism and observation of two kinds—the strikingly concrete and the near abstract.
All three of these qualities recur in other books though there is less of the first—indeed less personal portraiture of any direct kind—in Ommateum. Confession begins with Expressions of Sea Level where, combined with childhood reminiscence as in "Nelly Myers" and "Silver" it has given us some of the most beautiful poems of our time:
I will not end my grief, earth will not end my grief, I move on, we move on, some scraps of us together, my broken soul leaning toward her to be touched, listening to be healed.
A number of poems in Expressions, Corsons Inlet and Northfield, as the names of the latter two hint, are based on experiences of places in South Jersey—where Mr. Ammons was for many years an executive in a chemical glass factory before turning to teaching.
Ammons' voice is unique and would not fail to be recognized even in the first book:
So I said I am Ezra and the wind whipped my throat gaming for the sounds of my voice I listened to the wind go over my head and up into the night.
There is a return to the oracular, Old Testament-like persona of "Ezra" in the poem "The Wind Coining Down From" in the present volume. The poems of this book reiterate several motifs we are familiar with from the others, and they range from the highly abstract game-stance of "The Numbers":
be confident; as you turn to the numbers veracity links segment to segment: a sausage bliss!
through the lecture-like sound of "The Motions" to the Biblical incantation of "Joshua Tree" on the one hand or the very direct, sure, imitative dialect of "First Carolina Said Song" on the other:
We got there just in time to see her buried in an oak grove up back of the field: its growed over with soapbushes and huckleberries now.
"Joshua Tree" is a moving piece in which the speaker relates to the wind, who instructs him to
settle here by this Joshua Tree and make a well.
The speaker, after lamenting that he is
consigned to form that will not let me loose except to death
so that he "must go on" until then, asks that later the wind—muse-like and yet like a man—
enter angling through my cage and let my ribs sing me out.
The wind is a frequent persona in the poems, as breath itself becomes fleshed out. Considering wind as breath one begins to see the connection between the poems of external landscape and the elements (which fill the first book and reappear here) and the poems of internal geography.
When I go back of my head down the cervical well, roots branch turning, figuring into flesh.
I don't like the line "meat's indivisible stuff" because its texture jars with the rest of the coulage of diction, but otherwise this poem, "Landscape with Figures," is one of the strongest in the collection.
There is a constant playing off of the interior world of mind and cells against the exterior world of things where self lies dispersed and in need of the gathering force of a poem. The rapport of interior and exterior is itself expressed in a perfect short poem entitled "Reflective," which I give here entire:
I found a weed that had a mirror in it and that mirror looked in at a mirror in me that had a weed in it.
The half-solipsistic character of this is projected beautifully to trees in a fuller sense in the poem "Halfway":
birches stand in pools of them- selves, the yellow fallen leaves reflecting those on the tree that mirror the ground
From the idea of external—reflected—in—internal, one can move rather easily to the notion of the cosmos reflected in small in one of its parts, as in the striking poem. "The Constant," where the galaxy-like, moving film of sand in the water of a clam shell seems to reflect the scope of sky, so that:
a gull's toe could spill the universe: two more hours of sun could dry it up; a higher wind could rock it out….
There is a marvelous imaging of the tentativeness with which things "live and move and have their being" as the Old Fellow said. This mood is seconded in "Contingency" where, contemplating all the life and change started by a sprinkler, one reflects that:
a turn of the faucet dries every motion up.
And it is brought into a new key in the poem, "Zone," which suggests that a myth of creation is completed only by its parallel myth of uncreation. There is a constant need for recovery, whether for the shadows of trees (in "Recovery") or for time future (in "Passage")—
tomorrow emerges and falls back shaped into today: endlessly
—or for the life of a man himself. For poets this latter kind of recovery is accomplished by the writing of poems, and when the poems are as good as these, it is sometimes accomplished for others by reading them.
Intellectuality is a prime trait of Ammons' work, as is suggested by the abstract character of several titles in the new book: "Height," "Reflective," "Contingency," "Interference," "Saliences." Sometimes, as in the latter poem and in "One-Many"—two of the most ambitious and strongest poems in the book—there is too much cerebration demanded of the reader, I believe, before the poem begins to burgeon. There are some other faults. Occasionally the poems seem to lack vigor. Occasionally influence obtrudes itself, as that of Marianne Moore in "Uh, Philosophy" or of Dylan Thomas in these punning, elegiac lines:
If bleak through the black night we could outrun this knowledge into a different morning!
or of T. S. Eliot in this passage: "though the world ends and cannot end" and "To death, the diffuse one going beside me, I said…." (Yet the most pervasive influences—those of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound—have been well assimilated to form a highly original body of work.) There are occasional bad lines: "O ablutions!" Yet, a careful look at the whole body of Ammons' work, particularly Tape for the Turn of the Year and the new book, will show that we are dealing with a major talent, one who has the courage and the heuristic power to discover new form, as well as the eye and the ear and the mind to hold us and to give us what Thomas called "the momentary peace of the poem."
Baker, David. "The Push of Reading." The Kenyon Review 16, No. 4 (Fall 1994): 161-76.
A review of four books, including Ammons's long poem Garbage. Baker observes that the poem illustrates the interconnectedness of all things: "We become witness to something of a generative and evolutionary process—the turning of garbage into utility, decay into new life, an idea into further ideas."
Bloom, Harold. "A. R. Ammons: When You Consider the Radiance." In his The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition, pp. 256-89. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Examines Ammons's handling of ideas treated previously by American poets in the Romantic tradition, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Wallace Stevens. This essay was originally published in 1970.
——. "A. R. Ammons: The Breaking of the Vessels." In his Figures of Capable Imagination, pp. 209-33. New York: The Seabury Press, 1976.
Explores Ammons's poetry apropos of Bloom's theories of poetic influence and creative misreading. This essay was originally published in Salmagundi, Fall-Winter, 1975-76.
Bullis, Gerald. "In the Open: A. R. Ammons' Longer Poems." Pembroke Magazine, No. 18 (1986): 28-53.
Identifies characteristics of Ammons's long poems while attempting "to offer explanations for the specific form and content" of these works.
Costello, Bonnie. "The Soil and Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets." Contemporary Literature 30, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 412-33.
Discusses varying stances of American poets with regard to the landscape. Labelling Ammons an analogist poet—defined here as the individual who "pursues the parallels between landscape and mind, allowing each its autonomy and authority"—Costello contrasts him with the immanentist poet Gary Snyder and the transcendentalist poet Charles Wright.
Cushman, Stephen. "A. R. Ammons, or the Rigid Lines of the Free and Easy." In his Fictions of Form in American Poetry, pp. 149-86. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Studies line, meter, and form in Ammons's poetry, focusing on the tenion between rigor and freedom in his verse.
Diacritics III, No. 4 (Winter 1973).
Special issue devoted to Ammons. Among the essays included here are "The Cosmic Backyard of A. R. Ammons" by Linda Orr, "Ammons' Radiant Toys" by David Kalstone, and "Light, Wind, Motion" by Josephine Miles.
Doreski, William. "Sublimity and Order in the Snow Poems." Pembroke Magazine, No. 21 (1989): 68-76.
Presents Ammons's The Snow Poems as an exemplar of the neo-Romantic lyric because it achieves its effects without reliance on epiphany, mystical language, or pathetic fallacy. Doreski maintains that the success of The Snow Poems is closely linked to the diction and structure of the poem.
Hans, James S. "The Aesthetics of Worldly Hopes in A. R. Ammons's Poetry." Essays in Literature XVII, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 76-93.
Asserts that Ammons's poetry evinces the ideas of a poet "who sees life as an essentially playful activity that affords one a perspective on the tragic joy that life embodies when it is seen aesthetically."
Holder, Alan. A. R. Ammons. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978, 179 p.
Biographical and critical overview of Ammons's career.
Howard, Richard. "The Spent Seer Consigns Order to the Vehicle of Change.'" In his Alone with America: The Art ofPoetry in the United States since 1950, pp. 1-17. London: Thames and Hudson, 1970.
Identifies transcendentalism as the primary impulse of Ammons's poetry. Howard defines Ammons's artistic aim as "putting off the flesh and taking on the universe."
Morgan, Robert. "The Compound Vision of A. R. Ammons' Early Poems." In his Good Measure: Essays, Interviews, and Notes on Poetry, pp. 45-74. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Explicates Ammons's poems that originally appeared in Ommateum or soon thereafter. Morgan contends that the major emphases of Ammons's poetry—namely the discovery of unity in contradiction, an interest in language that mirrors the diversity of life, and a sense of the provisional nature of insight—are apparent even at this early stage in his career. This essay originally appeared in the journal Epoch, Spring, 1973.
Pembroke Magazine, No. 18 (1986).
Special issue devoted to Ammons. Among the items included here are the essays "Poetic Metaphysic in A. R. Ammons" by D. R. Fosso and "Scholar of Wind and Tree: The Early Lyrics of A. R. Ammons" by Sister Bernetta Quinn, and an interview conducted by Shelby Stephenson.
Scott, Nathan Α., Jr. "The Poetry of Ammons." Southern Review 24, No. 4 (Autumn 1988): 717-43.
Declares Ammons "a poet of the Sublime," meaning that "the most fundamental premise of all his principal meditations is that the sheer ontological weight and depth of the world are such as to invest all the finite things of earth with an incalculable complexity and inexhaustibility, so much so indeed that really to savor the full-fledged otherness of the immediate givens of experience is to find them testifying to their own finitude by their silent allusions to a transfinite dimension within themselves."
Spiegelman, Willard. "Myths of Concretion, Myths of Abstraction: The Case of A. R. Ammons." In his The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, pp. 110-46. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Examines the manner in which Ammons merges science and poetry to create successful philosophical verse.
Wolfe, Cary. "Symbol Plural: The Later Long Poems of A. R. Ammons." Contemporary Literature 30, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 78-94.
Contends that Ammons's verse aspires to be true organicist poetry, aiming "to engage a poetics of the centrifugal, to consciously resituate poetry—and, by extension, culture—in a network of relations both biological and social."
Additional coverage of Ammons's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12 (rev. éd.); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 6, 36; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 25, 57; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5, 165; and Major 20th-century Writers.
SOURCE: "A Poem Is a Walk," in Epoch, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1968, pp. 114-19.
[In the following essay, which was first presented as a lecture in 1967, Ammons considers the difficulty of defining poetry. He concludes by offering two observations: "poetry is a mode of discourse that differs from logical exposition…. [and] leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed."]
Nothing that can be saidin words is worth saying.
I don't know whether I can sustain myself for thirty minutes of saying I know nothing—or that I need to try, since I might prove no more than you already suspect, or, even worse, persuade you of the fact. Nothingness contains no images to focus and brighten the mind, no contrarieties to build up muscular tension: it has no place for argumentation and persuasion, comparison and contrast, classification, analysis. As nothingness is more perfectly realized, there is increasingly less (if that isn't contradictory) to realize, less to say, less need to say. Only silence perfects silence. Only nothingness contributes to nothingness. The only perfect paper I could give you would be by standing silent before you for thirty minutes. But I am going to try this imperfect, wordy means to suggest why silence is finally the only perfect statement.
I have gone in for the large scope with no intention but to make it larger; so I have had to leave a lot of space "unworked," have had to leave out points the definition of any one of which could occupy a paper longer than this. For though we often need to be restored to the small, concrete, limited, and certain, we as often need to be reminded of the large, vague, unlimited, unknown.
I can't tell you where a poem comes from, what it is, or what it is for: nor can any other man. The reason I can't tell you is that the purpose of a poem is to go past telling, to be recognized by burning.
I don't, though, disparage efforts to say what poetry is and is for. I am grateful for—though I can't keep up with—the flood of articles, theses, and textbooks that mean to share insight concerning the nature of poetry. Probably all the attention to poetry results in some value, though the attention is more often directed to lesser than to greater values.
Once every five hundred years or so, a summary statement about poetry comes along that we can't imagine ourselves living without. The greatest statement in our language is Coleridge's in the Biographia. It serves my purpose to quote only a fragment from the central statement: that the imagination—and, I think, poetry—"reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities." This suggests to me that description, logic, and hypothesis, reaching toward higher and higher levels of generality, come finally to an antithesis logic can't bridge. But poetry, the imagination, can create a vehicle, at once concrete and universal, one and many, similar and diverse, that is capable of bridging the duality and of bringing us the experience of a "real" world that is also a reconciled, a unified, real world. And this vehicle is the only expression of language, of words, that I know of that contradicts my quotation from Laotse, because a poem becomes, like reality, an existence about which nothing that can be said in words is worth saying.
Statement can also achieve unity, though without the internal suspension of variety. For example, All is One, seems to encompass or erase all contradiction. A statement, however, differs from a work of art. The statement, All is One, provides us no experience of manyness, of the concrete world from which the statement derived. But a work of art creates a world of both one and many, a world of definition and indefinition. Why should we be surprised that the work of art, which over-reaches and reconciles logical paradox, is inaccessible to the methods of logical exposition? A world comes into being about which any statement, however revelatory, is a lessening.
Knowledge of poetry, which is gained, as in science or other areas, by induction and deduction, is likely to remain provisional by falling short in one of two ways: either it is too specific, too narrow and definite, to be widely applicable—that is, the principles suggested by a single poem are not likely to apply in the same number or kind in another poem: or, the knowledge is too general, too abstract and speculative, to fit precisely the potentialities of any given poem. Each poem in becoming generates the laws by which it is generated: extensions of the laws to other poems never completely take. But a poem generated by its own laws may be unrealized and bad in terms of so-called objective principles of taste, judgment, deduction. We are obliged both to begin internally with a given poem and work toward generalization and to approach the poem externally to test it with a set—and never quite the same set—of a priori generalizations. Whatever we gain in terms of the existence of an individual poem, we lose in terms of a consistent generality, a tradition: and vice versa. It is Scylla and Charybdis again. It is the logically insoluble problem of one and many.
To avoid the uncertainty generated by this logical im passe—and to feel assured of something definite to teach—we are likely to prefer one side or the other—either the individual poem or the set of generalizations—and then to raise mere preference to eternal verity. But finally, nothing is to be gained by dividing the problem. A teacher once told me that every line of verse ought to begin with a capital letter. That is definite, teachable, mistaken knowledge. Only by accepting the uncertainty of the whole can we free ourselves to the reconciliation that is the poem, both at the subconscious level of feeling and the conscious level of art.
One step further before we get to the main business of the paper. Questions structure and, so, to some extent predetermine answers. If we ask a vague question, such as, What is poetry?, we expect a vague answer, such as, Poetry is the music of words, or Poetry is the linguistic correction of disorder. If we ask a narrower question, such as, What is a conceit?, we are likely to get a host of answers, but narrower answers. Proteus is a good figure for this. You remember that Proteus was a minor sea god, a god of knowledge, an attendant on Poseidon. Poseidon is the ocean, the total view, every structure in the ocean as well as the unstructured ocean itself. Proteus, the god of knowledge, though, is a minor god. Definite knowledge, knowledge specific and clear enough to be recognizable as knowledge, is, as we have seen, already limited into a minor view. Burke said that a clear idea is another name for a little idea. It was presumed that Proteus knew the answers—and more important The Answer—but he resisted questions by transforming himself from one creature or substance into another. The more specific, the more binding the question, the more vigorously he wrestled to be free of it. Specific questions about poetry merely turn into other specific questions about poetry. But the vague question is answered by the ocean which provides distinction and non-distinction, something intellect can grasp, compare, and structure, and something it can neither grasp, compare, nor structure.
My predisposition, which I hope shortly to justify, is to prefer confusion to over-simplified clarity, meaninglessness to neat, precise meaning, uselessness to over-directed usefulness. I do not believe that rationality can exhaust the poem, that any scheme of explanation can adequately reflect the poem, that any invented structure of symbology can exceed and thereby replace the poem.
I must stress here the point that I appreciate clarity, order, meaning, structure, rationality: they are necessary to whatever provisional stability we have, and they can be the agents of gradual and successful change. And the rational, critical mind is essential to making poems: it protects the real poem (which is non-rational) from blunders, misconceptions, incompetences; it weeds out the second rate. Definition, rationality, and structure are ways of seeing, but they become prisons when they blank out other ways of seeing. If we remain open-minded we will soon find for any easy clarity an equal and opposite, so that the sum of our clarities should return us where we belong, to confusion and, hopefully, to more complicated and better assessments.
Unlike the logical structure, the poem is an existence which can incorporate contradictions, inconsistencies, explanations and counter-explanations and still remain whole, unexhausted and inexhaustible; an existence that comes about by means other than those of description and exposition and, therefore, to be met by means other than, or in addition to, those of description and exposition.
With the hope of focusing some of these problems, I want now to establish a reasonably secure identity between a poem and a walk and to ask how a walk occurs, what it is, and what it is for. I say I want a reasonably secure identity because I expect to have space to explore only four resemblances between poems and walks and no space at all for the differences, taking it for granted that walks and poems are different things. I'm not, of course, interested in walks as such but in clarification or intensification by distraction, seeing one thing better by looking at something else. We want to see the poem.
What justification is there for comparing a poem with a walk rather than with something else? I take the walk to be the externalization of an interior seeking, so that the analogy is first of all between the external and the internal. Poets not only do a lot of walking but talk about it in their poems: "I wandered lonely as a cloud," "Now I out walking," and "Out walking in the frozen swamp one grey day." There are countless examples, and many of them suggest that both the real and the fictive walk are externalizations of an inward seeking. The walk magnified is the journey, and probably no figure has been used more often than the journey for both the structure and concern of an interior seeking.
How does a poem resemble a walk? First, each makes use of the whole body, involvement is total, both mind and body. You can't take a walk without feet and legs, without a circulatory system, a guidance and co-ordinating system, without eyes, ears, desire, will, need: the total person. This observation is important not only for what it includes but for what it rules out: as with a walk, a poem is not simply a mental activity; it has body, rhythm, feeling, sound, and mind, conscious and subconscious. The pace at which a poet walks (and thinks), his natural breath-length, the line he pursues, whether forthright and straight or weaving and meditative, his whole "air," whether of aimlessness or purpose—all these things and many more figure into the "physiology" of the poem he writes.
A second resemblance is that every walk is unreproducible, as is every poem. Even if you walk exactly the same route each time—as with a sonnet—the events along the route cannot be imagined to be the same from day to day, as the poet's health, sight, his anticipations, moods, fears, thoughts cannot be the same. There are no two identical sonnets or villanelles. If there were, we would not know how to keep the extra one: it would have no separate existence. If a poem is each time new, then it is necessarily an act of discovery, a chance taken, a chance that may lead to fulfillment or disaster. The poet exposes himself to the risk. All that has been said about poetry, all that he has learned about poetry, is only a partial assurance.
The third resemblance between a poem and a walk is that each turns, one or more times, and eventually returns. It's conceivable that a poem could take out and go through incident after incident without ever returning, merely ending in the poet's return to dust. But most poems and most walks return. I have already quoted the first line from Frost's "The Wood-Pile." Now, here are the first three lines:
Out walking in the frozen swamp one grey day, I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.'
The poet is moving outward seeking the point from which he will turn back. In "The Wood-Pile" there is no return: return is implied. The poet goes farther and farther into the swamp until he finds by accident the point of illumination with which he closes the poem.
But the turns and returns or implied returns give shape to the walk and to the poem. With the first step, the number of shapes the walk might take is infinite, but then the walk begins to "define" itself as it goes along, though freedom remains total with each step: any tempting side-road can be turned into on impulse, or any wild patch of woods can be explored. The pattern of the walk is to come true, is to be recognized, discovered. The pattern, when discovered, may be found to apply to the whole walk, or only a segment of the walk may prove to have contour and therefore suggestion and shape. From previous knowledge of the terrain, inner and outer, the poet may have before the walk an inkling of a possible contour. Taking the walk would then be searching out or confirming, giving actuality to, a previous intuition.
The fourth resemblance has to do with the motion common to poems and walks. The motion may be lumbering, clipped, wavering, tripping, mechanical, dance-like, awkward, staggering, slow, etc. But the motion occurs only in the body of the walker or in the body of the words. It can't be extracted and contemplated. It is non-reproducible and non-logical. It can't be translated into another body. There is only one way to know it and that is to enter into it.
To summarize, a walk involves the whole person; it is not reproducible; its shape occurs, unfolds; it has a motion characteristic of the walker.
If you were brought into a classroom and asked to teach walks, what would you teach? If you have any idea, I hope the following suggestions will deprive you of it.
The first thought that would occur to you is, What have other people said about walks? You could collect all historical references to walks and all descriptions of walks, find out the average length of walks, through what kind of terrain they have most often proceeded, what kind of people have enjoyed walks and why, and how walks have reflected the societies in which they occurred. In short, you could write a history of walks.
Or you could call in specialists. You might find a description of a particularly disturbing or interesting walk and then you might call in a botanist to retrace that walk with you and identify all the leaves and berries for you: or you might take along a sociologist to point out to you that the olive trees mentioned were at the root—forgive me—of feudal society: or you might take along a surveyor to give you a close reading in inches and degrees: or you might take a psychoanalyst along to ask good questions about what is the matter with people who take walks: or you might take a physiologist to provide you with astonishment that people can walk at all. Each specialist would no doubt come up with important facts and insights, but your attention, focused on the cell structure of the olive leaf, would miss the main event, the walk itself.
You could ask what walks are good for. Here you would find plenty: to settle the nerves, to improve the circulation, to break in a new pair of shoes, to exercise the muscles, to aid digestion, to prevent heart attacks, to focus the mind, to distract the mind, to get a loaf of bread, to watch birds, to kick stones, to spy on a neighbor's wife, to dream. My point is clear. You could go on indefinitely. Out of desperation and exasperation brought on by the failure to define the central use or to exhaust the list of uses of walks, you would surrender, only to recover into victory by saying, Walks are useless. So are poems.
Or you could find out what walks mean: do they mean a lot of men have unbearable wives, or that we must by outward and inward motions rehearse the expansion and contraction of the universe; do walks mean that we need structure—or, at an obsessive level, ritual in our lives? The answer is that a walk doesn't mean anything, which is a way of saying that to some extent it means anything you can make it mean—and always more than you can make it mean. Walks are meaningless. So are poems.
There is no ideal walk, then, though I haven't taken the time to prove it out completely, except the useless, meaningless walk. Only uselessness is empty enough for the presence of so many uses, and only through uselessness can the ideal walk come into the sum total of its uses. Only uselessness can allow the walk to be totally itself.
I hope you are now, if you were not before, ready to agree with me that the greatest wrong that can be done a poem is to substitute a known part for an unknown whole and that the choice to be made is the freedom of nothingness: that our experience of poetry is least injured when we accept it as useless, meaningless, and non-rational.
Besides the actual reading in class of many poems, I would suggest you do two things: first, while teaching everything you can and keeping free of it, teach that poetry is a mode of discourse that differs from logical exposition. It is the mode I spoke of earlier that can reconcile opposites into a "real" world both concrete and universal. Teach that. Teach the distinction.
Second, I would suggest you teach that poetry leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed. Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterwards have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of over-simplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life. Poetry is a verbal means to a non-verbal source. It is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization. Its knowledges are all negative and, therefore, more positive than any knowledge. Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.
SOURCE: "The New Transcendentalism: The Visionary Strain in Merwin, Ashbery, and Ammons," in Chicago Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Winter, 1973, pp. 25-43.
[Bloom is one of the most prominent contemporary American critics and literary theorists. In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), he formulated a controversial theory of literary creation called revisionism. Influenced strongly by Freudian theory, which states that "all men unconsciously wish to beget themselves, to be their own fathers," Bloom believes that all poets are subject to the influence of earlier poets and that, to develop their own voice, they attempt to overcome this influence through a process of misreading. By misreading, he means a deliberate, personal revision of what has been said by another so that it conforms to one's own vision. In this way the poet creates a singular voice, overcoming the fear of being inferior to poetic predecessors. In addition to his theoretical work, Bloom is one of the foremost authorities onEnglish Romantic poetry and has written widely on the influences of Romanticism in contemporary literature. Here, Bloom, who was a prominent early supporter of Ammons, calls upon his theory of the anxiety of influence to help explain the development of Ammons's poetic voice within the American poetic tradition established by the nineteenth-century literary figure Ralph Waldo Emerson.]
In turning to A. R. Ammons, the wisest and I prophesy most enduring poet of his generation, we confront the most direct Emersonian in American poetry since Frost. For an account of Ammons' work from its origins to the lyrics of Uplands (1970) and Briefings (1971), I refer to my book, The Ringers in the Tower (1971). Here I wish to describe the great achievement of the latest Ammons, as gathered in the large Collected Poems (1972), particularly three long poems: "Essay on Poetics," "Extremes and Moderations," "Hibernaculum," but also two crucial recent lyrics.
The "Essay on Poetics" begins by giving us Ammons' central signature, the process by which he has made a cosmos:
Take in a lyric information totally processed, interpenetrated into wholeness where a bit is a bit, a string a string, a cluster a cluster, everything beefing up and verging out for that point in the periphery where salience bends into curve and all saliences bend to the same angle of curve and curve becomes curve, one curve, the whole curve: that is information actual at every point but taking on itself at every point the emanation of curvature, of meaning, all the way into the high recognition of wholeness, that synthesis, feeling, aroused, controlled, and released …
Ammons' "periphery" is at once the "circumference" of Emerson and Dickinson, and also the nerve-ending of the quester who goes out upon circumference. Ammons' "salience" is the further projecting or outleaping from the longest periphery that the seer has attained. That makes Ammons' "salience" his equivalent of the Pound-Williams "image" or the Stevensian "solar single,/ Man-sun, man-moon, man-earth, man-ocean." Far back, but indubitably the starting-place, Ammons' "Essay on Poetics" touches Whitman's 1855 "Preface" and Whitman's fecund ground, Emerson's "The Poet," a prose rhapsody mostly of 1842. Ammons expounds a "science" that now seems curious, but Emerson called it "true science." More than Whitman, or even Thoreau or Dickinson or Frost, Ammons is the Poet that Emerson prophesied as necessary for America:
… For through that better perception he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing or metamorphosis; perceives that thought is multiform; that within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend into a higher form; and following with his eyes the life, uses the forms which express that life, and so his speech flows with the flowing of nature. All the facts of the animal economy, sex, nutriment, gestation, birth, growth, are symbols of the passage of the world into the soul of man, to suffer there a change and reappear a new and higher fact. He uses forms according to the life, and not according to the form. This is true science. The poet alone knows astronomy, chemistry, vegetation and animation, for he does not stop at these facts, but employs them as signs. He knows why the plain or meadow of space was strown with these flowers we call suns and moons and stars; why the great deep is adorned with animals, with men, and gods; for in every word he speaks he rides on them as the horses of thought.
As in "Tintern Abbey," standing closer to things is to see into their life, to see process and not particulars. But it is not Wordsworthian nor even neo-Platonic to possess a speech that is magic, to speak words that are themselves the metamorphosis. This violent Idealism is Emerson's Transcendental science, a knowing too impatient for the disciplines of mysticism, let alone rational dialectic. To read Emerson's "The Poet" side-by-side with any British Romantic on poetry, except Blake, is to see how peculiar the Emersonian wildness is. Only a step away and Emerson will identify a true poet's words with Necessity, as though nature's absolute confounding of our faculties simultaneously could make us skeptics and scientists affirming an inevitable insight. Emerson, here as so often, seems to break down the humanly needful distinctions between incoherence and coherence, relying upon his tone to persuade us of an intelligibility not wholly present. Ammons, like any strong poet, handles influence by misprision. His Emersonianism is so striking and plausible a twisting askew of that heritage as to raise again the labyrinthine issue of what poetic influence is, and how it works.
To talk about a poem by Ammons in terms of Emerson or Whitman is to invoke what one might term the Human Analogue, as opposed to Coleridge's Organic Analogue. No poem rejoices in its own solitary inscape, any more than we can do so. We have to be talked about in terms of other people, for no more than a poem is, can we be "about" ourselves. To say that a poem is about itself is killing, but to say it is about another poem is to go out into the world where we live. We idealize about ourselves when we isolate ourselves, just as poets deceive themselves by idealizing what they assert to be their poems' true subjects. The actual subjects move towards the anxiety of influence, and now frequently are that anxiety. But a deeper apparent digression begins to loom here, even as I attempt to relate the peripheries and saliences of Ammons to the great circumference of his ancestors.
Reductively, the anxiety of influence is the fear of death, and a poet's vision of immortality includes seeing himself free of all influence. Perhaps sexual jealousy, a closely related anxiety, also reduces to the fear of death, or of the ultimate tyranny of space and time, since influence-anxiety is related to our horror of space and time as a dungeon, as the danger of domination by the Not-Me. Anxiety of influence is due then partly to fear of the natural body, yet poetry is written by the natural man who is one with the body. Blake insisted that there was also the Real Man the Imagination. Perhaps there is, but he cannot write poems, at least not yet.
The poem attempts to relieve the poet-as-poet from fears that there is not enough for him, whether of space (imaginative) or time (priority). A subject, a mode, a voice; all these lead to the question: "what, besides my death, is my own?" Poets of the Pound-Williams school, more than most contemporary poets, scoff at the notion of an anxiety of influence, believing as they think they do that a poem is a machine made out of words. Perhaps, but mostly in the sense that we, alas, appear to be machines made out of words, for poems actually are closer-to—as Stevens said—men made up out of worlds. Men make poems as Dr. Frankenstein made his daemon, and poems too acquire the disorders of the human. The people in poems do not have fathers, but the poems do.
Ammons … is aware of all this, for strong poets become strong by meeting the anxiety of influence, not by evading it. Poets adept at forgetting their ancestry write very forgettable poems. Ammons' "Essay on Poetics" swerves away from Emerson by the exercise of a variety of revisionary ratios, cunningly set against mere repetition:
the very first actions of contact with an ocean say ocean over and over: read a few lines along the periphery of any of the truly great and the knowledge delineates an open shore:
what is to be gained from the immortal person except the experience of ocean: take any line as skiff, break the breakers, and go out into the landless, orientationless, but perfectly contained, try
the suasions, brief dips and rises, and the general circulations, the wind, the abundant reductions, stars, and the experience is obtained: but rivers, brooks, and trickles have their uses and
special joys and achieve, in their identities, difficult absoluteness but will you say, what of the content—why they are all made of water but will you, because of the confusion, bring me front center as
a mere mist or vapor …
This is the faith of Emersonian Self-Reliance, yet severely mitigated by the consciousness of latecoming. At the close of the poem, Ammons attains a majestic bleakness not wholly compatible with this apparent humility:
… along the periphery of integrations, then, is an exposure to demons, thralls, witcheries, the maelstrom black of possibility, costly, chancy, lethal, open: so I am not so much
arguing with the organic school as shifting true organisms from the already organized to the bleak periphery of possibility, an area transcendental only by its bottomless entropy …
The later Ammons writes out of a vision "transcendental only by its bottomless entropy," yet still Emersonian, though this is the later Emerson of The Conduct of Life, precursor of Stevens in The Rock and Frost throughout In The Clearing. "Extremes and Moderations" is Ammons' major achievement in the long poem, written in "the flow-breaking four-liner", starting out in an audacious transcendentalism and modulating into the prophetic voice Ammons rarely seeks, yet always attains at the seeking:
This is the extreme of which Ammons' earlier and masterly lyric, "The City Limits," was the moderation. By "extremes" Ammons signifies what Emerson's circle called the Newness, onsets of transcendental influx. "Moderations" are the rescues of these evaded furies that Ammons attempts for the poetry of life, while carefully distinguishing even the extremes from mere phantasmagorias: … that there should have been possibilities enough to include all that has occurred is beyond belief, an extreme the strictures and disciplines of which prevent loose-flowing phantasmagoria …
Though the poem concludes in a moving ecological outrage, an outrage the poet appears to believe is his theme, its concerns hover where Ammons' obsessions always congregate, his resistance to his own transcendental experience. This resistance is made, as all constant readers of Ammons learn, in the name of a precarious naturalism, but the concealed undercurrent is always the sense of an earlier bafflement of vision, a failure to have attained a longed-for unity with an Absolute. The latest Ammons rarely makes reference to this spent seership, but the old longing beautifully haunts all of the difficult recent radiances. Here is a typical late lyric, "Day," manifesting again the extraordinary and wholly deceptive ease that Ammons has won for himself, an ease of mode and not of spirit, which continues to carry an exemplary burden of torment:
On a cold late September morning, wider than sky-wide discs of lit-shale clouds skim the hills, crescents, chords of sunlight now and then fracturing the long peripheries: the crow flies silent, on course but destinationless, floating: hurry, hurry, the running light says, while anything remains.
The mode goes back through Dickinson to Emerson, and is anything but the Pound-Williams "machine made out of words" that Hugh Kenner describes the praises in his crucially polemical The Pound Era. "The long peripheries," for Ammons, are identical with poems, or rather with what he would like his poems to be, outermost perceptions within precise boundaries, or literally "carryings-over" from the eye's tyranny to the relative freedom of a personally achieved idiom. What now distinguishes a lyric like "Day" from the characteristic earlier work in the Ammons canon is the urgency of what another late long poem, "Hibernaculum," calls "a staying change," this seer's response to our current time-of-transition from our recent confusions to whatever is coming upon us: "I think we are here to give back our possessions before/ they are taken away." This is the motto preceding an immense intimation of another Newness:
Contrast to this an equal superb Emersonian epiphany:
Last night the moon rose behind four distinct pine-tree tops in the distant woods and the night at ten was so bright that I walked abroad. But the sublime light of night is unsatisfying, provoking; it astonishes but explains not. Its charm floats, dances, disappears, comes and goes, but palls in five minutes after you have left the house. Come out of your warm, angular house, resounding with few voices, into the chill, grand, instantaneous night, with such a Presence as a full moon in the clouds, and you are struck with poetic wonder. In the instant you leave far behind all human relations, wife, mother and child, and live only with savages—water, air, light, carbon, lime, and granite…. I become a moist, cold element. 'Nature grows over me.' Frogs pipe; waters far off tinkle; dry leaves hiss; grass bends and rustles, and I have died out of the human world and come to feel a strange, cold, aqueous, terraqueous, aerial, ethereal sympathy and existence. I sow the sun and moon for seeds.
Emerson and Ammons share a nature that on the level of experience or confrontation cannot be humanized. Yet they share also a Transcendental belief that one can come to unity, at least in the pure good of theory. Their common tone is a curious chill, a tang of other-than-human relationship to an Oversoul or Overall that is not nature, yet breaks through into nature. Like Emerson, its founder, Ammons is a poet of the American Sublime, and a residue of this primordial strength abides in all of his work.
Collected Poems 1951-1971 closes with a magnificent poem that is Ammons overt apologia, and I will close this essay by giving the poem entire, and then attempting a defining observation upon its place in the tradition of American poetry. Here is "The Arc Inside and Out":
If, whittler and dumper, gross carver into the shadiest curvings, I took branch and meat from the stalk of life, threw away the monies of the treasured, treasurable mind, cleaved memory free of the instant, if I got right down
shucking off periphery after periphery to the glassy vague gray parabolas and swoops of unnailable perception, would I begin to improve the purity, would I essentialize out the distilled form, the glitter-stone that whether the world comes or goes clicks gleams and chinks of truth self-making, never to be shuttered, the face-brilliant core stone: or if I, amasser, heap shoveler, depth pumper, took in all springs and oceans, paramoecia and moons, massive buttes and summit slants, rooted trunks and leafages, anthologies of wise words, schemata, all grasses (including the tidal Spartinas, marginal, salty broadsweeps) would I finally come on a suasion, large, fully-informed, restful scape, turning back in on itself, its periphery enclosing our system with its bright dot and allowing in nonparlant quantities at the edge void, void, and void, would I then feel plenitude brought to center and extent, a sweet easing away of all edge, evil, and surprise: these two ways to dream! dreaming them's the bumfuzzlement-the impoverished diamond, the heterogeneous abundance starved into oneness: ultimately, either way, which is our peace, the little arc-line appears, inside which is nothing, outside which is nothing-however big, nothing beyond: however small, nothing within: neither way to go's to stay, stay here, the apple an apple with its own hue or streak, the drink of water, the drink, the falling into sleep, restfully ever the falling into sleep, dream, dream, and every morning the sun comes, the sun.
The "arc" here, like Dickinson's "Circumference", ultimately derives from Emerson's subtle essay, Circles:
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning…. The natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations which apprise us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed but sliding … The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle….
Ammons' "little arc-line" is both his Blakean Minute Particular or vision that cannot be further reduced, and his Emersonian "new circle" or vision that cannot be further expanded. He begins his poem by a vehement reduction to "the face-brilliant core stone" and proceeds by an equally vehement expansion to a "suasion, large, fully-informed." Both reduction and expansion are lovingly dismissed as rival dreamings. This poet's reality, still transcendent, is the arc-line, at once peripheral and salient, a particular apple or a particular gulp of water, that itself is dream-inducing, but this is a dream of Whitman's or Steven's colossal sun, of a reality so immediate as to carry its own transcendence. Ammons remains, somewhat despite himself, the least spent of our seers.
SOURCE: An interview in Diacritics, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 47-53.
[In the following excerpt, Ammons discusses his ideas about poetry.]
[Grossvogel]: You seem to be suspicious of mentalisms. In your poem "Uh, Philosophy," isn't that "uh" a disclaimer?
[Ammons]: Yes. At the first level of the critical I tend to think of the discursive as assuming limits which then prevent it ever from encompassing the work that is before it. So I always think of that mode as a lesser mode than the imaginative. There is nothing new about that; most people grant it, I believe. Along the same lines as when Laotse says that nothing that can be said in words is worth saying. He means, I think that by the time we have embodied into limitation any sort of reality, it has limited itself out of the total adumbration. It is true that I use the discursive in my work a good deal, but always as a character in a play: I don't particularly care what I say; I care only that the dramatic placing of the thought is accurate in the piece as if it were a stage play. So and so enters from the left and says his thing, and it either fits in and promotes the dramatic action, or it doesn't. Whether or not it is literally true is of little interest to me because I don't think that the truth can be arrived at in that mode; but I do believe a character can represent that truth.
Let me quibble with you, nevertheless. My sense of your chronology is that in the beginning you were more dependent on specific myths or stories; this may be inaccurate.
No, I think it's accurate.
If it is accurate, would you not agree that a myth is already, as opposed to the freedom of pure poetry, the encapsulation of an idea?
No, I don't think so. I think that a narrative provides the configuration from which many ideas may derive. In some short poems, I tell a little story. The story is quite plain; it's the first level of apprehension of the poem, but it becomes mythic in what it might suggest. It can suggest any number of facets. Consequently, it is not formulable into a concept. In other words, I think the narrative is a body in motion and the concept is of a different order. I can give you a good example, a little poem called "Mountain Talk." You may know it.
I was very much sensitized to your mountains by Harold Bloom who makes a big thing of them—mountains out of mountains.
It tells a very simple story. Actually the poem investigates the feelings that might be said to surround certain objects. A person is walking along a dusty highroad. What does a dusty highroad mean? It's almost in a religious realm—you know, dust, height, abstraction, separation from the landscape, in a sense of perhaps being lost in it. And then, the moment of recognition when the person who is walking along becomes aware of a presence near him and he turns and it is not something that is wandering at all. It's a mountain that is always there. It occupies a single position and, as the poem says, it retains a single prospect. So the narrative then becomes the play of these two possibilities, of being stable and of occupying a massive view about things that is unalterable; or being tiny enough to go up and down pathways, to become lost. And the speaker finally prefers that mobility, that changeability, to occupying a single space. Now, it seems to me that the center of the poem is not a concept but a polarity; something like the two separate parts of a metaphor.
When you write that poem, you're a poet, but when you talk about that poem you're a critic.
And what dissatisfies you, presumably, in any dialogue of this kind, is that you're being forced out of your true role.
I just feel incomplete.
You are being forced to do what you may legitimately not want to do. The poem stands as the totality of your statement.
There is a lovely thing in, of all people, Carlyle, where he describes our present age beautifully—you know, bombed out—but, he says, we still have action left. Well that's exactly the mode I try to jump into; it's as if you were reading a newspaper—"I was walking along a dusty highroad…." You get to that ordinary level of things and, in a normal, almost journalistic way, you go into action, things happen, and then they end. Meanwhile they describe a curvature of some sort that's either narrative, or myth or structure or whatever, but it is, it exists and is no longer susceptible to analysis, to destruction by analysis or to further creation by analysis. It's there. It was just something that happened and it was a series of actions and somehow those actions were so interrelated that they described a synthesis, a curvature of sentences; and that is the myth, or whatever, lying at the center of the imagination. It's just there; it doesn't do anything.
When you say "myth," what you mean seems to be the synthesis effected by the poem.
Right. The essential configuration. That structure upon which all the meanings depend.
But I was thinking of an evolution in your poetry that goes from a more specific fabulation to a much freer (if I may use the word) verse.
I think you're right.
In that case, if we subtract from the earlier verse the freer verse of your later period, there is a residual armature that I wanted to call "myth"—a more formal way of showing; not a simple statement, but a relatively learned structure drawing on oriental or Indian philosophies, or folktales. And it seems to me that all this raises a more fundamental question about the legitimacy of criticism. Your primary responsibility is that of the poet; but what about the rest of us, the teachers or those whose function is to provide a bridge to your poetry, for those who may not know it, or who may not know how to get to it? Is it a legitimate function? I understand to what extent your suspicion of the critical function determines that it is an illegitimate exercise. But what about the possibility of teaching poetry in the classroom? My first caution in a poetry class is that we are going to do the one thing we should not be doing with a poem. We are going to analyze it, that is to say we are going to destroy it. But then I go ahead and do it anyway. My rationale is that it is a necessary sort of destruction. I am hopeful that the student will be able to effect his own syntheses later on.
My feeling is that the critical function, at least at the lower level about which we were speaking earlier, engages the intelligence primarily as a conceptual function and I take that to be a very small part of a possible human response—that is, the physiological, the emotional, the visceral, whatever, so that I distrust the conceptual in that it separates out and over-emphasizes one particular function of the human organism. I think that what is gained at the cost of that separation is clarity, and to the extent that criticism can offer clear opinions, opinions obviously superior to some other set of opinions, it does a great service to the poet and everybody else. But here again, as Edmund Burke says, the clear idea is another name for a little idea. Now this is not to say that there cannot be large critical ideas. It's just to say that the critical idea itself illuminates only a part of the work of art at a time. It may be that, seriatim, the critic would get around the whole periphery. But there would never be any one moment when the poem was apprehended in its entirety.
I can't help feeling that you are describing a bad critic.
Well, I don't know. All I'm saying is that criticism does not enable you to embrace the whole work of art at an instant—a moment of sudden coalescence—a tripping of the feeling when the whole being is suddenly imbued with a heightened energy and a feeling of understanding, though its an understanding of seeing into, or through. The mind can exist in all kinds of ways. It can be too rigid, it can be loose to the point of lunacy, it can be disoriented, disconcerted, and so on. This suggests that there may be some desirable state that the mind could be in, that might vary from culture to culture, but that might be substantially the same in any given culture. I think this would apply also to the whole body. The entire body is functioning, perhaps at a slightly stepped-up rate, and all the energy is available, and it is directed, as in coitus for example; but also in a focusing of the attention when the mind is fully awake, fully focused and penetrating (if I may get back to coitus) and realizes the experience that is to be shared. That might be what we would calla desirable state of being. It seems to me that in teaching, beginning with images, or rhythms, perhaps going through several motions, situations or strategies within the poem, one might gradually be lifting the student into the kind of comprehensive attention that would enable him to move into a desirable state of being, where there is a complicated, free (though directed) functioning of his energy. I think that the poem is an image of this complex activity. And not only the poem: I think this is true of any work of art.
Any art form that enables its beholder or participant to rehearse an essential moment of the human condition?
To rehearse, to alert, to freshen, to awaken the energies, not to lunacy and meaningless motion, but to concentration and focus. That is the desirable state to which art should bring you, and to the extent that the poem becomes an image of this, and a generator of it, it is a desirable thing. No computer, no bank of computers, can keep track of the physiological events that must occur for that state of being to be reached. So dozens of sciences have as their objective an analysis of one part of this complicated process. I think that the poem, or the work of art, has underneath it this entire physiology. I believe it is so complicated that you cannot say anything clear about it except about a small part of it. Through the concatenation of such clarifications one can heighten one's own attention so that by exposure to the thing itself, one comes into a sense of coordination with the work of art. Ultimately there is no value to this except the experience of having been there and felt the heightened focus and the heightened release of energy. Once again I think that the whole thing is very close to the experience of coitus. I think that's one reason why the University cannot get closer to the imaginative moment because it's a little bit embarrassing to be that close to coitus; it's safer to talk about it than to be in it. Take a boy and a girl, they see each other. It's like the first line of a poem. It either sets up an immediate attraction so you want to know more, or it doesn't. If the attraction is there, what happens? The two people manage somehow to get close to each other and what happens next?—not silence but an outbreak of dialogue whereby they try to sense where the other person is, with the anticipation, I believe, that whatever comes of this experience will be deepened, will be colored and made more beautiful by whatever they do know, which apparently cannot be shared in any other way, except through dialogue, through conversation and through doing things together. A poem is just that way; it begins by talking; that's all it does—talk. Because as the two people come closer and closer together, and—say everything is going fine—and the thing is consummated, speech begins to fail and finally there's not much more than a grunt. The reaction to a poem that is especially effective is just that—a grunt. I think the parallel is just too close to be dismissed. Now when the poem starts to take on radial completion, that is to say that, whatever the structure might be, it is now complete, you are left in a state of silence. You now know where all the motions are—you know all the words, you know all the images, you are in it, and you are almost without words, but you're still able, through that focus, to meditate, to contemplate, to move deeper into the poem and sometimes far beyond the poem. But the most meaningful thing happens at the non-verbal level. The motions are all reconciled when motion ends.
Does that mean that we are supposed to leave out of all conversation talk about poetry?
No, not at all. Certain levels are discussable. That is what bothers me so much about some of the French critics, as I understand them. They have arrived at the point where there is no text. It's impossible that there should have been an author; it's inconceivable that there could be an audience. Now it just won't work, because human life and human organisms go right on. Maybe not precisely in the same way, but generally in the same way. And if you locate meaning there, then it's idle, it's sophistry to take things apart until nothing means anything at all.
Since you have introduced French critics …
… about whom I know little …
… let me ask you about something that one of them has said. I am thinking of Mauron, who practiced what he termed "psychocriticism." In reading poetry (and we should think of critics like Mauron as people who enjoy reading poetry), he discovers what he calls obsessive images, something the poet may not have been aware of.
Why not? I'm aware of obsessive images in my poems. I can see how the poet might not know at first because the images have not had a sufficient chance to recur, but surely after he has written for a few years I would think that it would start to be very plain to him.
It is possible that the individual does not necessarily hear himself as accurately as an outsider hears him. His inner landscape may be more accurate as he perceives it …
But he may not be able to translate it as well?
No. I mean he might not be able to see it in exactly the same way, or from exactly the same perspective, as an outsider.
He would see it in a different way.
Right. He sees it by virtue of being in it. The critic, being outside, allows no more than another view of the forest. But isn't that important? Or is it irrelevant?
It's important. It's finally not very interesting to me, but I can see how it might be to someone else.
Tell me why it isn't very interesting to you.
Well because here again, I think that a person and a poem are very close images of one another. I've never been psychoanalyzed but I understand that you can go along for eight or ten years and at a certain point you quit, but you never come to that very deep point where you can reach absolute formulation and say "this is I, and this is the reason I am I." What do the French critics ultimately hope to arrive at through psychoanalysis, structuralism, or whatever? What is the energy behind the effort?
I have a feeling that their answer would be similar to yours when I asked you about poetry. Their interests are just postures of the mind. I don't think they claim that they are arriving at an ultimate truth or even an ultimate object. They are merely interested, as is the poet, in exploring the object of their respective attentions.
That makes the critics' attention a little more provisional than that of the poet who, though he's involved in mortality and time—as everyone else—has in his imaginative work a stabilizing center. The work of art is complete, however unexhausted. Works of art are complete moments that stop. I don't think that the critic would be satisfied to say, "Here is another aspect of the systems which we already have going: now let's see how we can sort it out and move forward."
Of course, the critic cannot live within a closure in the same way as the poet does within the completeness—I believe you use the image of the orb—of his poem. The critic lives in a speculative realm which, by definition, cannot be closed. But even though you know when the poem is finished, you also know that the poetic investigation continues, and there is a first similarity between the critic, any critic, and the poet. But the modern French critic in particular confronts a poetry that is, generally, less storying than is a good deal of English and American poetry. He is therefore less likely to formulate final truths or ideas about it. Rimbaud moves from storying poems to a free kind of discourse that tells only very dimly a discernible story. This kind of poem really defies intellective interpretation or analysis at the level of ideas. As for your detecting a diffidence when these critics talk about the text, or the text's author, you are perfectly right: you distrust the critic in what he might leave unsaid about the poem: many modern French critics distrust the very act of saying. But they are not really the critics I would like to talk about. I would like to know more specifically, about the critics who have written about your own work. As a critic, I would like to know how an author feels about the criticism he elicits. In his book Alone with America, Richard Howard quotes a line of yours, "Teach me, father: behold one whose fears are the harnessed mares of his going! " That seems to confirm two of Harold Bloom's theories about you: one about your anxiety, and one about your anxiety of influence. And this runs counter to a sense that I have of you. I do not detect the quotient of anxiety which a line like that, taken in isolation, would seem to indicate.
Well, Harold Bloom says somewhere that those who reject their poetic fathers write very forgettable poetry. I think that what he is suggesting is that there is a continuity of some kind, a continuity that moves on through the centuries and remains largely the same, but that is consequently very hungry for, and suspicious of, any novelty, or shift, or change, that it can incorporate into itself, to make itself a more adequate river of the mind. I think he means that if you do not acknowledge the river, the river can easily pass your contribution by. It seems altogether probable that anyone raised in a culture takes in, if unconsciously, much of the gesture and significance of that culture; even if he thinks he is writing counter-culture, he's writing out of the culture in order to be against it. But the culture, if you consider it as this stream, has no need greater than to step outside of itself, and see itself. In personal terms, that's what I'm talking about in that poem called "Laser" where an image or representation is seen, and the mind is then locked with it obsessively, and what the mind needs most is some other, disorganized energy that it can use to break free. And I believe cultural influence acts a little in the same way. Culture is always hungry, at the same time that it questions novelty or change.
Isn't culture many things?—first of all a language, certain rhythms, certain life rhythms? One cannot be for or against these; one can only be that culture, so defined. But can't a culture be also a self-consciousness—a thing of conscious learnings and rehearsals? I feel more comfortable with, say, an analysis that tells me about the rhythms or cadences of a Southerner as opposed to those of a Northerner. In a poem of yours, I believe it is called "Mansion," you write that when the time comes for you to cede yourself you choose the wind, and the wind says that it is glad because it needs all the body it can get to show its motions with. That seems to be a good image for the way in which a non-self-conscious culture might inform the individual. When one speaks of culture, must one not speak of these more fundamental definers of the culture? Harold Bloom and Hyatt Waggoner see you writing in the lineage of Emerson. Such an influence would be more than your native culture speaking through you—it would be the cultural acquisition of a culture, what I was calling a self-consciousness. When Bloom analyzes your "anxiety of influence, " I feel that he is placing you within such a more formal concept of culture in order to make you part of an historical, evolutionary process. And I wonder whether he is on safe ground, speaking of a specific cultural influence, like Emerson, or the "visionary" sense that is supposed to be yours, just as it is supposed to have been (or maybe because it is supposed to have been) that of a number of your cultural ancestors? The reason I ask this is that Ifeel this influence much less in your writing. But perhaps this is due to my ignorance.
About the "anxiety of influence," you know that Emerson is supposed to have felt that very little. I have experienced very little anxiety of that kind that I could identify—a need to come, and a fear of coming, to terms with a literary father. It is nearly impossible for me to identify closely with Emerson because he comes from Concord, and I from a rural and defeated South. You know, there are just too many wave lengths that we don't share; it's impossible for me to imagine myself belonging to any culture because of that rural South, which, in growing up, I tended to discredit religiously and intellectually, though I could not emotionally—you know, I am there, that's who I am. But that culture contained no elements, either religious or intellectual—formulable elements—that I could maintain to this moment. And it may be because I have no culture that I have not experienced what Harold Bloom talks about when he speaks of culture in the formal sense. My feeling about the anxiety of influence is that it is so generalized a theory that it could be applied to corporations or to body politics, and that it is really an introductory topic into the larger subject of hierarchy. Hierarchy would include the pantheon of which we, in the universities, are the guardians: we very carefully sort our authors; you know, Donne goes up and Shelley goes down; and then after a while we say oh, no, Shelley has been down too long, Shelley must come back up; he has been up and down so many times, that now he doesn't have to go down anymore. And we have widened our scope so that we can tolerate both Donne and Shelley at a fairly high level in our pantheon. I am convinced that this kind of sorting goes on all the time and it may be valuable: what we are trying to do is give structure and definition to our minds. I don't see anything wrong with that. But a theory that enables us to do this, such as the theory of influence, is so general that it has to be explored in any number of other ways. But I have no feeling that it should be discounted. I believe it provides very strong insights into some figures, and one of its specific applications can be literary. As to my own anxiety, my Angst, that is a different matter. I tend to think of it in a much less apocalyptic way than Bloom does. I have been fascinated by social orders of animals, baboons in particular: there is this creature called the solitary; he's a very strong baboon, but he's not quite strong enough, he thinks, or he lacks the courage, to test the dominant male in the structure—he is afraid he would be defeated. So he can't stand to live in that structure, out of pure hatred, jealousy and envy of the dominant male. So he goes off into the woods as a solitary baboon, self-exiled from the group. His deepest longing is to be back with the group. He's less safe because he's alone, where before the group might have protected him; it is a very fearful situation to be in. And I identify myself as one who has not found the group in which I feel safe, or welcomed, or by which I feel realized and expressed. Consequently, I feel that my terrors, which in my life have been at times quite severe, though not so much lately perhaps because my work has been more accepted, have as their root a secular, social structure, deriving from something situated somewhere down all of our spines, and racial experience—a sense that we do better within the compromises of the group than in the terrifying precision of being alone.
And yet your poetry is so much a close attention to the natural world that, although you have spoken somewhere about all poetry being about impermanence, I feel that in this attention to nature there is a constancy of permanence and renewal.
What would the solitary baboon amuse himself with? The people aren't there. Not the people: I mean the other baboons aren't there; nature is there, the day and the night, the things around him.
But he has been forced out there.
Forced out or self-willed.
But there is no Western tradition for baboons and there is a tradition for humans, and in particular for poets. It tells us that it is not all bad to be forced out into nature, whether by your own choice as Democritus, or by the ill will of the group, as Rousseau believed. Perhaps the gregarious virtue is, I don't know, a part of the puritan ethic?
Oh, I think it has a lot to do with it: you remember when Frost says it is not sex but grex—that we will make nearly any compromise in our sexual life in order to continue being with grex, with the group, with the society, with the body politic? We make these puritanical sacrifices all the time.
So what you are describing then is an uneasiness born of a cultural need and a cultural rejection.
I think so. Perhaps you can extend that directly into the anxiety of influence. At any rate it would be an analogy for such a theory. I myself have not experienced it in those terms. I have experienced it more in social and hierarchical terms. When Joyce exiles himself, he says that he will survive by cunning. That too reminds me of the solitary individual, who has a fury in him to go back to his own order and possess it somehow. But he cannot do that in an open way, so that he has to resort to exile, cunning, sulking, deviousness. Rather a bad set of characteristics.
Is there no virtue at all then in solitude?
Yes: one writes one's poems. And then one day, perhaps, one is astonished to find that people belonging to the order of which one does not feel a part identify with them.
Perhaps we are too much with the world and our society enforces too much this gregariousness. When a critic like Bloom says that your poems enable him to live, maybe it is there that we should look for the meaning of his words: perhaps the poem enables us in a very necessary way to rehearse our own sense of solitude. This would be a less negative way of envisioning solitude.
Yes. However negative the sources of the energy, may be, it is energy and, hopefully, imaginative energy, and can be multiplied reader by reader. It is always astonishing to me that while the relationship of author to reader is one to one, this sort of energy can be endlessly multiplied without necessarily compromising it.
It must be wonderful to be at the source of such renewal.
It is. I received a letter from a man who said that he was listless, ready to call it quits. A very lovely letter: he said he had read my book from beginning to end and he now felt that he had the energy to live and to die. That may have been a gross overstatement on his part, but I said to myself afterwards that I would never have to ask myself again why I write poems. If a man who wakes up with no energy in the morning finds himself in possession of energy, then I need no further justification.
That's also a little frightening.
Yes, it's terrifying.
But then, that is the function of art, isn't it?—if art has any function ….
That's what I would like it to do—to give people the energy to move through their lives…. I mean to contribute a small part—obviously it's a small part—of the energy needed to move through life. The source of this energy is, I believe, quite obviously a bad state of life, confusion and terror, with momentary releases and flashes, concentrations of energy and, in those moments, you get that energy onto the page and then the recipient of that energy doesn't have to share in its source, in the negative aspect of its source. He has the energy which he can put to his own use.
Art most likely serves a number of purposes. It is clearing in our social and industrial wilderness. In that desert, it is one of the last remaining genuine plants. And then, there is also what you see as the awakening and mustering of energy in coming to terms with the work of art. Those are the sources of what I would like to call a natural function. But what about the other culture, the self-conscious or acquired culture? If you acknowledged literary fathers, who would they be?
I think that Bloom is right. In American literature, it's Whitman and Emerson. But Emerson led me to the same sources that he discovered himself—to Indian and Chinese philosophy which, when I was younger, I read a good deal, finally coming to Laotse, whom I mentioned earlier. That's my philosophical source in its most complete version. So that when I look back at Emerson, Emerson looks derivative to me of certain of those oriental traditions in the same way as I am derivative of them. In an immediate sense, my forebears are Whitman and Emerson, but in a larger sense my source is the same as theirs.
I have the feeling that as one moves into your later poems, this influence is progressively less important as the influence of nature is progressively more important.
Yes, I think that is correct. I identify civilization (the city) with definition, as against the kind of center-and-periphery, closed-openness that I identify with nature. That's why I'm not in the city; that's why I am not an urban person. The city represents to me the artificial, the limited, the defined, the stalled, though obviously the city changes. I often think the city represents the confrontation of the artificial in man with the natural process and I tend to think that the natural process produced everything—including the city.
The problem is that, even though secreted by the human mind, the city has secreted in turn such a thick overlay that it now seems to determine all further secretions of the mind. Still, the human race appears to endure, somehow. Since I am in such a rashly optimistic mood, let me suggest another theory of history, one which might be opposed to the apocalyptic view. It's the laundry list theory, the view that everything is lustered by time. The belief that if you took a laundry list written in the days of Henry IV, something that was simply functional in the fourteenth or fifteenth century—a completely dismissible object—would now be informed with a density of time and the careful scrutiny that we would give it, since we are always looking back for our own traces in what has endured as long or longer than we have. If that is a possible interpretation of history, then everything is in the process of becoming better, if you will only give it time.
I think I understand the idea: but I have another view of history that means more to me. I have written a little poem about it which I have never published, whose last line is "history is a blank." Whatever you see when you look out of the window at any particular moment is history—is the truest history surviving into the immediate moment. The whole history of the planet earth is in your body at this moment, and so on. So that I don't have to structure it into time periods. Perhaps this is another reason why I do not have problems with the anxiety of influence, because I believe that what is here now, at this moment, is the truest version of history that we will ever know. Consequently, I have as much right to enter into it with all the innocence of immediacy as anyone else possibly ever could.
I understand that history can never exist for anyone except through the percipient's view of it. But history yields its own precipitations regardless of whether or not there is a percipient: when the perceiving consciousness becomes aware of those precipitations, is it not affected by them, is it not in some way altered? Is not an alteration due to the thing that was a working of the historical process?
You may remember my rather long "Extremes and Moderations." At one point I'm addressing the city directly and the poem says that the cities' work and the cities' artifice confront the artifice in capital letters—that is, God's creation. And then it says
beyond the scheduled consummation, nothing's to be recalled: there is memory enough in the rock, unscriptured history in the wind, sufficient identity in the curve of the valley….
And what I mean is that if you see the shape of the valley, it's there, immediate in this moment. But in that shape is the entire history of its coming there.
You have cosmic sense of history—the thundering course of the planets and the molecules to which they gave birth …
Some of that. But I also think of the human parallel. Take language: language is the same kind of history as survival. In the case of language, any discontinuity between its beginning and its present would interfere with our use of it now.
We may not be so very far apart. It is just that you appear to focus on a presentness which you inform with the density of history. Your sense of the archeology of language is after all the sense of an object that was. Perhaps that's what a poetic sense of language is—an awe of its resonance in time as well as in space. What does a poet do? Does he pay more attention to the resonances of a language or to the people that give it rise? I ask you that question because I do not find many people in your poetry. In a review of your selected poems by Reed Whitte-more—a review that did not particularly turn me on—I found, nevertheless, something that corresponds to a feeling that I too have about your writings. Whittemore says that although you are very good with objects, and sometimes even with people, he finds that you are "weaker on people. " Would your baboon theory shed any light on this?
I think it would, yes …
Nature is really nature in your poems. One of the significant differences between you and the romantic poets is that you do not anthropomorphize nature.
I use the pathetic fallacy quite a bit, but always quite deliberately, with full knowledge of what I'm doing. There is probably some psychological explanation that is better than the baboon theory, or the hierarchy thing. I have to insist though that I am a human being and that the feelings I experience, I am somewhat surprised to find, are shared by other human beings: so that though you say I write about nature, I might insist that I write about nothing at all except human nature. I may not be able to form characters or vessels of human nature in poems. But that doesn't eliminate human nature.
Yours is a humane poetry. It is simply that its humanity is contained mainly in your reaction to the world of nature.
It's much cooler to find the objective correlative in that which does not answer back—nature—rather than in the furies and anxieties, jealousies, envies and whatever else a human correlative would contain. I take this to be the rightful province of the novelist; although great poets are able to do it, too. I don't know anything about nature. I am not a dislocated part of anything you call nature. I am a human being who has entered into certain kinds of expressive relationships with the external world. And while I may not have been able to manage those expressions as expressions by other human beings, they are the elements of human nature.
In your first "Carolina Said Song," you take a character that may be indeed, as you say, a member of your family and you have her talk about an incident that occurred; but you seem to be interested in relating the incident mainly because the richness of the language contrives a mood, rather than in the interpersonal developments that one might have stressed.
In the other "Said Song," I think it was the same stimulus that awakened my attention to that particular experience in which a man calms a swarm of bees that could represent chaos, disorder or whatever, and reduces them to a perfectly manageable order so he could put them on a limb over his shoulder and take them home. Just that motion from the chaotic to the ordered is a complete motion to me.
And yet I would be willing to bet anything that the source of this abstract notion was a real man you met, an actual event that occurred in your life.
Oh yes, it's an actual fact. That's as nearly as I could reproduce the man's speech. It's not my poem. These are things that I remembered—tried to remember—as they were being said. If only we had someone to record the poems that are being said every day, it would be marvelous.
I would like to get back for a moment to your way of masking the human in your poetry. In your poem "Nelly Myers," the heroine turns out not to be a girl, the mother turns out not to be a mother—these immediate sources of a possible tenderness are once again hidden, at least at the surface. But in a poem like "Coon Song," there is an outburst of real anger. What triggers that sort of thing?
I think that wherever there is energy, it is as likely to be violent energy as anything else. Energy is violent. Under the proper controls and uses, it is beautiful; and only when it is mismanaged, is it destructive. So if you're saying, under my quiet exterior, is there a tiny little volcano, the answer is yes. Sure.
SOURCE: "The Poetry of A. R. Ammons: Some Notes and Reflections," in Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23, Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 285-93.
[An American educator and critic, Waggoner was known for his expertise in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. His writings also include American Poets from the Puritans to the Present (1968) and American Visionary Poetry (1982). In the following excerpt, Waggoner compares and contrasts Ammons's poetry to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson.]
What follows is simply some of the thoughts, and a few reflections on those thoughts, that have come to me as I have read through seven volumes of [Ammons'] poetry, the product of something more than a decade of writing. I do not own, am not near a library that contains, and so have not seen Ammons' first volume, Ommateum (1955), an omission which must qualify anything I may say about Ammons' development.
I write these notes seated in a mountain meadow, facing north towards a spruce woods fringed with poplar and balsam fir, the short-lived forward units of the woods as it edges across an unused pasture beyond the meadow. I have been watching the woods take over the pasture for more than thirty years now but have seen no movement. All I know is that the woods are a hundred or so feet closer to engulfing the spot where I sit and the house behind me than they used to be, and from that I can deduce that they are coming toward us all the time, moving in stillness.
So much for the permanencies of nature. I find this helping me to understand and respond to a good deal of Ammons' poetry, in which nature is the subject, the exemplum, or the setting of a good many of the best passages and poems.
Ammons is a visionary poet in the Neoplatonic tradition introduced and best represented in our (American) poetry by Emerson. I would guess that he has read a good deal of Emerson and pondered much on what he has read. Maybe not. Maybe he has read only a little and gotten all his Emersonianism from that little, working out for himself, as Emerson did, the consequences of a few major ideas about the relations of the Many and the One. Or maybe it has come to him at second and third hand, through Pound and Williams, Whitman and Frost, all of whom make their appearance in his poetry. It is clear at least though that he has read "Brahma"—which could have been sufficient for the right kind of mind—for he alludes to it and paraphrases it in "What This Mode of Motion Said" in Expressions of Sea Level. Emerson: "When me they fly, I am the wings"; Ammons: "I am the wings when you me fly"; Emerson: "I am the doubter and the doubt"; Ammons:
Some other "Emersonianisms" in the poetry. (This could be a full-length article itself. It would have to treat important poems in each of the seven volumes I have read. [In a footnote, the critic adds: For such a study, "Hibernaculum" in the new Collected Poems would be particularly important. In it Emerson is mentioned by name and linked with Plotinus in a passage that seems to me to say in effect, This is the philosophic tradition that means the most to me. Some of the Emersonianisms are jocular, as when Ammons finds in Shakespeare the same virtues and same defect that Emerson had found, then adds that he is cheered by this because "I can't reconcile the one with the many either."]) "Raft," the opening poem in Expressions of Sea Level, a somewhat self-consciously Romantic poem in which the sought-for unity with nature—or with the undefinable Reason behind nature—is distanced by a tone of playful make-believe, is central Emerson: let go, yield, be blown by the winds of spirit. Spiritus: breath, wind. The Muse, the deeper self, the Holy Spirit. The boy on the circular raft is swept out to sea by the tides to where the winds control his motion toward the east, the rising sun. Neoplatonists: sun, source of light, life, and goodness; emanation. Christian Neoplationists: sun = Son…. The Romantic sea-voyage; the "innocent eye" of the child. Several poems in the same volume make explicit what "Raft" implies by the story it tells. For instance, "Guide": "the wind that is my guide said this"; and "Mansion":
The word soul can be used only in actual or implied quotation marks by contemporary poets. Since Ammons takes what the word refers to very seriously, he seldom uses it: there is nothing "so-called" about spirit in his work. Like Emerson, he is ambiguous about what he refuses to name. Emerson usually preferred to define the "Over-Soul," "World-Soul," "The Spirit," "The Real" in negative terms, as he does in the opening of the essay on the subject, following the long tradition of "negative theology." He was surer about Immanence than about Transcendence: "A light from within or from behind," with the ambiguity kept. Only in "Circles," in the early essays, does he drop the subjective-objective ambiguity and attribute unqualified Transcendence to the One: "the eternal generator of circles," that is, the Creator of the circles of physical and spiritual reality. Ammons' poetry keeps both Emerson's theoretic ambiguity and the intensity of Emerson's search for vision.
Ammons has a mind, too good a mind to be content with the kinds of superficial Romanticism that are becoming fashionable in contemporary poetry. I would like to call him a philosophical poet—except that description might turn away some of those who should read him, and except also that the phrase is in part intrinsically misleading in its suggestion that he deals principally in abstractions. He deals with the perfectly concrete felt motions and emotions of the particular self he is and, like Emerson again, looks for and often sees "Correspondences" between these motions and those of animate and inanimate nature, both nature-as-observed (winds, tides, seeds, birds) and nature-as-known-about (the chemistry of digestion, entropy).
The title poem of Corsons Inlet is such a philosophical poem, treating the relations and claims of logic and vision, order created and order discovered, being and becoming, art and nature. Rejecting any "finality of vision," it still prefers the risk of vision to any "easy victory" in "narrow orders, limited tightness." The poet's task is to try to "fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder," the task Emerson set before the poet in "Merlin" and "Bacchus." I find significance in the fact that the poem was first entitled "A Nature Walk." If there is no order discoverable in nature, the order of art is a contrivance without noetic value. Ammons, like his Romantic and Transcendental poetic forebears, is not content to make pretty, or even interesting because intricately fashioned, poems. "Corsons Inlet" seems to me at once one of the finest and one of the most significant poems written by any of our poets in recent years. It is a credo, a manifesto, a cluster of felt perceptions, and a demonstration that, up to a point at least, vision can be both achieved and conveyed.
Though I am persuaded that my frequent mentions of Emerson up to this point do not distort but rather illuminate Ammons' work, still they might prove misleading if I failed to mention the ways in which the poet's vision is unlike Emerson's. (Emerson, I should explain, is very fresh in my mind these days, for I have just spent a year rereading and writing about him. But I am still not importing my own preoccupation into Ammons' poetry: Emerson is there, and I happen to be well prepared to notice his presence—in many more ways, and more poems, than I have mentioned or will mention.) Let me try to generalize the difference first. Ammons comes as close to rediscovering the Romantic Transcendental vision of Emerson as any thoughtful and well-informed man of the late twentieth century is likely to be able to, but as a man of our time he simply cannot be a "disciple," he can only learn from, be stimulated by, walk the paths of, and be honest about his differences with, the poet who more than any other foreshadows him, as I see it.
A few of the differences. Ammons allows to come into consciousness, and so into his poetry, much more freely than Emerson did, the existential angst that Emerson must have felt but usually repressed. (See "1 Jan." in Tape for the Turn of the Year for Ammons' statement on this. The point he makes there—"I know the/violence, grief, guilt,/despair, absurdity"—is clear in all the volumes without being stated.) Death, disorder, entropy (one of his few technical philosophical terms) are never far from the surface of any of Ammons' poems, and frequently they are central in them. Poetry, he says in Tape, has "one subject, impermanence." Never unaware of "a universe of horror," Ammons knows that "we must bear/ the dark edges of/ our awareness," but the goal of his search remains "a universe of light" (Tape, "1 Jan.").
A different man in a different age, Emerson erected his defenses against fear and grief stronger and taller than Ammons', though I should say that in his best poetry—in prose as well as in verse—he was sufficiently open to all his feelings, even these, to allow his wonderful intelligence to work freely. Still, it is true, however one may take the fact, that Ammons does not transcend so easily or so far.
Related to this as a symptom is to a cause is the much greater concreteness of the way Ammons' imagination works, and so of his poetic language. As Emerson was more concrete, specific, even local (think of the first line of "Hamatreya") than the Pre-Romantics whose style his often resembles, so Ammons is more concrete, specific, local, and personal than Emerson. On this matter, as on style in general, Ammons' affinity seems to be with Pound and Williams, but of course Pound and Williams were more Emersonian than they knew.
A difference that is more strikingly obvious but I think finally less important is that of verse-forms. Emerson's theory, at least the part of it we are most likely to remember, called for organic or open form, but only a few of his best poems put the theory successfully into practice, and then only partially. Ammons, like most of his best contemporaries, has moved all the way toward practicing the theory announced in "The Poet" and elaborated in "Poetry and Imagination." Still, there is not an immeasurable gap, formally speaking, between "Merlin" and "Poetics" in Briefings.
Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons' "long thin poem" typed on a roll of adding-machine paper, a poetic journal which keeps turning into a poetic meditation, is the most continuously interesting, the strongest, the finest long poem I have read in I don't know how many years. It is as concrete as The Cantos, but the facts in it are not exotic lore out of the library and they are not illustrations of theories. It is at once personal and historical, like Paterson, but I don't feel, as I do in that poem at times, any attempt to impose the larger meanings. The meanings rise from the facts of personal history, the life the poet led from December 6 to January 10, the meals, the weather, the news, the interruptions, the discrete perceptions, and are presented for just what they are, felt thoughts. Tape proves—for me, anyway—the point Ammons makes in it somewhere, that poetry is "a way of/ thinking about/ truth" even while, as an art form, its distinctiveness is its way of "playing" with language to create untranslatable meanings.
Stylistically, Tape is "good Emerson," not so much in resembling Emerson's poems (though it does resemble them in certain ways, at times) as in following-out Emerson's theory. Transcendental poetic theory puts enormous emphasis on the single word, the single image, the discrete perception that may become an intuition. The short lines of the poem would seem merely stylish if they could not be justified in terms of this aspect of Transcendental Poetics. "Stylish" they may be, but the reason for the style emerges from the lines surprisingly, astonishingly. Prosaic, lyric, meditative, philosophic by turns, Tape is a wonderful poem. Read it.
Ammons' latest poems strike me as showing two developments. Stylistically, they are somewhat less "open," more thought-out, "reasonable," logically disciplined. They have pulled back a little from the letting-go and letting-out of the earlier work. There is less abandon, more control. Stylistically firmer perhaps, they seem to me less daring. Their style might be described as more "mature," but maturity brings losses as well as gains. The transparent eyeball narrows slightly to shield itself against the too-dazzling light. Ammons said toward the end of Tape that after the long, in a sense "dictated," poem he wanted to write short, artful lyrics, and he's doing it. And of course art is artificial. But I hope he will continue to leave openings, cracks maybî, in his conceptual boxes.
In any poet as fine as Ammons, a stylistic change signals a change in sensibility and vision. "Transaction" in Uplands ("I attended the burial of all my rosy feelings") describes the new "resignation" (Is this the right word? I'm not sure.) explicitly, but a good many of the poems in the two latest volumes exhibit it.
In Tape he reminded us—warned us?—that "I care about the statement/ of fact" and suggested that "coming home" meant "a way of/ going along with this/ world as it is:/ nothing ideal," but he still invited us to the dance. Wisdom involves a kind of resignation, I suppose, as one of its elements, but I think of it as contrasting with rashness and inexperience rather than as first cousin to prudence. I should hate to see Ammons become too prudent. I don't think he will.
The most recent poems may be less ambitious philosophically and less openly Romantic-Transcendental in their imaginative questing, but the quest itself has not been abandoned and the conception of how the journey should be undertaken—how thinking, feeling, imagining, responding can find expression and thus be realized, recognized, identified, and shared in a particular verbal object we call "this poem"—has not essentially changed. In the inseparable union of physics and metaphysics in Ammons' imagination, the emphasis may have shifted a little from the meta to the physics, but the union has not been dissolved, as of course it must not be if poetry is to continue to have noetic value. (Heidegger's "What Are Poets For?" in his recent Poetry, Language, Thought is relevant here. What are poets for in a dark time?) "Poetics" in Briefings should send any readers of it who don't remember the essay back to Emerson's "Poetry and Imagination." "Ask the fact for the form." Imagination and circles, imagination and possibility, the expanding spheres of possibility—of apprehension, of recognition, of meaning—finding their forms in poems. Here's the poem:
I look for the way things will turn out spiralling from a center, the shape things will take to come forth in so that the birch tree white touched black at branches will stand out wind-glittering totally its apparent self: I look for the forms things want to come as from what black wells of possibility, how a thing will unfold: not the shape on paper—though that, too—but the uninterfering means on paper: not so much looking for the shape as being available to any shape that may be summoning itself through me from the self not mine but ours.
Harold Bloom is quoted on the back cover of Briefings as saying that the lyrics in the book "maintain an utterly consistent purity of detached yet radiant vision." Right on target. But I'd like to shrink the ambiguities of this a bit if I can without putting us and Ammons into a mentalistic box. "Consistent": consistent with all the other lyrics in the volume, yes, but not entirely consistent, in tone or statement, with the best of the earlier lyrics or even with the prayer ("14 Dec") and the several credos (credo: I believe) in Tape. A little more defensive, more guarded, more "intellectually prudent." There's a concern with defining differences: "… keep me from my enemies Vwafered concision and zeal" ("Hymn IV," Briefings.) A fear almost that vision may harden into doctrine.
"Purity": Yes, of style, of tone, of vision too. The wonderful thing is that the purity is at once a purity of style and a purity of vision, in both cases (or perspectives: two sides of the same coin) a unique balance maintained between conflicting perceptions of the One and the Many, the Real and the Actual, etc.—to borrow some Emersonian terms for what is not easily talked about in any terms.
"Detached": "Wafered concision" suggests that the detachment is from High Church zealots who localize "the eternal generator of circles" (Emerson's term in "Circles") in the manageable little round wafer of Communion. But the detachment is equally, I think, from the rationalistic formulations of the ineffable that betray an idolatrous attitude not toward a common substance, bread, but toward the results of a process, directed abstract thought. I say this not from the evidence of this poem, which, by its emphasis, might not seem to prompt it, but from the evidence of the whole corpus of the poetry as I have read it.
"Radiant": No need for clarification (if that's the word for what I'm trying to do) here. "Radiant" in the sense that applies to Blake, Emerson, Whitman, Cummings, Roethke.
"Vision": Right again, of course. But "vision" and "visionary" can be a way of throwing positivistic enemies off the scent. Vision of what? Assuming that God is not a "being" among other beings, and so, being unlimited spatially and temporally ("God is the circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere"—the practitioners of the "negative theology," and Emerson, said), is undefinable, still I'd say a sense of God's reality, whether as immanent or as deus absconditus, is everywhere present in the poems and should be recognized, for it does more than anything else (of the many factors at work, some unknown, some unknowable,) to give the poems their special kind of "vision." Heidegger, "What Are Poets For?" again.
I'd like to make the word religious respectable once again among literary critics, rescue it from Freud ("the future of an illusion") and give it to Jung, who used the word not to clobber the naively pious but to point to something real and permanent in human experience. ("Permanent" until now, maybe.) Ammons is a poet of religious vision who is as wary of intellectualist abstractions as he is of pious dogmas. That's the peculiar feature of the "purity" of his "vision," it seems to me. Peculiar in our time, not peculiar if we think of the poetic visionaries who are his ancestors, whether he knows it or not—and he probably does, for he seems to know everything.
The "veracity" of Ammons' poetry (his word, and Emerson's before him, in "Poetry and Imagination"), the sense it creates in us that the radiance, when it comes, is real, discovered, not invented or faked, is causally related, I suspect, to the steadiness with which the poet has looked into the Abyss. The gains for the imagination from such looking are incalculable, but it must be hard on the nerves. One wants to survive as well as write "short rich hard lyrics," as Ammons is doing now. I want Ammons to do both—that is, survive and write. Perhaps the slight narrowing of the eyelids over the transparent eyeballs I seem to detect in the later work is necessary for the survival. But the transparency remains essential to his kind of vision. Dilemma. Poets age, like the rest of us.
I don't try very conscientiously to "keep up" with all the new poetry in the magazines and the slender volumes, but I can say that of the "new" poets I've read since Roethke's death, Ammons seems to me at or near the top. His poetry is, among other things more important, a "sign" granted for the strengthening of the faith, the faith that in a dark time light may still be seen, not invented (no "Supreme Fiction," no fiction at all), by the unguarded eye.
At his best (I don't much like "Summer Session 1968",) Ammons is a highly distinguished poet of religious vision who grants the Transcendence but finds his occupation chiefly in searching out the traces of the Immanence. May he survive, save himself for this, and be visited often by the Muse, indulging as little as may be in the writing of merely fashionable poems.
SOURCE: A review of The Snow Poems, in Epoch, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Spring, 1977, pp. 304-11.
[Bullis is an American poet and critic. In the following review of The Snow Poems, he finds that Ammons is one of the few poets to successfully undertake the challenge of the non-narrative long poem. Bullis claims that one of Ammons's greatest strengths, demonstrated in The Snow Poems, is his ability to express the interrelationship of all things, thereby overcoming artificial categories and divisions.]
The Snow Poems are actually one poem. It is a diary of the 1975-76 year: a record of Ammons's own experiences, observations, attitudes that begins in the fall with the bird migrations heading south and ends in the spring, with welcoming (the last word of the poem is "we(l)come") "a young/birch frilly in early-girlish/ leaf." The Snow Poems is at the same time an almanac—a compendium of useful and interesting facts, proverbs, weather news. It is also an adventure story in which Ammons, in Ithaca, wanders far and the extravagance of the wandering becomes a reaffirmation of the poet's role as adventurer, as Odysseus (Odysseus's name, in Greek at least, meant trouble—it was his fate to Odysseus himself and others heroically). Ammons's own wandersong precisely distinguishes the heroic potentiality of now from the models of unreclaimable times: without coming on in a high-hatted, grandeurish way, The Snow Poems radiates nobility, that quality Wallace Stevens remarked as being most conspicuously absent from modern literature. One of the values of this poem is its bulk, the overweeningness of its cry: it approximates the plenitude of the novel without falling into the worn-out procedures of the novel. It is Ammons's richest exemplification to date of the resolution made in the concluding lines of "Corsons Inlet" to "try/ to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening/ scope." The extempore explorations of this long poem affirm Emerson's assertion that "the vision of genius comes by renouncing the too officious activity of the understanding, and giving leave and amplest privilege to the spontaneous sentiment."
This book could have been done as four or five books, but done in that way it would have been a piecemeal offering of several kinds of more-or-less acceptable poetic styles. In his earlier work Ammons has already experimented with lyric and meditative modes, testing the limits of free verse, incorporating levels of diction—such as the scientific—that have enlarged the scope of poetry; he has made the fable appear like a new genre, as if Emerson's mountain and squirrel had never had a quarrel (in which Bun replies—Bun being the squirrel—that "all sorts of things and weather/ Must be taken in together,/ To make up a year/ And a sphere"—a wisdom about spheres that applies as well to The Snow Poems as it does to Sphere: The Form of A Motion.) Ammons's successes with the medium-length conversational poem (after Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight"), the hymn, the metaphysical lyric, the "song," the pastoral-walk poem (after Frost's "The Wood Pile") are exemplary: in such poems as "The City Limits," "Saliences," and "Configurations," Ammons has extended the range of the short poem.
If Ammons were a moderate poet … (designation oxymoronic if not entirely moronic) then I suppose he would have kept plunking-out the kind of performance for which he has already received acclaim. But The Snow Poems is a more extravagant poem than any of the earlier poems, including the resuscitations of the essai in its original aleatory form: "An Essay in Poetics," "Hiburnaculum," "Extremes and Moderations," and "Summer Place" (forthcoming in The Hudson Review); it is more openly autobiographical than any earlier poem: and it challenges our assumptions about what makes a statement "poetic" to an extent that even Tape for the Turn of the Year did not. Most of the "poems" of this poem have an entropie "organization"—the conclusions irrelevancies, seemingly—a kind of dribbling-off format, even to the shapes on the page. The sections are believably extra-vasational or, more like snow, precisely improvisational. Some of the sections seem to derive their forms from the spatial limitations and freedoms of the 9" χ 11" page, written upon by a typewriter. In some of the sections one "poem" will proceed down the left side of the page, going right about half-way, and another—contrapuntal, complementary, dialectically?—will begin somewhere right-of-center. This technique seems a further development of Ammons's statement concerning nonlinear prosody published in Poetry (vol. cii, 3, June 1963): "What I think is illustrated by [the versification of a poem like Ammons's 'Close-Up'] is that both ends are being played against a middle. The center of gravity is an imaginary point existing between the two points of beginning and end, so that a downward pull is created that gives a certain downward rush to the movement, something like a waterfall glancing in turn off opposite sides of the canyon, something like the right and left turns of a river."
Such typographical pyrotechnics aren't new. They get their freshness in The Snow Poems from Ammons's ability to amalgamate ranges of discourse—heretofore largely excluded from poetry—with such techniques. Though these poems may superficially resemble work by Charles Olson, look like some of Pound's Cantos, or portions of Williams's Paterson, Ammons's work actually exhibits a far different rhetorical stance. The discursive tendency of much of Carl Sandburg's and Robinson Jeffers's poetry—two unfashionable precursors with whom Ammons has not been allied—anticipates the openness of The Snow Poems more directly than the work of the above mentioned poets. Not even Wallace Stevens, whose improvisatory and essayistic ensembles are more apparent prior attempts at making non-narrative long poems, could manage more than uneasy fusings of imagistic-symbolic and discursive writing, a problem Ben Belitt pointed out in a review of Stevens: "moved to formal discourse in the quest for order and certitude. [Stevens's] art has not up to the present permitted him to pursue such discourse or his temperament to accept it." To which Stevens replied in a letter to Belitt: "While you pointed out my difficulty in the second sentence of your review, it is a difficulty that I have long been conscious of and with which I am constantly struggling." Stevens struggled with this problem to the end, though late poems exhibit an Ammons-like acceptance of the antipoetic, as in "Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination": "Last Friday, in the big light of last Friday night,/ We drove home from Cornwall to Hartford, late." Ammons is the only modern poet I've encountered who seems to have gotten beyond the bugbears of imagism and symbolic systematising: who doesn't seem to feel that the propositional, the baldly discursive, is innately antipoetic: who doesn't write as if abstractions were the Death of Poetry, as if proverbial announcement were something old-timey sayers could get to the sooth of, but that we cannot. At random:
so much works flawed it makes you think perfection not one of nature's hangups how could you, walking in the mts, be big as the mts: only by wandering: aimlessness is as big as mts it is not for the poet to speak the speakable that which long known & said requires no energy of finding or forming but to murmur, stammer, swear, and sing on the edges of or around or deep into the unspeakable— the reason it makes no difference what people think is that they don't think enough to make any difference you can't imitate anybody really and the extent to which you can't is enough originality poets add obscurity to the inexplicable for critics who can't get their tools sharp on the obvious
The intelligence and smiling acerbity of this aspect of The Snow Poems reminds me of the poetry of the T'ang poet Han-Shan:
A certain scholar named Mr. Wang Was laughing at my poems for being so clumsy. "Don't you know you can't have two accents here? And this line has too many beats. You don't seem to understand meter at all But toss in any word that comes to mind!" I laugh too, Mr. Wang, when you make a poem. Like a blind man trying to sing of the sun.(translated by Burton Watson)
But the strength of The Snow Poems can't be demonstrated by snippets of quotation. And, though the problem of judgment with respect to this long poem may seem difficult, I think it is actually not. For those who have read Ammons's work from Ommateum (1955) through Diversifications (1975), including this poem's important prelude, Tape for the Turn of the Year (1964). The Snow Poems will seem the necessary unfolding of Ammons's venture. As Warner Berthoff has remarked of Emerson, "Once we begin to get the sense of how [Ammons] operates as a writer, our experience of reading him is likely to be full of double takes, and our admiration, sluggish and reluctant at first, so little taste remains with us for the mode of pastoral exhortation he seems to employ, springs forward by a geometric progression." Ammons's mode of pastoral exhortation is to try to hold in interpenetrant relation the dualistic categories with which, in order to communicate easily though imprecisely, we have oversimplified our language: I mean such categories as imagination/reality, inner/outer, self/other, man/nature. This interpenetration of word and world, whereby abstract "themes" are divulged or adumbrated through hollyhocks, blue spruce, jays, brooks, mudpuddles, mountains and so on, is summarized ideogrammatically in "The Word Crys Out": "wor(l)d." Ammons's insistence on seeing books in the running brooks, poetic theory in the ministrations of snow, enables a ghostly demarcating of rigid, highfalutin categories within a discursive context. For instance, in "It's Half an Hour Later Before," the self is presented as a winter tree, probably about fifty years old, whose fine branches, as of imagination, snatch lyric flakes before they reach the ground they'll end up groundwater of, and whose big branches take on ridges-worth of saying, holding the evanescent in beads that light up nature, and man, for a spell:
If this poem is directed in any particular way, it is directed against destructive clarification. Ammons balks at harping on small ideas, neat schema, paradigmatic bliss. So the big idea that drifts through and settles on everything here like snow is that all is in all—the idea enunciated as fable in "Ballad" (Diversifications), in which the water oak and willow defend their respective territorial rights, with the poet as mediator. In this poem Ammons repeatedly asserts, exhorting by example, that
I do not, can not, will not care for plain simple things with straightforward fences round them: I prefer lean, true integrations of ongoing with recurrences. resemblances, half-adventitious or fortuitous or as some would say accidental, half-accidental, not under a third
—the hedging on how much accidence is necessary typifies the complexity of statement in this poem, the major subject of which is poetry. Poems, like crows in the initial segment ("Words of Comfort",) "emphatically find dead/ trees to sit in,/ skinned branches, line up/ into the wind/ a black countercurrent/ drippy but cool." This venturing begins "in a fallish time,/ the birds' gatherings and flights/ skim treetops, not/ much entering in now, no nests, pausing to consider/ or dwell, the wide/ storm winter coming." And while The Snow Poems is a venturing away from "the wide/ storm winter coming"—the winter of frozen possibility, personal extinction (always coming, but inevitably closer when one is "pushing fifty")—the book is at the same time a venturing into what can be found possible, established as abundance, in the venture of "pushing fifty" and heading into winter, unlike the birds.
One of the central ways in which this poem projects itself is to identify the poetic self with snow, an identification that is sometimes accentuated by the resemblance of snow to age, the winter of life, and discontent, a sense of lessening power, ("the sexual basis of all things rare is really apparent": Sphere); and so this poem prays for a snowing "of the/ right consistency,/ temperature, and/ velocity" that will enable the cold-bright diffuse but still consistent leeself to fall in a "building out over/ space a/ promontory of/ considerable/ reach in/ downward curvature." The poem wondrously demonstrates that "snow/ will do this/ not once/ but wherever possible,/ a similarity of effect/ extended/ to diversity's/ exact numeration."
I find this aspect of the generalized snow-metaphor beautiful as poetic defense—an offense not at all offensive. But I don't think Ammons is falling in downward curvature: the promontory of this poem speaks against that drift.
Actually, most of this poem, so far as I can tell, was written in that time when winter begins to fade into spring's necessary muckiness: from "The Prescriptive Stalls As" on, we're going from February toward and into April-May. The major gesture of the poem is away from, contrary to stasis, delimitation, ice—the easy victory of the professionally-wrought lyric—and toward enlarging possibility, spanglings of snowlight-meltings-and-meldings from the reservoirs of evergreens: "I stand for/ whatever will not come round/ or be whole/ or made out or reduced."
The Snow Poems is a great poem. It tries to make the mind—rather, let the mind—accord with "necessity's inner accuracy": necessity's inner accuracy is nature's accuracy. The poem is a habitat, ecosystem, world, galaxy, universe—in which there are events and creatures of little note and others on up (or down) the scale to events and creatures of great note, magnificent with their breakingsout of the brush of silence, in order to leave a greater silence after their going again. It shows how the great poem of earth, if this isn't it, may be written: it reveals how what has been taken for the great poetry of earth is only "the smooth walks, trimmed hedges, posys and nightingales" of insular tradition. The Snow Poems calls for a view of nature (to continue to quote Whitman) "in the prophetic literature of these States," that would place man in the light and dark of "the whole orb, with its geologic history, the cosmos, carrying fire and snow, that rolls through the illimitable areas, light as a feather, though weighing billions of tons"; it supports W. C. Williams's indictment of us by saying in its own way how the first settlers "saw birds with rusty breasts and called them robins," thought what they saw were not "robins" but thrushes "larger, stronger, and in the evening of a wilder, lovelier song."
This poem raises more questions about out aesthetic assumptions than a review can honestly deal with. If the segments of The Snow Poems were normal (Academico-American?) Western Adult Lyrics, then clearly some of the stuff would have to be left out. But to make that assertion seems more a criticism of our lyric-based poetics than a criticism of this particular poem, or any similar to it. The problem with aesthetic dicta is that they are of no use when one is confronted with work of major importance. Ammons's intention is obviously not to make a great pile of well-wrought urns. As Whitman asserted in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, prophesying Ammons but speaking primarily of his own audacity. "Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes." He was speaking of These States too: and said they await the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of them. And of the American poet: "he is greatest forever and forever who contributes the greatest original practical example. The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one." And: "Great genius and the people of these states must never be demeaned to romances. As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances." And: "The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor." Here is one of my favorite properly told moments of history in The Snow Poem:
SOURCE: "The Poetry of A. R. Ammons," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 2-9.
[Reid was an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he traces Ammons's emergence as a major post-modern writer who has rejected modernist sensibilities and seeks humankind's integration with the universe.]
We can scarcely read a literary review or critical essay these days without finding the word post-modern. One critic has even described certain writers as post-contemporary. These usages of post-, paralleled by equally frequent occurrences of neo- in combination with romanticism, realism, or experimentalism, might be a mere passing semantic fad, but more likely they suggest a pervasive sense of cultural transition. As one reviewer has put it, the transition has progressed to the point that our literature is "no longer 'post-modernist' but 'pre-something.'" Perhaps other critics are saying the same thing when they recognize no literary orthodoxy. Nevertheless, some critics still insist that modernism is not over. Despite the deaths of all the great moderns and our lengthening distance from the peak of modernism, these critics say that modernist poetry continues in different ways. One critic speaks of early moderns and late moderns. Others use the term for its mystique. Still others use the label modern only as a term of convenience or habit, more in its popular sense of now than in its critical sense of a body of writing that flourished in the teens and twenties of this century and had certain definite characteristics, such as repudiation of rhetoric, a reliance on formalist techniques of myth, symbol, and subjective states, an ironical, analytic detachment, and a numbing sense of alienation and nihilism.
If we define modernism by two of these most essential features—first, its impersonality, its formal separation of art and reality, its attraction to personae and fictions to live by, as in Pound, Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens—and, second, by its hollow despair, its inability to accept absolutes, we cannot help being struck by the newer tendencies of certain representative contemporary poets to take the opposite attitude of demythologizing the poem, of personalizing it, of blurring the line between art and reality, and of making more than tentative attempts to re-attach man to his world within a context of faith. I refer mainly to the recent work of Robert Lowell and A. R. Ammons but also to such poets as Allen Ginsberg and Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). The latter two are special cases, and Lowell is already well recognized as probably our major contemporary or post-modernist poet. He abandoned the mythic approach for the semi-autobiographical, and in 1973 in The Dolphin, he surprised us all with his optimism, his "heaviness lifted."
To develop this controversial point of an emerging postmodernist sensibility, I shall therefore concentrate on A. R. Ammons, who is less well known than the others in spite of his recent winning of the National Book Award in 1972 for his Collected Poems and the Bollingen Prize in 1974 for his latest book Sphere. I realize the risks of oversimplification in arguing that a post-modernist sensibility can be demonstrated at this point and that it can be reduced to two features. I make the assertion less as dogma than as a hypothesis, something to be explored. But the truth is that some kind of break has definitely been taking place since the 1950s and that essentially it includes a blurring of the line between poetic art and reality and an urge to religious synthesis. Let us look at these phenomena in the poetry of A. R. Ammons.
Ammons began his poetic career in 1955 as a descendant of the wasteland poets in a little book called Ommateum. It is clearly modernist in technique and tone. The dominant image is that of a mythic wanderer, a sort of priestly poet or kingly exiled figure, often nameless, often named Ezra or Gilgamesh, one who seeks wisdom for himself and restoration for his people. He shuffles over the dry desert land, over "the bleached and broken fields," over the ravaged cities, hoping to hear the eternal word in the wind, but "there were no echoes from the waves." "The sap is gone out of the trees." There is only a "great vacuity." Death, disease, war, and destruction stalk the land and leave it in ashes. Wells are polluted and yield only muddy water, beer cans, and innertubes; there is scant shade under the willow trees. The wanderer is as often dead as alive and yet finds some minimum insight in this dying state. Coming to a primitive shore, he is killed by an aborigine's arrow shot in his throat. Although taken off by the wind, he returns to find his own dry bones, draws pictures with one of his ribs in the sand, and sings Devonshire airs. He dies in a more "mirthful place" and hears the buzzards engaged over him in talk that sounds "excellent to my eternal ears" while they wait for a "savoring age to come."
The book shows the obvious influence of Eliot's The Waste Land but contains a few more hints of redemption, as in the desire to experience an eternal unity beyond the flux, the image of working in the barn by a sheaf of light torn from a sunbeam, a love affair with a lion at a waterhole, and especially the various miracles of moonlight, grass, and autumn harvest. In "When I Set Fire to the Reed Patch," Ammons experiences not only pleasure and beauty but "mulch for next year's shoots/ the greenest hope/ autumn ever/ left this patch of reeds."
Eight years later, in 1963, in his second book, Expressions of Sea Level, Ammons abandoned the formalist imagery of the mythic wasteland and the hollow despair. He describes the familiar landscape of farms and inlets of his youth in Whiteville, North Carolina. Instead of the dramatic masque of the wandering Ezra-Gilgamesh figure, he adopts the more general speech of meditation. Instead of a forlorn search for faith, apocalyptic and surrealistic, he focuses on a belief in an orderly world in which finite and natural boundaries reflect an immense universal order. We live amid these forms, these "expressions of sea level," he writes, on the periphery of being, far from the center, yet not so far that we do not recognize the unity of creation in its multitudinous identities and motions, its mysterious comings and goings, its harmonious and wonderful operations. The book celebrates this sense of union and order in the universe: "an order of instinct prevails/ through all accidents of circumstances," he writes in "Identity." Along the edge, the crust, one can find "disorder ripe,/ entropy rich, high levels of random,/ numerous occasions of accident." But these multitudinous forms or modes are possible because the "underlying" essence is "all and/ beyond destruction/ because created fully in no/ particular form." We cannot know the essence, only "its forms, the motions …/ its/ permanence," but we know the essence is there because its manifestations work so well and appear so universally. Therefore the poet in "Raft" drifts out through the inlet to the sea, letting "the currents be/ whatever they would be,/ allowing possibility/ to chance/ where choice/ could not impose itself." In "Hymn" he says he will find this eternal essence both by leaving the earth and by staying:
and if I find you I must go out deep into your far resolutions and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves.
The book represents a striking departure from the modernist sensibility in which the poem is artifice and man is cut off from his world. Ammons is both a neo-romantic and a pragmatist, fusing certain modern scientific principles of indeterminacy and closed structures with an older Platonic metaphysics of matter and form and of the one and the many.
In his subsequent books of short lyrics—Corson's Inlet, Northfield Poems, Uplands, and Briefings in the 1960s and early 1970s—Ammons, for the most part, expands and illustrates his theories of peripheries and identities of nature. The bulk of his output consists of short nature poems about the familiar objects in his experience—inlets, dunes, rivers, animals, butterfly weeds, morning glories, pea vines, a favorite mule, and trees in the snow. He invites his friends to visit him and see the glories of nature, to be blessed as he by the destruction of self in the epiphanies of natural experience, be "released from forms" into the "eddies of meaning" and into the transcendental mysteries of the "overall" presence. He has his dark moments, his struggles and losses; he knows violence and change; but he consistently holds to a world of open possibilities and the pervasive order of objects perceivable by the human mind and traceable to a vitality at the core. Ammons comes close to a Whitmanesque absorption into the One but strives to maintain a wholesome pragmatic balance between the oneness and the manyness of reality. Facts are facts, regardless of the freedom of philosophy, and he insists that we take the world as we sense it. With a similar stubbornness, he insists that we take the spiritual essence as we intuit it. In many of his poems, he professes to talk to mountains, rivers, and trees but wisely recognizes that his capacity for synthesis and flexibility of perspective makes man superior to, if slightly confused by, these other stable identities that he can take apart and re-order ("Zone"). As he says in "Poetics" (from Briefings), he looks for ways that things will turn out spiraling from a center.
In the midst of these personal nature lyrics spoken in his own voice, Ammons departed still further from the modernist sensibility of mythical analysis by writing a spontaneous autobiographical book-length poem, Tape for the Turn of the Year. With this work he explicitly joined the postmodernist movement begun ten years earlier by Ginsberg and Lowell. The Beats had aggressively challenged the modernist theory of the objective correlative of subliminal experience. They had advocated direct autobiographical treatment of reality and favored spontaneity over art. They argued too that the intellectual imposition of form on expression distorted reality. In Life Studies of 1960 Lowell had likewise departed from his earlier modernist works by demythologizing poetry in the confessional mode. Ammons' Tape similarly blurs the line between reality and art. Inserting an adding-machine tape into his typewriter, he proceeded to write ajournai of his feelings, reminiscences, thoughts, and activities—a "long thin poem," he called it—between early December, 1963, and early January, 1964. "Anti-art and nonclassical," the book ridicules both the modernist and classical theories of poetry as artificial and obscure. Ammons accepts the "frazzling reality" of his daily life as more genuine, a "way of going along with the world as it is": "I care about the statement/ of fact:/ the true picture/ has a beauty higher/ than Beauty." He put the idea better ten years later in Sphere when he scoffed at the tightly made modernist poem: "I don't know about you, but I'm sick of good poems, all those little rondures/ splendidly brought off, painted gourds on a shelf." In Sphere and in Tape he wanted to write something more personal, something massive, more synthesizing, something that touches "the universal anywhere you touch it everywhere." Yet he was not fully satisfied with the artlessness of Tape and concluded at that time that one cannot get too free: reality has to accept some form because form, as he is fond of saying, is part of reality; the identities of matter have their confinements though seemingly looser than the strict oneness of the center. Tape therefore is only a temporary launching, an experiment to see how far spontaneity will go without much imposed order, and it will not go very far. He returned to his short lyrics of natural insights until he finally devised a series of more controlled verse-essays or lectures to provide the "play-shapes" that satisfied him.
The first of these verse-essays, "Essay on Poetics," defines poetry as a synthesizing principle. A poem, he says, draws out the multiple stimuli of reality, those essential designs and configurations that curve to the wholeness of meaning. Language is a level of abstraction that only appears to suppress reality while actually holding it in a stasis: "poems are arresting in two ways: they attract attention with/ glistery astonishment and they hold it: stasis: they gather and/ stay: the progression is from sound and motion to silence and rest." The poem must not violet the bits and pieces of reality but must tidy them up. There is a living organism in life's structures, and the poet's task is to locate that law at the centers of the various blobs and clusters so as to find their meanings and preserve the living core. Ammons' tone is slightly whimsical, and the view of poetry is not new: as others have noted, it is Whitmanesque. What is mainly interesting is the almost banal perspective of a lecturer trying out illustrations, deliberately avoiding the "locked clarity" of finished poem for a "linear"—perhaps he means rhetorical—mode that keeps open all options and possibilities of thought. To Ammons, poetry is "fun," a "superior amusement." He deplores the "Scoffers," the "party-poopers who are/ afraid they ought to believe in history or logical positivism and/ don't have any real desire to do so: they are scarcely worth a/ haircut: organisms, I can tell you, build up under the trust of joy and nothing else can lift them out of the miry circumstances: … poems are pure joy, however divisionally they sway with grief: the way to joy is integration's delivery of the complete lode…." As did Tape for the Turn of the Year, this long poem repudiates the Pound-Eliot-Yeats-Stevens tradition of recondite myth and the cynical historical complicators of the very simple romantic truth of a harmonious creative center.
In a second lecture-poem called "Extremes and Moderations" Ammons delights in this great principle of harmonious balance that moderates nature's extremes of winds, floods, lightning, and body sickness, but he expresses fear that human beings have technologically tampered with nature so as to upset the balances. Such things as factories, automobiles, and chemical insecticides have jeopardized the balancing principle: "blue green globe, we have tipped your balance/ though we have scalded and oiled the seas and/ scabbed the land and smoked the mirror of heaven, we must try/ to stay and keep those who are alive alive." Like Blake and Hopkins and others before him, he believes that nature's balances are superior to our own and that we are headed for destruction unless we can align our psychic forces with nature's. Extreme calls to extreme, and moderation is losing its effect and quality. Yet all is not dreary; he has faith that we shall recognize our folly and save our world.
The third of these lectures, "Hibernaculum," attempts more ambitiously than the earlier verse-essays to define the poet's own emerging mental and physical identity. It catalogues the welter and tangle of his sensations that are bursting into a recognizable personality. He sees himself coexisting with nature without conscious will. Compared, however, to Whitman's brilliant poems on the subject of the self's becoming—"Song of Myself and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"—Ammons' poem is unsuccessful. It does exactly what he says he hopes he will not do: "I must not when I get up on/ the soapbox wash out." The bobs and bits never synthesize, and the tone is proudly clever rather than penetrating. A few isolated passages are splendid, but earlier shorter poems about nature—"Identity," "Risks and Possibilities," "Expressions of Sea Level," "Gravelly Run," "Corson's Inlet"—say much better what he seems to be trying to say here about his own identity as a consciously complex person in the process of organizing his various multiplicities.
Ammons' Sphere reaffirms the ideas of the one-many and center-periphery that have guided his thought for more than fifteen years. It brilliantly succeeds in showing the underlying unity of diversity that leads up to the Most High. It is the finest of his autobiographical verse-essays, a meditative philosophical lecture on the unifying forces in nature. It is also a work in the grand American tradition of Emerson-Thoreau-Whitman-Frost, the blend of the practical and the idealistic, the semi-cantankerous and garrulous amateur thinker eliciting universal meanings from commonplace details. It is a joyous book, a celebration of living, a humble awareness of the mysteries of cycles and changes.
Beginning with a statement of his usual theme of the mystery of an integrated universe, Ammons proceeds to illustrate its working in lively examples: sexual imagery, geometric imagery, the seasonal changes, nature's ways of renewals and balancings, the eternal springing of water in a well, numerous kinds of objects like chairs or fictions that imitate the ideas of these things, daily routines that identify him, history ever on the move toward newer meanings, biological formations, and so on—a constant flux of organization and divine recreation in which "fragments/ cease to be fragmentary and work together in a high flotation." It is one long ecstatic book-length sentence of 1,860 lines arranged into 155 numbered sections of four three-line stanzas. Like Whitman, Ammons addresses "vague hosannas: evaporation without arithmetic of loss." He feels so blessed that he invites others to join him: "send folks over: I have/ plenty to pass around …/ I go/ on the confidence that in this whole magnificence nothing is/ important, why should this be, yet everything is, even this/ as it testifies to the changing and staying." Abandon your scrambling for social status, he chides modern man: "let go and let your humanity rise to its natural/ height, said the star, and you will in that smallness be as/ great as I." The attitude extends to patriotism as well. He ecstatically praises his country and its citizens and attacks the radical, nay-saying, unpatriotic tradition:
And what he keeps straight is the unity, the federation, the comradeship, the continuing possibilities:
But he has no intention of radicalizing or politicizing, only of asserting hope and reassurance, of singing "that tireless river system of streaming/ unity: my country: my country; can't cease from its/ sizzling rufflings to move into my 'motions' and 'stayings'":
when I identify my self, my work, and my country, you may think I've finally got the grandeurs….
His hope is to achieve "a broad sanction that gives range/ to life," to achieve a "context in which the rose can keep its edges out of/ frost" and in which the "knots of misery, depression, and disease can/ unwind into abundant resurgence."
Often facetious and witty, often a bit tedious and overblown, Sphere is never merely clever or dull for long. It securely grounds its observations, unlike the other essay poems, on a progression of events, natural and human, that take place during one season: the melting snow of spring, the blast-off of Apollo 16, "April 23rd and still not a daffodil," returning from a trip to Baltimore on April 29 to find daffodils in bloom, the first mowing of the lawn, a cook-out at a friend's house on May 6, planting a garden, trimming a quince, being chased by a hornet while picking veronica from the lawn. In this respect the poem resembles Walden as well as Leaves of Grass, a kind of writing in which the assertions lead to concretes and the concretes rise again to universals.
Only in the most careless meaning of the term modern is Ammons a modernist poet in Sphere. He has rejected nearly everything that the modernists stood for. Like the other post-moderns he has extolled personality, blurred the line between art and reality, demythologized the poem. He is no confessionalist of a broken life, no advocate of poems-as-bullets, no extremist as A. Alvarez has called Plath, who tragically fulfilled the meaning of her poems in her suicidal death. He has rediscovered his own kind of personal expression, the lecture, the verse-essay, the Emersonian sermon. More than any of the others of his time he has attempted to re-integrate man into a whole person in a whole nation in a whole world, a part of a synthesis of man, nature, and God. He is the new poet of hope and faith, national and cosmic, who prophesies a "climb/ up the low belly of this sow century, through the seventies,/ eighties, right on upward to the attachments, the anterior/ or posterior fixation, anything better than the swung pregnancies of these evil years."
A movement as pervasive and successful as modernism will not succumb easily to change. It will continue to shape the work of contemporary poets for years to come. Yet Ammons is only one of several poets in the past fifteen years who has challenged the formalist theories and practice of modernism, not only by outright argument but by the more glacial emergence of a new sensibility. In the process he has lost some of the dramatic intensity that we associate with modernist poetry, but he has made up for the loss in urbane phrasing and the energy of a new affirmation.
SOURCE: "Reason, Shape, and Wisdom," in The New Republic, Vol. 184, No. 17, April 25, 1981, pp. 28-32.
[Vendler is regarded by many as one of America's foremost critics of poetry. Since the mid-1960s she has contributed reviews and articles on poetry to prominent literary publications, in particular the New York Times Book Review, and since 1978 has served as poetry critic for the New Yorker. In addition to her reviews and articles, Vendler is the author of acclaimed book-length studies of poets W. B. Yeats, George Herbert, Wallace Stevens, and John Keats. Her most noted work, the award-winning collection of criticism Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1980), is recognized as a thorough and informed view of contemporary American poetry. In the following review, Vendler offers an enthusiastic appraisal of Ammons 's A Coast of Trees and states: "Ammons's own newness … lies in his finely calibrated sense of the actual, non-transcendent motions of the natural world."]
A classic poem, when it appears, comes not as a surprise but as a confirmation:
I have a life that did not become, that turned aside and stopped, astonished: I hold it in me like a pregnancy or as on my lap a child not to grow or grow old but dwell on it is to his grave I most frequently return and return to ask what is wrong, what was wrong, to see it all by the light of a different necessity but the grave will not heal and the child, stirring, must share my grave with me, an old man having gotten by on what was left
This is the beginning of A. R. Ammons's revelatory poem, "Easter Morning." The central sentiment is not altogether unprecedented—Robert Lowell said, "Always inside me is the child who died"—but Lowell was speaking of a younger self continuous in some way with his adult self ("Always inside me is his wish to die"). Ammons is talking about a self that stopped, that never became, that is buried in a grave that does not heal. And yet that self is not dead; it is a "child, stirring." Robert Frost talked, more distantly, of a road not taken in the past; Ammons's metaphor of the child—buried, or in a womb, or on a lap—is alive with pain and quick with dismay. Ammons's lines rivet us where we stand and we find ourselves uttering them as though our own life had suddenly found its outlet-speech: "I have a life that did not become … the grave will not heal." Ammons's arrow strikes straight to the heart, and to the unhealed grave in it. "How did you know," we ask Ammons, "when we didn't know, ourselves, till you told us?" This is a poetry of eerie power, dependent not so much on the particular circumstances of Ammons's life as on his unsettling skill as an allegorist. Anything he tells us about his life ("I have a life that did not become") turns out to be true of everyone: he is a poet of the universal human condition, not of particular idiosyncrasy. This great poem, "Easter Morning," turns out to be about the damage which every child undergoes as members of his family—a sibling, an aunt, a grandparent—die. It is an elegy in a family churchyard. When Ammons now goes back to North Carolina, the relatives he knew are dead:
When I go back to my home country in these fresh far-away days, it's convenient to visit everybody, aunts and uncles, those who used to say, look how he's shooting up, and the trinket aunts who always had a little something in their pocketbooks….
The catalog goes on to include uncles and teachers and Ammons's mother and father—all in the churchyard, dead, their world gone. And Ammons remembers himself as a child, shocked and blighted and deflected out of ordinary growth by these deaths:
the child in me that could not become was not ready for others to go, to go on into change, blessings and horrors, but stands there by the road where the mishap occurred, crying out for help, come and fix this or we can't get by, but the great ones who were to return, they could not or did not hear and went on in a flurry and now, I say in the graveyard, here lies the flurry, now it can't come back with help or helpful asides, now we all bury the bitter incompletions.
In the desolate market of experience where none come to buy (as Blake said) Ammons stands, with his uncanny plainness of speech, the lines running on like an explanation and an apology atonce, heedless and pell-mell, every so often stopped by a pulling-up short, a bewilderment, an obstacle, an arrest in emotion:
I stand on the stump of a child, whether myself or my little brother who died, and yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place, for for me it is the dearest and the worst it is life nearest to life which is life lost: it is my place where I must stand and fail.
I am not sure whether the strange and complex resolution of the poem (in which Ammons watches the flight of eagles, and is grateful for perennial natural patterns and fresh insights alike) serves to resurrect the dead on this "picture-book, letter-perfect/ Easter morning." And I wonder whether the long anguish of the poem can be excerpted at all. But to review A Coast of Trees is first of all to give notice of the existence of "Easter Morning" as a new treasure in American poetry, combining the blankest of losses with the fullest of visions. It is a poem which should be published all alone, in a three-page book by itself; it is so complete it repels company.
Nevertheless, it has company, and distinguished company, in this new collection of short poems. Ammons always oscillates interestingly between the briefest of brief lyrics ("Briefings," "Uplands," etc.) and the longest of long poems ("Sphere," "Tape for the Turn of the Year") Ammons's bedrock is his conviction of the absolute interconnectedness of all phenomena. The atmosphere (so to speak) over his bedrock is formed by his quick, almost birdlike, noticing of all epiphenomena constantly occurring in the universe—a flight of moths here, a rill of snow-melt there. The short poems record the noticings; the long poems offer the metaphysics of multiple connection. Yet even this description is too divisive. Even in the short poems, Ammons's metaphysics of multiple connection is present in an abbreviated form, represented sometimes by syntax, sometimes by rhetorical figure (notably repetition of a word or a word-root in syntactically significant positions). For instance, Ammons writes about the difficulty of putting a name, or names to reality—and about the attendant paradox that the closer the approximation of the name to the event the more acutely one feels the frustrating gap between what has been achieved and what absolute fidelity to reality would be. Using his favorite dense repetition, he grieves, "… the name nearest the name/ names least or names/ only a verge before the void takes naming in."
The sound of the writing verges on riddle, and hovers near theological paradox, but the sentiment is neither a riddle nor a mystification. It is a precise denomination in a series of self-joining words: "the name nearest the name names least or names only…." This statement of a divergence takes on itself semantically the form of an obsessive connection. And though the creation of the formal barrier of art excludes "reality," it is surely a wonderful mutual relation that makes the terrain of the excluded ("cast out") equal exactly, as a two-piece verb, the terrain of the included ("shut in"): "when the fences foregather/ the reality they shut in is cast out." Almost every statement of fear or loss in Ammons occurs in a line that paradoxically consolidates a strict, practical linguistic gain—often as simple a gain as a word humming in resonance with another word, or a triumphant conclusion to a long syntactical suspension. The suspended syntax arises from Ammons's inexhaustible wish to explain; he is the poet par excellence of the bifurcating line of argument, a line that is interspersed with "I suspect" or "well, maybe" or "in fact" or "after all" or "that is" or "probably" or a sequence of "but's." To that extent his poetry is the utterance of that endless rhetoric he calls "reason":
Reason can't end: it is discourse, motion to find motion, reason to find reason to abandon reason
But against the straight "thruway" of reason Ammons sets another formal motive, which he calls "shape": shape wants to wind discourse up, to give it a rondure, a closure. The shapeliness—almost spherical—of so many of Ammons's short lyrics asserts that a moment or a mood has its own being to proclaim in a determinate form. If that form is violated, something else is produced—even another poem perhaps, but not the original one, which, in being amended, is forever gone. The shape of a poem is inviolate:
The rigidity of this verse defies us to shift a single word, to misplace a single "it" or "cast." The verse rejoices in its imperviousness to tinkering: it braces its "no" against its "any," its "free" against its "cast free," its "part" against "part," creating a wind-proof, storm-proof shelter against the inversions of chance. Ammons's loquacity of "reason" so plays against his geometry of "shape" that the exhilaration of the combat of the two motives equals in interest the plangent tales he tells of the life of the spirit.
These are twice-told tales; Ammons moves easily in the line of our poets. Like Traherne, he calls a poem "Poverty"; like Herbert, he sees a silk twist (in Ammons, "silk lines") coming down in radiance from heaven; like Keats, he stands (in the majestic poem called "Swells") on the shore of the wide world till love and fame sink to nothingness. Like Yeats, he feels the pull of the balloon of the mind (Yeats tried to tether it; Ammons says, "I have let all my balloons aloose"); like Emily Dickinson, he feels an affinity for that "neglected son of genius," the spider, working like the poet "airy with radiality"; like Oliver Wendell Holmes, he writes "An Improvisation for the Stately Dwelling"; like Williams and Hopkins, he offers perpetual praise of the world of sight. In Ammons these earlier poets have found the ideal reader—the reader who himself writes a new poem as a variation on the older one.
Ammons's own newness—it bears repeating—lies in his finely calibrated sense of the actual, non-transcendent motions of the natural world. He is not in a hurry, as most of his predecessors (Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins) have been, to move from natural fact to patriotic or religious or philosophical enthusiasm. Ammons is true to himself in ending "Easter Morning" with the natural fact of bird-instinct, seen in a new configuration, rather than with the transcendent resurrection of the body in spirit. The natural universe is so real to Ammons's imagination that his poem about the earth rolling in space is spoken with an ease foreign to most efforts to "imagine" a cosmic perspective. Only Wordsworth had a comparable iron sense of fact:
We go around, distanced, yearly in a star's atmosphere, turning daily into and out of direct light and slanting through the quadrant seasons: deep space begins at our heels, nearly rousing us loose: we look up or out so high, sight's silk almost draws us away.
(Frost, who yearned for vision, said we can look "Neither out far nor in deep"; Ammons, in his love of sight, is silently corrective.) Ammons is tugged between sentiment and stoicism, and the play between those two motives is as entrancing as the play between the flow of discourse and the shape of poetry. He is as tender as Keats and as harsh as Keats, reaping some of the same benefits. He does not rise to Wordsworth's full bleakness, but he has more humor and more waywardness than Wordsworth.
"Swells" gives full range to Ammons's sentiment and stoicism alike, to his precise sense of physical motion (in this case, wave-motion), and to his firm momentum-rounding-into-shape. When hundreds of conflicting motions are assimilated into one wave, a paradoxical calm results:
Ocean floor or mountain are alike places where gigantic motions have been summarized into a near stillness:
To climb the summit or find that summary so hard to summon to mind, and there to hear the hum (as Stevens called it) of the universal pantomime, might be in another poet a forgetful sublimity. But Ammons, like Keats, cannot forget the world where men sit and hear each other groan; he ends his poem by saying he has sought out the summit for "rest from the ragged and rapid pulse, the immediate threat/ shot up in a disintegrating spray, the many thoughts and/ sights unmanageable, the deaths of so many, hungry or mad." Mortality swells so agitatingly into presence at the end of the poem that the hoped-for contemplative calm is shaken and bruised. The ills of the body and of the spirit are all there are; we die hungry or mad, our pulse ragged or rapid. In nature, of course, there is nothing "unmanageable"; the word is meaningless in the cosmos, and takes on meaning only through human will, afflicted by thoughts and sights too painful to be borne. If only, like the geologic strata or the ocean floor, we could manage "the constant, universal assimilation: the/ information, so packed, nearly silenced with majesty." But we do not, and cannot, for long. The possibility, and the impossibility, of psychic assimilation are held in equilibrium in the long oceanic swell of this Stevensian poem—which should be read with Stevens's "Somnabulisma" and "Chocorua" as its predecessors.
It is a mark of Ammons's variety that it is very hard to generalize about his practice in this volume. Almost every poem has a distinctive shape and a set of new strategies, imitating the variety of nature:
Ammons matches his loneliness and his freshness to the solitary, permanent, and renewed acts of nature; and in his
"central attention" he keeps the universe alone. The poems enable us to watch this poet going about the business of the universe, both its "lost idyllic" and its present broken radiance. He has been about this business for years now, but I notice in reading this new collection how much more secure his language has become. Once, he was likely to err both in amassing scientific words too lavishly and in affecting too folksy a tone. Now the scientific world in Ammons is beautifully in balance with the perceptual one, and the tone is believably, and almost perfectly, colloquial. The lines are as near as we could wish to the ripples round the ripplestone.
SOURCE: "The Problem of Freedom and Restriction in the Poetry of A. R. Ammons," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, Nos. 1-2, 1982, pp. 138-48.
[In the following essay, Fink explores the tensions between the concepts of individuality and unity as presented in Ammons's poetry, claiming that this polarity gives rise to a political dimension in the poet's work.]
A number of highly regarded contemporary poets, among them Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, and A. R. Ammons, have been accused of evading the responsibility of bringing political concerns into their writing. In his long poem, Sphere: The Form of a Motion, Ammons summarily dismisses this charge, suggesting that his readers are simply blind to the political aspect of his poetry:
they ask me, my readers, when I'm going to go politicized or radicalized or public when I've sat here for years singing unattended the off-songs of the territories and the midland coordinates of Cleveland or Cincinnati: when I've prized multeity and difference down to the mold under the leaf on the one hand and swept up into the perfect composures of nothingness on the other: my readers are baffling and uncommunicative (if actual) and I don't know what to make of or for them….
In referring to his concern with "multeity and difference" and "nothingness," Ammons is reaffirming his long-time obsession with what he has termed the "one:many problem," the desire to maintain a sense of unity and diversity in poetry, perception, and other forms of experience. Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria had insisted that great poetry has a felicitous balance of unity and multeity, and Ammons implicitly indicates that the United States of America (with its motto, E pluribus unum) is in many respects exemplary of this aesthetic principle:
I'm just, like Whitman, trying to keep things half straight about my country, my readers say, what's all this change and continuity: when we have a two-party system, one party devoted to reform and the other to consolidation: and both trying to grab a chunk out of the middle….
In his poetry Ammons never subjects the "one:many" structures of American politics to any rigorous analysis; in fact, he rarely speaks of any overtly political matters for more than a few lines. Nevertheless, he wants the impatient reader to understand that the salient features of the "endless" speculation on unity and diversity, abstract as they may sometimes seem, can be seen to have fundamental political ramifications. In order to demonstrate the validity of this statement, I will consider Ammons' treatment of the "one:many problem" in several poems as a reflection of the dynamics of a particularly political concern: the interplay of restriction (one) and freedom (many) in various aspects of human experience.
According to those who quest for unified, eternal, and totalized vision, the possibility that the spatial and temporal limitations of ordinary reality can be transcended constitutes the greatest imaginable freedom. In the relatively early lyric, "Guide," however, Ammons declares that the attainment of this supposed freedom turns out to be an absolute restriction of individual possibility; it is the "unity" of nothingness or death:
Like Yeats in "A Dialogue of Self and Soul," Ammons warns that the diverse, uncontrollable flux of life is incompatible with the fixity of absolute unity. The "material" forms of life—both their physicality and their relevance to the living—must be sacrificed when an individual embraces a static, metaphysical paradigm of totality. If the "perception" of this absolute is supposed to be the highest kind of vision, Ammons claims on the contrary that no seeing is actually involved; the unified view of all phenomena is an absence in the world of the living.
Of course, those who desperately desire the unity that can be "found" only in death have already ceased to perceive their immediate environment as it is, and they have experienced a death-in-life of "material" concerns. Ammons' warning may apply to anyone with a fixed idea of reality or an inflexible ideology in which it is possible to "turn around." The stasis of an idealized paradigm precludes the possibility of movement or development, and so the "freedom to choose" is obliterated. What had at first seemed a liberation from uncertainty is now a seemingly irrevocable imprisonment in a tyrannical sameness.
Ammons' later poem, "He Held Radical Light," describes the conflicts of a man who feels torn between the delight of the influx of transcendental power and the desire to remain within the security of a human community. In the opening stanza, the "radical light" of transcendence is figured as a version of the "music of the spheres" which came to "the furrows" of the man's "brain/ into the dark, shuddered,/ shot out again/ in long swaying swirls of sound…." This remarkable energy, evoked grandly by the alliteration, seems an almost sexual release from "the dark" of limited perception and the constraints of ordinary experience. As indicated by the use of the word "radical" in the title and first line, the visionary/ musician thinks that he has been allowed to return to the "root" or origin of his being, the source of unlimited power.
But the second stanza immediately discloses that he is afraid this liberating energy will uproot him from the context he has known all his life, a world full of other people. Understanding that "reality had little weight in his transcendence," the man has been terrified of losing contact with the ground (in a literal and figurative sense) "and liked himself, and others, mostly/ under roofs…." Comically, he can appreciate the commonplace restriction or "government" of a roof, because he has the paradoxical awareness that this agent of limitation is actually a source of liberation from a seemingly external force that would (in the name of freedom) coerce the individual to abandon the people and things he values so highly.
If the man finds at times that he desires to experience the powerful influx of "radical light," he knows that to adopt some version of transcendence as a permanent, unchanging attitude would prove an insupportable restriction of possibility, and so he must be satisfied with temporary flashes of transcendence. Furthermore, as much as the visionary/musician may hope to discover the "radical" truth of his self-identity (whatever distinguishes him from all other entities), he desires even more strongly to gain psychological strength from his identification with—or sense of being rooted in—his community:
released, hidden from stars, he ate, burped, said he was like any one of us: demanded he was like any one of us.
As in Whitman's "Song of Myself," the reference to burping is a sign of liberation from the tyrannical allurement of the Sublime, the immaculate starlight, which would reduce the diversity of human behavior into the unity of inhuman perfection.
Although much of Ammons' poetry shows he believes, as he asserts in the long Tape for the Turn of the Year, that "we can approach/ unity only by the loss/ of things—/ a loss we're unwilling/ to take," he clearly perceives the dangers of diversity without any sense of provisional order. As evidenced by a lengthy criticism of industrial polluters in "Extremes and Moderations," Ammons is extremely concerned with the survival of man and nature, and he recognizes that unlimited freedom would result in the ultimate imprisonment of global destruction. "Rampaging industrialists" are "filling vats of smoky horrors because" they desire "to live in long white houses on the summits/ of lengthy slopes," but they forget that "common air moves over the slopes, and common rain's/ losing its heavenly clarity: if we move beyond/ the natural cautions, we must pay the natural costs…." How, then, does Ammons arrive at a satisfactory midpoint between the disastrous poles of anarchy and totalitarianism? In a handful of poems, Ammons presents either a partial or provisional conclusion to this monumental problem. The world of nature often provides examples of the balance-in-movement that mankind must learn in order to ensure its own and the earth's survival. After announcing, "ecology is my word: tag/ me with that," in Tape for the Turn of the Year, the poet celebrates a natural symbol of positive growth:
On the one hand, the lichen is not a static pattern governed by a center that prescribes the periphery, and on the other hand, the growth of the periphery does not destroy all sense of pattern or stability. The center is both the beginning-point of growth and the reassuring foundation or base of support for the periphery. But, like an ideal form of government for citizens who are all trustworthy and responsible, this center does not interfere with the freedom of the periphery to expand in whatever way it finds necessary and desirable. While the center is providing a sense of unity or coherence, the periphery's "unprescribed" growth from "moment-to-moment" is providing a sense of spontaneity and diversity. In simple abstract terms, survival can be viewed as the center, and adaptability to change as the expansion of the periphery. As Ammons notes a few pages later in Tape, his "other word" (besides "ecology") "is provisional," and "the center-arising/ form" he admires continually "finds a new factor,/ utilizes a new method,/ gains a new foothold,/ responds to inner & outer/ changes."
It is one thing to find an ideal "model" for development and maintenance of continuity in the environment; it is quite another to apply it, however beautiful or efficient it seems, to the extremely complex functioning and interactions of human beings. In "Corsons Inlet," perhaps his best known poem, Ammons directly addresses the problem of how the individual perceiver can both regulate and yet open up possibilities for understanding and growth in his encounter with the natural world.
As the speaker of the poem is walking "over the dunes again this morning/ to the sea", he finds himself liberated from rigid geometrical forms and exposed to more changeable, uncertain, and—to use the poet's own word—provisional shapes:
Static formulations give way to an awareness of process; the confinement of "blocks" and "boxes" gives way to "rises" and "flowing." As the aural imagination moves from "binds" to the off-rhymes of "bends and blends," the speaker is released from the reductive impulse of abstract categorization and experiences the "unprescribed" and ever-expanding "periphery" of phenomenal perception. He goes on to emphasize the beauty of vigorous movement: in the "geography" of the poet's work are to be found "eddies," "a stream" and "swerves of action." None of these phenomena can be captured in a snapshot, and the experience of an Ammons poem cannot be squeezed into an aphorism or paradigm.
The poet refuses to give a name to the "Overall," the totalization of the experience from a retrospective position, although he celebrates the diversity of "the overall wandering of mirroring mind." The value of the experience of nature is the transition or "wandering" from perception to perception; there are continual surprises. Since every artificial boundary or limitation proves unable to contain what the speaker sees, as "manifold events of sand/ change the dune's shape that will not be the same shape/ tomorrow," he can have the confidence that embracing the temporality of experience is the only "logical" choice he can make: "so I am willing to go along, to accept/ the becoming/ thought …". Once "thought" is considered a process and not a final, static formulation, it can be valued along with the "bends and blends/ of sight."
Realizing that "the demand" among nature's denizens "is life, to keep life," the perceiver can admire to some degree even the savagery of predatory birds satisfying their hunger, as opposed to the lifelessness of placing the world's elements in metaphysical "boxes." Without any trace of revulsion, the speaker reports that one gull "ate/ to vomiting," while another "squawking possession, cracked a crab,/ picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs…." Is the poet implying here that all survival is based on the necessity of depriving others of life? This is only one small aspect of the workings of nature; Ammons is careful to differentiate his view of natural process from the notion of anarchy. "Thousands of tree swallows/ gathering for flight" toward a warm climate are "a congregation/ rich with entropy: nevertheless separable, noticeable/ as one event,/ not chaos …".
At this point, Ammons' persona feels sufficiently liberated from the tyranny of falsely uniforming or unifying forces, and now he is concerned that his exercise of this freedom will be misconstrued as total disorder—without the possibility of provisional understanding. The balance-in-movement is achieved when he describes a continual process of the "many" springing out of the "one" in his field of vision and experience:
In metaphysics and theology, disorder is generally conceived as existing within a comprehensive order, diversity within unity, words within the Word (Logos). The Ammons of "Corsons Inlet" articulates the exact opposite of this position: although small orders may be "broken down" and their fragments later used in the composition of larger orders, every larger order at some point is destined to prove inadequate or be dismantled. Furthermore, given the multiplicity of possible factors involved in any transformation, one cannot predict the pattern of a future synthesis from a present one. With every expansion of the individual's perspective comes an "unassimilable fact" that "leads [him] on"—to account for the diversity that bursts out of a limited unity.
The poet, then, considers the small instances of order that he sees, such as the pattern of "blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed," provisionally valuable, but no more valuable than the loss of order. The most important thing is that movement continues, because movement is a sign of survival, which has to be the greatest solace for the poet who tosses aside metaphysical consolations: "all possibilities/ of escape open: no route shut, except in/ the sudden loss of all routes …." No one can find guaranteed protection against death, but the poet's common-sense approach can help to avert the horror of death-in-life. He strives for maximum freedom within severe external limitations, and this aim is accomplished through the interplay of small freedoms and restrictions: "I will try/ to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening/ scope, but enjoying the freedom that/ Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision…." The poet's desire to confine the swarming elements of his perceptions for a time within a unified "scope" can be viewed as a way of liberating himself from the undifferentiated mess of chaos. The breaking of order cannot be appreciated without the prior existence of order. Likewise, the individual is set free from a futile quest for "Scope"—freed from the universal in order to experience the power and pleasure of the particular—only because he has agreed to restrict the scope of his ambition, to acknowledge his human limitations.
In "Uh, Philosophy" Ammons suggests that the kind of freedoms assumed in poems such as "Corsons Inlet" must be used with a strong sense of political responsibility, lest one individual or group mistakenly believe that the highest form of personal liberty is domination of others. In an age such as ours in which, according to the poem's speaker, philosophers say "that truth is so much a method" and therefore one should be permitted to believe anything he chooses or nothing, the proliferation of ideologies makes it extremely difficult for people to live peaceably with one another:
The word "rhetoric" can usefully be substituted for "philosophy" in this poem, since philosophizing here is an exercise of the individual will. If a rhetorical pattern is like a "snowshovel" that clears away the vast accumulation of data that cannot be satisfactorily assimilated ("possibly a hundred sensations per second, conscious/ and unconscious …"), it can certainly help someone make his way through various experiences. But when the snowshovel is turned into a club, when defense is converted into offense, Ammons' speaker does not want his arguments to be "backed up" or supported by such rhetoric, because he knows that he could just as easily be "backed up" or caused to retreat by someone else's. The more people who are vying to club one another, the less chance that any particular one of them will succeed in subjegating the others, and, in any case, it is hard to imagine the genial speaker of "Uh, Philosophy" wanting to impose an ironclad will on everyone he meets.
Most crucially, the speaker prefers "disarmament" because he is convinced that "the imperturbable objective" of collective survival must always be cherished more than an individual's personal gain or that of his country. He longs for peaceful coexistence to be established as the truth beyond all mere questioning, but feels "hot and sticky" because he knows that no authority, no central force, has been able to check the escalation of the ideological and military arms buildup.
There is irony, though, in the speaker's desire for "something/ to conform to (without responsibility)." The voluntary shouldering of responsibility—on everyone's part—is precisely what is needed to ensure global survival. If we are free to choose our ideologies, we should be happy to honor others' right to enjoy this freedom. But the "overall" "message" of poems like "Corsons Inlet" has already taught us that it is a grave mistake to impose any fixed version of "Being"—much less one of our own total mastery or control over anyone else—on ourselves or those we encounter. If we accept the continual becoming (be-ing) of our individual and collective experience, as Ammons and several other influential modern American poets (among them Williams, Olson, Creeley, and Ashbery) have in their various ways urged us to do, we will not need the threats of external authority to keep us in line; we will exercise restraint on our will to power, with the confidence that it is the most liberating and best possible course of action. Unfortunately, few world leaders at the present time seem to cherish this way of thinking.
In presenting various acts of individual liberation (and its attendant restrictions) in many of his poems, A. R. Ammons sets implicit examples for others to liberate themselves and to help protect individual freedom in general through their actions. Although some readers are put off by what they consider a plethora of "inhuman" abstract philosophizing in the work, Ammons' poetry is filled with inherent generosity, much like the light that the poet praises in "The City Limits":
When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold itself but pours its abundance without selection into every nook and cranny not overhung or hidden …. when you consider that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen, each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.
SOURCE: "The Arc of a New Covenant: The Idea of the Reader in A. R. Ammons' Poems," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 18, 1986, pp. 86-103.
[Allen is an American educator, poet, and critic. In the following essay, he asserts that Ammons's poetry constantly challenges the traditional conception of poetry, as well as the standard roles of the poet and reader.]
Most writers cultivate their ability to satisfy expectations. A. R. Ammons is a notable exception. Through his defiance, he hopes to make us question the assumptions behind—our ideal of Good Poetry and to join with him in creating new, provisionally more satisfying standards. Then, in the next poem, or in the next book of poems, the process of denial and revision begins afresh: or, as Ammons succinctly puts the matter at the end of "Corsons Inlet," "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk."
Not all readers are comfortable with this responsibility. David Young, for example, complains that Ammons does not always provide us with the verbal richesse traditionally
Perhaps the verse essay is a respectable and legitimate genre, but I wish it wouldn't be confused with lyric poetry; if you order bourbon and get ginger-ale because someone thinks they are roughly the same thing, you have a right to protest. ["Language: The Poet as Master and Servant," in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young, 1980]
The central metaphor in this passage is revealing. It implies that the relationship between audience and author is a fundamentally commercial one. Readers like Mr. Young know what they want from poems; the writer should be smart enough either to want the same things, or at least to pretend that he does; the writer then hands over the bourbon to his patrons and hopes for his critical gratuity.
This strikes me as precisely the relationship between writer and reader that Ammons has been questioning for thirty-five years. In a 1973 interview with David Grossvogel [in Diacritics 3 (Winter 1973)], Ammons' profession of interest in John Ashbery's poems underscores his own aesthetic principles:
I respect [Ashbery] very much as a courageous man who has not thought to himself "What is most likely to succeed?" Which is what most of the poets that I don't respect ask first.
Ammons does, of course, ultimately wish to please his readers. Like Roland Barthes, he perceives the relationship between text and reader as an erotic one:
Take a boy and a girl, they see each other. It's like the first line of a poem. It either sets up an immediate attraction so you want to know more, or it doesn't. If the attraction is there, what happens? The two people manage somehow to get close to each other and what happens next?—not silence but an outbreak of dialogue whereby they try to sense where the other person is…. [Interview, Diacritics]
But lovers often please us most by telling us things that we initially did not want to hear, and that we come to see as beautiful only through their efforts. That is, poets don't sell us anything but manage to engender it in our deepest, best selves. And just as we change, they change, and we must all try to rekindle that love in ever-various ways.
Young shows an unwillingness to entertain Ammons' notion of the shifting, recriprocal relationship between poet and reader; he assumes that Ammons, especially in his longer poems, is either too stupid or too untalented to provide verbal flourishes for our edification. Denis Donoghue has a different problem with Ammons' work, but it also hinges upon a reluctance to question the customary relationship between author and audience. Donoghue chastises Ammons for being insufficiently concerned with other human beings in his poems:
He protests that he is concerned with Nature, including human nature, but he rarely makes me feel that he cares much about any human nature but his own. His poetry is rural in the sense that you can walk for miles in it without meeting anyone; so the dramatic sense of life never appears. Ammons could write his poetry if there were nothing in the world but mountains, winds, weather, birds, fish, sand dunes, beaches, and a poet accustomed to living in his art alone. ["Ammons and the Lesser Celandine," Parnassus 3 (Spring-Summer 1975)]
Donoghue is wrong as well as uncharitable here, for such a world would also be devoid of readers. For Ammons, the essential humanity of poems lies not within them but between them and their audience. That is, his poems rarely dramatize relationships between persons, but rather present speakers who are surrogates or adversaries for the reader. The resulting tension between the voice in the poem and the reader's response to it becomes the poem's social being—which often incorporates the isolation of the speaker within it. Thus, the typical Ammons poem is at once alienated and in quest of the social completion that is available only through the reading process.
Critics like Harold Bloom, despite their maddening jargon, posit an active, creative reader: a concept that helps them to realize and to enjoy the many tasks that Ammons sets before them. My chief reservation about Bloom's commentaries, apart from their prolixity, is their tendency to pursue theoretical points at the expense of the poems themselves. (Bloom would call my position a canonization of "weak misreading," but that is another matter.) Because Bloom's theory is, in general, much closer to the spirit of Ammons' work than more traditional theories of interpretation are, it produces some rich, persuasive readings. Yet it also produces excesses like the following:
As I read the most recent Ammons [Bloom is writing in 1973] I keep remembering fragments out of Emerson's Journals (not because Ammons browses in them, but because his Lurianic misprision of Emerson operates most fiercely when he has not read the ancestral sage). ["Emerson and Ammons: A Coda," Diacritics 3 (Winter 1973)]
If one practices this sort of intertextuality-run-wild—an influence is strongest when it isn't there—then there is no longer the dialog that Ammons envisions between poet and reader. Instead, the reader has taken over the whole show.
Although Ammons' manners are too good to call Bloom specifically to task for this critical imperialism, he has commented upon the excesses of contemporary criticism in general:
Certain levels [of poems] are discussable. That is what bothers me so much about some of the French critics, as I understand them. They have arrived at the point where there is no text. It's impossible that there should be an author; it's inconceivable that there could be an audience. Now it just won't work, because human life and human organisms go right on. [Interview, Diacritics]
In his helpful study of Ammons' work [A. R. Ammons, 1978], Alan Holder sets up groups of "polar clusters" to indicate the extremes "between which Ammons' sensibility oscillates":
|One (Unity)||Many (Multiplicity)|
The list suggests that Ammons habitually concerns himself with provisional, informing tensions rather than with gem-like lyrics or narratives. To Holder's clusters I would add "author: readers" or "assertion: syntheses." Perhaps we should remember the littoral landscape of so many of Ammons' poems in the late 50's and early 60's. In metapoetic terms, the ocean becomes the author, shaping the land of the reader that both receives and deflects. The text of each poem is a point upon the vital, ever-changing periphery whose broadest outlines I shall now attempt to chart.
The world of A. R. Ammons' first poems is forbidding: often desert, usually hostile, always disorienting. Many readers who enjoy the more conversational later poems are baffled by the hermetic incantations of Ommateum:
[T]he poetry is personal but abstract, intense but distanced. Taken as a whole, the volume is attenuated and unduly strange, coming to us from too far away. [Holder, A. R. Ammons]
Robert Morgan sums up the spirit of the early work more sympathetically:
The Ommateum poems occur in remote points of desert and mind, which is their difficulty and purity. The later poems create a sense of space more accessible and easier to recognize. Their landscape is often the more life-promoting sea shore and marshes. ["The Compound Vision of A. R. Ammons' Early Poems," Epoch 22 (Spring 1973)]
The paradox of Ammons' earliest work is that it insistently asks the reader to identify with the poet's radical isolation, thereby qualifying that isolation in the reader's mind as it is qualified nowhere on the page. The world ommateum refers to the compound eye of an insect; if we extend the metaphor implied by the title of the book, Ammons himself becomes the insect, and the speaker of each poem is a fragment of the eye which is the I. The typical speaker in Ommateum is alienated from other human beings, from the landscape, and often from his own body:
Even the refuge of language itself is flimsy:
The pieces of my voice have been thrown away I said turning to the hedgerows and hidden ditches Where do the pieces of my voice lie scattered("Rack")
In his first book Ammons shows us, but rarely tells us, that the poem is the last, unassailable point of contact between human beings. Gestures of farewell dominate in Ommateum, yet the book goes on: the speaker dissolves into the night wind ("So I Said I Am Ezra"); he "Walk[s] out of the world" after seeing Jews burned alive ("In Strasbourg in 1349"); he disappears into the well of the inexpressible ("Turning a Moment to Say So Long"); he perishes while waiting for the resolving chord of divine unity ("I Struck a Diminished Seventh"); he disappears into the mushroom clouds above a leveled city ("Dropping Eyelids Among the Aerial Ash"). Yet he is magically resurrected, if not rescued, again and again in ways that are possible only in the transforming imaginations of writer and reader.
Ammons begins Ommateum with an assertion of unity: he adopts the voice of the prophet Ezra. But the world around him denies his gesture:
So I said I am Ezra and the wind whipped my throat gaming for the sounds of my voice
And ultimately the speaker himself follows suit:
As a word too much repeated falls out of being so I Ezra went out into the night like a drift of sand
Ammons goes on to become the Ancient Mariner of his own book, appearing and dissolving in different scenes, compulsively counting the many grains of his being that have been winnowed by the wind of life-in-death.
The wind games for the sounds of the speaker in "So I Said I Am Ezra," suggesting the bewildering multiplicity of voice and vision throughtout Ommateum. Patterns of imagery are begun in one poem and transmuted in the next; the sea oats of the Ezra poem become the rye and oatgrains of "The Sap Is Gone Out of the Trees" while the "unremembered seas" of the first poem become the memories of the land of the speaker's birth in the next. Such patterns occur over and over again in Ommateum, the most thoroughly Heraclitean book of this Heraclitean poet.
Death is both the dissolution and the unity of Ommateum. Mortality eventually becomes "This Black Rich Country" at the end of the 1951-1955 section of the Collected Poems. The shifting perspectives, ambiguous line-divisions, and broken images of Ommateum, however disorienting, do not preclude the poet's resurrection on the next page. To enjoy Ammons' early work, a reader must be willing to embrace this rapid, paradoxical shifting, to become its flux, to see, at least provisionally, through the compound eye of Ommateum to the I beyond.
Although Ommateum is a book of dislocations—in time, place, syntax, and patterns of imagery—in tone it is all of a very dark piece. But in the rest of the 1971 Collected Poems a new Ammons emerges. His tone is often playful, and as various as his many voices. His language becomes more conversational and more accessible. Frederick Buell summarizes these new tendencies:
Most immediately striking in the poetry dated in the Collected Poems between 1956 and 1966 is the great variety of voices and lyric selves that Ammons has created. Sly or serious inquirer, chanter, celebrant, country skeptic, diarist, observer, reasoner: the speakers range in utterance from the formal, hortatory, or celebrative Whitmanian chanter of songs to the wry, ironic doubter of prophecy.
['"To Be Quiet in the Hands of the Marvelous': The Poetry of A. R. Ammons," Iowa Review, Winter, 1977]
Ammons largely abandons his desert landscapes and becomes more interested in field, forest, river and seashore. The inner and outer weather in his poems appropriately becomes more temperate and more changeable. Ammons now implies that all emotions, somber and glorious, joyful and humble, deserve equal consideration as psychic forces, and that the mind must celebrate its changes. Richard Howard notes astutely that "it is only in Ammons that I find all three moments—the changing from, the changing, and the changing to—exalted equally" [Alone with America, enlarged edition, 1980].
Ammons' relationship with the reader undergoes an equally dramatic change in this period. No longer is the speaker an isolated seer, hoping for the empathy that he seems unable to extend to anyone else. Now he frequently addresses the reader in the second person; this rhetoric gives the poems of the late 50's and early 60's an explicitly social dimension absent from Ommateum. For example, Ammons begins "Risks and Possibilities" with a garland for the reader:
The Ommateum poems renounce the everyday world and its rhetorical gestures, but Ammons' impulse five or ten years later is to "honor a going thing" ("Mechanism"). The farewells of the early poems have become arrivals and returns. "Hymn" begins with a perception similar to the one that dominates Ommateum:
But in its second stanza, the poem makes an assertion more characteristic of the newer Ammons:
And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes trusting the microvilli sporangia and simplest coelenterates
This acceptance of what Richard Wilbur calls "the things of this world" is the most substantial difference between the first book and the half-dozen that follow it. Ammons' "things" are characteristically smaller or larger than Wilbur's, however, and Ammons never has the certainty of vision that is the center of Wilbur's art. Indeed, in a 1968 essay, "A Poem Is a Walk," Ammons suggests that the perception of poetry should be a battle against such certainty:
Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterwards have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of over-simplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life.
But uncertainty does not preclude education, and Ammons frequently employs a lecturing tone in the middle of his Collected Poems. "Bridge," for example, begins with the enigmatic advice that "A tea garden shows you how." As we adopt the identity of the "you" in the poem and become Ammons' pupil, we enjoy the midafternoon sun and watch "lovers and single people" walk over a steep, small bridge arcing above a pond's narrowest point. As the people ascend the bridge, their reflections seem to go deeper into the pond, "where bridge and mirrorbridge merge at the bank." Then they descend on the other side, "returning their images to themselves" as they disappear into a grove of trees that "screens them into isolations of love or loneliness." At this point, the speaker invites us to imagine the spirit making a similar ascent and descent on the "bridge of consciousness." As in Frost's "Birches," this mental journey is good both going and coming back, but especially coming back:
The reintegration into the world that took place silently between poems in Ommateum now is occuring within the poems themselves. Poet and reader have become fellow observers, fellow walkers—even if, like the objects and reflections in "Bridge," they never wholly meet in the water of the text.
This new convenant is most playfully clear in "Coon Song." The poem begins as the speaker watches a raccoon fall from a tree and lands in front of some hounds. Just as we're ready for the bloody dismemberment to occur, the speaker interrupts the story with some "uh, philosophy":
Then the speaker both whets our curiosity and delays its satisfaction by presenting the coon's death in graphic but hypothetical terms;
At this point, Ammons incorporates the reader into the poem directly, and raises the fundamental issue in the relationship between author and audience, the issue of power:
In this remarkable passage, Ammons suggests that in conventional narrative the writer is the slave of the reader's expectations. He must, like Samuel Johnson's playwright, please to live. But Ammons is trying to give poetry its thirteenth amendment. With the phrase "I am no slave that I/ should entertain you," Ammons deftly turns the poem's title into a racial pun. The poet who renounces his slavery is singing "Coon Song"; we should also remember that "coon songs" were a staple of the record industry at the turn of the century.
Of course, readers are ultimately the slaves of their expectations as well. Once Ammons forces us to admit that our hunger for narrative closure makes us long for the poetcoon's death—once we recognize the "sloppy silt" of our conventional expectations—then the wily beast paws more dust into our eyes and reverses the reversal:
When we've barely finished acknowledging our lust for blood and certainly, Ammons makes us acknowledge our guilt for rejoicing in the disappearance of the hounds. We may have switched from sadism to sentimentality, but Ammons wants us to see that both are conventional poses that he wishes to avoid. To acknowledge the shattering of the order that he himself has helped to create, the poet violates his customary pattern of line indentations.
If Ammons has not purged us of our preconceptions, he at least has encouraged us to recognize them for what they are. We never find out what "really happens" to that raccoon; but if we don't like leaving the possibilities open, we can provide our own closure while the poet takes time off to count. Thus, the poem is a collaborative enterprise in which the reader has the responsibility to listen to the poet, but not the duty to obey him. Similarly, the pet takes into account the reader's expectations but feels free to subvert them. We have, in short, an interpretive game whose rules lie somewhere between the ones posited by David Young and Harold Bloom in the passages quoted at the beginning of this essay.
The "two philosophies" at the end of the poem are not "spheres roll, cubes stay put," because both statements imply a similar fatalism. Rather, the second philosophy is to be provided by the reader while Ammons counts:
At first glance, the last stanza might seem a non sequitur as well as a solecism. Once again, Ammons violates the pattern of indentation that he has established, just as the streetwise colloquialism violates the rural setting of the poem. Yet these lines remind us of the digression in the second stanza ("Dostoevsky would think/ it important if the coon/ could choose"), and in doing so underscore an important difference between poetry and experience. There need be no practical constraints upon our choices as writers or readers: we are free to make our own chains. Ammons chooses to address us, just as we choose to read his poem, so the adversarial relationship between the I and the you is only one part of a deeper community of concerns. After upbraiding us for our imagined shortcomings throughout the poem, Ammons playfully embraces us in the last three lines: the slave who refused to entertain us has become the friend who does entertain us. This new relationship is mysterious, subversive, erotic, and just plain fun.
In more stately poems such as "Expressions of Sea Level," the text can become the interface between writer and reader as it explores the interaction between ocean and land. In Richard Howard's fortuitous phrase, Ammons is "a littoralist of the imagination" [Alone with America], for he believes that both world and mind are most vital at their outer edges, where they are at the point of becoming something or someone else. Here, the possibilities and the dangers of change are greatest:
The poet, like the sea, finds expression and completion only on the periphery, only in contact with the other. Such contact can be observed but not explained or even entirely understood. The ocean-as-poet "erodes and/ builds" the land-as-reader in a never-ending meeting that can be both destructive ("shattered") and illuminating ("light").
The Ammons of the 1960's usually seems comfortable with the social dimension of his art. Yet on occasion he feels nostalgia for his earlier, more difficult work:
The fall from the isolation of the Ommateum poems "into the/ odor and warmth/ of others" seems problematic here. At the end of the 1970's, Ammons will shinny up that lonely tree once more in writing one of the most baffling works of his career, The Snow Poems.
The Snow Poems is easily the most controversial of Ammons' many books. Hayden Carruth's assesment of it is typical:
In spite of a bright, attractive technique, which could be used perfectly well in real poems, and in spite of lyric parts that remind us of earlier work, The Snow Poems is a dull, dull book.
["Reader Participation Invited," The New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1977]
[In "Book Reviews: The Snow Poems and The Selected Poems 1951-1977" The Georgia Review 32 (Winter 1978)] Peter Stitt bluntly refers to "the disaster of The Snow Poems" while praising the earlier lyrics.
There's no denying that it is a strange and often maddening book—292 pages of whistling in the slush. When I first read it, my response was similar to another critic's reaction to Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons' most idiosyncratic work of the 1960's: "not so much a poem as the ground of a poem, the dark backing of a mirror out of which all brightness may, as a condition, come" [Howard, Alone with America].
But after rereading The Snow Poems (twice!), I have come to regard it not as a notebook in verse but as a measured, finished work which, oddly enough, encourages us to wonder whether the "finish" of poetry is a kind of death-worship.
The book begins with the aging poet's guilt and resentment:
by the time a poem is the world the author is out of town pushing fifty—("Words of Comfort")
As the poems accumulate, the melting and reappearance of their snow is reminiscent of the dissolution and reappearance of the self in Ommateum. The desert has been replaced by a seemingly endless Ithaca winter dragging on into spring, and the atmosphere of the new book is less rarefied than what we find in the early poems. Yet the obsession with death, alienation, and discontinuity is remarkably similar.
The individual poems often end with abrupt shifts in voice, tone, and subject. In the critical lingo of our time, The Snow Poems contains a strong deconstructive impulse that Ammons has expressed more directly in other forums. He states in a 1978 interview with Cynthia Haythe that "All I mean to do [in my poems] is to overturn the Western mind!" [Contemporary Literature 21 (1980)]. He goes onto explain his preference for appreciation over analysis:
… I have a very strong attachment to readers. Now on the other hand, if you live in a university community, you constantly hear things being explained. It gets to the point where it looks as if the explanation is going to replace the reality.
The Snow Poems could be subtitled "A Diatribe Against Explanations." It contains spoofs of the spirit behind academic literary criticism:
I do not care what anybody thinks of anything, really: that is to say, I have not found the flavor of orange juice diminished or increased by this or that approach to Heidegger or Harmonium: I believe the constituency of water has remained constant since the Pleides: I don't think that any attitude I take to spider webs will faze flies: have you seen Stanley Fish in the flesh:("You Think of the Sun That It")
Things and feelings are ultimately stronger than ideas. All the poems in The Snow Poems have their first lines as their titles; Ammons tries to avoid even the appearance of the overarching orders that his commentators so inordinately prize.
The entire book is aggressively fragmentary, and therein (perhaps) lies its purpose. X. J. Kennedy's appraisal of the earlier Tape is relevant here:
It is as if [Ammons] were trying to prove how much dull junk his barge can triumphantly float.
["Translations from the American," The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1973]
But in The Snow Poems, Ammons is out to sink the barge, not just to test it. He seems to be asking the following question: Whatlies before or beyond or after the lyric experience that both poets and readers worship? "Hard Lard," for example, contains the following reminiscence:
As the poet listens to snow fall on the windowpanes, he willingly supplies the "do" that is absent from his earlier work. Do also deserves its due, he implies. Although the urge to purify in lyric poetry may please our nostrils, it can also impoverish the mind's soil.
In the next stanza of "Hard Lard," Ammons recalls pulling up a small maple tree that was growing too close to his garage. For purely practical reasons, the tree had to go. But there is no practical imperative in poetry. We can have the purple do and the tree next to the garage if we wish. And if we lose something in the process, we gain something also.
In The Snow Poems, Ammons often subverts the lyric impulse behind his earlier, shorter poems by showing how random thoughts (especially sexual and scatological ones) occur at the most inopportune moments—even, great heavens, while we're writing poems. "Poetry Is the Smallest" has the strangest ending of any work celebrating poetry's ability to number the streaks of the tulip:
Throughout The Snow Poems, Ammons is making jokes: juxtaposing philosophy with flatulence, NFL games with High Culture, the sublime with the absurd, in order to make us question our very classification. He is establishing a new periphery here—the one that lies between sense and surprise—to replace the beaches of his earlier lyrics as the locus of imaginative activity. Ammons writes like a man who is afraid of selling out to the glorified version of himself created by the literary establishment. By 1977, he is determined to flaunt his warts.
The contrapuntal technique of The Snow Poems echoes this whimsically aggressive nose-thumbing. Two stanzas develop side by side, irreconcilable yet (somehow, we want to trust) part of the same whole. "[A]rrange these words so that they make/ sense," Ammons tells us in "Hard Fist"; this is the battle cry to the reader throughout the book.
As long as we take this challenge in the right spirit, and don't insist upon our "sense" of the poem being unique and determinate, then there's no problem. We can let the ideas, images, and emotions of The Snow Poems accumulate and dissolve, just as the snow does in the many passages involving the weather. It's only when we wish to freeze The Snow Poems permanently in our minds—when we become pedants eager to make "the explanation replace the reality"—that we feel uneasy:
So the poet becomes a befuddled befuddler, one of whose most important tasks is to reveal our blind confidence in the too-easy orders of the lyric impulse, just as "Coon Song" revealed our blind confidence in narrative momentum. The poet seeks not closure, but an openness that can sometimes include closure:
poetry operates, not to deny the abstraction or the particular and not to diminish the distance between them but to hold in relation the widest play between them("A Seventeen Morning")
The Snow Poems contains a mixture of insults and apologies, neither to be taken entirely seriously, for seriousness is one of the most insidious of the lyric closures that we must resist:
may a fart pule brow billows about your earlobes ….. I am not wise please forgive for writing("Quilted Spreads")
But just as the author of Ommateum finally comes to question his own questioning, so does the author of The Snow Poems occasionally wonder whether he's gone too far:
I suppose I've worried too much abut the outbreak of destructive clarification("As for Fame I've Had It")
The dominant tendency of The Snow Poems, however, is to eschew this single vision and to concentrate instead upon trying "to/ murmur, stammer, swear, and/ sing on the edges of or around/ or deep into the unspeakable …" ("I'm Unwilling"). The final poem of the book gives us perhaps the best advice for considering it as a whole. "They Say It Snowed" is a lyric encapsulation of this often anti-lyrical work. Here, the snow that covers the rest of the book gives way to its memory, as the book itself recedes into the reader's own past. Ammons is outside his home, cleaning up after the profligate "lord of volition," the cruising teenagers who pass by on Hanshaw Road:
Ammons, assuming the role of homeowner and lyric poet, is busy tidying up the excesses of others. If we have been tempted to become impatient with the author of The Snow Poems, just as he is tempted to become impatient with those teenagers, we should also remember the value of raw vitality—something that doesn't get through the gate at garden parties or in lyric poems.
The reader and writer walk off into the future at poem's end. Ammons tells us that he will catch up on his correspondence; then, after he has already given us nearly 300 pages of poems, he offers to send us not one letter, but several:
should I put you down for
The poem's final word, "we(l)come," contains a greeting within its insistence upon sexuality and the future. Writer and reader are never finished; the world is never exhausted.
I am intrigued by The Snow Poems, but in the end, I must say that my reaction to it is much like my reaction to John Ashbery's work: I find it more enjoyable to talk about than to read. I am glad Ammons has written the book, but I hope that he doesn't write it again; a little deconstruction (as any reader of recent literary theory will attest) can go a long way. Ammons may be right in saying that the lyric impulse is incomplete, but it is the kind of incompleteness that I think poetry ultimately needs.
Ammons has renewed his alliance with change in the early 1980's. His new journey seems to be toward silence, as Helen Vendler notes in her review of the 1982 volume, Worldly Hopes:
The short poems here are more of Ammons' experiments in the minimal. The question is how few words can make a poem, and how densely can a few words be made to resonate. ["Spheres and Ragged Edges," Poetry, October, 1982]
If The Snow Poems is insistently garrulous, insistently more inclusive and therefore more diffuse that the poetry to which we are accustomed, Worldly Hopes (like the earlier Briefings) is just as insistently exlusive, inviting extensions rather than consolidations from the reader. Once again, Ammons has changed the focal length and the field of vision in his work.
His 1981 volume, A Coast of Trees, is the lyrical midpoint between his macrocosmic and his microcosmic extremes. The book begins with the "thesis" of The Snow Poems: all orders, however tentative, are ultimately false, and we must embrace the particular, the absence (hole) of order if we are to find the wholeness and holiness of the world:
how are we to find holiness, our engines of declaration put aside, helplessness our first offer and sacrifice, except that having given up all mechanisms of approach, having accepted a shambles of non-enterprise, we know a unity approach divided, a composure past sight: then, with nothing, we turn to the cleared particular …("Coast of Trees")
But this poem is within the realm of lyric assertion as it qualifies assertions of unity. In "Continuing," one of the most moving poems in the new book, the fiftyish poet tries to discover "the accumulation/ of fifty seasons" of leaves beneath a tree, but he can discern only two:
… under that sand or rocksoil already mixed with the meal or grist: is this, I said to the mountain, what becomes of things: well, the mountain said, one mourns the dead but who can mourn those the dead mourned
Here, the elegiac tone of The Snow Poems is reunited with the lyric impulse. "White Dwarf" presents us with an image of the poet that will become the aesthetic center of his next book:
As I grow older arcs swollen inside now and then fall back, collapsing, into forming walls: the temperature shoots up with what I am not and am: from multiplicities, dark knots, twanging twists, structures come into sight, chief of these a blade of fire only now so late, so sharp and standing, burning confusion up.
This vision of the aging poet seems close to the "old man's eagle mind" that we find in Yeats' last poems. But Ammons' rag and bone shop of the heart is less rhetorically heightened. He sees his earlier works not as a collection of circus animals but as the balloons of "Breaking Out":
… they are all let loose yellow, red, blue, thin-skinned, tough and let go they have put me down I was an earth thing all along my feet are catching in the brush
Worldly Hopes is a book of small motions: squirrels in trees, a leaf in the wind, a shrub rising when the ice is kicked from it, a hermit lark singing. Ammons gives us his new aesthetic in "Progress Report":
Now I'm into things so small when I say boo I disappear
Assertions of Ammons' kinship with Emerson have become commonplace; many critics note, usually with praise, his tendency to become on occasion the "transparent eyeball" of Nature: "I am nothing," Emerson tells us; "I see all." This is clearly the spirit behind poems such as "Spruce Woods":
It's so still today that a
dipping bough means a squirrel has gone through.
Ammons' long poems tend to operate in a Heideggerean universe: Die sprache spricht; language itself is the foreground. That is how The Snow Poems achieves many of its disquieting effects. But the Ammons of Worldly Hopes tries to shake us up in a different way: here, das ding spricht, as Husserl and Williams say that it should, and Ammons eagerly follows his own line of sight, phenomenological pencil in hand. Ammons' new short poems encourage the reader to say boo and disappear along with him, to abandon momentarily the ego's labyrinth of language.
Ammons seems to draw strength from the extremes of his art. I am not entirely comfortable with either his smallest poems or his largest ones. Yet I see that without these poles, the marvelous, informing tension between concentration and expansiveness might not exist in poems such as "Expressions of Sea Level," "Coon Song" "Corsons Inlet," "The City Limits," and "Easter Morning."
And my experience with the long works has expanded my notion of what poetry can be. Donald Davie has had a similar response:
Whatever the opposite of an ideal reader is, I ought to have been that thing as far as [Sphere] is concerned. How could I be anything but exasperated by it, profoundly distrustful, sure I was being bamboozled, sure I was being threatened? And how is it, then, that I was on the contrary enraptured? Have I gone soft in the head? … No. I am as suspicious as ever I was of Ammons' initial assumptions and governing preoccupations … And yet I can't refuse the evidence of my senses and my feelings…. [The New York Review of Books March 6, 1975]
Like Davie, I am a formalist at heart, and I share some of his skepticism along with much of his enchantment. After reading Ammons' work, I still feel that a form of my own choosing liberates me from a confusion that is not of my own choosing. But Ammons has given me the black rich country of another point of view; I have chosen to walk with him in it, and I am grateful for his company.
SOURCE: "Stanzas, Organic Myth, and the Metaformalism of A. R. Ammons," in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 513-27.
[Cushman is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he attempts to define the structural principle of Ammons's verse, focusing on such features as stanza shape and length, typography, and linguistic patterns.]
In his long poem "The Ridge Farm" (1983), A. R. Ammons continues his persistent meditation on poetic form:
don't think we don't know one breaks form open because he fears its bearing in on him … and one hugs form because he fears dissolution, openness, we know, we know: one needs stanza to take sharp interest in and one interest the stanza down the road to the wilderness:
This passage uses the word "form" in suggestive ways. Unlike the "completed, external form" Ammons renounces in the "Foreword" to Ommateum (1955), where "external" suggests nonorganic rigidity and "completed" implies the kind of autotelic closure Charles Olson, among others, was lobbying against when Ammons wrote his first poems, "form" in the later poem both repels and attracts. In a characteristic gesture, the passage opens with Ammons' version of epanalepsis, an enjambed line which begins and ends with the same word: "don't think we don't." Here this self-enclosing pattern, one Ammons uses in different ways throughout his work, is revealed by the conventions of Ammons' lineation rather than by the unaided contours of his syntax. In this opening line, Ammons breaks his syntax against a line in order to discover a buried repetition, one to which the syntactic pattern alone would not normally call attention. If "one breaks/ form open because he fears" it, one also breaks form, such as the form of a syntactic pattern, in order to reveal other hidden structures.
The humor implicit in this passage arises from its deliberate self-betrayal. While the passage extols the stanza, it builds no stanzas, although other parts of "The Ridge Farm" do. In fact, the passage neither breaks nor hugs form in any remarkable way. Ammons casts this passage in the familiar shape of a left-justified stichic column, the lines of which fall mostly between the lengths of traditional trimeters and tetrameters. In his Collected Poems (1972), this shape appears only twice among poems written between 1951 and 1955 ("Chaos Staggered" and "Bees Stopped"), but with the poems written between 1966 and 1971, grouped mostly in Uplands (1970) and Briefings (1971), it becomes, along with the tercet, one of his dominant visual patterns. At least once in the passage, the faint trace of an iambic sequence becomes audible:
Because Ammons is a self-proclaimed "free-versite" [The Snow Poems], an occasional iambic string may seem like a simple accident of language, inhering in the structure of English. But to argue this is a bit naive, since iambic forms can be broken, and usually are by Ammons, as easily as they can be constructed. Furthermore, this particular iambic eddy corresponds neatly to an expression of formal claustrophobia.
At its best, the breaking of form establishes a principle of "uneasy pleasures" ["The Ridge Farm"]. The poet breaks in order to remake in order to break again. The flight from form is constant and the refuge in form temporary. Behind the ironic humor of Ammons' know-it-all voice and his stanza-less advertisement for the stanza lies a deep confusion, confusion that vexes not only this passage but also the entire poem "The Ridge Farm" and much of the thirty-year work which precedes it. The confusion is about the relationship of polarities, specifically the polarity of form and formlessness.
The blending, or "confusion" in its radical sense, of form and formlessness is especially evident in Ammons' use of stanzas. More often than not, his stanzas do not satisfy Paul Fussell's requirement that "in poems written in fixed or nonce stanzas separate and different shapes should embody separate and different things" ["Poetic Meter and Poetic Form," revised edition, 1979]. In other words, Ammons' stanzas have little or no logical integrity, an integrity Fussell includes among his "principles of excellence in stanzaic forms." Furthermore, since they have no such integrity, they do not satisfy another of Fussell's requirements that they, like a particular meter, "should give the illusion of having arisen intrinsically and subtly from within the uniqueness of the poetic occasion." Since Ammons' stanzas make no attempt to give this illusion, but in fact often seek to dismantle it, Fussell would say they are not organically part of his poems.
Ammons' stanzas appear to challenge the Romantic myth of organicism, particularly its boldly hyperbolic American versions initiated by Whitman. As John Hollander comments on the fulfillment of Emersonian prophecy in "The Poet" by Leaves of Grass, "Organic form is to be the emblem, then, of the authenticity of the text, although the precise nature of the form is not made clear" [Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form, 2nd edition, 1985]. In fact, the vexingly imprecise nature of what poetic form has to do to be considered "organic" harasses many discussions. Is organicism a condition the poem aspires to in its imaginative movement but not necessarily in its prosody? in its prosody only? in both? Donald Wesling's definition of organic form, which echoes Fussell's emphasis on "illusion," is helpfully clear and usefully concise: "This, or the illusion of it, is what the successful poem has when it justifies the arbitrariness of its technique; and what the failed poem lacks, when its technique seems obtrusively imposed…. I would define organic form as convention in its innovative guise" [The Chances of Rhyme: Device and Modernity, 1980]. Although Wesling singles out rhyme to stand for technique and convention, one would assume that other techniques and conventions, of genre (lyric, dramatic, narrative), type (song, monologue, dream), and prosody, would also work with this definition.
In Ammons' poetry, the myth of organicism, which his seemingly arbitrary stanzas appear to reject, in fact embodies itself in subtle and complex ways, although Hyatt Waggoner is not alone in taking Ammons' organicism at face-value: "Ammons, like most of his best contemporaries, has moved all the way toward practicing the theory announced in 'The Poet' and elaborated in 'Poetry and Imagination"' ["On A. R. Ammons," in Contemporary Poetry in America, edited by Robert Boyers, 1974]. But for someone who "has moved all the way" toward practicing Emersonian theory, Ammons has much to say on the subject of artifice and artificiality in poetry, and in his poetry in particular. In Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), for example, he states baldly: "poetry is art & is/ artificial: but it/ realizes reality's/ potentials." In "Extremes and Moderations," he adds:
And in "Hibernaculum," he ponders artifice in the context of the promotion of art over nature which Oscar Wilde preaches, for example, in his essay "The Decay of Lying."
Predictably, Ammons' only explicit commentary on organicism comes in the course of a poem, the long "Essay on Poetics," originally published in 1970. The earliest of the longer poems which use the long-line tercet ("Hibernaculum," Sphere, and "Summer Place" are the others), "Essay on Poetics" maintains a relentless loyalty to its own stanzaic regularity, even as it interpolates into various stanzas three shorter poems, three long quotations from scientific texts, and one column of words. After each of these interruptions, the respective stanzas pick up where they left off, often in the middle of lines. Apparently a meditation on the nature of the lyric versus its own longer "linear mode," Ammons' "Essay" at one point reads Williams' dictum "no ideas but in things" into various alternatives: '"no things but in ideas,'/ 'no ideas but in ideas,' and 'no things but in things.'" This revision of the famous refrain of Paterson leads to an extended figuring of different poetic modes in terms of the stages of water flowing, as it goes from snow-melt to brook-rapids, to slow river, and finally to sea:
Both the word "measure" and the image of a river running to the sea suggest that the dialogue with Williams and Paterson continues throughout this section. [In A. R. Ammons, 1978] Alan Holder contends that here Ammons is pointing up "the inadequacy of William Carlos Williams' famous prescription for the poet." Certainly, Ammons is examining that prescription critically ("one thing/ always to keep in mind is that there are a number of possibilities"); yet in the adoption of Williams' image of the river running to the sea, an image which despite his own brooks and falls he does not use often, Ammons may also be making his pact with Williams, who in his own way challenges the organicist label too often applied to him.
As Henry Sayre has argued convincingly, Williams' "notoriously inadequate explanations of the so-called variable foot are most usefully seen as efforts to defend as organic what through the 1940s and 1950s is more and more evidently a formally mechanical and arbitrary practice" [The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams, 1983]. Like Williams, Ammons invents a three-line stanza that is mechanical (in Schlegel's sense of the word), arbitrary, and artificial. But unlike Williams, Ammons does not try to defend that artificiality with a rhetoric of traditional organicism. Instead, the exact opposite is true. He challenges the rhetoric of traditional organicism and flaunts the artificiality of his form. The challenge to organicism, or more precisely, literary organicism, comes near the end of "Essay on Poetics" in a long passage which begins
In his "consideration of the adequacy of the transcendental/vegetative analogy," Ammons demystifies the literary rhetoric of organicism by confronting it with scientific literalism. As this passage argues, it is naive to think that a particular tree realizes itself according to innate individual laws. In fact, what is innate in a particular tree is not its own uniqueness, but quite the opposite, its pre-ordained genetic code, which nature protects against "haphazard change." The uniqueness of a given tree, then, results when its genetic "print-out" is modified from outside by "the bleak periphery of possibility," which includes "variables of weather,/ soil, etc."
Ammons' revised organicism has important implications for his poetics. If a tree develops according to a code that is genetically pre-ordained, and a given tree varies only according to local external modifications, then a truly organic poem is one that figuratively does the same. A truly organic poem reflects both the predetermination of structures it cannot change and the local variation of those structures where other conditions modify them. In Wesling's terms, Ammons' poem justifies the arbitrariness of its stanzaic regularity by letting that arbitrariness stand for predetermination, the poetic analogue of a locked-in genetic code. Each stanza is a print-out of the predetermined pattern; and yet, like a given tree, a given stanza varies according to local effects, effects, in its case, of syntax, diction, rhythm, enjambment, and typography. Subsequently, Animons multiplies organic analogies by quoting passages of prose, as Williams does in Paterson. One passage celebrates "a good worm," which has "developed segmentation or reduplication of parts, permitting increase in size with completely coordinated function," an apt self-description of "Essay on Poetics." Another passage describes "the molecular bricks out of which living matter is made," adding that "a mere random pile of such bricks does not make a living structure, any more than a mere pile of real bricks makes a house." By analogy, this statement also describes Ammons' own poem, as its stanzas are the brickshaped blocks that attempt to build a living structure instead of a mere pile.
"Essay on Poetics" provides a key to Ammons's formal intentions, especially in those poems which seem at first to organize themselves arbitrarily around regular typographic patterns, such as stanzas or indentations. In those poems, short and long, arbitrary regularity is the artifice by means of which Ammons, as he explains in Tape, "realizes reality's/ potentials." Although what nature predetermines for a white oak evolves through a series of favorable mutations, and so is not arbitrary in the way the selection of a stanza shape may be arbitrary, the stanza shape nevertheless represents the given, whether it be the organic given of a genetic pattern, the mental given of binary concepts, the linguistic given of modern American English, or the literary given of poetic tradition. One does not invent these; one inherits them. When Ammons closes "Hibernaculum" with the outrageously flippant stanza
he tweaks the noses of both the traditional formalist for whom the stanza is necessarily a metrical and auditory reality, never merely a typographic one, and the naive organicist who believes that a poem should never compromise content in order to fulfill the demands of a predetermined form. But beneath the humor lies more serious meaning. Disciple of Socrates, military leader, and historian, Xenophon presides over the close of "Hibernaculum" as a representative of the accumulated weight of a philosophical, historical, and literary past. His Oeconomicus, undoubtedly a model for the chapter "Economy" in Thoreau's Walden, casts Socrates in a dialogue on household management and married life, two subjects the domestically hibernating Ammons contemplates in "Hibernaculum" and elsewhere. In its casual way, Ammons' final stanza is about demands and expectations generated by the past, demands and expectations he did not create but still must meet. These exert a pressure on him which, no matter how much he may wish to believe otherwise, shapes his utterances.
"Extremes and Moderations," which falls between "Essay on Poetics" and "Hibernaculum" in the 1966-1971 section of Collected Poems, opens and closes with remarks on its own four line stanza, unique among Ammons' longer poems. The introduction of the stanza again recalls Wesling's formulation that successful organicism involves the justification of arbitrary technique:
constructing the stanza is not in my case exceedingly difficult, variably invariable, permitting maximum change within maximum stability, the flow-breaking four-liner, lattice of the satisfactory fall, grid seepage, currents distracted to side flow, multiple laterals that at some extreme spill a shelf, ease back, hit the jolt of the central impulse:
The admission that the construction of stanzas "is not in my case exceedingly difficult" anticipates the end of "Hibernaculum" in its unabashed acknowledgment of an artificiality which neither the traditional formalist nor the conventional organicist could justify. Meanwhile, the description of the stanza as "variably invariable" continues the argument from "Essay on Poetics," abstracting it from the realm of white oaks and genetic printouts, yet preserving the conjunction of general predetermination with specific modification. Although "variably invariable" takes the rhetorical shape of oxymoron, Ammons' version of organicism demonstrates the necessary congruity of the variable and invariable. Images of water flowing through the stanza, "the flow-breaking four-liner, lattice/ of the satisfactory fall, grid seepage, currents distracted/ to side flow," prefigure images of form in Sphere (1974). In both poems, Ammons' images of flowing water recall the etymological meaning of "rhythm" (Greek rein: to flow), while his images of the stanza as "lattice," "grid," "log the stream flows against," and "mesh" describe the phenomenology of verse structure in new terms.
Etymologically, a "stanza" is a stopping-place, a place to stand. The word suggests a phenomenology of writing and reading that involves a series of stops between which one crosses white space or silence to get to the next stop. More recently in poetic tradition, occasional enjambment between stanzas may vary the stop-and-go pattern; yet such enjambment remains exceptional in most verse and should remain exceptional, according to those, such as Paul Fussell, who place high value on stanzaic integrity. The stanzaic repetition of stops and starts reflects the origin of stanzas in the strophic divisions of song, divisions which allow a singer to sing new verses to a recycled tune. As verse becomes more removed from its historical origins in song, structures that originated asauditory modes become increasingly visual. In Ammons' stanzas the removal from auditory origins is complete, his various images of the stanza implying a different model for writing and reading. Instead of a phenomenology of stopping and going, his stanzas generate one of speeding and slowing. If going ever stops, it stops only partially with a colon, and even then it stops much less than it continues.
The speeding and slowing of perpetual going, the presentation of some resistance or channel that flow must overcome or follow, revises another Romantic metaphor, that of the Aeolian harp. Although that image runs on wind and Ammons' on water, they share the fiction of an essential passivity. For Shelley in "Ode to the West Wind," the desire for inspiration leads to the petition "Make me thy lyre," while for Coleridge in "The Eolian Harp," the image prompts him to ask whether "all of animated nature," himself included, "Be but organic Harps diversely framed" over which "sweeps/ Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,/ At once the Soul of each, and God of all?"
At the close of "Extremes and Moderations," written about the time that, as Harold Bloom points out [in "A. R. Ammons: 'When You Consider the Radiance,'" The Ringers in the Tower, 1971] "the motions of water … replaced the earlier guiding movements of wind" in Ammons' poetry, the Romantic metaphor surfaces in final remarks on the stanza:
Punning on the Latin for wind (ventus), Ammons describes his ventilating stanza as both a device for passively letting the world breeze through and for venting his prophetic anger over our use and abuses of nature. Whether he describes the stanza in terms of wind or water, it remains his typographic version of the Romantic harp. In each case, the image of sweeping over, or breezing through, functions to naturalize poetic artifice. If the poetic imagination simply presents itself in the form of a harp or stanza to be acted upon by a wind or a stream, then that imagination cannot be held responsible for what results. The burden of structuring the poem shifts away from the poet, so that, at least in Ammons' case, he escapes having to account fully for his form. Whereas Ammons' revision of organicism allows him to justify arbitrariness by redefining "organic" in terms of scientific literalism, his version of the Aeolian harp allows him to do so by trivializing his own role as maker of "harmless/ devices."
Nowhere in Ammons's work have issues of form and formlessness, arbitrariness and organicism, poet as artificer and poet as innocent bystander, caused more disagreement and more misunderstanding than in The Snow Poems (1977) [in American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present, revised edition, 1984]. Waggoner pronounces the volume "a thick book of dull, tired poems that prompt us to wonder, does Ammons write too much?" The Snow Poems appeared too late for consideration by Holder, which is unfortunate, since the ways in which his judgments differ from Waggoner's represent a larger critical disagreement over Ammons' work. (Waggoner applauds Tape for theTurn of the Year, calling it "good Emerson," but doesn't "much like" "Summer Session." Holder ranks "Summer Session" "among Ammons' most interesting poems," while in Tape he finds "egregious examples of the imitative fallacy," "verbal doodling," and tastelessness.) Amidst a swirl of negative reviews, such as Hayden Carruth's ("a dull, dull book") [The New York Times Book Review, [September 25, 1977]), Bloom has remained determinedly silent, while Helen Vendler has given the book limited but sympathetic attention: "Ammons has delineated that landscape and that climate [of Ithaca, New York] for good and all, with an Emersonian wintriness of voice diluting the ebullience he inherited from Williams" [Part of Nature, Part of US, 1980].
But most interesting is the reappraisal of The Snow Poems made by Michael McFee after the appearance of A Coast of Trees (1981) signaled Ammons' return to the short lyric. Although McFee blusters a bit too much against what he calls the "popular critical pacifier, as manufactured by Bloom and others, … that Ammons had come into the world to fulfill the Romantic Transcendental heritage, to realize the promise of Organic Form" ["A. R. Ammons and The Snow Poems Reconsidered," Chicago Review, 33, No. 1 (1981)], he does settle down to make two significant points. The first is that "as Ammons became more prominent, the form of his poetry became more conservative, taking on a more orderly and regular appearance." The second is that "the heart of The Snow Poems" is "Ammons' deep anti-formalism." Both of these assertions need re-examination, but they do serve to focus attention and lead toward conclusion.
When McFee argues that Ammons' form becomes more conservative as it takes on the orderly and regular appearance of uniform stanzas, he makes two mistakes. The first is that he reduces poetic form to mere format, or the typographic shape of a poem on the page. Williams often veered dangerously close to the same error, sometimes even committing it, but Ammons never does. For him, "form" is far too large and suggestive a term to let itself be contained within the boundaries of a stanza shape. Any account of his poetic forms must also reckon with rich phonetic configurations, syntactic patterns, rhetorical figures, and occasional metricality, as well as with the larger contours of his characteristic meditative habits. The second mistake is that McFee uses the unhelpful term "conservative" to describe what he apparently believes to be Ammons' devoted guardianship of the traditional stanza. If indeed he does believe that Ammons' stanzas imply an uncritical acceptance of at least one aspect of prosodie tradition, he is badly mistaken. In Ammons' hands, the stanza format is an instrument of humor, parody, playfulness, figuration, self-description, and poetic revision. The irreverent liberties he takes with his stanzas should disabuse us of any notion that his growing fame has caused him to think twice about formal experimentalism. As Ammons' more recent work has shown, especially "The Ridge Farm," he can take or leave the stanza with no trouble at all.
But McFee's second statement, that the heart of The SnowPoems is a deep anti-formalism, reveals a crucial misunderstanding of Ammons' poetic program. To support his contention, McFee quotes part of the poem "One at One with his Desire":
A full reading of this passage requires placement in its immediate context, but even without that context, McFee's reading is hard to justify: "He endorses the 'hellish paradise' susceptible to shit and wind change, not the artificial order of a stanza." Yes, a break will humble the stanzaic compulsion to repeat and rescue Ammons from the fear of overbearing form he expresses in "The Ridge Farm." But the subsequent lines about form consuming, eliminating, and extracting must not be misread to mean only that form constructs "inflexible structures which drain the elixir vitae of motion." The sequence of consumption, elimination, and extraction also suggests the digestive processes of an organism. In other words, although form may threaten to assume a Frankenstein-like autonomy, and so must be humbled if creator is to retain control over creation, still that form does have a life of its own. In fact, "the form/ that extracts of the elixir from/ the passages of change" performs a kind of alchemy, as it rescues from the rush of impermanence and dissolution a precious essence which remains. When this passage joins with a long one preceding it, the full complexity and pathos of Ammons' ambivalence toward his stanza, and toward abstractions of form it represents, emerges. This important passage, too long to quote in full, begins
This is not the voice of one who hates form. Instead, it is the deep, moving confession of a man who realizes that he has been shut out from rooms where life goes on immediately and unconsciously, shut out from the places where his desire can be fulfilled. As a result, the rooms that stanzas build, and the poems for which they stand as synecdoches, doches, provide the only places for him to dwell. He is fully, radically disillusioned about the "numb pale/ paradise!" form encloses, its drug-like power that makes erasure bliss, or the misery "the uneasy" use it to cover. This last phrase recalls the "uneasy pleasures" Ammons identifies in "The Ridge Farm." But he sees no alternative. Life may be preferable to form, but form is the dark consolation of lifelessness. Against the background of these stark choices, the familiar figure of epanalepsis, "desire still has to desire," looms with uncanny power. Like the line McFee quotes, "form forms the form," in which repetition threatens to hollow "form" of its substance and meaning, this self-enclosed, self-mirroring line figures both the entrapment of desire and the poetic self-consciousness that gives desire form, if not fulfillment. Ammons gives the repetition of "desire" a twist, as he uses the word first as a noun and second as an infinitive, binding a state or condition to the process which generates it. These nuances may not be much, but they are "so much more than nothing."
This hugging of form for preservation, consolation, and in a displaced, deflected, uneasy way, pleasure, makes for its own peculiar formalism. Admittedly, Ammons cannot be considered a formalist in the same strictly limited sense in which his contemporaries Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, James Merrill, and Howard Nemerov can. As he says in "A Note on Prosody" [Poetry, 102 (1963)], "the box-like structure of rhymed, measured verse is pretty well shot" in his verse, and so are his credentials as a traditional prosodist. But what McFee identifies as "antiformalism" in The Snow Poems is in reality something else. It is the "strong antivisionary current flowing in Ammons' poetry," to which Waggoner calls our attention [in American Visionary Poetry, 1982]. Similarly, McFee's suggestion that some have rejected The Snow Poems for its lack of stanzaic regularity is questionable. The end of the twentieth century is far too late in the history of American poetry to squabble about whether or not traditional prosody should rule, but it is never too late to question whether the proper business of the poet is simple notation or transforming vision. Those who reject The Snow Poems—and I am not one—object to its antivisionary overinclusiveness, not its alleged antiformalism.
Ammons, then, cannot be considered a formalist, in the usual sense of the term, but neither can he be dismissed as an antiformalist. His need of some form of form remains too acute, his explicit considerations of form too insistent. Instead, Ammons' work embodies a kind of metaformalism. In the same way that Stevens produced a metapoetry about poetry, Ammons has produced and continues to produce poetic forms about themselves, their own phenomenological power, and their own ontological significance. In this way, he resembles Williams, especially the Williams of the often self-descriptive Paterson. But unlike Williams, whose poems also struggle to engage the world of people and history, in its many social, political, and economic phases, a struggle which sometimes burdens his fictions of form, Ammons has meditated on form to the exclusion of these other concerns. Such exclusion betokens aloofness, but for him aloofness is not so much a conscious choice as a condition he wakes to find himself in. Through poetic form, and the poetic fictions it generates, he struggles to reattach himself, first to the larger capabilities of the human mind, second to the natural world which preceded and remains separate from him, and third to whatever else, beyond these, is available.
SOURCE: An interview in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 105-17.
[In the following interview, which was conducted in March 1988, Ammons speaks about his literary career and his poetry.]
[Walsh]: I read an interview the other day where the guest was asked if there was a question he had always wanted to answer, but had never been asked.
[Ammons]: Most of the questions I have been asked have had to do with literary reputations rather than what I considered the nature of poetry, that is, what is poetry and how does it work? In what way is it an action or a symbolic action? In what way does poetry recommend certain kinds of behavior? Questions like that are of absorbing interest to me. What Robert Bly or somebody else is doing is of no interest to me whatsoever. I've written my poetry more or less in isolation without any day-to-day contact with other writers. Though I have read tidbits in anthologies of other people, I've made no study of anybody else's work, except in school where I read Shelley, Keats, Chaucer, and so on. I like questions that address, if they can, the central dynamics of this medium we work with, not that any answer is possible, but that we meditate the many ways in which it represents not only our verbal behavior but other representative forms of behavior—how poetry resembles other actions such as ice skating or football. That is to say, I think poetry is extremely important because it's central to other actions, and it should not be pushed far to the side as a strictly academic study or a technical investigation.
Do you think poetry is threatened by becoming an academic subject?
To the extent that it is a mere object of study, yes. I worry about that, because it means that the action of the poem and the mind, the action of the body of the poem itself, is going to be paraphrased into discursiveness—something is going to be said about it which will be different from the original action. And while I don't know how classes can be conducted any other way, that's not why poems are written. They are not written in order to be studied or discussed, but to be encountered, and to become standing points that we can come to and try to feel out, impressionistically, what this poem is recommending. Is it recommending in a loud voice, extreme action, or is its action small, does it think we should look closely at things, should we forget the little things and look at some big inner problem, should we understate our stances toward the world, or does hyperbole work better, is this a shallow poem, or is there some profound way that it achieves something it didn't even mean to achieve? In other words, we're trying to live our lives and we go to these representative, symbolic actions to test out what values seem to have precedence over others. If human beings in this country or wherever could approach poetry more in that way rather than as an historical or strictly theoretical form of study, then they might feel the ball of strength in poetry and come to it because it would inform and excite them the way Madonna does or punk rock does. Of course, I'm not insisting that poetry become a popular medium. It requires the attention that few people are willing to give it. I kind of wish that weren't so.
Many of the people I've come in contact with who don't read poetry say it's because they don't understand it.
"Understanding something" has been defined for them as a certain system of statements made about something. If they don't get a very good statement about the poems, it means they haven't opened themselves to the rhythm, pacing, sounds of words, colors, and images that they are supposed to move into. Who understands his own body? I mean the gorillas have been walking around for two hundred and fifty thousand years with extremely complicated enzymic and other operations going on in their blood streams that they know nothing about, which prevented them not at all from being gorillas. We're the same case. What are we supposed to understand about poetry? I've studied and worked with poetry since I was eighteen. Poetry astonishes me day after day. I see something else that is somehow implicated in that. I never expect to understand it. You see, there's where the problem is. The kind of understanding that was defined for these people, most people, has been trivial and largely misses the poem.
You spent the first seventeen years of your life in the South, in Whiteville, North Carolina. Could you discuss your background leading up to your first interest in writing?
It covers the period people like to cover in ten years of psychotherapy and don't give up and walk away until they have an answer. [Laughing] I was born in 1926, just toward the end of the good times—the Twenties into the Depression. Our family had a pretty rough time on the farm. We had a small subsistence farm of fifty acres on which my grandfather had raised thirteen children, and which in my father's hands became a cash crop farm that was not large enough to raise enough cash. Yet, we didn't do the dozens of things that would have continued it as a subsistence farm. Apparently, my grandfather had done very well. So we were caught in that kind of bind, aggravated by the Depression, about which you've heard endless rumors—all true. [Laughing] It was a rather desperate time until the beginning of the war provided jobs for people, and changes—radical changes. Do you realize that when I was born in 1926 something like 85 percent of the people in the country were rural, lived on a farm, and now it's about 3 percent? So the most incredible silent revolution has taken place just in my lifetime.
After I graduated from high school in 1943 I worked for a shipbuilding company in Wilmington, then entered the Navy when I was eighteen. I was in the South Pacific for nineteen months, came back and entered Wake Forest College in the summer of 1946 on the G. I. Bill. Nobody in my family had gone to college before. It was a truly daunting experience for me. My major was pre-med and I minored in English, and then everything collapsed into a kind of general science degree.
You started in a pre-med program with hopes of becoming a doctor?
Yes, I did. I think it came out of a general interest in things and people and feelings. To be a doctor would have been to get completely out of the mess I was in as a farmer. It was a different social and economic level. I didn't pursue it beyond my undergraduate degree. I had wanted to stay a farmer, but my father sold the farm. So, that option was eliminated. I love the land and the terrible dependency on the weather and the rain and the wind. It betrays many a farmer, but makes the interests of the farmer's life tie in very immediately with everything that's going wrong meteorologically. I miss that. That's where I got my closeness and attention to the soil, weeds, plants, insects, and trees.
Prior to studying English in college had you written very much?
The first poem I wrote was in the tenth grade, where you have to write a poem in class. It was on Pocahontas. Then I didn't write anymore until I was in the South Pacific and discovered a poetry anthology when I was on the ship. Then I began to write experimentally and imitatively. There was a man on ship who had a Master's degree in languages and I began to study Spanish with him. We didn't have a text; he just made it up as he went along. It somehow gave me a smattering of grammar—you know how helpful it is with your own grammar to study another language. Pretty soon I was writing regularly. Then I came to Wake Forest where there were no creative writing classes, but I continued to write for four years. About a month before I left Wake Forest I finally got up the nerve to show some of my poems to the professors and they were very encouraging. From then on, my mind, my energies, were focused on poetry even though I had to do what everyone else does—try to figure out some way to make a living.
You didn 't begin by sending your poems to small magazines, did you?
I didn't even know they existed. I was just totally ignorant of the literary scene. What a load that is on the mind not to know what the configuration, the landscape of the literary world is. I got married the year I was the principal of the elementary school in Cape Hatteras. From there we went to Berkeley, where I did further study in English, working toward a Master's degree. I took my poems to Josephine Miles, a fine poet and critic who died a couple of years ago. She consented to read my poems and said I should send them out. That's where I first heard about literary magazines.
Your first book of poetry, Ommateum, failed terribly.
I believe the publisher knew it wouldn't sell and so they only bound one hundred copies of the three hundred sheets pressed. It sold sixteen copies the first five years. Five libraries bought it—Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, and Chapel Hill, only because they bought everything. My father-in-law sent forty copies to people he knew in South America. I bought back thirty copies for thirty cents each. So I guess you could say it failed miserably. One review in Poetry magazine, my first review, was favorable. But now Ommateum goes for about thirteen hundred dollars a copy.
The reason I brought this up is because you did not publish another collection of poetry for nine years. What transpired in those nine years, between the time you wrote Ommateum and Expressions of Sea Level, that produced a resounding critical change in your work?
We cannot imagine, sitting here, how long nine years is. I just kept writing, resubmitting manuscripts, tearing them apart, putting them back together, getting rejected, trying again, and so on until I was finally rejected by everybody. I took my work to a vanity publisher in New York City and I was turned down by them, too. I went to Bread Loaf in 1961 and met Milton Kessler, who at that time was teaching at Ohio State University. He said their press was starting a poetry series and I should send my poems early on before the hundreds of manuscripts began to arrive. I did and they took it. It was favorably reviewed, but it took ten years for them to sell eight hundred copies. I used to get monthly statements from them saying this month we've sold three copies, this month we sold four. For ten years this happened, and I'm not sure they ever sold all one thousand copies. It is amazing how favorably it was reviewed. I just saw The Oxford Companion to American Literature which has an article on me saying from the day Expressions of Sea Level was published, A. R. Ammons was a major poet…. Nobody told me then that I was a major poet.
Now, as to what happened to the poetry itself, that's a story so long I wouldn't know how to tell you. I'd have to go back over the stages, the failures, the rebeginnings, and so on. It isn't easy to be a poet. I think if the young poets could realize that they would be off doing something else. It takes a long time. It took me a long time. I do believe there are poets who begin right at the top of their form, and usually are exhausted in five years. In a way I wasn't bad either early on. Ommateum remains a very powerful influence with me.
Who do you see as starting at the top of their form?
I just happen to think of James Tate, who won a national prize when he was twenty-two. I don't mean to say he burned out. There are poets who seem to be at their best right away. I'm a slow person to develop and change. The good side of that is that it leaves me so much more to do.
When you look back at the poems inOmmateumas a whole what is your reaction? Do you still feel the same way?
It's a very strong book. It may be my best book. Expressions of Sea Level, though more widely welcomed, more obviously ingratiates itself to an easier kind of excellence. The Ommateum poems are sometimes very rigid and ritualistic, formal and off-putting, but very strong. The review I got said, these poems don't care whether they are listened to or not. Which is exactly true. I had no idea there was such a thing as an audience; didn't care if there was. I was involved in the poem that was taking place in my head and on the page and that was all I cared about. If I had known there were millions of people out there wanting to buy my book, which of course is not the case, it would have been nice. But an audience meant nothing to me. Someone else said that I was a poet who had not yet renounced his early poems. I never intend to renounce those poems. [Laughing] I have published some inferior poems in each volume—that's inevitable. But as Jarrell said, if you are lucky enough to write a half a dozen good poems in your life, you would be lucky indeed.
Critics have traced your creative genealogy to several influences: Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Pound, Stevens, Frost. One critic stated, "Ammons's poetry is founded on the implied Emersonian division of experience into Nature and the Soul." Would you agree with their findings?
First of all, one has been influenced by everything in one's life, poetic and otherwise. There have been predominant influences, such as Robert Browning, whom I imitated at great length as an undergraduate, writing soliloquies and dramatic monologues, trying to get anywhere near the marvelous poems he wrote. I failed miserably. Whitman was a tremendous liberation for me. Emerson was there in the background; though I am said to be strongly Emersonian I sort of learned that myself. I haven't read him that much. When I read Emerson I see a man far wiser and more intelligent, and a better writer than myself, saying exactly what I would say if I could. That's scary in a way. We're still different in so many ways. But then I do believe I hear, at times, in my poems, distant echoes from every poet, not in terms of his own words, but as a presence. Frost is there, also Stevens. I have read very little Stevens, and basically he's not one of my favorite poets, though I think he's a good poet. They do say of me, even though the influences are there, that my voice remains my own, which is a mystery to me, but apparently it's true. I believe I assimilate from any number of others and other areas. I'm that kind of person—one who is looking for the integrated narrative. That's where my voice finds its capability of movement. It is my voice, but it is an integrated one. Does that sound right?
I just made it up. [Laughing]
How, then, would you describe your poetry?
It's a variable poetry that tries to test out to the limit the situation of unity and diversity—how variable and diverse a landscape of poetry can be and at the same time hold a growing center. I have written some very skinny poems you might call minimalist and I've written some very long-lined poems, such as "Sphere." In my early poems I was contemplating the philosophical issue of the One and the Many.
Your poetry deals principally with man in nature, the phenomena of the landscape-earth's nature. I've wondered, because of your scientific background, if you have ever thought about taking man off the earth into space? I don't mean to say science fiction poetry, but into the nature of space.
I don't believe I have, though I've thought a great deal about it—billions and billions of galaxies and billions and billions of stars in each one. Who was it said that if you stick out your arm at the end of space what does it stick into? If space is limited, what happens?
In about 90 percent of your poetry the reader is brought into the poem to witness the solitude of the speaker. Is this solitude your poetic vision of loneliness?
Is it your loneliness you're writing about?
Yes it is. I really don't write to an audience. I never imagined an audience. I imagine other lonely people, such as myself. I don't know who they are or where they are, and I don't care, but they're the people whom I want to reach. It seems to me that the people who are capable of forming themselves into groups and audiences have something else to go on besides poetry. So let them go ahead. It could be political, sociological, mystical, or whatever. They're welcome to it and I hope they do a good job, but I am not part of that. I'm really an isolationist. And I know there are others like me. There is some element of ultimate loneliness in each person. In some people it's a crisis. Those are the pieces of loneliness I would like to share at this distance.
You published three major collections in a row: Collected Poems 1951-71, Sphere: The Form of a Motion, and The Snow Poems. How does this affect a writer's sense that since what you're doing is working, you might as well keep doing the same thing?
I can't get stuck in a pattern, because I don't believe in patterns. I believe in process and progression. I believe in centralizing, integration, that kind of ongoing narrative, more than I believe in the boxes of identification and completion. That's just the way I am structured as a human being. The Collected Poems contains two or three other previously unpublished books. I just dumped them in there. I had them, but didn't want to bother sending them out to magazines.
But Sphere, finally, was the place where I was able to deal with the problem of the One and the Many to my own satisfaction. It was a time when we were first beginning to see an image of the earth from outer space on the television screen, at a time when it was inevitable to think about that as the central image of-our lives—that sphere. With Sphere, I had particularized and unified what I knew about things as well as I could. It didn't take long for me to fall apart or for that to fall apart, too. Thinking of the anger and disappointment that comes from such things … I wrote The Snow Poems, where I had meant to write a book of a thousand pages. I don't know why I didn't go ahead and do it, because I wanted to say here is a thousand pages of trash that nevertheless indicates that every image and every event on the planet and everywhere else is significant and could be great poetry, sometimes is in passages and lines. But I stopped at three hundred pages. I had worn myself and everybody else out. But I went on long enough to give the idea that we really are in a poetically inexhaustible world, inside and out.
Your work has been anthologized in many publications over the years. They usually publish"Corsons Inlet," "This Is," "Bridge,"and"Visit."Of all your poems which do you think is your best work and will most likely survive?
I have always liked two poems of mine that are twins, "Conserving the Magnitude of Uselessness" and "If Anything Will Level with You Water Will" from the Collected Poems. I think those are fine poems, but other people don't reprint them. I think anthologists tend to imitate each other. If they find a poem anthologized, they put it in their anthology. I have a great many poems, to tell you the truth, that could just as well have been chosen for an anthology as the others.
Donald Justice said at one time that the United States has not produced a major poet in the last thirty years. Do you agree with this?
I agree with that. The possibility is that Ashbery is a major writer, but other than that I don't know any major writers, except possibly myself. The great poets of the first half of the century are not as great as we thought they were, but they are greater than anything since. I think Eliot was a great poet. I like Ransom a lot. I don't believe Lowell and Berryman are going to prove to be as strong as was thought. I hope I'm wrong about that. It seems to me that there are a million poets that write interesting verse, but I can't think of a single one that I would think of getting up in the morning and going to to find my life profoundly changed and enlightened and deepened by. Not a single one. Isn't that amazing? Or do I just not know about them? I don't mean an answer to life, I mean an encounter of intelligence, sensibility, feeling, vision. Where do I go for a verbal encounter that will be sufficient to cause me to feel that I should come back the next day and the next day to drink from that fountain again?
Do you think we will see a major poet evolve out of the last eleven or twelve years of the century or has the well dried up?
I think not. This century has had it. Like others, I believe that we've been replaying the seventeenth century in which a great deal of poetic energy in the first part of the century dried up into Dryden and Pope. Dryden at the end of the seventeenth and Pope at the beginning of the eighteenth. And we have started to take on a formalist cast now. Maybe we're going to need a century or two before we get back on line.
You've taught at Cornell since 1964.
Yes, that's right. Denise Levertov was poetry editor of The Nation and she wanted to take off for six months and she asked me to fill in for her. During that period I accepted a poem by David Ray. I didn't know who he was, but I published his poem. Some months later I was asked to read at Cornell, and it turned out that David Ray was a teacher there. I guess he was glad I published his poem and wanted to meet me. I went to read and they asked me why I wasn't teaching and I said because no one had ever asked me. They proceeded to ask me. I became a full professor in seven years. Some years later Yale made me an offer, so Cornell countered their offer and gave me an endowed chair. They have just honored me beyond all dreams. I teach part-time … one course that meets once a week. It's like having your life free. I go over every day and talk to students and go to meetings, but I don't have to.
Is it stimulating for your work to meet with the students everyday?
Not much any more. I need human contact, but it needn't be profound. To see someone and have a cup of coffee really restores me. See, I don't like to live alone. I don't think that I'm much of a teacher, but that's not what the students tell me. I never feel very competent. I don't think anyone who teaches poetry can feel very competent, because the subject is so overwhelming and it's easy to miss the center of it. Can you imagine in a creative writing class the interplay between the teacher and the student—how complex that is on both sides? Superficial, no matter how profound. It's so superficial and so mixed, "Help me, don't help me. Criticize this poem but only say good things. Don't tell me what my next move is. Tell me, but don't let me know that you told me what my next move is, so it will seem that I discovered it for myself. When I owe you something please be the first one to say I owe nothing." That is to say, the relationship is extremely complex and draining on that account. You would have to be superhuman to know what to do in that situation. I am, as it turns out, not superhuman. But they say I'm a good teacher, nevertheless. I do the best I can. I must say that I have a pretty quick eye on a poem. I can tell what it is likely to amount to or not amount to rather quickly. It's just a wonderful job, but I'm tired of it, only because of something they call "burnout." After having done something for twenty-five years I don't know what happens. I guess you begin hearing yourself say the same thing, repeating yourself.
When I first began to teach, I would go into the classroom and see eighteen or twenty individuals and I believed they were individuals. After about five years of teaching six courses per year, I would come into a writing class knowing full well that there were three or four basic problems. Diction—there is always too much poetic diction. There's the problem of shape, or the lack of it—some contact with an ideal form. There's the problem of consistency. It's not sufficient to have a good line and a good image, you need to write a whole poem. Then, as a teacher, you have to begin to nudge yourself and say, "This person sitting in front of you is not an example of one of these problems, he's a person." After awhile, if you have to nudge yourself too much, then it's time to quit.
If the burnout begins to weigh too heavily upon you, is there something that you would prefer doing instead of teaching?
I would like to, now, be designated, as anything in this world, POET. Not teacher, not professor, not farmer, but one who writes poems. What I would like to do now, since I have not allowed myself to do it in twenty years, is to go out and meet the people who read my poems. I have been giving poetry readings lately which I did not do for a long, long time. I would like to stay home when I go back to Ithaca and write my poems, send them to magazines, go see people, because I don't know how to tell somebody else how to write.
You don't categorize yourself as particularly Southern, a Southern writer.
I feel my verbal and spiritual home is still the South. When I sit down and play hymns on the piano my belly tells me I'm home no matter where I am. So, yes, I am Southern, but I have been away from the immediate concerns of the South a long time. I guess we should define Southerner. Who are Southerners? Are they white, black? Does a black Southerner want to be separated from a Northerner? Does he feel the same boundary in the North as the Southerner often does? Also, the South has changed so much demographically that it's difficult to know. I was just in the bank the day before yesterday and I told a young lady I was going back home to Ithaca. She had just moved down from Kingston, New York. She said she liked it, but missed the snow. At the next teller's window was a woman who said she was from New York. So there we were, the three of us, adjacent to each other from New York. The very same thing happened in the post office one morning.
How does a poet deal with this change?
I wonder. I don't think it has very much effect on me. The sources of poetry, by the time you are as old as I am, sixty-two, have taken all kinds of perspectives, and while the work may be changed in tone and mood by recent events, it's changed only slightly. Curvature of the narrative, by that time, becomes fairly well established, and while it can change, it won't change much.
You never dreamed of becoming a poet in the sense of receiving recognition for your work. You thought of yourself as being an amateur poet and not a "Poet." Once you began publishing, when did you begin to think of yourself as a "Poet?"
When I said "amateur poet," I meant that I didn't want to professionalize it. It seems to have more spontaneity, immediacy and meaning to me when I think of it as just something I do. I worry when poetry is professionalized. I think maybe I am a poet. I keep getting letters from all over the world from people who say they are moved by this and that. Whatever it was that they were moved by is in the past for me. I just wrote a poem this morning. That's where I'm at. I try to live each day as I can. If I write a poem, fine. If I don't, that's fine. I think life ought to come first. Don't you? One is alive in the world with other people. I write poetry. Other people collect insects or rocks. I don't think I have answered this question very well, but you know how at some point in your life you have meditated deeply on a subject—you remember that you have meditated on it, you file it, and the next time you try to remember it you can't access it. You have to take thirty minutes to work your way there, then you might have something to say, or you might not. That's what just happened. [Laughing]
Do you think there are writers, poets, who take poetry too seriously, that they feel poetry is almost more important than life?
The solemn, the pompous, the terribly earnest are all boring.
We touched upon your childhood earlier and I'd like to ask if you have a favorite childhood memory?
I remember one Christmas when I got a little tin wagon with milk cans drawn by a mule or a horse. I must have been five or six. I remember getting back into bed and playing with that on top of the quilt, thinking it was absolutely marvelous.
Turning this around, do you have a least favorite childhood memory?
The most powerful image of my emotional life is something I had repressed and one of my sisters lately reminded me of. It was when my little brother, who was two and a half years younger than I, died at eighteen months. My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away. That's the most powerful image I've ever known.
Throughout your career you've professed formlessness and boundlessness. Have you found either?
I guess the other side of that question is, is there anything, in fact, in our world and perception that isn't formal in one way or the other? I guess not. The air between me and that oak tree is invisible and formless. I can't see the air. So I see nothing but form out the window. I know the air is there because I see it work on the trees, and so I begin to think there is an invisible behind the visible, and a formlessness, an ongoing energy that moves in and out of a discrete formation. It remains constant and comes and goes and operates from a world of residual formlessness. That space, at some point, develops what we perceive. In a way I have experienced the idea of formlessness and boundlessness, but these are imperceptible thanks to our senses.
For the last three or four months I have been profoundly occupied with the conceptual aspect of poetry—poetry that has some thought behind it. But also, the poem is a verbal construct that we encounter, learn from, make value judgments with, and go to to sort out possibilities in relation to our own lives in order to try to learn how to live. I'm sick and tired of reading poets who have beautiful images that don't have a damn thing to say. I want somebody who can think and tell me something. You reintegrate that into a larger thing where you realize that thought and loss are certainly not the beginning and end to things, but are just one element in the larger effort we are making, which is to try to learn how to live our lives.
SOURCE: '"How Are We to Find Holiness?': The Religious Vision of A. R. Ammons," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 477-98.
[In the following essay, Lepkowski perceives religious sentiment and motifs in Ammons's poetry.]
Critical attention to the religious element in the poetry of A. R. Ammons has generally subsumed it in an overall argument placing him as a modern Romantic visionary poet. Locating Ammons in this way has obscured somewhat the extent of his spirituality and its unique emotional tonality. A reading of Ammons sensitive to these may find in his development a spiritual pilgrimage with distinct phases. His idea of God, clearly present in the early poetry, undergoes a period of doubt, reconstruction, and denial in the middle of his career, and after a strong negation becomes a renewed theme in his later poetry. Meditation on the nature of God and interrogation of the visible world for revelation of the Divine occasion some of his most powerful writing.
Marius Bewley in an early review first pointed out that "Ammons is a mystical poet in the same sense that Whitman was" ["Modes of Poetry," Hudson Review, 1968-69]. Somewhat later, Hyatt Waggoner discerned that "a sense of God's reality, whether as immanent or as deus absconditus, is everywhere present in the poems and should be recognized …. Ammons is a poet of religious vision" ["Notes and Reflections," A. R. Ammons: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom, 1986], a view to which he has held true in subsequent assessments of Ammons's career, although he stresses a skeptical Ammons as well for whom religious beliefs "are like mirages, existing somewhere between fact and delusion" [American Poets, revised edition, 1984]. Helen Vendler has identified one of his greatest poems as a "a colloquy with God" [The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, 1988], yet elsewhere she qualifies Ammons as manifesting no more than a belief in a Quakerish "inner light," and certifies his work as being happily free of "disabling religious or ideological nostalgia" ["Veracity Unshaken," The New Yorker, February 15, 1988]. Vendler's uneasiness with Ammons's religiosity, even as her critical acuity registers its existence, indicates the difficulty others have had acknowledging it. The age wants to celebrate the poet, but is uncomfortable with the spiritual commitments that animate his work.
Ammons's belief in God's presence in the universe does not arise from allegiance to a particular institutional mode of revelation; in fact, while his early work can be quite overtly Christian, his later work includes elements of eastern religion. Furthermore, as both mystic and inheritor of the Williams branch of modernist tradition, he operates under Pound's injunction to "make it new," to perceive God and to articulate that knowledge without reference to institutions and sacred texts. Yet however syncretic or idiosyncratic his synthesis, there seems little doubt that Ammons, rather than showing "characteristic concepts and patterns of Romantic philosophy and literature" of "displaced and reconstituted theology or … a secularized form of devotional experience" [M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 1971], instead shows a return to mystical devotion and meditation on the works and mind of God.
In the criticism of Ammons's work the religious has often been elided into the philosophical or psychological. Favoring the latter was Harold Bloom, who during the period of his own greatest influence was one of the first to champion Ammons. He applied a reading which relentlessly psychologizes the poet's work. Ammons is a Romantic seer whose achievement is the result of a creative will to power, continuously threatened by the universe's recalcitrance, and by the poet's awareness of the limits of his own mind. Bloom, like Waggoner, places Ammons in a visionary company of Strong Romantic Sensibilities, an avatar of his American predecessor Emerson. While philosophical similarities between Ammons and Emerson have been often noted, Bloom makes it an issue of filiation and treats the tensions in that relationship as the actual matter of the poetry.
Bloom invites us to admire the heroic struggle of a doomed subjectivity to establish its vision for a time, a struggle with the very fact of vision itself, a project in which "a poem is … as much an act of breaking as of making, as much a blinding as a seeing" ["A. R. Ammons: The Breaking of Vessels," A. R. Ammons: Modern Critical Views, edited by Bloom, 1986]. When he traces the development of a poem he does so in primarily psychological terms, as when he sees the language of Ammons's "Guide" enacting "the psychic defenses of undoing and isolation, but only in order to recoil from this limitation so as to mount up into a daemonic Sublime, itself based upon a repression of this poet's deepest longings." To see Ammons's concern as the Sublime in isolation from what he tells us about the Divine is the "strong misreading" which has skewed the critical debate over Ammons. The primary question of interest for such critics becomes that of how successful a belated Romantic can be when transcendence has been rendered by the Zeitgeist an untenable alternative.
Portraying Ammons as a Romantic obscures the way his poetry reenacts spiritual inquiry and devotion, with a piety quite unlike anyone else in the American tradition, linking him more to the humility of George Herbert than to the vatic optimism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the present reading our goal is to show through a thorough examination of his ouevre the importance of the Divine in Ammons, who in his poetry offers a vision in which science tells of the works of God, whose presence is revealed to the patient and faithful inquirer.
Ammons's earliest strong expression of the Divine we find in the much-commented upon "Hymn," in which the poet addresses God directly, uniting the question of His nature with Ammons's abiding philosophical preoccupation with the one:many problem. The first stanza begins with the line "I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth," and the second with the line "And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth," and between the poles of transcendence and immanence we may track Ammons's project.
To know God at His most universal, the poet will have to ascend past sea marshes, hills, crater lakes, and canyons, through the atmosphere and out into space: "way past all the light diffusions and bombardments/ up further than the loss of sight/ into the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark." The poet's unpurgeable humanity and affiance to the things of this world make him pause when going out "past the blackset noctilucent clouds/ where one wants to stop and look." God at His most absolute is infinite and eternal, hence "undifferentiated" and "unseasonal," and radically unembellished with anthropomorphic presence beyond the intimacy of address implied in the second person pronoun. To cross over into a transcendence so radical is incomprehensible and involves leaving the human completely behind.
Instead of pursuing God beyond this world, then, the poet seeks to find how God's presence may be revealed in the world of nature as perceived by the poet, moving from the macrocosm to the microcosm, "inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes" of science. In this direction faith ("trust") reposes in minute details of cell structure visible only through electron microscopy ("microvilli") or the tiny spore sacs of fungi ("sporangia") or animals so basic and rudimentary that they lack vascular systems ("coelenterates"). The Naturalist ultimately finds himself reduced to another point of human reluctance in this direction as he finds himself praying "for a nerve cell/ with all the soul of my chemical reactions," which is to say that the scientific mode of perception, which helps the poet to understand creation at one level, when carried too far begins to radically diminish his humanity. Threatened in transcendence by expansion to a universal starkness, in the microcosm he is threatened by diminution through subdivision into the tiniest part of the whole.
These two motions are unified by the statement, "You are everywhere partial and entire/ You are on the inside of everything and on the outside." The presence of the Godhead is everywhere in the universe; there is no place into which it does not reach, yet the poet's recognition of this still leaves him with an unavoidable human predicament. He is drawn both ways himself, for "if I find you I must go out into your far resolutions/ and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves." He reiterates the two poles of spirit, essence and articulation, transcendence and immanence, one and many, with the final sense obtaining of the poet's remaining caught between them.
That the universal spirit we commonly call God is the object of address in this poem seems a not illogical supposition. The title of the poem, after all, is "Hymn," referring to a genre in which "you" almost always means "God." All the aspects of the presence Ammons attributes to what he is addressing are easily comprehended within what has commonly been thought of as the Deity. Of the poem's many commentators, however, only Bewley unambiguously observes that Ammons is "addressing a cosmic God who is diffused throughout nature, yet presumably transcends it." Waggoner refers to the object of "you" as "One" (as in One:many) and circumspectly notes that "In traditional religious terms, which he normally avoids, these lines would imply the simultaneous Immanence and Transcendence of deity" (American Poets). Alan Holder states that "The you appears to be a principle of absolute being, existing outside the realm of seeing" [A. R. Ammons, 1978]; Nathan Scott holds that "it is Being itself, the aboriginal reality from which everything else springs…. Ammons choice of an anthropomorphic idiom for his salute to this aboriginal reality is merely a conceit" ["The Poetry of Ammons," Southern Review, Autumn, 1988]; Bloom sees "you" as "Emerson's 'Nature,' all that is separate from 'the Soul' … the found 'you' is: 'the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body'" [in the introduction to A. R. Ammons, edited by Bloom]. These last are strategies for eliding the religious into the philosophical or psychological, as the Divine is replaced with a principle or abstraction embodying some aspect of it. We can see in this one example the critical resistance that Ammons's religious sensibility faces.
Early in his career Ammons explicitly embraces Christianity. One poignant expression of it may be found in "The Foot-Washing" as the poet, summoning man and woman alike, enacts the same service that Christ performed for the Apostles (John 13:5-14). The ablution he has to offer is a healing one, which will cleanse the dust-humbled feet of his "brother," will heal with "serenity" the woman's "flat feet/ yellow, gray with dust,/ [her] orphaned udders flat." Of both brother and sister he asks forgiveness for himself, as if in apology to the broken and human for his visionary ambitions: "if I have failed to know/ the grief in your gone time,/ forgive me wakened now." The Christian pilgrimage here stands in rebuke, in its reminder of earthly suffering and requirement of charity, to the temptations of the egotistical sublime.
Another striking example of the Christian theme is "Christmas Eve," in which he juxtaposes an account of the nativity with that of a contemporary American husband, trying to sneak a nap and decorate the tree before his wife comes home. The poem begins, however, with an evangelical excursus, seeming to preach the totalizing gospel of science:
But the sleepy poet finds his "electrical noumenal mind" picturing Mary's experience by his own lights, the muse for the moment more morphic than orphic:
His reverie is repeatedly interrupted by such travelers from Porlock as a telephone call and the need to find an extension cord for the lights, so that the poem plays back and forth between the mundane and the spiritual. This oscillation, with its gently comic tone, reaches a sudden, wrenchingly personal fusion of the two realms:
The figure of Ammons's dead mother being resurrected, embracing him, all told in a guilelessly childlike tone, quite movingly bridges the personal and religious levels of the poem. That divinity ultimately receives the poem's assent over physics we see in the conclusion's treatment of Christ's mission:
This final affirmation that the ultimate meaning of human life is a spiritual reality clarifies the irony involved in Ammons's initial invocation of physics to explain "everything." Scientific knowledge, while having its profound uses, does not begin to address human reality at the level Christ does.
We find a Christmas scene as well in Ammons's first long poem, the book-length poetic journal Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), which contains the following description of a church service, notable for the his sincere, unironic, unalienated participation in it:
The song and light create a setting for Ammons to testify to the nature of his religious faith. The communal celebration of the very origin of Christian belief contextualizes his more individualist credo regarding fundamental spiritual realities, given the scientific, objectifying name of "forces":
What is most interesting about this passage is the humility with which Ammons treats the divine mysteries; in fact, as Frederick Buell has observed, "his acceptance of uncertainty is Judeo-Christian in overtone." He accepts the limits of his knowledge yet accepts the knowledge as well. The relentless clarifications and revisions of the reasoning, scientific mind in Ammons pause at the threshold of revealed belief. Such intellectual humility and acceptance of the insufficiency of the human will is not what we think of as a trait of the dauntless Romantic seer.
This poem not only includes a credo specifying the articles of faith, but also manifests faith's action in the form of a prayer for strength and guidance:
Ammons concludes with a plea for "a song/ sanctified/ by Your divinity/ to make us new/ & certain of the right," lines which, in their naming the Lord as his muse emphasize what Vendler observes elsewhere in his work as the "utter congruence between Christian grace and poiesis" (The Music of What Happens). What is more audacious tonally than this public testimony of faith and prayer is the way he goes on to tell us that he "had/ lunch after/ 'who cannot love'—/ soup, sandwich, milk" (Tape), much as he used the mundane details of "Christmas Eve" to contextualize that poem's vision of divinity. The diary-like accumulation of the quotidian in this lengthy work makes the outbursts of religious vision all the more remarkable.
None more extraordinary, perhaps, than this act of surrendering himself to God's purposes, and in effect dedicating his poetic work to be part of His work:
The fruit of submission to God's will is poetic inspiration. Its result, seen in this key word of "praise," will appear often in Ammons, including poems during his middle period most commonly seen as purely Romantic. Clearly its object is divine, the Creator of all and His creation; the praise is the poet's just prayer. In Tape we encounter both spiritual longing and deep faith expressed so unaffectedly as to seem as natural as the meals, weather patterns, and other incidents that make up this extraordinary poetic journal. The absolute dependency of the human upon God for solace, for meaning, and for healing has not been more convincingly portrayed since Eliot. Ammons at this point in his career seems to view his own poetic vocation as a ministry in Christian terms, that of spreading testimony to God's grace and works.
The Divine continues as an abiding concern of Ammons in the work from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, but the perspective he takes on it changes. The poet comes to view God as a construct of the human imagination rather than as an independent, noumenal entity, the creator of the universe; he seems to agree with Blake that "all Deities reside in the human breast," and to begin to embrace a Religion of Man more Emersonian in tone. The reading of Ammons as latter-day Romantic may most convincingly be applied to works from this period.
In "Hibernaculum," when Ammons addresses God there is uneasy qualification alien to the earlier poems: "dear God (or whatever, if anything, is/ merciful) give us our lives, then, the full possession,/ before we give them back." Diffidence about knowing what God is is a sign of piety; diffidence about knowing whether God is at all is a sign of profound religious doubt. A tone of resentment has entered into the prayer as well, understandable since God seems to exist only as an endlessly fillable blank, a sort of floating signifier, rather than a powerful being who would care to hear and answer prayers:
sanction: for the god is ever re-created as emptiness, till force and ritual fill up and strangle his life, and then he must be born empty again: I accost the emptiness saying let all men turn their eyes to the emptiness that allows adoration's life:
The focus has changed from the originary, constitutive presence of God in creation, which animates the spiritual seeking of the early poems from "Hymn" through Tape, to the promptings of the human imagination that needs to create an object of veneration. Rather than witness to God's presence in creation, Ammons offers only "antiquity's sanction" to validate faith. Making the Divine the creation of the human, though much more easily assimilable to the rationalist and secularizing thrust of intellectual history since the eighteenth century, is a significant reversal of the stance we have seen in his earlier work.
The long poem Sphere: The Form of a Motion marks a certain climax of this humanistic version of the Divine. Here the will to believe poses grave dangers, because people invest the objects of their belief with considerable power over themselves, conceptions to which they become captive:
From being the transcendent and immanent creator of all toward whom the spirit yearns, the Divine here has become a treacherous projection of the mind which usurps our freedom.
In keeping with the circularity of Sphere's motion, Ammons returns to this theme in a tone more seemingly reverential, referring to God in the second person rather than the third:
The initial voice of prayer recalls Tape, but the view Ammons takes toward the Most High here is considerably more qualified. He seems to be uneasily fusing two contradictory propositions, that God is a creation of the human imagination, and that God has the omnipotent existence of the creator of all. He argues that the same power of mind by which we repeatedly imagine and destroy our gods is itself the acting power of God's imagination remaking itself. By looking inside ourselves to our own consciousness, we find the Most High's way at work, and in so doing our imagination serves as an essential vehicle of God's self-creation. This is Ammons's closest approach to the Emerson who declared "that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite."
The overall movement of Sphere is toward affirming the world the way it is, in secular terms, as the place in which we have our happiness or not at all. In it alone may we find sufficient beauty to sustain us. We find "joy's surviving radiance" in the "moment of consciousness," that is through enjoying the motion of our minds in the here and now rather than in anticipation of a future transcendent state beyond our mortal life. This argument animates some of the great poems of his middle period, as for example "The Arc Inside and Out," which, after luxuriating in both poles of thought, ends with an injunction to inhabit a state between both of these motions of the mind, to accept this life as it is as a resting point and enjoy it as such:
The poet articulates so remarkably an edenic equipoise of mind and feeling that it seems churlish to question its durability as a position for living, or its suitability as an answer to the spiritual searching that drives so much of Ammons's earlier (and, as we shall see, later) verse. But it is hard, after reviewing the whole corpus of his poetry to date, not to assent to Waggoner's criticism of the poems of this middle period as being "not entirely consistent, in tone or statement, with the best of the earlier lyrics or even with the prayer … and the several credos … in Tape. A little more defensive, more guarded, more 'intellectually prudent'" ("Notes and Reflections"). The poems of the period, roughly speaking, from Uplands (1970) through Diversifications (1975), "have pulled back a little from the letting-go and letting-out of the earlier work. There is less abandon, more control…. Their style might be described as more 'mature,' but maturity brings losses as well as gains." Ultimately this position would not satisfy the poet, and in fact it inspired a thorough demolition of the optimistic humanism on which it is based.
After the climax of critical reception attendant upon the publication of Collected Poems (1972) and Sphere (1974), which received the National Book Award and Bollingen Award respectively, Ammons shocked many of his readers with The Snow Poems (1977), a book Waggoner found "trivial and dull" (American Visionary Poetry), which moved him to wonder aloud, "Does Ammons write too much?" (American Poets.) In context of our argument here, The Snow Poems is a descent to the underworld, an exploration of the abyss of mind and will wrestling with the most intractable material of the human condition in isolation from God and His grace. In this book (at almost three hundred pages his longest single work) the poet seems awash in ennui and depression alternating with terror, confined by quotidian life, taking tranquilizers to get by, haunted by memories of his dead father. Precious little of the buoyancy of his previous work is to be found, and even the qualified, constructed God of Sphere has vanished. Earlier in his career he pictures God's universal, beneficent consciousness as
someone [who] has a clear vision of it all, exact to complete existence; loves me when I swear and praise and smiles, probably, to see me wrestle with sight
In The Snow Poems comes the bleak negation:
The poet has a sense of utter cosmic abandonment so intense it pushes aside the effect of the tranquilizer he uses to blunt it:
Over the course of this book the poet enacts the drama of a resourceful mind isolated and unable to find a way to live with his human brokenness, most tellingly in the way in which he is haunted by the memory of his father, but really including all the other people and things in his life. In this record of spiritual isolation and alienation the vehicle of his "redemption" proves to be, oddly enough, a spring encounter with a neighbor's dog, whose kindly recognition endorses his existence from outside:
… old fellow, friend, frizzled schnauzer runs out of the driveway and whines grievous pleasure stretching up toward my face: he knows me: we were friends last fall: I am myself: I am so scared and sad I can hardly bear to speak and yet delight breaks falls through me and drives me off laughing down a dozen brooks:
From this point the book's mood begins to rise from the Slough of Despond in which the poet has been caught, and move toward an acceptance of the world and his life in it, seen inessentially natural, secular terms.
In tracing the spiritual theme in Ammons's work, The Snow Poems stands as an oddly compelling record of a long, dark night of the soul, when the seeker feels himself abandoned by God, by the grace he had previously been able to find in the world of things, by what his understanding of the universe and his life has been. It is Ammons at his most reduced, least transcendental, least religious, least visionary; it is his fullest exploration of the estranged self in an abandoned universe. Its example points out as by relief the importance of the Divine in his work overall.
The Snow Poems contrasts dramatically with the book that follows it, A Coast of Trees (1981), as Ammons takes up again his spiritual searching. The first poem, "Coast of Trees," invokes the Taoist Way to describe the origin of observed creation and its ongoing course for the pilgrim, one who is asking a question absent throughout the preceding book, "How are we to find holiness?" Only by accepting our fallenness, our "helplessness" of which we make "first offer and sacrifice," by accepting "a shambles of/ non-enterprise" which represents our conscious, calculating, making-sense-of-the-world's failure to control reality the way we want it to, may we come to "know a unity approach divided, a composure past/ approach." It is after thus emptying ourselves of the pretensions and intrusions of willful consciousness that "with nothing, we turn/ to the cleared particular, not more/ nor less than itself," seeing things for what they are and neither exaggerating nor deprecating their significance, their proper place in creation. Which is to say that we see things in their place in the Divine Nature and the Divine Nature's place in them: "and we realize/ that whatever it is it is in the Way and/ the Way in it, as in us, emptied full."
Seeing things in themselves and in their place in the Way reminds us of our nature, and of our place in the Way. The poet's acceptance of the "shambles" in this poem denotes a chastened return to the spiritual humility seen in his earlier work; a taste of earth now leavens his religious sensibility, and the optimistic humanism of his middle period has been replaced by an acknowledgment that this life is a Vale of Sorrow to be endured before our emergence after death into a better life.
In the elegy "In Memoriam Mae Noblitt" this world, instead of being our sufficiency, is rather a temporary abode before the eternal one: "this is just a place," whereas
our home which defines us is elsewhere but not so far away we have forgotten it:
Rejecting with Flannery O'Connor the notion that we are our own light, he questions:
is love a reality we made here ourselves— and grief—did we design that—or do these, like currents, whine in and out among us merely as we arrive and go:
Our ultimate consolation turns out to be our destination after death, a return to our true home:
the reality we agree with, that agrees with us, outbounding this, arrives
to touch, joining with us from far away:
The consolation of this eternal frame of reference in no way eliminates the death and suffering that blight our earthly life. Looking forward to the next hundred million years in "Rapids," Ammons predicts that "the universe will probably not find/ a way to vanish nor I/ in all that time reappear." "Sweetened Change," "Parting," "Givings," and "An Improvisation for the Stately Dwelling" are all in some sense meditations on death, the last marked particularly by spiritual compensation for earthly travail:
The problem of mortal suffering constitutes a counterpoint to spiritual reward which checks whatever temptation to the egotistical sublime the poet may still feel. In "Swells," a symbolic meditation on the magnitude and amplitude of the waves of the ocean, the climax comes not in lofty cresting but rather in a shattering collapse back into the rag-and-bone-shop base of human life from which this meditation has sought to ascend but will not be permitted to escape: "the immediate threat/ shot up in a disintegrating spray, the many thoughts and/ sights unmanageable, the deaths of so many, hungry or mad." Ammons recognizes, in "Breaking Out," that he has been "an earth thing all along," whose "feet are catching in the brush" now that the "balloons" of a self-deceiving afflatus have been released.
This dialectic of human sorrow and divine grace which consoles may be seen no more clearly than in the much-commented-on "Easter Morning." In fact, the poem could have been titled "Good Friday and Easter Morning" for it is a two-stage construction in which suffering and death in the first meets its complement of saving grace and resurrected spirit in the second. The via dolorosa is represented in a child's desperation, loneliness, and abandonment by his elders in which the poet sees that
the child in me that could not become was not ready for others to go, to go on into change, blessings and horrors, but stands there by the road where the mishap occurred, crying out for help.
The aborted life of this child within him the mature poet holds onto, suffers with over the course of his life. Ammons speaks from the center of his brokenness and sorrow:
I stand on the stump of a child, whether myself or my little brother who died, and yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place, for for me it is the dearest and the worst, it is life nearest to life which is life lost:
He finally embraces this locale, and the suffering it represents, as his own:
it is my place where I must stand and fail, calling attention with tears to the branches not lofting boughs into space.
Finally he clings to that failure and the pain it holds with a certain tenacity, almost pride, since it defines him more truly than any exultation in his power as a seer.
The reclamation of the poet's spirit arises in the final section from finding holiness in the purpose and beauty of the natural world, or, as Vendler puts it [in The Music of What Happens], "grace—not offered by Ammons as an 'equivalent' to Bunyan's grace, but as the same thing, a saving gift from an external source," an observation as true of "Easter Morning" as it is of "Grace Abounding," the poem she has in mind. The contemplation of the flight of a pair of eagles allows Ammons his "assuaging human clarification":
The divinity revealed by nature, as announced by the poem's title, makes "Easter Morning" a capstone of the rest of the book's preoccupation with the human and the Divine.
The poem in which Ammons addresses God at the highest and most reverent level of expression of which he is capable comes from a later collection, Lake Effect Country (1983). "Singling & Doubling Together" is like "Hymn" in that the poet refers to God in these cond person, achieving here something of the tender familiarity we see in the poetry of George Herbert. Unlike "Hymn," in which God is sought by moving outward into an unimaginable transcendence, or downward into the minute particulars of the physical universe, the later poem finds Ammons recognizing God's grace as a personal gift in his own human identity: "My nature singing in me is your nature singing." The poem elaborates the felt intimate presence of the Lord from His articulation as well in the world of appearances:
you have means to veer down, filter through, and, coming in, harden into vines that break back with leaves, so that when the wind stirs I know you are there and I hear you in leafspeech
The poem does replicate the motion of the earlier "Hymn" in tracing out a polar relationship between the most remote and unknowable manifestation of the Godhead and its particular expressions in local nature, both the "far resolutions" and the "separate leaves":
though of course back into your heightenings I can never follow: you are there beyond tracings flesh can take, and farther away surrounding and informing the systems, you are as if nothing, and where you are least knowable I celebrate you most or here most when near dusk the pheasant squawks and lofts at a sharp angle to the roost cedar, I catch in the angle of that ascent, in the justness of that event your pheasant nature
God at His most infinite and eternal is remote and inconceivable to the poet's mind, but in the natural world of creation reveals Himself in a variety of forms and ways of being, including a "creaking/ and snapping nature" in the motion of bushes. In human form God shows a failing nature. Here as in "Easter Morning" failure summarizes what it is to be human, a state of brokenness and pain, in which God participates completely and sacrificially:
The final motion is that of testifying to God's forgiving grace, as the poet rededicates his art to His service, as he had done in Tape for the Turn of the Year. Ammons can see the desired end of his life's pilgrimage, the annihilation of his self in death, to be reunited with his Creator. Finally the poet looks forward to being liberated from his own particular voice to be blended with God's pure expression:
At this point in his poetic career Ammons is, like the George Herbert of "Love (III)," in communion with his creator. We sense a familiarity with God wrought of concentration, persistence, suffering, prayer, the reward of which is a trust foretelling eternal salvation.
Among Ammons's critics it has been easier to speak of the Sublime rather than the Divine, perhaps because the former is an ultimately subjective mode of expression, and can be tailored to the needs of the occasion as a one-size-fits-all spirituality replacement. Harold Bloom makes of it the centerpiece of an elaborate psychodrama in the poet's mind, the various discharges from which are the heart of his reading of Ammons. A critic like Nathan Scott can make it just consoling enough so that it becomes almost divine, without setting off the reflex of disbelief endemic to the modern mind. Given the ardor of Ammons's spiritual expression in these late poems, the lengths to which an otherwise sympathetic and acute commentator like Scott will go to elide the presence of God in "Singling & Doubling Together" indicates the operation of a powerful taboo:
In short, the "you" being addressed in "Singling & Doubling Together" is simply the Wholly Other, the Incomparable, the "dearest freshness deep down things": it is none other than Being itself…. And this aboriginal reality is addressed as "you," not because Ammons conceives it to be a being with personal attributes but rather, presumably, because he feels it to present itself with the same sort of graciousness that one encounters in the love of another person. He chooses not, in other words, to talk about "God" but, rather, to speak of that which approximates what Teilhard de Chardin called le milieu divin. Or, we might say that Ammons is a poet of what Stevens in a late poem, "Of Mere Being," in Opus Posthumous, called "mere Being": we might say that he is a poet of that which, though not coextensive with all things, yet interpenetrates all things with the radiance of its diaphanous presence.
This fails to be a satisfying account of the poem because as we have just seen, Ammons addresses an omniscient creator who feels his pain, who participates in his fallen human life even though having high and eternal origin, which is to say it is exactly "a being with personal attributes" and not merely some abstraction of "Being itself," which would indeed be "mere Being." The poem is addressed to a sympathetic consciousness who shares the poet's sufferings and who, moreover, will ultimately save the poet from them. In short, the address is not to some abstraction of Being but rather to the God in whom "we live and move and have our being," not the milieu but the Presence itself, such convincing witness to which is quite rare in contemporary poetry.
The later poems in their working toward a state of communion represent a culmination of Ammons's engagement with the Divine as a poetic subject, which has taken several phases. In the earliest, he combines an examination of nature for signs of the Creator with a faith basically Christian in origin as seen in "Hymn," "Christmas Eve," and Tape for the Turn of the Year. In his middle period, seduced by the egotistical sublime, he revises God into being a necessary construct of the human imagination, which needs to create a space to venerate. With the scorched-earth demolition in The Snow Poems of Romantic optimism Ammons shows the extremity of life without God in his most willful, isolated, and harrowing work, which clears the field for renewed spiritual pilgrimage in the later books. In these Ammons is strengthened to endure the trials of earthly life which threatened to undo him in The Snow Poems, and fixes his hope on eternal reward after death, nourished in his faith by signs of grace that he encounters in the natural world, and by God's speaking directly to his heart.
In its most affective lineaments, the idea of God that Ammons articulates is not dogmatic but partakes, rather, of the emotional context of personal spiritual encounter, and is revealed in an examination of nature as probing and scientific as one can imagine any poet performing. In the rigors of this unsparing intimacy we may see Ammons more fruitfully not as our Emerson, but rather our Herbert, not Romantic so much as truly Metaphysical. Such attention to nuance of thought and depth of feeling in spiritual experience grounds the rest of his concerns and makes Ammons's enterprise a singular achievement in modern American poetry.