SOURCE: "Antennae to Knowledge," in The Nation, Vol. 198, No. 13, March 23, 1964, pp. 304-6.
[In the following review, Berry discusses Ammons's focus on knowledge in his Expressions of Sea Level, and analyzes the poet's use of form and scientific language.]
In this admirable book, [Expressions of Sea Level], Mr. Ammons' aim isn't beauty, though there are poems here that I think are beautiful, and it's not the suggestiveness which is sometimes meant by the word "poetic." His aim is knowledge, the getting of it and the use of it; the art of poetry is held out to the world like an antenna. A man who is concerned with knowing must necessarily be concerned with what he does not know; and one of the principles here is an honesty which insists on clarifying the difference and will then consider what is unknown or unaccountable: "I admit to mystery / in the obvious…." The suggestive is confined to what is authentically mysterious. These poems take place on the frontier between what the poet knows and what he doesn't; perhaps that explains their peculiar life and sensitivity. They open to accommodate surprises and accidents. The poet's interest is extended generously toward what he didn't expect, and his poems move by their nature in that direction.
The poems are worked out, not by the application of set forms to their materials, but in an effort to achieve form—in accordance with a constant attentiveness to, a hope for, the possibility of form—the need of anything, once begun, to complete itself, meaningfully. Mr. Ammons' way in this can be seen in the poem called "Mechanism." The movement begins with a goldfinch lighting in a bush:
the yellow bird flashes black wing bars in the new-leaving wild cherry bushes by the bay…. flitting to a branch where flash vanishes into stillness….
And then there's a consideration of the multitudinous biological dependencies of the goldfinch—all the minute causes and effects of digestion, sex, instinct, habitat, etc., almost inscrutably complex, and involving a kind of miracle: "mind rising / from the physical chemistries…." The poem then returns to the bird itself, a model of the world, both containing and caught up in the natural workings, ignorant of all of them, singing on its perch: the
goldfinch, unconscious of the billion operations that stay its form, flashes, chirping (not a great songster) in the bay cherry bushes wild of leaf.
The form here is circular; we wind up where we started. But by the time we've come all the way around though the bird hasn't changed, we have. We've learned something. We see differently, and better. We've seen the world working, which is not only informative but dramatic. This gives a fair idea of how Mr. Ammons goes about his task. He attempts to mediate, make or discover an intelligible continuity between the complex and the simple, the vast and the small, the over-ruling laws of creation and the creatures.
In several of the poems there's a large proportion of scientific language. In the following you can see how the scientific talk is broken into, made flexible, by the commoner language of everyday:
Honor a going thing, goldfinch, corporation, tree, morality: any working order animate or inanimate: it has managed directed balance, the incoming and outgoing energies are working right….
However, in lines where the language is predominantly or purely scientific the effect the poet's ear can have on it is extremely limited:
honor the chemistries, platelets, hemoglobin kinetics, the light-sensitive iris, the enzymic intricacies of control….
That language is by...
(This entire section contains 1807 words.)
nature stiff, like a wooden shoe. No conceivable amount of use would limber it up. Except for the word "honor," the poet is taking the scientific vocabulary pretty much as it comes. About all he can hope to do with it, as a poet, is to place it exactly within the large rhythm of his poem—everything seems to depend on that.
"Mechanism," I believe, makes more use of this kind of language than any of the others. But so many of the poems include lines or passages that have the cadences of prose that I assume it must be deliberate, part of Mr. Ammons' usual method. The only near-equivalent or precedent for this, so far as I know, is the gathering in of prose quotations, statistics etc., in such modern poems as Paterson and The Cantos. And it works, I think, the same way: the prose detail is admitted raw into the poem not to be transformed into poetry by it but to be illuminated or newly clarified by the energy with which the poem surrounds it—and to serve the poem in some way in which only prose can serve it. This use of prose in poems may be justified by the poet's conviction that poetry might legitimately deal with subject matter which is customarily the subject matter of prose—his realization that some of the things he knows and is concerned about are new, and haven't been prepared for poetry by any considerable period of association or usage. What I'm indicating here is that Mr. Ammons aims to bring science into his poems as subject matter, not just to borrow words or images from it.
The poet attempting to lay hold of such materials is up against the possibility of enlarging the powers and working spaces of his art at the risk of weakening it. The effort is experimental in the purest sense of the word, and involves the risk of experiment. The only measure for it is: Does it work? Can the reader take it in?
I think that Mr. Ammons makes it work often and well. The poetry doesn't inhere consistently in the verbal texture of the poems, but in the forms, the arrangements of the contents. Sometimes the reader is unsure that what he's reading is poetry until he has read all the way through. But when he comes to the end of a poem like "Mechanism"—which attempts to bring to bear on the image of the singing bird, and to bring under the control of that poetic image, all that the poet knows about it—he's conscious that a unifying exciting energy has been released among the subject matters; and he knows that it's the energy of poetry, which takes over the language of science only as a resource, and causes it to belong to a larger, more exuberant statement than the specialized vocabulary alone could make. "Mechanism" isn't a biologist's poem; it's the poem of a poet who knows biology.
There's a nearly opposite kind of Ammons poem, represented here by "Nelly Myers," "Hardweed Path Going" and "Silver." These poems recollect the poet's country boyhood. Again the use of prose, this time a kind of narrative prose, is characteristic. And again the necessity for prose seems one of the conditions imposed by the materials. Here the subject matter is not difficult because, like the scientific, it has been kept pure of emotional or literary associations; it's difficult because it has been too much and too poorly written about—too much condescended to, you could say, by the conventions that claim to have been invented for it. I'm talking about all the oversweetening, distortion, falsification that have been left sticking to rural things by the pastoralizers, sentimentalizers and folksifiers since God knows when. Such things are usually both written and read about in a kind of institutional blindness to the sweat, crap, blood, and biting insects which are as much a part of the real experience as white lambs and new-mown hay. Mr. Ammons' poems of this life manage an honesty about it which is an achievement. He proceeds in these as he does in the poems of scientific lore, keeping a respectful loyalty to what he knows, refusing to think of it or write about it in any falsifying rhetoric. It must be given to the reader in the most direct way, otherwise there can be no meeting of minds.
The poem "Nelly Myers" is about a simple-minded woman of that name, a maker of brooms, who lived with the poet's family during his boyhood. The difficulty of writing this poem must have been Mr. Ammons' sense both of the uniqueness and the meaningfulness of her life, the presence of her life in his life. The two would, I imagine, have tended to cancel each other out: her uniqueness would have threatened to overpower her meaningfulness, make it incommunicable; or to emphasize the meaningfulness might have reduced her to a stereotype. Mr. Ammons' solution is to be openly personal. Some of the details of the poem are given with the directness, not even of prose fiction, but of biography:
my grandmother, they say, took her in when she was a stripling run away from home (her mind was not perfect which is no bar to this love song for her smile was sweet, her outrage honest and violent) and they say that after she worked all day her relatives would throw a handful of dried peas into her lap for her supper and she came to live in the house I was born in the northwest room of….
The poem is an elegy, and the relaxed passages of description or narrative support and give their specificness of feeling to an elegiac lyricism which is authentic and powerful, and which charges not just the passages in which it occurs purely, but the whole poem:
oh I will not end my grief that she is gone, I will not end my singing; my songs like blueberries felt-out and black to her searching fingers before light welcome her wherever her thoughts ride with mine, now or in any time that may come when I am gone; I will not end visions of her naked feet in the sandpaths: I will hear her words
We're moved by Wordsworth's solitary highland lass because she's seen at a distance, and the poet is left free to suppose and suggest. We're moved by Nelly Myers because we're brought very close to her. She's not idealized, nor idealizable—she's too much present, we know too much about her. The power of the poem is that we're made to know her as she was, and to care for her as she was. Only the sympathy approaches some kind of ideal.
There is a wonderful eagerness in this book, a whetted appetite for the phenomena of seashores and farms and landscapes and factories. And the interest is not directed at things as objects or appearances, but at their ways—how they act, how they mix. The excitement of anything is that it moves, changes, influences other things—"boundless in its effect, / eternal in the working out / of its effect…." Each poem is, in a way, an ecology—the revelation of a harmony which is both found and made.
A. R. Ammons 1926–
(Full name Archie Randolph Ammons) American poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Ammons's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 25, and 57.
A prolific writer, Ammons is widely considered among the most significant contemporary American poets. Often referred to as an Emersonian Transcendentalist, Ammons is praised for his sensitive meditations on the human capacity to comprehend the flux of the natural world. Initially characterized as a nature poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, Ammons frequently writes in a conversational tone and endows his verse with resonant images of detailed landscapes. While often linked with traditional literary movements, Ammons's poetry contains a modern skepticism which stems from his refusal to attach universal significance to religious or artistic doctrines. Abstaining from offering any facile resolutions to the tensions in his works, Ammons is concerned with broadening his readers' perceptions of their relationship to the world.
Ammons was born in 1926 in Whiteville, North Carolina, where his father ran a small farm. He spent his first 17 years on the farm, and his poetry later exhibited a preoccupation with and an appreciation for natural processes. In 1943 he graduated from high school and got a job with a ship-building company in Wilmington. Ammons joined the U.S. Naval Reserve when he was 18 and served in the South Pacific for 19 months during World War II. After returning home in 1946, he entered Wake Forest College on the G.I. Bill. Ammons had begun writing poetry while in the South Pacific, and he continued throughout college. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1949. After working briefly as the principal of the elementary school in Cape Hatteras, Ammons left North Carolina to pursue a Master's degree in English at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1952 he moved to New Jersey, where he worked for several years as an executive for a biological-glassware factory. Ammons showed his poetry to the poet and critic Josephine Miles, who encouraged him to publish his work. His first collection, Ommateum with Doxology, appeared in 1955. The book sold only 16 copies in five years and did not garner much critical attention. Ammons continued to write and struggled to find a publisher for the next nine years.
In 1963 he served as editor of Nation, and did a poetry reading at Cornell University. Ammons was offered a teaching position and eventually received an endowed chair as the Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry. Ammons has since received increasing critical attention and acclaim, and has received numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry for Collected Poems (1972), the Bollingen Prize in Poetry for Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1973), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for A Coast of Trees (1982), and the National Book Award for Poetry for Garbage (1993).
Ammons's work, occupied with speculations about natural processes, shows an appreciation of nature, but it is not an idealized vision as in pastoral poetry. Although the poetic landscape of Ammons's earlier work is dominated by images from the natural world, he is not a nature poet per se. His poetry is concerned with humankind's relationship to nature. The major themes of his poetry include the dialectic between the one and the many, the relationships between species, and the ever-changing nature of experience. His first collection, Ommateum with Doxology, studies different ways of looking at the world. The word ommateum means "compound eye," and exhibits Ammons's use of scientific language and his multiple perspectives. One of Ammons's main concerns is apparent in his next collection, Expressions of Sea Level (1964), in which he expresses the desire for unity between the flesh and the spirit—the form and the formless. He uses images of the sea and wind to represent nature's perpetual motion, and suggests that man is only partially aware of external forces. Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965) is a book-length poem that takes the form of a daily poetic journal and chronicles the poet's thoughts on the mundanity of everyday life. The poem was composed on adding machine tape, as was his later Garbage. Sphere: The Form of a Motion concerns humanity's struggle to impose order on a world which defies structure and to suspend the motion of natural forces. Ammons believes that anything is a suitable subject for poetry. His collection Garbage was inspired by a landfill he passed on the highway during a trip through Florida.
Critics often refer to Ammons's work as Emersonian, asserting that his poetry shows the influence of the American Romantic tradition. Some critics assert that Ammons's work is more complicated than that, however, citing the lack of resolution and optimism in his poetry. Critics also point out the lack of an overriding doctrine in Ammon's work. Josephine Jacobsen states: "Though Ammons now and then reminds his reader of Emerson, there is an unbridgeable gap between the basically firm optimism of the transcendentalist, and the painful, theory-free search of the poet of 'Extremes and Moderations.'" In discussing Ammons's style, reviewers often note his natural and appropriate use of scientific language. As Ammon's career progressed, critics recognized a greater scope to his work and praised his ability to turn anything into poetry. Critics assert a continuity of theme and purpose in Ammons's work, and praise his ability to bring new life to his recurring concerns. Josephine Jacobsen says, "To be able to control so much renewal, to strengthen and deepen new insights and hints, upon so permanent a project, to maintain so much oneness and flexibility in such an unrelentingly coherent poetic purpose, is perhaps the most solid of Ammons's achievements."
SOURCE: "The Talk of Giants," in Diacritics, Winter, 1973, pp. 34-8.
[In the following essay, Jacobsen discusses the major sources of tension in Ammons's poetry, including limitation, utility and waste, and compensation, as well as the features which make Ammons's work so strong.]
The publication of A. R. Ammons' Collected Poems, 1951–1971, has focused attention on a poet who has quietly risen to the top rank of American poets. Actually, it was obvious in his first book (Ommateum), that his work was strong and original, and formidable in its promise. Belonging to no clique, identifiable by no gimmicks, he continued to publish increasingly commanding books, while still having a relatively narrow contact with the poetry-reading public. In the past ten years his poetry began to come into its own, with the publication of Expressions of Sea Level in 1964, and the rapid appearance of three other books, Corsons Inlet and Tape for the Turn of the Year in 1965, and Northfield Poems in 1966. By the time Selected Poems arrived in 1968, his stature had been fully recognized by a number of critics. From that period to the recent publication of his collected poems, his reputation has widened and deepened, and he is now being recognized for what he is—one of the finest American poets of his generation.
Ammons' poetry is a poetry which is profoundly American, without being in any way limited by this characteristic. His use of language, his vocabulary and phrasing are utterly and flexibly American. The universal terms of science emerge accurately and naturally from the poems' roots.
The poetry can now be read in its bulk and ripeness. It is science-minded, passionately absorbed with the processes around the poet, the constant, complex, fascinating processes of water, wind, season and genus. But if Ammons' poetry is in the tradition of "nature poets," its essence is far different from the lyric, limpid joy of John Clare, or the pay-sage moralisé of Wordsworth, or the somber farmer-wisdom of Robert Frost, or the myth-ridden marvels of D. H. Lawrence's tortoises, serpents and gentians. Ammons sees the datum of nature as evidence; intricate, interlocking fragments of a whole which cannot be totally understood, but which draws him deeper and deeper into its identity. No poet now writing in English has so thoroughly created on the page the huge suggestion of the whole through its most minute components.
One major aspect of the work is its concern with choices: limitation. There are choices for the root, the bird, the insect, the poet: and there are the limitations within which these choices operate. There are alternatives, but these are affected constantly by all the other alternatives chosen by contingent forms of life. The poet chooses between silence and words, and the proportion of each. Silence takes the forms of deliberate omission, understatement, statement in a lower or off-beat tone, abbreviation, refusal to be governed by the reader's satisfaction. "Coon Song" (Collected Poems), is a perfect example of the last. The coon, in actuality, has no alternatives, but the poet arbitrarily creates an alternative for him, without affirming it:
You want to know what happened, you want to hear me describe it, to placate the hound's mouth slobbering in your own heart: I am no slave that I should entertain you, say what you want to hear, let you wallow in your silt: one two three four five: one two three four five six seven eight nine ten:
The poem is moving underground, in silence, as the count goes on. In Tape for the Turn of the Year the process shows itself clearly: the thread of the poem, the authentic connection with the invoked Muse, is followed through the diversions of eating, getting the mail, shovelling snow, carting groceries, as the poem shows itself, dives into the ordinary detail which is part of its crucial silence, surfaces again.
Choices are limited, but vital. Does one love enough, and rightly? At what point does compassion rot into sentimentality, pessimism become ingratitude? At what point does optimism corrupt the attention to truth?
The choices: limitation duality becomes more important as the work progresses. Often the choice is more illusory than actual; usually something, somewhere else, is invisibly interacting to limit that choice. Nevertheless, the element of choice exists. In the case of the poet, it is brilliantly evident and utilized. He chooses the large, or the small, though inevitably, at their extremes and beyond his control, they will merge into the indefinable. He chooses speech, or that defining shadow of speech which is silence, attempting to employ just so much of silence as communication will allow. He chooses irregularities, within the limiting tone of the poem; the respites of colloquialisms, abbreviations, clowning, which are the poem's own kinds of varied silences. He chooses above all, not to make a choice final:
my other word isprovisional: we'll talk about that someday, tho you may guess the meanings from ecology: don't establish the boundaries first, the squares, triangles, boxes of preconceived possibility, and then pour life into them, trimming off left-over edges, ending potential: let centers proliferate from self-justifying motions!
Over and over we are warned that the closed conclusion, like the attempt to distort evidence for the salvation of our hopes, is death. We are allowed only the constant tension between the defined and the indefinable, between the need to be identified and the need to be lost, between hope and reality:
have I prettified the tragedies, the irrecoverable losses: have I glossed over the unmistakable evils: has panic tried to make a flower: then, hope distorts me: turns wishes into lies: I care about the statement of fact: the true picture has a beauty higher than Beauty:
A second vital aspect of the poems is the concern with utility: waste. When Ammons writes in "Catalyst" (Collected Poems),
Honor the maggot, supreme catalyst he spurs the rate of change: tall scavengers are honorable: I love them all, will scribble as hard as I can for them)
his is not a merely ecological admiration for maximum efficiency. It is the admiration of the poet, this particular poet: the belief that the Muse is as formidably economical as the natural system of waste and replenishment. Poetry has no accidental lapses: instead, it continues to define, by its underground presence, by its silences and invisibilities, by those surrounding silences which define its metaphors, as a plain sets forth a solitary tree.
but betimes & at times let me out of here: I will penetrate into the void & bring back nothingness to surround all these shapes with!
In Ammons' poetry there are differing silences—all useful, all used. There is the silence which ensues when the thing contemplated becomes too large or too small for speech, when the particular disappears into sizelessness, the sizelessness of the unimaginably small, the unimaginably great. In neither direction does the imagination cease to function, but silence takes over as its expression. Often one has very clearly this sense of a speech just beyond the imagination's speech: a minute, insect-like voice drilling at an unimaginable height: a subterranean, immense rumble at a depth too deep for the imagination to fathom. They meet. And this is the ultimate economy of Ammons' poetry. This is the talk of giants, illustrating the illusion of size: the atom which can destroy a mountain, the drop of water complex as a galaxy.
Sometimes this economy has a terrifying quality, and there is often the sense of the poet moving, carefully, through a world in which a more acute consciousness has been substituted for the "normal" illusory proportions. This is one reason why the earlier poems tend to confine overtly defined emotions to isolated poems, individual incidents. The vast process observed and reported on is so intricate, so incredibly able in its motions, so frighteningly economical, that all poetic energy is absorbed into that observing, that reporting. Conclusions, other than tentative conclusions on immediate evidence, are postponed, are presently inappropriate.
A pig, the comfortable familiar of a hundred mornings, will be slaughtered when the inescapable calendar says so: the individual and precious mule will be carted off when the inescapable financial calendar says so: a marvelous and battered human figure will shine out of the inescapable processes of pain and death. But what, if anything, this means cannot yet assert itself: there is still too much evidence to be accumulated. The pig will feed other bodies, the mule will balance a debt: the servant-friend's gnarled body responds to the demand of toil.
The parallels are too numerous and beautifully varied to belabor. Among these, the bones of the poet on which the wind will perform the song the poet did not manage: the glossy flies winging up from the dead cat's putrifaction; the poet's use of his tape, which permits and limits.
A third important tension of Ammons' poetry is that of levels: compensation, and this is perhaps most powerfully represented in the title poem of Expressions of Sea Level, one of the most remarkable poems of its time. It is as though this poetry, for an instant laid a finger on a pulsating heart exposed to touch. Expressions of Sea Level is a poem so close to non-verbal reality that the reader feels he is in the presence of some miraculously sensitive instrument. That instrument fixes the position of the poet, the spot from which he works. It establishes that fractional instant of balance, that living center of a shift so secret and so momentary as to be almost a metaphor in itself—a point from which all the infinite interplay, fluctuation, compensation, choices, are redistributed, redefined, again set in motion.
In a body of poetry which must reject, by its very nature, the appearance of a highly-organized overplan, it is no small triumph that the poems—the very long as well as the very short—show at almost unbroken parallel in their structure to their conception of the natural and poetic worlds. The ebb and flow, the periods of dryness, with catalogued details, provide a duplication of the poem's intent, a sort of root-tree, shaped like the tree in air.
The form of the lines upon the page turns out to be a physical expression of the poetry's basic element: a dominant sense of form, evidenced in flexibility and a variety of modes and tones. The lines in the long poems—and these are by far the greater number—assert a fundamental character: a breath-oriented, serious but not solemn, discussion, varying according to season, mood, the advent and termination of incidents; however indented, stretched, abbreviated, the discussion always maintains the balance between the poetry's intention and the levity of failures, disappointments, the ridiculous and necessary frustrations of actuality. The very real lyric quality in the poems is so conditioned by the other ingredients, humor, information, discoveries, that it can be easily missed.
Humor in Ammons' poems, being the manipulation of proportion, weaves in and out of even much of the serious poetry. It is overt in regard to the poet himself: he sees himself at once as a weed, a fool, and Ezra, the speech of the wind: above all, as a servant to the Muse:
help me: I have this & no other comfort: the song, the slight, inner unmistakable song you give me and nothing else! what are you, some kind of strumpet? will you pull out on me? look: I have faith: I have faith: come or go: I'll always love you: I have nothing else: I have nothing else beside you: will you tear me to pieces? I'll go on without you, until you come again:
The poet shoots himself down at the first hint of the portentous.
One major fact has contributed greatly to the strength and toughness of Ammons' writing: the matter of reinforcement. Most of those poets who signally avoid stasis, and the slow process of petrifaction within their own accomplishment, move sequentially, developing forward from past accomplishment by way of experiment, and advance upon new territory. Ammons has moved circularly, in the manner of seasons and tides, reinforcing the nature, the manner, the approaches of his poetry. New growth constantly appears, compelling changes by development, variation, richness, penetration. But what is happening is unmistakably, organically, what was happening in his very first poems. It is not just that one can identify an Ammons poem by its essential tone and flavor: it is that the concerns, the self-admonitions, the scrupulous search, the vast undertaking, are exactly that to which his first poems were addressed. To be able to control so much renewal, to strengthen and deepen new insights and hints, upon so permanent a project, to maintain so much oneness and flexibility in such an unrelentingly coherent poetic purpose, is perhaps the most solid of Ammons' achievements.
One of Ammons' preoccupations is the poet's relation to his reader. Ammons works within the tension between the wish and need to communicate, and a vigilant sense of the poet's need for freedom—freedom from the dictation of the reader's taste and approbation. (As for the more sordid dictates of poetic fashion, it would be hard to find any poet now writing more totally free from the taint of other-directed concessions to any sort of bandwagonism.) Dickinson and Hopkins come to mind, but each was sealed into (or freed by) certain rigid habits of life, while Ammons' work is freely exposed to an almost unnerving range of interests. His poetry, owing nothing to any school, group, clique, critical pressure, has developed its unique tone in a sort of solitary soliloquy which is simultaneously an open response to life, and a dialogue with the self. Its originality, so unostentatious as to make only a gradual impression, is amazing—far less an easily-identifiable matter of technique, vocabulary, subject matter, than of breath, tone and texture. It is this sort of originality which argues best for the permanent value of his poetry.
Ammons' sense of the necessity to communicate accounts in part for the organic quality of his poetry. Solipsism would be ludicrous: poetry must be a part of a speak-hear process of shared discovery. But a refusal of the hearer's influence comes at the point where any concession would distract the poet from the quest for his quarry, from the balanced point of a position which must be constantly realigned. The "Coon Song," having addressed life, death, survival, defeat, at their deepest level, starts back abruptly from the reader's "Well, what happened?" pressure. Within the poem, nothing is inevitable: so the thread is roughly snapped. The near-solemn vocabulary is abruptly subverted. The coon, having a secret knowledge, will cause the hounds to disappear, but will end in disorder in the teeth of hounds:
now there one two three four five are two philosophies: here we go round the mouth-wet of hounds: what I choose is youse: baby.
There is a very strong pressure on the poet to "reflect his own time." What is his identity—personal, political, social, national—within the parentheses of his dates of birth and death—specifically, the birth and death dates of his life as poet? If any demonstration were needed (which seems unlikely) that poetry of major caliber relates to, and indeed affects, every aspect of its own time, regardless of subject matter or specific reference, Ammons' poetry would afford it. American it is, as earlier noted, by its accent and tone. Its personal and social relevance to its own time comes through the compliment it pays to continuity: it examines doggedly those interactions of environment, characteristics, chance, and law, which shape human history. There is no section in his entire work which is not applicable to our immediate predicament. Unquestionably, a reader's taste for more explicitly considered human problems may be thwarted: Ammons' poetry supplies the key and the energy; it is up to the reader to open any door he wishes.
There is in the work, however, a growing sense of the personal emerging from the poetry, and this must be a consideration in any attempt to understand its present direction. Eighty lives are lost when a plane crashes over Delaware:
grieved, we rejoice as a man rejoices saved from death: we beg that men be spared calamity & the hard turn: we make an offering of our praise: we reaccept: our choice is gladness:
Gladness is chosen; but it is a hard and constantly eroded choice. It is mostly in the recent work that human sorrow, of which the early deprivations were foretokens, has become more explicit. It is as though the poet's universe had to be formerly so passionately and protractedly examined that there was no room in the resulting poem for explicit expression of the havoc wrought on human affections and attachments. Eight years ago, a short poem gave full scope at last to sorrow. "Dark Song" (Collected Poems) says it all in twelve lines:
Sorrow how high it is that no wall holds it back: deep it is that no dam undermines it: wide that it comes on as up a strand multiple and relentless: the young that are beautiful must die; the old, departing, can confer nothing.
The refusal of the work as a whole to tie itself to the occasional or topical, the stubbornness of its roots in the specific as part of the universal, are what makes the poetry relevant to contemporary problems. The poems are never as discrete as they seem. Just as every choice, every fragment of motion, affects multiple beings in unexpected ways, so the slightest ethical shift affects all human relations. In the poem "Expressions of Sea Level," the secret moment of balance—leagues out, at an undefinable ocean-point—affects the tiny pools of minnows inland. The faintest suggestion of a shift sets in motion life and death forces. It would be nonsense to argue that this sort of poetry has little to do with the terrors and pressures of our daily life.
Although the poems use scientific terms freely, Ammons is sharply conscious of what must be the incorruptibility of the vocabulary in relation to its subject:
high-falutin language does not rest on the cold water all night by the luminous birches: is too vivid for the eyes of pigeons, heads tucked under wings in first patches of sunlight: is too noisy to endure the sleep of buds, the holding in of the huckleberry blossom: too voracious to spin, rest & change: is too clever for the frank honey-drop of the lily-pistil:
Ammons' poetry as a whole can be considered religious in character. It possesses the senses of humility and awe, and a kind of unconquerable expectation. This was foreshadowed in the earliest of books. But it was a preoccupation often submerged for long periods in simply paying attention, that special genius of Ammons. This attention often brought on dismaying results, results never distorted in the service of optimism. Though Ammons now and then reminds his reader of Emerson, there is an unbridgeable gap between the basically firm optimism of the transcendentalist, and the painful, theory-free search of the poet of "Extremes and Moderations" (Collected Poems). In "Unsaid," Ammons asked, earlier,
Have you listened for the things I have left out? I am nowhere near the end yet and already hear the hum of omissions. the chant of vacancies, din of silences:
Toward whichever side the balance tilts, there is a silence affirming the counterweight:
I know the standing on loose ground: I know the violence, grief, guilt, despair, absurdity: the sky's raw: the star refuses our wish, obliterates us with permanence, scope of its coming and going: I know what it is to feel around in the dark for a hold & to touch nothing: we must bear the dark edges of our awareness:
Here, hope is silent.
and when the Florentines painted radiant populations in the heavens, they were not wrong: each of us. says modern science, is radiant. tho below the visible spectrum: paradise will refine our radiance or give us better sight: we're fallen now: we may be raised into knowledge & light: lower would be longer & longer wavelengths to dark's undisturbed constant: may we not go there but ever and ever up singing into shining light:
Here, it is sorrow which is silent.
More and more, in the recent poems, the personal emerges from the universal. But the foundation has been so strongly laid, the range of the search has been so wide, that this increasingly personal element, far from narrowing or weakening the poetry, is itself infused with an extraordinary strength, as though a quintessence of all the natural world had been concentrated in a human emotion.
It is obviously pointless to speculate about the future direction of the poetry, especially in view of Ammons' repeated refusal to impose a pattern, to provide that definition which is the final box:
when we solve, we're saved by deeper problems: definition is death: the final box: hermetic seal:
But the pressure of a greater freedom to express the personal (always within the wider context), and the sense that for some time now he has been ready to draw conclusions, if always the most tentative, make Ammons' current poetry interesting in a way that little contemporary poetry attempts to be. It is interesting, also, that the culture which has produced this particular body of work has been, in general, the most antithetical to its elements. It is nature poetry from a nation hastily burying itself in concrete and plastic: a poetry conscious of immense reaches of time, in a period of changes so frenetic that a cardiogram of its heart would cause despair: a poetry of humility and patience in a setting of shrillness: a poetry of immense scope in a rabble of specialists. Perhaps such a period is best suited to produce just such poetry.
The one thing which can be predicted is that that scope will not shrink:
is there a point of rest where the tide turns: is there one infinitely tiny higher touch on the legs of egrets, the skin of back, bay-eddy reeds: is there an instant when fullness is, without loss, complete: is there a statement perfect in its speech: how do you know the moon is moving: see the dry casting of the beach worm dissolve at the delicate rising touch: that is the expression of sea level, the talk of giants, of ocean, moon, sun, of everything, spoken in a dampened grain of sand.
Ommateum with Doxology (poetry) 1955Expressions of Sea Level (poetry) 1964Corsons Inlet: A Book of Poems (poetry) 1965Tape for the Turn of the Year (poem) 1965Northfield Poems (poetry) 1966Selected Poems (poetry) 1968Uplands (poetry) 1970Briefings: Poems Small and Easy (poetry) 1971Collected Poems, 1951–1971 (poetry) 1972Sphere: The Form of a Motion (poetry) 1973Diversifications: Poems (poetry) 1975For Doyle Fosso (poetry) 1977Highgate Road (poetry) 1977The Snow Poems (poetry) 1977The Selected Poems: 1951–1977 (poetry) 1977; expanded edition, 1987Breaking Out (poetry) 1978Six-Piece Suite (poetry) 1978Selected Longer Poems (poetry) 1980Changing Things (poetry) 1981A Coast of Trees: Poems (poetry) 1982Worldly Hopes: Poems (poetry) 1982Lake Effect Country: Poems (poetry) 1982Sumerian Vistas: Poems, 1987 (poetry) 1987The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons (poetry) 1991Garbage (poem) 1993The Best American Poetry 1994 [editor] (poetry) 1995
SOURCE: "Poetic Metaphysic in A. R. Ammons," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 18, 1986, pp. 158-63.
[In the following essay, Fosso analyzes the ontological and cosmological concerns in Ammons's poetry.]
His poems witness that A. R. Ammons knows what he is about and we who relish reading him are finding him out. Take a small poem of 1975, scarcely even one of his "rondures":
Metaphysic Because I am here I am (nowhere) else
A "metaphysic," of course, is one whose epistemological concerns are especially with ontology and cosmology. If one reads "Because I am / here I am," the statement is reflexive and ontological, doubly recalling the familiar causality of "I think; therefore I am." On the other hand, if one reads "Because I am here / I am (nowhere) else," the statement is relational and squints toward the enlargingly cosmologic. Since "(nowhere)" isn't anywhere, it gets shunted into parentheses and the word quickens in the eye with an assertion of immediacy, "(now/here)," while, if read that way, its homonymic pun on "hear" demands attention. Finally, the syllabic diminuendo of the lines, 4-3-2-1, makes the form an exercise in getting down to "one," the self ontologically understood and that ever-present "One/many" problem cosmologically understood. The problem is how to put the two together and the poem does just that when it reads two ways at the same time.
Ommateum, the first book, opens with "So I Said I Am Ezra" and rightfully so, for everything that Ammons has published originates from and returns to that poem. Its 27 lines are five sentences without punctuation as though the statements "said" dissolve uncertainly. Something happens to the personal pronouns as well. The first sentence, lines 1-3, has four of them while the last, lines 21-27, has only one stated and one understood. Increasingly, the speaker's attempt to find a relation "here" is thwarted by a hostile setting where "the wind whipped my throat / gaming for the sounds of my voice," that "gaming" making even more edgily unsettling the cruel "whipped." When in lines 4-5 the speaker "listened to the wind / go over my head and up into the night," we sense he means not just spatially, but also cognitively as when we say of something we don't understand, "that's over my head."
To assert so simply that "I am Ezra" and then to find no response, "he echoes from the waves," is a frightening condition of reflexiveness, so frightening indeed that it is "as if the wind were taking me away," that "me" not only in the sense of carrying me off but also in the full sense of "meness," being itself. And that is what is happening when, after three assertions of "I am Ezra," two of them isolated lines without relation, we come to line 23, "so I Ezra went out into the night." The verb of being has disappeared, an articulation without attribution, and "went out" is resonant with familiar idiom as in our saying "the light just went out," here "into the night." Ending with "the windy oats / that clutch the dunes of unremembered seas," the speaker's desperate clutching at a relation that is denied him, at an identity, at a being that "falls out of being," makes the poem a poignant ontological crisis in a cosmology wherein there are no bearings from which one can take assurance about the nature of self and other.
How different and how similar is the voice in "Corsons Inlet," that utterance, so familiar, to which one returns with renewing wonder. It begins:
I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning to the sea,
not the night of Ezra with his "dunes / of unremembered seas," for here the "I" is conscious, in "again," of his return to these dunes that modify but stay as well. He continues:
then turned right along the surf rounded a naked headland and returned along the inlet shore:
Note an altered tonality here, the playfulness of not only turning to the "right" but also of moving "right along" and then doubleness of "returned" turning into "returned." The pattern of the speaker's movement is important ("turned" "rounded" "returned"), for his circulation through the inlet's seascape is a circle. This perceiving eye/I makes a circumference in his passages, and to know a circumference enables a center to be known. Hence, the "Inlet" stroll is an avenue into ontological understanding.
Refusing "forms," "perpendiculars," "straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought," refusing definitions ("shutting out and shutting in, separating inside / from outside"), this speaker is "willing to go along" (both in the sense of moving and of accepting), "To accept / the becoming thought" (both in the sense of handsomely attractive and of what is as a state of continuing), willing "to stake off no beginnings or ends," this last an assertion that experience is not a narrative with its linear assumptions of causality and its endorsement of purposiveness, of the existence of a telos ("ends"). Earlier, in lines 30-32, the speaker declared:
but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting beyond the account.
"Overall" being that cosmologic transcendent telos that would make of experience a boxed in narrative, something "beyond me" (not only spatially too high but also cognitively out of one's reach as when we say, "that's beyond me"). The accounting ledger he "cannot keep" (both hold on to and keep in order); it will not be neatly quantified, tallied up, for it is "the accounting / beyond the account," what he cannot give an account of, though, of course, the poem does do just that, superbly.
Line 64 of this 128 line poem, a center around which the circling field of the speaker's perceptions make their arc, stations central concerns:
caught always in the event of change:
"Caught" is the boxing in of linear cause and effect narrative that defines and thereby limits; "change" is the circling "field of action" animating ontologic and cosmologic possibilities. "Always" means "forever" but then slips freeingly into the simultaneous possibility of "all ways" just as "in the event of" signals the important occurrence of "the event" while also working as a phrase meaning "in the case of." This poem, so richly textured in word and phrase, destabilizes secure meanings into resonating possibilities. In such a world, in such a self, we, like Ammons, could well assert, "there is serenity," because, while "terror pervades," it "is not arranged, all possibilities / of escape open."
At the end, content to "see narrow orders, limited tightness," understanding his place in the proximate "now/here," the speaker refuses "that easy victory" wherein we would humble "reality to precept" by positing a linear narrative both ontologic and cosmologic, fraught with the purposive clarity of a telelogic Oneness. Rather, he will "try / to fasten into order," that is, into the order of this and his other poems, "enlarging grasps of disorder," thereby "widening / scope, but enjoying the freedom that / Scope eludes my grasp." The first "scope" is like the scope of a book, how much it covers, as well as that liberating domain when we say, "you have free scope." But that second "Scope" (like "Overall is beyond me" earlier) refers to what one can know or encompass or understand as when we say, "that's beyond my scope."
Finally, consider the last two lines:
that I have perceived nothing completely, that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
What astonishes here is "nothing" which we receive two ways, both as "nothing at all" and as the state of "nothingness" absolutely conceived, that unutterable, unspeakable, unknowable, that One known so "completely" out of the many perceivings at "Corsons Inlet" where again the speaker will endlessly circle assured in his serenity "that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk."
In the dedicatory poem to Sphere: the Form of a Motion, "for Harold Bloom," "nothing" uneasingly rings evasive astonishments while forming the backbone for the four-part development. Unlike Ezra at the shore of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the speaker here stands at a high "Summit" of perception, but like Ezra's "whipped" and "ripped" surroundings, the wind here "tore about this / way and that in confusion." Ezra found no voice to echo his own, nothing relational, and the speaker here finds that the wind's "speech could not / get through to me nor could I address it." Ezra's yearning for relatedness is set forth even more poignantly here, and just as "nothing" appears four times, so, too, does the speaker's italicized "Longing" well up four times.
Seeking a distanced relation beyond the proximate, the speaker stands at a mastering summit of lengthened, spacious perspectives, a center surveying peripheries. Without, however, that cosmologic relationship, he feels ontologically as if he were "the alien in myself" and later "as foreign here as I had landed, a visitor." The cause of his disjunction is that "having been brought this far by nature I have been / brought out of nature" where "nature" means by his own inclination as well as by nature's evolutionary development to the point where he has a consciousness and a "longing" separate and apart from nature and which nature cannot respond to. The words of his conscious mind, "tree" "rock" "stream" "cloud" "star," signify only positivist realities drained of any transcendental import. That "nature so grand" of the nineteenth century Emersonian sublime here is "reticent," uncommunicatively withholding.
In the third movement beginning in line 24 (each section introduced by "so I" phrasing), the speaker, like God in Eden, "gathered mud / and with my hands made an image for longing." Failing to find its place in relation to that summit where "it completed / nothing," he returns to the city, builds "a house to set / the image in," and, for the first time, hears voices other than just his own, voices which, in concord with him, agree "that is an image for longing," an image not of "nature so grand," that cosmologic and distanced image of "nothing" viewed from the summit. The ontologic ground for being, enclosed in the house of the proximate and the "now/here," is defined in respect to a "longing" for what cannot be but can be recognized in the relational longings of other men who know it when they feel it.
The poem ends in line 34 with the fourth use of the word "nothing" which by this time, through iteration and development, has hauntingly gathered complex meaning:
and nothing will ever be the same again
On the one hand, everything is changed from what it was. On the other hand, "nothingness" absolutely conceived will be itself eternally. Just as in "Corsons Inlet," we have mysteriously entered into the absent presence of the unspeakable whose hushed reticence enlarges the human sense of longing for what is not.
An exemplary composing of Ammons' cognitive quest is the 1971 poem, "The Arc Inside and Out," its title playing with our familiar sense of knowing something "inside out," the "inside" being in this case the ontologic, the "outside" being the cosmologic. Fifteen stanzas organize three movements of approximately five stanzas each. In the first, lines 1-16, the speaker's epistemological method is that of "whittler and dumper," a method that is subtractive and reductive, seeking an ontologic essentiality, "the face-brilliant core / stone." In the second movement, lines 16-31, the method is opposite, that of an "amasser, heap shoveler," additive and comprehensive, to arrive at a cosmologic "plenitude / brought to center and extent." But in the third movement, both "ways to dream" are cognitive fictions rejected as "bumfuzzlement," the second to "the heterogeneous abundance / starved into oneness." Hence, at the end, there is the communing sustenance of what simply "is," "The apple an apple" and "the drink of water, the drink" as well as the restorative and easing "falling into sleep, dream, dream" ever renewing with possibilities beyond what simply "is." Serene assurance ends the poem:
every morning the sun comes, the sun
comes in its apparent transcribing of an arc of circulation, "inside which is nothing, / outside which is nothing," that "nothing" which is again so hauntingly the known unknowable that is everything.
"Singling and Doubling Together," from his most recent book, Lake Effect Country, is a remarkable work that in epitome focuses and resolves for a moment central concerns of this poetic metaphysic, A. R. Ammons. Given the title and the first line,
My nature singing in me is your nature singing,
we expect the possibility of "my" and "your" doubling in their song. The speaker's "nature" is to be a poetic singer of "your nature" voiced expressively in nature:
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,
In a book whose title is playfully drawn from the nature poets of the "lake country" as well as from the "lake effect" of dumping heavy snow on New York state when winter weather systems pass over the Great Lakes, one might recognize in the lines just cited the presence of precise meteorologic diction. "Veer down" is what the wind does when it shifts to a clockwise direction, in this case, when the "you" enters our finite world of time. "Filter through" is, in reference to physics, what permits certain electric frequencies to pass while preventing others. "Coming in" reminds of radio waves as when we say that "transmission is coming in good." In line 4, the "vines that break back with leaves," in respect to wind direction, suggest a shift to counter-clockwise. Hence, the high and unheard wind comes clockwise into leaves that turn it to a backwind, thereby, like a radio transmitter, making the unheard heard, the "leafspeech" of "your nature singing."
In stanza two, the "you" who sings arrives from "there beyond / tracings flesh can take" and cosmologically, like a great circle of transcendent immanence, from where it is "surrounding and informing the systems." This distanced unknowable is "as if nothing, and / where you are least knowable I celebrate you most," celebrate joyously as in this poem, a privately public testimonial singing.
While in stanza two the speaker could not follow "back into your heightenings" (both into your risings and your intensifyings and "back" in the sense of counter-clockwise, into your timelessness beyond our time and finiteness), follow to where "you" are "beyond / tracings" (tracings meaning to track as well as to find the source or origin), in stanzas three and four the direction of cognitive awareness is toward the "now/here." "Your nature" is manifest in the "heightening" angle of exactitude of a pheasant's ascent "to the roost cedar," a beautifully balancing movement of contrast to the "veer down" of line 2. Likewise, "when dusk settles," sounds of creaking and snapping in bushes turn the speaker into a transmitter of "your creaking / and snapping nature": "I catch the impact and turn / it back" (balancingly as the leaves that "break back" had done in line 2).
This "you" who is "least knowable" and is a "great high otherness" has "risked all the way into the taking on of shape / and time" to "fail and fail with me, as me," the transmitter whose frequencies are unsteady. When "you are incarnated into finite and temporal transmitters, then there is a "doubling together" in the last two stanzas as
in the cries of that pain it is you crying and you know of it and it is my pain, my tears, my loss—
In this and because of this "doubling together," there is bestowed a "grace" "to bear in every motion." Against the shifting relativisms of the speaker's "embracing or turning away, staggering or standing still," there is firmly poised "your settled kingdom" that "sways in the distillations of light," a settledness in the closing lines that
plunders down into the darkness with me and comes up nowhere again but changed into your singing nature when I need sing my nature nevermore.
The "doubling together" has become "nowhere" and "now/here," a wondrous alchemy of transformation wherein a union of doubling oneness, fulfilled and fulfilling, celebrates, in a change from the beginning, not "your nature singing" but "your / singing nature," yet another doubling together into oneness.
That double concern of the metaphysic, ontologic and cosmologic, has singled out here into the cognitive testimonial of a poetic episteme. What Ezra "said" and, finding no responding, reflexively experienced as an ontological crisis "taking me away," becomes here an ontologic assurance firmly knit to a cosmologic relatedness. In "Corsons Inlet," the speaker, travelling a circumference, finds access to a center where "there is serenity," but here there is more, there is personal and public ritual of celebratory song. In "for Harold Bloom," the quadruple "nothing" and "longing" arrive here at a filling up of both in a concordant "together." "Metaphysic" with its doubleness of reading posing the question of the nature of self and other turns here to an answering and melodious "doubling together." And, finally, "The Arc Inside and Out" is heard here in a composure of song that is no "bumfuzzlement," as if the "dream" of discovered essentiality and plenitude has become a cognitive perception of the conscious self, this poetic metaphysic that is A. R. Ammons.
Baker, David. "The Push of Reading." Kenyon Review 16, No. 4 (Fall 1994): 161-76.
Praises Ammons's Garbage as a "brilliant book."
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, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Analyzes the place of form in Ammons's poetry.
Deane, Patrick. "Justified Radicalism: A. R. Ammons with a Glance at John Cage." Papers on Language and Literature 28, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 206-22.
Discusses the implications of Ammons's use of adding machine tape to compose his Tape for the Turn of the Year.
Doreski, William. "Sublimity and Order in the Snow Poems." Pembroke Magazine, No. 21 (1989): 68-76.
Analyzes how Ammons's The Snow Poems "demonstrates the aesthetic possibilities and limitations of sequence."
Kirby, David. "Is There a Southern Poetry?" The Southern Review 30, No. 4 (Autumn 1994): 869-80.
Discusses what is unique about southern poets, including A. R. Ammons.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Books of Change: Recent Collections of Poems." The Southern Review 9 (1973): 1014-29.
Praises Ammons's Collected Poems 1951–1971, and calls Ammons "timeless."
Spiegelman, Willard. "Myths of Concretion, Myths of Abstraction: The Case of A. R. Ammons." In his The Didactic Muse, pp. 110-46. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Analyzes the major themes found in Ammons's poetry throughout his career and how the poet deals with them.
Wolf, Thomas J. "A. R. Ammons and William Carlos Williams: A Study in Style and Meaning." Contemporary Poetry II, No. 3 (Winter 1977): 1-16.
Analyzes William Carlos Williams's influence on Ammons's poetry.
SOURCE: "Scholar of Wind and Tree: The Early Lyrics of A. R. Ammons," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 18, 1986, pp. 236-47.
[In the following essay, Quinn discusses the place of the physical world and the figure of Ezra in Ammons's poetry.]
Beginning his 1968 Selected Poems "in the middle of the thing," A. R. Ammons as Ezra stands up against the physical universe simply by introducing himself to it: "So I said I am Ezra." The wind whipping his throat captures the words as a hunter might game, then whistles off into the dark night, a temperamental companion, or guide, as he is throughout the book. Rejected by the wind in his attempt to start a conversation, Ezra turns to the ocean but it too will have none of him, crashing surf blotting out his words. Pushed into unsteadiness by the returning wind, he faces the shore and says for the third time, "I am Ezra," then blown inward like a cloud of sand leaves the arrogant sea to splash through clumps of sea-oats frantically digging their fists of roots into dunes built up by forgotten waves. To trace the roles of wind and tree through this Old Testament prophet as "voice," not always Hebraic but often as American as its creator, is a useful way of charting some of the most fascinating poetic landscapes in contemporary letters.
The Biblical persona Ezra the scribe, of interest also to his namesake Pound, comes out of the time of the Babylonian captivity; it contributes the validity of "a local habitation and a name" to the work of Ammons, often disturbing in its formlessness and abstraction. Richard Howard in the essay which begins his Alone in America, finds reason for misgivings about as well as praise of this writer: after praising the fine passages in the first book he quotes eight lines which he calls wordy and shrill and wonders "whose voice it is that utters these hymns to—and against—Earth." Then he goes on to his own view about the choice of the sixth-century B.C. scholar in the Mosaic Law:
In a later book too, 'I Ezra' returns, 'the dying portage of these deathless thoughts,' and we recall that this prophet is generally regarded as responsible for the revision and editing of the earliest books of Scripture and the determination of the canon. The persona appears in Ammons' poems, I think, when he is desperate for an authoritative voice; the nature of his enterprise is so extreme, and the risks he is willing to take with hysterical form and unguarded statement … so parlous, that the need for such authority must be pretty constant.
Here, the word Ezra is not restricted to the Old Testament scribe favored by the Persian king to direct the return to Jerusalem; it includes as well A. R. Ammons speaking in his own voice, an analogous one.
Parallel to the Book of Ezra are the two Books of Esdras (an interchangeable name), classified in the Good News Bible as apocryphal. In the first chapter of the second of these the formula "I, Ezra" appears: "When I, Ezra, was a captive in Media during the reign of Artaxerxes," then after pages of the Lord's instructions to the chosen Israelite recurs as "I, Ezra, was on Mount Sinai," and again "I, Ezra, saw an enormous crowd on Mount Sion." According to an angel in the account of the seven visions with which Ezra is favored, these are persons who have put off their mortal robes and put on immortal ones to be crowned by the Son of God. The next chapter starts: "Thirty years after the fall of Jerusalem, I, Shealtiel (also known as Ezra) was in Babylon." In the initial revelation Ezra is asked by the angel Uriel: "How do you weigh out a pound of fire? How do you measure a bushel of wind? How do you bring back a day that is passed?" and though earlier Ezra has asserted that he can understand the ways of God Most High, he now admits that no human being can answer such questions.
It is easy to see why this part of Scripture would appeal to Ammons: Uriel uses the same conversational technique that the poet periodically adopts throughout Selected Poems, and later, as in Northfield Poems. The angel reports on how he has "heard the trees plotting together. They were saying, 'Let's go to war against the sea and push it back, so that we may have more room.' But the waves of the sea also plotted together and said, 'Let's conquer the woods and extend our territory,'" a passage which reads as if it were an invention of Ammons'. The rest of the visions brim with lively imagery and mystical insights into the same problems the lyrics confront: life/death, finitude/infinity, God/man.
In the second selection the wind takes notice of the scribe, contemptuously, true, but better such notice than nothing:
The wind whipped at my carcass saying How shall I coming from these fields water the fields of earth
The place is North Carolina, a rural district, the state in which Ammons was born in 1926. The trees there are dying, their branches drooping; in the fields the rye, oats, wheat are suffering the assault of combines, saying "Oh!" and "Oh!" and "Oh!" Wrapped in his own woe, the prophet (undesignated as such by name, but all genuine poets are prophets in the meaning of deeply understanding a present reality) is kin to them; as the wind scolds him he too cries "Oh!" and falls down in the dust. Eloi Leclerc in The Canticle of Creatures Symbols of Union writes appositely: "Francis speaks the language of a man who lives close to material things; who feels things co-existing at his side, mysteriously connected with his own destiny; and in whom these things elicit a genuine feeling of brotherhood."
So interrelated are the elements of landscape in Ammons that dialogue seems as natural as the speeches of the Poverello Francis Bernadone to his brothers and sisters sun, moon, fire, water, stars, wind in those conversations whereby he delivered his thoughts to God: "Creatures are a language expressive of the sacred because they put the soul in touch with itself and its primordial powers. Creatures are the outward form of a discourse that goes on deep within man." Not always, however, does Ammons' "voice" experience the rapport known to the Italian saint. In "I went Out in the Sun," after failing to engage the wind or ocean in talk, tries the sun, as its flames burn above a desert willow under the shade of which the scholar is resting: "It's very hot in this country." But the sun ignores him.
In an attempt to get a rise out of the haughty planet, he continues: "The moon has been talking about you." The ruse works: "Well, what is it this time?" Like a true gossip, the man replies that the moon is denying she owes her light to solar energy. The only fitting answer the sun can think of is a burst of fire, almost scorching the willow. Troublemaker that he is, Ezra mutters: "Well, of course I don't know," at which the sun concludes their discussion by moving away, to the willow's relief. The scribe, having dug for water, hangs his shirt on the willow to dry, indulging in his memorable personification:
This land where whirlwinds walking at noon in tall columns of dust take stately turns about the desert in a very dry land
He sleeps until, awakened by the cold, he reaches for his shirt and says to the moon, "You make it the desert a pretty sigh," rewarded by her smile (Ammons usually employs the standard gender in relation to landscape figures). But the seeds of ill humor that he has planted have sprouted: the lunar planet sees the sun sulking behind the mountain over the ungrateful comment re her light. In defense of the culprit Ezra calls out, "Why are you angry with the moon?" reminding him that soon they shall all be lost in the emptiness.
In the early lyrics Ammons presents man and Nature as equals, companions even if not particularly congenial ones, "I" being closer to some than to others, closer for instance to the tree since both are organic and earthbound, unlike the heavenly bodies or the ocean. In "The Whaleboat Struck" after being shot in the throat by savages he leaves his body on the shore and walks away; a heavy wind catches his spirit but lets him go at hearing how vultures and flies are even at that moment feasting on his flesh. Days pass, until another wind blows by singing this melodious song:
Bones lovely and white lie on the southern sand the ocean has washed bright
Ezra hurries to see his own beautiful bones in the sun; finding them picked clean, he chooses a rib and draws pictures in the sand until the ocean, all its green gone, is silent, and the wind too. Happy to be disembodied, he runs in and out of the waves to the tunes of Devonshire airs. It is in this poem that the participial phrase "Leaving myself on the shore" occurs, a line Howard calls "the first enunciation of the theme, in the crude form of a romantic pantheism" which the critic summarizes as the putting off of flesh and putting on of the universe. Indeed, the following selection, a farewell of the protagonist to the seen and spoken, seems evidence for such an opinion ("Turning a Moment to Say So Long").
Although discrete from wind or tree Ezra finds himself identifying with the later in "With Hopes of Hemp," wherein he binds himself to an oak tree, singing odes to its roots, heart, bark-fiber until he is empowered to sing "oak-songs" in response to "the raucous words of the night-clouds." But he knows that not all his being is earthbound: in the three-part "Doxology," possessed of the wisdom the silent owl acquires near death according to legend, he transplants his soul to the wind, a way of attaining the fluidity he longs for (though concomitantly he desires the kind of survival an ancient amphora's designs afford). In the middle section he is enmeshed in the sleeping landscape, a part not only of wind and tree but of rock, moss, gooseberry hill, swamp, raccoon, crawfish, sun, sea, dawn, plain, seeking together with all of these to "learn the vowels of silence."
Ezra in his Hebrew identity speaks in "Coming to Sumer," where irreverently he rifles the "Innisfree" huts along the river bank for their burial trappings: gold leaves, lapis lazuli beads ornamenting bones. Set in autumn, "When I Set Fire to the Reed Patch" returns the "voice" to interact with the wind as it scatters the burning thorny stems. As wisdom, sweeping a desertscape clean of the "lust prints of the sun," the wind takes the stage as actor again in "A Treeful of Cleavage Flared Branching," the title with more than a hint of a metamorphosis comparable to that in Ezra Pound's "A Tree." It will not leave him alone, where he sits on the sand cradling a gold altarcone:
The wind chantless of rain in the open place spun a sifting hum in slow circles round my sphere of grief
It will not agree to his staying rooted, the very next piece substantiating Richard Howard's statement in Alone in America: "Here is a man obsessed by Pure Being who must put up with a human incarnation when he would prefer to embody only the wind, the anima of existence itself." In "I Set It My Task" it picks him up bodily after sowing loose dreams in his eyes:
and telling unknown tongues drawn me out beyond the land's end and rising in long parabolas of bliss borne me safety perhaps a misprint from all those ungathered stones
Here the natural force has succeeded in making the poet his lyre, even as Shelley begged the West Wind to do. But its sway over him is intermittent. The seventeenth lyric in the 1968 volume goes back to the second Book of Esdras as it opens: "I Ezra the dying / portage of these deathless thoughts,"; the hero stands on a hill beneath a mountain and disclaims the importance of wisdom, represented by wind, to man—it belongs only to the gods, who don't need it ("Whose Timeless Reach").
A description of the selection might well be a travelogue of the mind penetrating the "jungles" of matter. "Driving Through" discloses the veteran traveler crossing a twentieth-century desert at midnight; he takes out a notebook, an appropriate gesture for a poet as also the sharpening of a pencil, and evokes an apocalyptic vision of running mountains that skid over "the icy mirages of the moon," a vision also highlighting "stone mosaics of the flattest / places" and "a brimming smoketree," "a green / tiger with orange eyes." Daylight motorists later will never guess the wonders glorifying the night (who could imagine mountains tumbling down "laughing for breath?"), any more than they will be able to see his lonely house, destined finally to hold "laurel and a friend," one of those succinct Ammons endings which completely satisfy. This poet knows as he travels that he is more than a wayfarer (the wind has told him so) and continues to long for a place of abiding such as the tree-transformation in "Song" provides. Here he merges into a wooded slope, extending his arms to take up "the silence and spare leafage," exposing himself to wind and ice, which work fast at their task of disintegration, a task destined to turn him into a hump beneath the leaves "where chipmunks dig."
The three Hymns which follow addressed to the deity are among A. R. Ammons' triumphs. If Ezra ever finds God, he will have to go out over the sea marshes, the hills of tall hickory, crater lakes, canyons, upward through the diminishing air, past nocturnal clouds into the "empty stark," the missing noun intensifying the loneliness. At the same time, he knows that if he finds God he will have to stay with the earth, down to the least cell: "You are everywhere partial and entire / You are on the inside of everything and on the outside." He is the ant-soul (the name of the first book means "insect eye") running up and down the chasms of the sweetgum bark. The first Hymn ends in an oxymoron, wherein he says to God that if he finds him he will have to "go out deep into your far resolutions" but at the same time "stay here with the separate leaves" of the sweetgum tree in his persona as poet.
In the second Hymn, Ezra tells the Lord about going out to "the naked mountain" to see a single peachflower pushing its way through the ribs of a skeleton, as if in a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, praying with its petals and sepals in the spirit of Francis' Canticle. Startled by "a lost circling bee," he goes at sunset on that late December day "down to the stream / and wading in / lets the Lord's cold water run over his feet. The third Hymn is a prayer for a good death, when he, the "shriven celebrant," chilling, pulse slowing, will reach "home / dead on arrival."
"March Song" is Ezra's address at the approach of spring to the willows and cattails, praising the first as they return gold to their naked limbs and the second, fluffy again, leaving winter in their pale stems. But he does not want to be buried even under the beautiful willow ("Ritual for Eating the World"); coming upon a rope hanging in the bend of the rock he sings three verses of a cowboy song beginning "When I die don't bury me / under no weeping willer tree." With suicidal intent he seizes the rope, which breaks and forces him to re-accept his sordid world.
The wind, which has raced by like a ranch hand in the rope lyric set on the mesa top, becomes quite friendly in "The wide Land," eager to get Ezra's approval. They have the conversation denied the poet in the opening of the book. The wind apologizes for breaking up the desert chaparral ("you know I'm / the result of forces beyond my control," to which the poet says yes, he understands; but the wind continues to explain, persisting in self-justification despite the other's "I know I know," a reassurance concluding with "No, I said you don't have / to explain / It's just the way things are."
Drawn back to a tree-disguise, Ezra in "Mountain Liar" (the title a pun on the lyre he lacks even though he tries to imitate Orpheus) deceives the mountains into thinking they can achieve their wish to fly to interstellar regions for a skating party. When they see him below them, or believe they do since actually they have not moved, only imagined they were gliding about amidst the stars shrieking for joy, they cry out at his deception "You wood." They are no more satisfied with "the way things are" than the wind, or that he is with his own nature. "Gravelly Run," used later to name a collection, raises the supposition that perhaps man's blending in with the cosmos might not be enough; after all the main thing is to know self as "galaxy and cedar cone" know it, cedar cone serving for human person in his tree-role and galaxy for the nonconscious, a great abyss separating these: "the sunlight has never heard of tree," "Gravelly Run" says as it ends in what Howard calls a farewell to the spirit of place.
Reading Ammons correctly is not easy, because of his experimental punctuation, any more than it is clear at first what sense is intended by Williams in "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," five sentences though without periods leading up to "This was / Icarus drowning." The colon is his most used mark, and not always conventionally so. In "Gravelly Run" it appears at the end of the first stanza, consisting of six uneven lines, implying that what precedes is in apposition to stanza two, the same procedure occurring throughout the next four stanzas. The eleventh line according to syntax would seem suitably ended with a period, the first three words of the lyric, "I don't know" forming a meditative comment sufficient unto itself. The third stanza is also a complete sentence, colon-concluded. The most beautiful passage is the next:
holly grows on the banks in the woods there, and the cedars' gothic-clustered spires could make green religion in winter bones:
The word green is especially effective, slanting both backwards and forwards, as sometimes happens in Robert Creeley ("Kore, Kore"). Five sentences and a fragment complete the piece, the colon last used taking the place of what convention would say called for a comma. Isn't it the sunlight that has never surrendered self among unwelcoming forms?
Ammons' poetry ought to have a marked appeal for children, for instance such a rich fabric of incidents and images as "Prospecting," where the traveler comes to cottonwoods and willows at evening, makes camp, turns his mule loose, and then drowsing over the leaves sends out his loneliness to shake hands with the trees. This poltergeist runs up the black cliff to pull the moon over, howls with the coyotes, tells a night-circle of lizards ghost-stories while the Big Dipper pours out the night. With dawn his alter ego returns to wake him up, and they fit themselves together again for breakfast and the day, nocturnal adventures as forgotten as David's in Randall Jarrell's children's story Fly by Night.
Descendant of Joshua, the revered scribe Ezra, master of the Sacred Word, seems summoned back in "Joshua Tree" (a metamorphically significant title), with its very short lines, the first merely "The wind," which surprises the "I" weeping under this Biblical tree. Ezra gives the reason for his tears thus:
and Oh I said I am mortal all right and cannot live, by roads stopping to wait for no one coming, moving on to dust and burned weeds, having no liturgy, no pilgrim, from my throat singing news of joy, no dome, alabaster wall, no eternal city
The wind points out that man is not meant to be a wayfarer, that the prophet should settle right there and make a well. But "I'm not like wind," remonstrates the weeper, "that dies and / never dies." He is destined to go on until some syllable of rain anoints his tongue, like the coal that cleansed the tongue of Isaiah. But in the event that no rain should ever fall he bids the wind "enter angling through / my cage / and let my ribs / sing me out."
Up to this point in Selected Poems, if Ezra is present he and "I" are fused, but in "The Wind Coming Down From" such is not the case: they are separate individuals, the Hebrew scholar taking the third person singular. The first four words of the poem, "summit and blue air," complete the prepositional phrase in the title, the only time in the book Ammons uses this device. The wind feels compassion for le moi of Ammons, only dust and completely at his mercy though an "instrument of miracle," and regrets his own volitionless role: "not air or motion / but the motion of air." He praises Ezra at the expense of the poet for his immortality and goes off to engage in erosion, the carving of monuments, "while Ezra / listens from terraces of mind" unreachable because immaterial, safe from being cracked or shivered, the word used here, by the roots among which the poet feeds.
Sometimes the landscape elements speak only in indirect discourse, as in "Close-up" and "Bourn," the latter title apparently taken from Hamlet's "undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns." It is instructive, if one wishes a familiarity with Ammons' art, to meditate on his craft in the second, where sea shores and willows sing and weep their unheeded warnings, he begins with the customary trait (in him) of surprising with an abstraction in the Auden manner instead of using the expected concrete word: "When I got past relevance." A study of the whole lyric reveals that his position in regard to the sea is with his back towards it and its willowedges, moving towards an "outward gray" he mistakes for a "foreign light," just the right adjective here. The shores sing to him to turn back from eternity, towards which like Emily in the chariot accompanied by Death he did not realize he was heading. Looking over his shoulder, he sees the "dancing" emblems of grief between him and the waves. Why shores is in the plural is not evident.
So he comes to "the decimal of being," the darkness of Dylan Thomas's waterbead in "Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London." The reason for the title becomes clearer: "What light there / no tongue turns to tell / to willow and calling shore," the shore now singular, though the final stanza, one line only, pluralizes it again: "though willows sweep and shores sing always." Nature is volitionless, bound in this case to weep, and to sing always, whereas Ezra must bear the dreadful responsibility of choice.
"Mansion" puts him back into commerce once more with the wind, to whom he has decided to will his body. Grateful, eager to show appreciation, the wind asks how he can say thanks, and the "I" replies he desires nothing other than for the wind to swirl his dust around so that he can see what after the bequest is happening with the ocotillo, saguarowren, sky at sunset or dawn. More than once the sorrow of wind at its invisibility comes through in the poetry ("The wind was glad / and said it needed all / the body / it could get / to show its motions with"). (Later in the book "Interference" will show the sand materializing wind). The wind-resurrected skeleton of the poet's body as it will be offers a variation of the transformation to tree used earlier: "the tree of my bones."
Critic Richard Howard considers "Guide" one of the saddest of A. R. Ammons' lyrics, "an astonishing meditation." Since the noun reflects the mentor-relationship of wind and poet, there is an irony about the former's lament re "having / given up everything to eternal being but direction." East, West, North, South are all that is left of wind, as could be concluded from the nomenclature of the mythological figures in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. The most central of the wind's "words to live by" is the sentence "You cannot come to unity and remain material," another way of putting Wallace Stevens' "Death is the mother of beauty." When Ezra tries to understand opposites within him or the uniqueness of a peachblossom, "the wind was gone and there was no more knowledge then."
The whole book might be called Ammons' Consolations of Philosophy, one chapter being "The Golden Mean," advice by the wind, if it stands for wisdom concerning sexual love, care not to go too far: "withhold / enough to weather loss." Interestingly enough, the piece occupies the center of Selected Poems. Ammons takes three of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, knowledge) and discusses them at some length. In the entire lyric, the only word which suggests an image is dime, not a total abstraction characteristic of Ammons' approach to poetry; apart from its line-divisions and lack of rhyme, also its cadences, "The Golden Mean" could conceivably be likened to "The Vanity of Human Wishes." "Risks and Possibilities," which directly follows, redeems this "bodiless" effect by beginning with four pretty things which the poet has selected for a specific if unspecified addressee.
The examples are put in the form of numbered propositions, each heightening the attractiveness of the objects that the speaker has picked for the pleasure of his friend by a comparison: thunder like water "down the sky's eaves" to locusts in dogfennel; the yellow daisy to dawn; the constellations as somehow mirrored in a willow-slip, frog "language" as equated with daisy silences. This method is a good entrance into the theme of the poem: the sacramental unity of the universe. Each thing influences every other, not only on earth ("Never send to know …") but throughout creation: "the crawl of a slug / on the sea's floor / quivers the moon to a new dimension." One part of Nature echoes another: the leaves of a tree, the gills of a fish, a variant of Stevens' theory of "resemblances."
Like William Carlos Williams (Garrett Mountain as woman, the city of Paterson as man) Ammons likes to conceive of the human being anthropomorphically. In "Terrain":
The soul is a region without definite boundaries it is not certain a prairie can exhaust it or a range enclose it it floats (self-adjusting) like the continental mass
Besides the above features, the soul has its hills, river-systems (complete with runs, such as Gravelly, and branches, lakes, marshes) for visualizing which the poet imagines winter tree-shadows, has deserts ('barren spots') and peat-bogs; and also its own weather, irrefutably, as the sciences of psychology and psychiatry will testify to. Like any continent, the soul is subject to natural disasters: floods, whirlwinds. It even has its own moon, perhaps here a conventional emblem for the imagination.
"Raft" summons back the wind, so that he and Ezra can go off like two boys who want to play near the sea on a nice day: "… we stayed around for a while / trying to think / what to do." Just before dark, the wind stops, "breathless (a clever adjective) from playing." While the wind sleeps, the poet makes a round raft of rushes, then slips away from his companion ("I did not wake it to say goodbye"). At that hour the night is moonless. He waits for the sun to rise to ascertain direction, though when day comes he passes it without progress, not really sure which way he wants to go. As the sun goes down, along comes the wind "rushing before dark to catch (him)," truly his guide as in the lyric so named.
It would be a mistake in a discussion of landscape elements in Ammons to omit the marvelous configuration of sight and sound images in "River," silver willows, forsythia, moonwaters, hidden bird. Its repetitions add a melancholy music. "I shall / go down" becomes "shall I / go down" in the third stanza, followed by the same nine lines as at the opening:
to the deep river, to the moonwaters, where the silver willows are and the bay blossoms, to the songs of dark birds to the great wooded silence of flowing forever down the dark river silvered at the moon-singing of hidden birds.
Because of this identity, the lyric is little more than a sigh of ecstasy at the beauty of a particular twenty-seventh of March, when spring blossoms trailed their yellow fragrance through the air, "alive" as amoebae in clear water.
"Expressions of Sea Level" calls for a Francis of Assisi, whom legend credits with an ability to read in the Book of the Creatures, in fact to speak its language. Changeless itself though capable of eroding and building, the ocean speaks without words, renders itself in silence, speaks at its edges instead of from its core through "wind and water, spray / swells, whitecaps, moans" as if in a dream. After two pages in the indicative mood comes a series of unanswered questions, ending:
that is the expression of sea level, the talk of giants, of ocean, moon, sun, of everything, spoken in a dampened grain of sand.
The passage, reminiscent of Blake, prepares well for "Still," the next lyric, where Ammons can find nothing lowly in the universe, not even the grain of sand, with which to identify himself. Like Whitman, he can only step back and marvel at "moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent / with being!"
"Motion" combines what A. R. Ammons means by his manipulation of wind and tree images. In very short lines, three consisting of only two letters (is, to), he meditates on what semanticists call "the triangle of reference," the relation between a verbal symbol and what it points to, or, as the poet here adds, captures as in a net. The only likeness between a word and the thing it distinguishes occurs if onomatopoeia is present (whir). As Robert Penn Warren has remarked, however, sound-structures in the artifact itself go beyond this:
but the music in poems is different, points to nothing, traps no realities, takes no game, but by the motion of its motion resembles what, moving, is— the wind underleaf white against the tree.
The long "Saliences" develops this thought.
In Ammons' rarified language, "Saliences" is a philosopher's hymn to the wind, its key word variable, applied first to geography, then (with the prefix multi-) to scope, next, elevated to noun, associated directly with the wind:
a variable of wind among the dunes, making variables of position and direction and sound of every reed leaf and bloom
This variable also dominates sand, shells as they undergo weathering, grass, bayberry bushes, spiders knocked about on the bench "from footing to footing / hard across the dry even crust / toward the surf." It changes from soft breeze to hard, steady gale; takes form from trees that harbor it briefly, or sandcrab trails, or reeds blown seaward. Overhead, it forces the gull to fly according to its formula, which determines the dropping of clam as well as the direction of flight. As Ezra the prophet traces its moods, paraphrase seems a legitimate means of keeping up with their rapid shifts.
More powerful in some ways than the ocean, the wind controls both surf and the coastal temperature: "wind, from the sea, high surf / and cool weather." It is "a factor in millions of events / leaves no two moments / on the dunes the same," those shapes (omnipresent in this poet) so convenient for use as transient outlines, a sign of metamorphosis as limestone is in Auden. "Saliences" affirms the existence of dunes of mind as well as of sand. How dull for the physical dunes without wind, for interior dunes without the wind of poetic imagination! In "Dunes," Ammons the poet as tree confesses that "Taking root in windy sand / is not an easy / way / to go about / finding a place to stay," but this life requires the attempt, since as the last line says: "Firm ground is not available ground."
At this point in "Saliences" Ammons addresses the reader through the imperative mode: "keep / free to these events." As he has innumerable times before, he demands resistance to imprisonment, even what the world in general takes for granted: boundaries, fixed identities, any kind of stability. What wind is on a given day is no prediction. As the poem reaches its last section, Ammons mercifully deviates from abstraction to bring in details congruent to memories but not replicas: the way the waves look from a dune-rise, pink periwinkles edging a tidal pool, a bunch of deep-blue weeds, minnows and fiddler crabs filtering through thin water. Here he begins to lament rather than praise change, mourning the fled swallows of yesterday. By means of end-rhyme he emphasizes the though: "where not a single single thing endures / the overall reassures": though the earth brings to grief "much in an hour that sang, leaped, swirled" (verbs descriptive of wind), it keeps on quietly turning, "beyond loss or gain"—not really beyond, but seeming so.
In the series of dizzy changes that comprise "Configurations," the poet in five grammatically correct sentences proclaims that he is a bush, next, bird, wind, egg, then switches into an "I is" construction to repeat these, adding "I is a leaf." These disguises lose their grip on location: leaves fall, birds fly, nests tumble down spilling out eggs. The only hope for survival is to put down roots, like a shrub: "there is some relationship between proximity / to the earth and permanence." Yet wind and ice will break down even the shrub—but then, after all, the only existence any of these had was in his song. This lyric, like "prospecting," has the charm of children's literature, a charm which shines through in the chain of cockbird longing for henbird, it for nest, nest for earth, earth for sun, sun for—here, Ammons snaps off the list to conclude with his tree-metaphor, this time a talking tree: "please please / let me put on my leaves / let me let the sap go," to which the prudent bark answers "hush, hush / the time is not right." "Halfway" brights into focus in a minimum of words the autobiographical relationship between artist and art, its setting October:
… the birches in pools of themselves, the yellow fallen leaves reflecting those on the tree that mirror the ground.
The subject of "Portrait" is the poet's life depicted as a leaf, tossed about by the autumn wind, facing destinies as different as being blown up a rise gay as a "spring catkin" or being flattened into the darkness of a stream-bottom. Like Randall Jarrell, who so feared loss of the ability to write, Ammons pleads: "come, // wind, away from / water and let / song spring & // leap with this / paper-life's / lively show."
Seldom does Ammons depart completely from realism, as he does in "Winter Scene," the fantasy of which corresponds to James Wright's translation of Vallejo in "The Jewel": "If I stood upright in the wind / My bones would turn to dark emerald." In it a cherry tree, stripped by the season, holds up naked boughs except for those intervals when a jay swoops down into it: "then every branch // quivers and / breaks out in blue leaves," probably just an impressionistic passage but able also to represent the poetic process, the imagined foliage like gold spun from straw.
Selected Poems, which started in dialogues between the poet and one or another elements in landscape, closes the same way. In the penultimate lyric, "Kind," the giant redwood, miffed because passed over for the so-temporary weeds, half-hidden among stones, complains and is answered thus:
O redwood I said in this matter I may not be able to argue from reason but preference sends me stopping seeking the least, as finished as you and with a flower
Here, again, is Tennyson's enigmatic blossom growing obscurely in its wall. The Book of the Creatures has a great deal to teach that apt scholar, A. R. Ammons, and he in turn is well-qualified to instruct with delight an evergrowing body of readers.
SOURCE: "Ammons's 'Coon Song,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 47, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 40-3.
[In the following essay, Dilworth interprets Ammons's "Coon Song."]
"Coon Song" by A. R. Ammons is a remarkably metamorphic literary experience. It seems to deconstruct itself by denying its opening narrative description—about a raccoon surrounded by hunting dogs—in order to express something beyond the range of narration and description. The narrative is broken off by the poet's direct address to the reader, which initiates a dramatic monologue. Within this monologue, kinds of relationship between the poem (or poet) and the reader are in conflict. Because the dramatic monologue retains its reference to the initial narrative and because the dominant images of that narrative become metaphors in the monologue, the poem retains its unity. This achievement is especially impressive since the work tends to fly apart because of multiple generic metamorphoses. At eighty-eight lines, it is too long to reprint here in its entirety, so I will quote liberally as I interpret.
The initial narrative captures the moment before action, the imminent attack on the raccoon by the dogs:
I got one good look in the raccoon's eyes when he fell from the tree came to his feet and perfectly still seized the baying hounds in his dull fierce stare, in that recognition all decision lost, choice irrelevant, before the battle fell and the unwinding of his little knot of time began….
The narrative is followed by an editorial intrusion expanding on the notion of freedom and its limits: "Dostoevsky would think it important if the coon / could choose to / be back up the tree: / or if he could chose to be / wagging by a swamp pond, / dabbling at scuttling / crawdads." In one sense, the coon, like any victim, has no choice. He may fantasize himself into a safe, womb-like, leaf-lined hole "of a fallen oak." This is not, of course, a practical option, though it may constitute the sort of choice the poet reads in the coon's eyes: "reality can go to hell"—a metaphysical choice of sorts. Realistically, the only decision the coon can make is between "exposed tenders, / the wet teeth." Tenders, the ligaments at the back of the hounds' jaws, pun on the commercial term for "formal offers." Which mouth to choose is, for the coon, the only "problem to be / solved." Because the editorial intrusion is the sort that narrative can accommodate, no generic change has so far occurred.
But then the poet turns on the reader: "you want to know what happened, / you want to hear me describe it, / to placate the hound's-mouth / slobbering in your own heart." The poet catches us in voyeuristic expectation, wanting to witness the consummation of violence; as readers we become analogous to the blood-thirsty hounds. And a corresponding metaphor is implied: the poem—and then, as he speaks for himself, the poet—becomes the coon. (As hounds will consume the coon, readers consume the poem.) The imminent "unwinding" of the coon, we now realize, has affinity for the unwinding that takes place during literary analysis and may recall Wordsworth's dictum, "we murder to dissect." As if to avoid such analysis, the poem itself begins to unwind as the poet says about the fate of the coon: "I will not tell you."
But then, apparently contradicting himself, he relates that "the coon / possessing secret knowledge / pawed dust at the dogs / and they disappeared." The fantasy breaks the realism that has dominated the narrative and that will go on to characterize most of this dramatic monologue of direct address. As a consequence, the initial narrative is seen as fictitious and therefore, in its conclusion, as potentially a romance, in which the coon can make the dogs disappear. But then the poet undermines this possibility: "maybe he didn't: I am no slave that I / should entertain you, say what you want / to hear, let you wallow in / your silt."
Why silt? The only possible explanation is implied by references to the pond where crawdads scuttle. If the poet is now the coon, we readers have become crawdads scuttling in silt, which is the comfortable habitat of wish-fulfillment. The hunters (the hounds/readers) have become the hunted, and the coon/ poet has caught us, though almost immediately he allows us our freedom, in fact, insists on it.
At first this freedom seems contingent on the generosity of the poet, for he remains in control in so far as he generates what we consume and directs our mental and emotional response. But it is precisely to diminish this control and to increase our freedom that he institutes a new generic shift—to nonsense, which is, as Lewis Carroll realized, closely related to romance though it effects the collapse of all other generic modes: "one two three four five six seven eight nine ten: / (all this time I've been / counting spaces / while you were thinking of something else." We are forced to realize that the entire poem has been a counting of spaces, an artifice or conventional fiction and not only as narrative but as monologue. What we have accepted as imaginatively "real" in deference to primary literary convention is actually built on airy nothing. Literary "reality can go to hell."
This the poet further emphasizes as he returns us to romance: "mess in your own sloppy silt: / the hounds disappeared … into—the order / breaks up here—immortality: I know that's where you think the brave / little victims should go." The effect of this is to make the reader realize that the element of direct address in the monologue is also a fiction since you, surely, are not the fictional reader. That reader is a projection of the poet, someone who was hound-like in wanting the coon killed but able to identify with the coon enough to want (or accept) its magically making away with the hounds. To that point you may well coincide with the projected reader. But now that the poet continues associating the reader with the hounds, he supposes that you identify emotionally with them. Behind the comedy of this final supposition is implied an immense passivity and egoism on the part of the reader that force you to disidentify with the fictional reader. The "silt," which that reader wallows in, is now not the fantastic escape of the coon from death but the escape of the hounds from death into "immortality," which the poet suggests is equally unreal.
He continues to free the reader from authorial control by generating more nonsense, which is now circular in its unwinding of the poem:
I do not care what you think: I do not care what you think: I do not care what you think: one two three four five six seven eight nine ten: here we go round the here-we-go-round, the here-we-go-round, the here-we- go-round: coon will end in disorder at the teeth of hounds: the situation will get him….
Twice we have been offered the contrasting outcomes of brutal realism and escapist romance or fantasy. Now the speaker presents "two philosophies" condensed into images: "spheres roll, cubes stay." If we read these as aesthetic philosophies and as reflecting the choices we have so far been given, the rolling spheres suggest romance, which has up to now been a wallowing in accommodating silt, and the static cubes suggest realism. As larger, ontological philosophies, the spheres suggest Platonic idealism; the cubes, Aristotelian realism.
In any case, the poet finally, enigmatically announces, "what I choose / is youse: / baby. With that decision, he transfers choice, placing responsibility squarely on the reader. How will you, whose "exposed tenders" have been chosen, consume this coon/poem? Will you choose escapist romance? Probably not, since the poet has biased you against romance as a mere wallowing in silt. Will you choose brutal realism? Although it seems more probable, he has also biased you against voyeuristic self-indulgence. Maybe you can refuse the choice.
But what you must accept is the freedom of the poet, who is "no slave that" he "should entertain you." He has liberated himself. Moreover, because he has become analogous to the coon and because of the colloquial racist connotations of the word "coon," his self-liberation resonates with the civil rights movement already under way when this poem was first published.
Analogically, the meaning of the work is partly sociopolitical, but the experience that gives substance to the analogy is literary-analytical and consists of the liberation of the poet (and also the reader) from literary bondage through radical shifts in generic modality: from realistic narrative to dramatic monologue and, within monologue, between realism, romance, and nonsense. In the process, the reader's point of view is repeatedly altered and finally brought to the awareness that he or she is not the reader whom the poet addresses, is in no way accommodated by the poem, and is therefore as free as the poet.
SOURCE: "Symbol Plural: The Later Long Poems of A. R. Ammons," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 78-94.
[In the following essay, Wolfe asserts that from "Essay on Poetics" on, "Ammons emphasizes the becoming, rather than the Being, of nature—the processes rather than the fixity of a logos which drives them." He notes a connection between Ammons's portrayal of nature and the English romantics.]
For years now, Ammons criticism has in general followed Harold Bloom's reading of the poet out of the American transcendental—Bloom's "Emersonian"—tradition. Bloom's readings have been instructive, often exciting (and make for a compelling version of literary history); his work on Ammons and on other contemporary poets (Strand and Merwin come to mind) constitutes a fascinating thematics of what it is to be an American poet. In terms of poetics, however—and here I mean how a given poet constitutes his subject—Ammons needs to be examined in light of his highly ambivalent relationship with those writers who provided the poetic machinery for the transcendentalists in the first place—I refer, of course, to the English romantics. Here, I will replace Bloom's "Emerson" with the Coleridgean "symbol" and the romantic notion of the organic—though I hope to avoid what Frank Lentricchia has called the Bloomian "spirit of revenge." Rather, I want to argue that the romantic symbol must, for a poet like Ammons, be dealt with in the realm of poetics in much the same way that Emersonianism must be confronted as a kind of thematic bedrock for later American poets. The fact that Ammons's later poetry is highly discursive—I mean this in relative terms, as compared with, say, the work of James Wright—makes this sort of approach all the more imperative for Ammons criticism. Furthermore, I want to argue that Ammons's significant modification of romantic poetics constitutes a resituating of the ideological role of poetic writing and of the "aesthetic" as traditionally conceived.
Bloom has dubbed Ammons "a poet of the Romantic Sublime," yet in a fundamental sense Ammons's sublime is both postromantic and post-Emersonian; for this one-time biologist, oneness with nature is a brute (and brutal) fact, a "one-sided extension"—as much a curse as a blessing—which is (in Emersonian terms) finally not a fullness but an emptiness, a lack of common ontological ground that makes knowledge possible.
Part of the reason Ammons is able to embrace nature (sometimes in terror) while at the same time avoiding the appropriations of the romantics is that from the "Essay on Poetics" on he adopts a different model of nature, one fundamentally different from the talking wind and mountains of the early poems. Drawing his new model from cybernetics, Ammons emphasizes the becoming, rather than the Being, of nature—the processes rather than the fixity of a logos which drives them. It is important to note just how strong the connection is between the nature of the "Essay" and that of cybernetic theory. In its very first line we find the melding of literary and cybernetic diction ("lyric information") that runs throughout the poem. Ammons is attempting here to deal with the questions of how nature can in some sense be known and how poetry can have anything to do with that knowledge. By adopting the cybernetic model, Ammons achieves a distinctive modification of the romantic idea of organic form, largely because in the new context the idea of the organic is itself redefined. We might say, following Lentricchia's assessment of Northrop Frye in After the New Criticism, that Ammons's new organic opens outward, is centrifugal rather than the centripetal "innate" form of Coleridge.
It may be helpful at this point to offer a few key concepts of the cybernetic model drawn from Gregory Bateson's landmark essay "Cybernetic Explanation." The cybernetic universe is above all relational and formal; communication is a product of redundancy and repetition of pattern (the usual figure for this concept is the signal-to-noise ratio—the signal is recognizable pattern, the noise, the unidentifiable random). Pattern, in turn, is closely wedded to predictability: "To guess, in essence, is to face a cut or slash in the sequence of items and to predict across that slash what items might be on the other side…. A pattern, in fact, is definable as an aggregate of events or objects which will permit in some degree such guesses when the entire aggregate is not available for inspection." In cybernetic explanation, "information and form are not items which can be localized" because they are relational correspondences (between message and referent, item and context) which resemble the ideas of contrast, frequency, symmetry, congruence, conformity, and so on—they are "of zero dimensions." The difference between a piece of paper and a cup of coffee, for example, is not in the paper, nor is it in the coffee—the contrast (and subsequent information) cannot be localized. Cybernetic epistemology posits a concept of mind which is organic but not organicist: "The individual mind is immanent, but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger Mind … is … immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology." A final and important point from cybernetics is this: "All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints—is noise, the only possible source of new patterns."
The cybernetic model goes a long way, I think, in helping to explain the similarities and differences between the nature of the "Essay"—and to a large extent of all the later long poems—and that of the romantics. The opening of the "Essay," in both diction and conception, shows clearly the shaping presence of a cybernetic kind of thinking; the poem aspires to express something like immanent mind through "information actual / at every point / / but taking on itself at every point / the emanation of curvature, of meaning." The nature of the "Essay" is a "bit-nature" where each instance of wholeness and form is "internally irrelevant to scope, / but from the outside circumscribed into scope." Eighteen lines into the poem we come upon the crucial passage, the critical "but," which clearly distinguishes the cybernetic character of Ammons's view of nature from that of the romantics:
but then find the wholeness unbelievable because it permits another wholeness, another lyric, the same in structure, in mechanism of existence
"Wholeness" is presented in the "Essay" not as the purified essence of existence but as a condition of existence, not as either one or many but as "a one:many mechanism."
Frederick Buell calls Ammons's new model a "partial humanization of nature"; I believe what Ammons recognizes and what Buell is trying to get at is that nature is for us always already conceptualized, symbolized, abstract:
I wonder if I'm really talking about the economy of the self…. .......... we never talk about anything but ourselves, objectivity the objective way of talking about ourselves
Ammons's shift to a "bit-nature," a nature not of Being but of evidence becoming information, "saliences," is not so much a willful move to humanize nature as it is a recognition of the abstract as a precondition of existence and of knowledge ("the manageable rafters of salience"); the attempt to deal only in the concrete results in the sort of dilemma discussed midway through "Hibernaculum":
nature seems firm with casual certainties (one could say a steel spike is a foot long) but pressed for certainty breaks out in bafflings of variability, a thousand close measuring of the spike averaged out and a thousand efforts to average out the variables in the instruments of measure or in the measuring environment (room temperature, humidity, the probable frequency the door to the room is opened): recalcitrance is built in perfectly, variations thereon perceived as possibility
This passage clearly echoes the cybernetic idea that conceptual "noise" (the recalcitrant, the as yet unpatterned or unassimilated) is the source of new patterns—variations on recalcitrance perceived as possibility. At the same time, the other end of the problem, so to speak—that of extreme abstraction—is constantly threatened with gaseous evaporation:
the swarm at the subatomic level may be so complex and surprising that it puts quasars, pulsars and other matters to shame: I don't know: and "living world" on the other hand may be so scanty in its information as to be virtually of no account
We can see, then, that Ammons is being playful but also exercising a very concentrated economy of expression (underscored by the echo of "tree" in "true") when he writes, "true, I really ought to know where the tree is: but I know / it's in my backward." The organic becomes for Ammons a question of limits and perimeters. In contrast to a center, the location of "the primordial egg of truth," Ammons offers a mobile universe of which wholeness is an abstract condition, a beginning rather than a closure:
a center's absolute, if relative: but every point in spacetimematter's a center: reality is abob with centers: indeed, there is nothing but centers
A center is, of course, an abstract matter; like form and information, it cannot be located but is rather the product of relational processes, as Ammons indicates in his grappling with the concrete particulars of trying to locate the tree in the back yard:
I assume the fixed point would have to be the core center of the planet, though I'm perfectly prepared to admit the core's involved in a slow—perhaps universal—slosh that would alter the center's position
Ammons's argument with the traditional idea of organic form is that it isn't organic enough; its organicism is based on an idea of closure and completion rather than on an ability to maintain an open, functioning relationship with the accidental and haphazard—an ability to translate "noise" into "signal":
I am not so much arguing with the organic school as shifting true organismus from the already organized to the bleak periphery of possibility, an area transcendental only by its bottomless entropy
Coincidental with Ammons's criticism of the closure of organic form as traditionally conceived is a similar attitude toward its analogues of symbol and lyric; the "already organized" is a condition for knowing which provides a "disposition" toward the unassimilated but can be changed by new data. The ontological point is of course that the "disposition" depends on the mechanism, and the sort of knowledge one derives depends upon both. The problem with the lyric is precisely its inflexibility as a mechanism for knowing; not open to the possibilities and potential waiting in the coincidental and the unassimilated, its intolerance gives the lyric its expressive power—its small explosion—but renders it, like some sort of exotic poodle, unfit for survival. The lyric is a "slight completion" (in both senses): "to be small and assembled! how comforting: but how perishable!" A similar distrust marks Ammons's attitude toward the idea of symbol. If anything, the symbol isn't abstract enough: "and the symbol won't do, either: it differentiates flat / into muffling fact it tried to stabilize beyond." The point Ammons is making is de Man's in "The Rhetoric of Temporality": by holding that some things are concrete and others abstract, and by then privileging a kind of concrete abstraction, the traditional idea of symbol draws us into a pseudo-dialectic of subject and object. For Ammons, the concrete as such is a myth but is valuable as a function, a nexus of localization in the "one:many mechanism":
it's impossible anyone should know anything about the concrete who's never risen above it, above the myth of concretion in the first place
For Ammons, the particulars of nature are not of value primarily because they are concrete but because they are evidence—and evidence only makes sense, has meaning, within a larger framework of abstraction kept honest, so to speak, by new evidence. Ammons's empirical observation (as in, for example, sections 75-76 of Sphere), and his knowledge and use of the language of science, is unsurpassed in American poetry, yet almost always these empirical forays end in a questioning, a dizzying explosion into a new realm of complexities. Empirical observation pushed far enough dissolves, in one sense, into a question of the one and the many—finally, he writes, "a problem in rhetoric" which cannot be reconciled in language. (His discussion of "division" versus "differentiation" in "Hibernaculum" is helpful here.) Ammons's playful and prismatic variation upon Williams's "No ideas but in things" clarifies the point that the relationship between one and many, subject and object, symbol and symbolized is multivalent, always leaving an opening because always leaving something out:
the symbol apple and the real apple are different apples, though resembled: "no ideas but in things" can then be read into alternatives—"no things but in ideas," "no ideas but in ideas," and "no things but in things": one thing always to keep in mind is that there are a number of possibilities
(Ammons characteristically underscores the point by the casual statement "one thing to keep in mind"—rather than "one idea to keep in mind.")
Ammons brings this sort of attitude to his discussion of the tree as paradigm of organic form, begun in the "Essay" and returned to regularly and finally as the oblique subject of The Snow Poems. What he refers to sarcastically as "the transcendental / vegetative analogy" is too tidy as an "analogy" and too simplistic as "vegetative." The "point of change" makes him realize that "actually, a tree / is a printout: the tree becomes exactly what the locked genetic // code has preordained—allowing, of course, for variables." But Ammons goes on to consider the fact that the "locked" code is "apparently based on accidence, chance, unforeseeable distortion"—like his center, it is absolute, but relative. The problem of identity as a paradigm of organic form persists:
if I back off to take the shape of a tree I gather blurs: when does water seeping into the roothairs pass the boundary after which it is tree
Ammons's symbolism is of a very different order; the tree becomes as much a symbol of difference and otherness—of all that it cannot contain—as it is a paradigm of identity and order.
The shift from tree as organic paradigm to tree as print-out is telling in a number of ways. The "point of change" can be expressed by the tree but cannot be located there, is not in the tree. If I examine the tree at different points over time, it will be each time, considered as a concrete thing, a different tree. I can induce change—its motion and perhaps its "drift"—from the variations, but the change is not in the tree, nor is it "between" one examined tree and another. The tree, in this sense, is like a frame of film; it has meaning only insofar as it is traced or inscribed with aspects of the frames which precede it and insofar as it serves to intimate some sense of predictability about the frames to follow.
The elm tree of The Snow Poems functions as a locus "to show change by reflecting light differently in a series of exposures." (It is worth noting here that Saussure used in his notes and lectures the terms "historical," "diachronic," and "cinematic" interchangeably to suggest that change or evolution is always an operation of abstracting change and continuity out of discontinuous items.) Ammons's shift to the print-out is, I believe, a movement away from the closed space of self-contained organic form which "partakes" (as Coleridge put it) of transcendent substance, and toward an emphasis upon the metonymic nature of the tree as a product of the "contiguous" conditions of its environment and of our perception of it. The form is thus not finished but open to the accidental and haphazard (and thus to new information and patterning). The crucial difference is that Ammons goes out of his way to present his metonymies as metonymies, to remind us that, in his readings of parts of a world for the whole, it is the mechanism and not the substance that informs the meaning of the organic. I emphasize the metonymic nature of Ammons's symbol to point out how it is resolutely untranscendental, "local and mortal." As Kenneth Burke has written, "Viewed as a sheerly terministic, or symbolic function, that's what transcendence is: the building of a terministic bridge whereby one realm is transcended by being viewed in terms of a realm 'beyond' it." And, Burke adds, "beyond the here and now." It is Ammons's openness and inclusiveness which gives his symbol—in contrast to Coleridge's—a kind of centrifugal character (this is, I think, in part what is suggested by "the emanation of curvature" of "one curve, the whole curve" at the beginning of the "Essay"). Ammons's symbol is "translucent," but to its own provisionality. Poetry achieves the greatest scope of meaning not by exclusion of all that is not organic form but by inclusion of all that might be. Ammons's unique brand of symbolism is in part his strategy for dealing with the dilemma described by Geoffrey Hartman (and we should think here of Stevens's variation upon Williams's "El Hombre"):
The aura of the symbol is reduced even as its autonomy is strengthened. It is ironic that, by the time of Stevens, "the philosophy of symbols" (as Yeats called it) confronts the poet with a new discontinuity: the symbols, or romantic relics, are so attenuated by common use that their ground (sky?) is lost. They become starry junk, and the poem is a device to dump them, to let the moon rise as moon.
Hartman's "starry junk" is in Ammons countered by the material of the moment—the "worn-outs, stiff-and-thins, the used-up literary." The "growing edge to change and surprise" of the poem can turn anything—trash included—into art with its "one:many mechanism" (while, Ammons would hope, retaining the essential "trash nature" of the bits). Unlike the early Ammons, the poet of wind and mountain, the last two long poems care less about the particular material of the poetry—rely less on wind or mountain—and more about making poetry out of whatever is at hand. Indeed, in both poems Ammons seems to gravitate toward the peripheries, away from the tidiness and centeredness of literary diction and lyric organization. We already see the desire for scope, whatever the risks, emerging in Sphere:
I'm sick of good poems, all those little rondures splendidly brought off, painted gourds on a shelf: give me the dumb, debilitated, nasty, and massive, if that's the alternative: touch the universe anywhere you touch it everywhere
The key word in all of this is discontinuity. Ammons, confronted with the question of how to make poetry possible in a postsymbolist (and in some senses postliterary) context, begins with the "Essay" a new type of writing which emphasizes the discontinuity between word and world, writing and speech, but at the same time has a profoundly orphic dimension.
Ammons began, with the Ezra persona of the early poems, in a mode that presented itself as already an analogue of expression: "so I said I am Ezra" has no antecedent in the poem. It can only be interpreted as the result of something occurring before the Ezra persona "speaks"—something "outside" the poem or just before it begins. The poem begs to be read as an analogue of speech, the speech an analogue of the Ezra persona, and the persona, finally, an analogue of a human speaker. Implicit in the idea of poem-as-analogue representation is a continuity across ontological levels: the graphic array of language is an analogue for the acoustic, which in turn is analogous to the verbal, the verbal to the intellectual. A paradigm of analogue representation would be the clock: the movement of the hand is an analogue for the movement of the earth. Analogue representation is based on a real correspondence between real magnitudes—representation is motivated by the nature of its object. It is highly conventionalized and metaphoric in the sense that the nature of the representation is motivated by the nature of its object—the circular movement of the hands by the circular movement of the earth, for instance.
Digital representation, on the other hand, makes a point of its discontinuity with real magnitudes and asserts its abstract and arbitrary conventional nature. It can, unlike analogue, represent, and indeed must make use of, negatives. Rather than a fixed analogous whole, the disruption of whose syntax would destroy the entire representation, the digital representation is discrete and infinitely divisible. The continuity between 11:57 and 11:58 is so because in the conventions of the system 8 follows 7, not because of its correspondence to the actual magnitude of that which it represents (as in the case of, say, a thermometer). Analogue representation will emphasize accuracy; digital will emphasize specificity (the ontological ground for accuracy having been removed). As Anthony Wilden points out, "The digital mode of language is denotative: it may talk about anything and does so in the language of objects, facts, events and the like. Its linguistic function is primarily the sharing of nameable information … its overall function is the transmission or sharing or reproduction of pattern and structures."
We see Ammons, from the "Essay" forward, develop a style and form which makes a point of disrupting the idea or impression that his poems are analogue representations. The form makes a point of its own arbitrariness, its discontinuity: the three-line or four-line "stanza" of the later long poems (excepting The Snow Poems) runs from margin to margin, the writing structured simply by arbitrary imposition (line breaks do not coincide with acoustic or syntactic breaks or with a sonnetlike "shift of mind" of the speaker). In "Hibernaculum" and in Sphere, the arbitrariness is further emphasized by the grouping of stanzas into numbered sections—the more apparent the graphic structure, the less it matters at any other level. The "structure" is there to present a visual array pleasing in itself and not as an analogue of the acoustic or intellectual dimensions. When we move inside the stanza, we find a similar discontinuity emphasized again by Ammons's punctuation; there are no periods ("a complete sentence is a complete thought") but only colons, creating a "closeless" structure. As Robert Pinsky has written, "In movement from part to part, the strings of repeated colons suggest a conflict between the stationary or simultaneous and the developing or sequential; each part explains every other part, with a minimum of the consecutive structuring in which part rests on part as in a building or a tree."
The most apparent structuring device is the "friction" between the "regular" stanzas and the staccato movement of the lines produced by the colon, but it cannot be located in either one. Ammons gives us not a consecutive structuring which builds an analogical whole, but a series of read-outs—meaning kept up in the air by its use in circulation. Again, the movement is not inward toward closure—a zeroing in on meaning—but is centrifugal, providing a "growing edge to change," "increasing the means and / assuring the probability of survival." Even though the later long poems are linear, they are at the same time primarily nonnarrative, relying not on a principle of consecutive structuring so much as on a kind of accretive activity which oscillates back and forth from center to periphery, from specific to general, and so on. We could say that, although the form on the page is (of necessity) linear, the governing and informing principle is radial, "circling about, repeating, and elaborating the central theme. It is all 'middle,'… with apparently interchangeable structural units." This is, I think, the logic implicit in Ammons's playful assertion in "Summer Place": "circle around the truth without telling / it and you tell it." The attempt to make the governing principle of form radial is already present in the title and impulse of Sphere: The Form of a Motion:
the essential without specification is boring and specification without the essential is: both ways out leaves us divided but so does neither way: unless—and here is the whole possibility—both essential and fashionable can be surrounded in a specified radial essential
Ammons's salient interest in arcs and curves gives rise to a desire for "a form to complete everything with! orb," a form whose center ("disposition") remains intact (because mobile) even as the periphery expands. As Ammons has said in a recent interview, "a poem doesn't exist only in motion, in time. It seems to me that when you know the poem intimately you know it radially and complete. You have a non-linear perception of the whole thing."
Still, the poem must, to open outward to such knowledge, insist on its own discontinuity, must be "chocked full of resistance." Writing of Sphere in "Summer Place," Ammons echoes the "recalcitrance built into nature" that resists "casual certainties," and he seems to want a similar resistance in his own work: "I wanted something / standing recalcitrant in its own nasty massiveness," "a big gritty poem that would just stand / there and spit." Underneath the complaining is, I think, a weariness of having the work taken as an analogue, a "fallacy of imitative form" too easily appropriated: "pretty soon you're a nature poet, everybody / saying, lands, something nice to go with dinner."
The Ammons of "Summer Place" and even more so of The Snow Poems, having generated a kind of radiant wholeness in the previous long poems, now emphasizes that his universe—as he had been saying all along—is a discrete whole (as in this example from the OED: "The parts of an animal form a concrete whole; but the parts of a society form a whole that is discrete"). This is, I think, the implicit logic behind much of Ammons's seemingly unpoetic diction of the "economy of the self"; Ammons resorts to terms like "currency," "interest," "account," "expenditure," "overinvestment" (a symbol is "the overinvested concrete"), "balance" ("all identities are imbalances") to speak of a wholeness while at the same time avoiding the ontological pitfalls of the language of organicism.
The discrete whole of society as theme is most explicit in "Summer Place." Concomitant with its patriotic ending and the inscription of The Snow Poems as a work "for my country" comes a shift inward toward the poet's own world, toward a poetry more explicitly discrete, separate, and discontinuous. The broad sweep of the earlier long poems is replaced by a more fragmented universe and the more intense internalization of voice of the highly "digital" Snow Poems: the work is (based on internal evidence and chronology) a long poem, but broken up into pieces; the titles are not analogues of the "content" of the pieces, but simply read-outs taken from the first lines (which, in a long poem, are not first lines). The voice is a bit more irascible and the verse more recalcitrant toward wholeness, including in its conglomeration "outriders," marginal glosses and counters, and games both typographical and lexical. The material at hand of "Summer Place" becomes here the material conditions of the poet's environment—elm tree, typewriter, dictionary, paper.
At the end of Sphere and in "Summer Place" Ammons becomes more overtly concerned with the social and the political; but the essentially liberal polemics here are not, I would argue, the source of Ammons's true political force. Part of Ammons's project has been to dislodge poetry from its closed and rarefied space, to situate it in what he would call a larger "network" of relations, most of them not particularly "aesthetic." If we look at Ammons's writing as a cultural and therefore social act—as his extraliterary and political content begs us to—then what we see is a rewriting of the idea of poetry and of the role of literary culture. To emphasize the making and not the made, the mechanism and not the substance, is to engage a poetics of the centrifugal, to consciously resituate poetry—and, by extension, culture—in a network of relations both biological and social. If, as Lentricchia has suggested in his reading of Burke, "To make metaphor is to violate in one act the status quo of discourse and of society," then we can see how Ammons is attempting to restore and reassert the power of poetry to be something more than "superior amusement," more than the various but marginal repetition of the Beautiful in all its highly allusive forms. I say "restore" because in the above sense poetry is always radical, always a subversion of the language of the marketplace—even, as Burke has argued, antinomian: "Art's very accumulation (its discordant voices arising out of many systems) serves to undermine any one rigid scheme of living—and herein lies 'wickedness' enough."
Ammons would seek to undermine those habits and institutions that compromise our lived awareness of the "saliences," of "massive suasions." Here again we need Burke to complicate what might seem like an easy holism, a "natural fact": "Any reduction of social motives to terms of sheer 'nature' would now seem to me a major error. Naturalism has served as deceptively in the modern world as supernaturalism ever did in the past, to misrepresent motives that are intrinsic to the social order." What Burke is getting at but does not say is that "nature" masks ideology; indeed, if (as Ammons realizes) we encounter a nature that is always already abstract, how could it be otherwise? Ammons often says, with little or no ironic cover (but with perhaps more than a dash of sentimentality), that his later long poems are "ideal organizations":
not homogeneous pudding but united differences, surface differences expressing the common, underlying hope and fate of each person and people, a gathering into one place of multiple dissimilarity
More important than the vision of genuine community here is the writing of it—through a poetics that goes beyond the romantics and thus speaks with special timeliness—into a radically decentered poetics not of Being but of beings, of a heterocosm "local and mortal." Truth then becomes not a metaphysical but a pragmatic matter: what, in the manner of the late William James, it is better for us to believe.
We could do worse than to read Ammons as something of a contemporary pragmatist, and in doing so helping to sharpen the contrast between the ideology of Ammons's work and the Emersonianism that Carlyle so much admired. We are, as Ammons reminds us in his earthbound variation of Emerson, "unmendably integral," and implied here is an imperative for conduct, but not only for the poem (as ideal organization) or the poet (as Emersonian representative man). Ammons's work is often the poetry of constraints and balances, of the local and mortal context; he rails against wastefulness in "Extremes and Moderations," and in Sphere would ground the work of mind in the specificity of its objects:
one terror mind brings on itself is that anything can be made of anything ................ … scary to those who need prisons, liberating to those already in
Ammons reminds us again and again (and often in oblique reference to the romantic symbol) that "all identities and effects are / imbalances." Keeping in mind Ammons's linkage of poetics and ideology, then, we can read in the following passage on the symbolic a dark parable indeed:
when an image or item is raised into class representative of cluster, clump, or set, its boundaries are overinvested, the supercharge is explosive, so that the burden of energy overwhelms the matter, and aura, glow, or spirituality results, a kind of pitchblende, radium, sun-like: and when the item is moved beyond class into symbol or paradigmatic item, matter is a mere seed afloat in radiance
The source of the sublime in Ammons is the confrontation between the knowledge that "the mind will forever work in this way" and the understanding that the larger network of which it is a part cannot, finally, be subjected to such "overinvestment." The effect of what I have called Ammons's metonymic symbolism is to go beyond representation, beyond the romantic symbolic; as Ammons puts it: "When we have made the sufficient mirror will / / it have been only to show how things will break." Ammons's ideal organization seeks to unseat the idea of poetry as the polishing of such a mirror, to show us how we might go about things with a full awareness of the local and mortal context, how we might socially be otherwise by coming to terms with the physical, biological network of necessity that can't be otherwise. This is the social message of Ammons, of the poetics not of partaking but of making: "when may it not be our / task so to come into the knowledge of the reality as to / participate therein."
SOURCE: "Ammons's 'Singing & Doubling Together,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 49, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 187-90.
[In the following essay, McGeachy Mills asserts that "In its every complexity" Ammons's 'Singing & Doubling Together,' "signals the mysterious, paradoxical, somehow linearly unknowable experience of doubling with the divine."]
A. R. Ammons's poem "Singing & Doubling Together" demonstrates the power of carefully chosen signs to create and to recreate, while exposing through the medium of the poem a complex, nonrational experience of union.
Speaking in the first person, in the present tense, from within the event itself, the speaker describes a real experience—not hearsay, but sound personally heard. That sound joins the I to a you who is an equal subject in the poem and in the experience, but a superior power. Nowhere in the poem does the identity of either the speaker or the one addressed become more specific than the personal pronouns, which themselves stress the intimate contact between the two. Activities such as cutting the grass and picking up branches depict the I as human (line 20). The you is not doctrinally distinct—bearing no identity as specific as God the Father or the Taoist Way—but it is clearly divine, a mysterious spiritual power (perhaps the energizing life force) that is "as if nothing," or no thing. Although shapeless, it can take "on … shape"; though timeless, it can take on time. Initially, because the sound crosses a barrier from "there" to "here," the you controls it, sending it "in" the speaker from some "great high otherness," so that the speaker says, "you have means … I / can never follow." Through the "event" of the poem itself, however, the speaker utters his own sound, duplicating the power of the divine in his own song. From the simple interweaving ampersand in the poem's title through the intricately bound seven claims of the poem's one long sentence, the poet artfully employs specific devices as means to break out of his inarticulate human bondage into his own "leafspeech."
The argument of the poem emerges from one sentence with seven claims. Distinct punctuation (five colons and one dash) signals each part. As is true at every level of the poem, what appears simple becomes increasingly complex. The first line of the poem makes a straightforward declaration, which the rest of the poem expands through transformations of the basic assertion. The balanced parallelism of "My nature singing in me is your nature singing," the I linked to, and defined by, the you through the copula, gains complexity in the second claim, which explains the separating distance and dominance of the you. The you's active force is reiterated and praised further in the third claim, but here the speaker joins in the communion. Claim four boldly presents the speaker as active: "I catch the impact and turn / it back," although the activity comes in response to the you's motion. Moving from further description of the speaker's action, claim five, however, explores the shocking possibility that the you can "fail," not through motion but through nonmotion: "The still / of your great high otherness." Then the failures of claim five become the risky, incarnational pains of claim six, resulting in the explosive exclamation and question of grace in claim seven. That Ammons's song praising this complex, transforming unity develops from seven claims is surely no accident, for seven remains the traditional numerical symbol for the unity of heaven and earth.
The visual structure of the poem presents six stanzas of six lines each, giving the physical appearance of perfect balance. Just as the seven claims lie embedded in the one large assertion, suggesting the complexity of the whole, so the balance of the six stanzas contains variation in line length clearly representing each and "every motion" that the poem describes. A small graphic clue, the double space after the colon preceding "you are there beyond," emphasizes the gulf between the you and the I. A more obvious sign is the shortest line in the poem, the three-syllable "what but grace," a visually distinct line that depicts the breathtaking, yet ambivalent, question/exclamation of the poet's experience of union. Although coming at the end of stanza five, it syntactically belongs to stanza six, thus linking the "pain," "tears," "loss" to the consolation of complete union.
Diction also signals the poem's complex experience. In the opening line, "nature" conjures multiple concepts: of essence, of reality, of character, of elemental and primitive forces and processes, of the physical world, and of the human personality, to name a few. The single word carries multiple meanings, which can combine in different ways. For instance, the paraphrase "My human personality singing in me is your physical universe singing" forms an insufficient gloss of the line, for it reduces the line's semantic power. A more complete rendering of the poet's meaning seems to be: "My essential/real/defining/uncivilized/physical/ spiritual nature singing in me is your essential/real/defining/uncivilized/physical/ spiritual nature singing"; the indeterminancy characteristic of homonymy allows the noun to shimmer with semantic options. Only as the poem develops does the essential difference in natures, one finite and human, the other infinite and divine, become clear. And that difference is itself called into question by the existence of the poem. Other words, such as "tracings" (meaning both "paths" and "outlines of shapes") and "still" (the adjective, meaning "the absence of sound or motion," and the adverb suggesting duration of time), provide further semantic doubleness.
Indexical signs such as the deictic words of relationship, "I" and "you," also signal doubleness; even as the pronouns suggest intimacy, they also stress difference since I is other than you. The deictic words of space—"in," "into," "back," "there," "away," "where," "here," "near," "up," "under," "somewhere," "hence," "nowhere"—reinforce the contrast of place between the speaker and the one addressed. Yet the multiplicity of that swooping motion or threatening stasis suggests that the you is both "everywhere" and, as the poet says, "in me."
Word repetition—sometimes exact, sometimes with slight variation—likewise signals the complex, often paradoxical, tension that the event arouses. "Nature," whose multiple meanings are evident, occurs in the poem six times in the singular and once in the plural. Such duplication, as well as the "I catch" repeated in stanzas three and four, the "creak" that becomes "creaking," the "snap," "snapping," and the "settles," "settled," intertwine the poem's separate parts. Repetition of identical words also stresses the speaker's difficulty in articulating the event. The abstraction "things" is repeated three times within two lines, emphasizing the helplessness of "things" (the material) in the face of the power of the "nothing" (no thing, not thing, the immaterial or spiritual). "Fail" appears four times in stanzas four and five, where repetition becomes most intense as the speaker confronts the mystifying paradox of incarnation, victorious life emerging from death's defeat. The most amazing repetition, however, is of my/me/I and your/you/you words. Eighteen of each group occur in this poem—a definite paralleling of words relating to the theme of the poem.
Although the most frequently used verb form in the poem is the present participle, appearing eighteen times and stressing continuing action, the poem ends with a projection from present time and present union toward a promise of future union. Death will not be the end of the speaker, who will be transformed, losing individual identity and gaining cosmic power at the same time, "changed into your singing nature when I need sing my nature nevermore." The progression is mysterious, from sound to divine silence, followed by human cries, then divine cries ending in transformation, the final syntax forming a chiasmus with the original assertion—my nature/your nature now becomes your nature/my nature.
But what is the final nature of the union? Is the "nature" described here physical nature, from dust to dust? Will the poet only become part of the earth and so devolve into personal silence? Or is that "singing nature" spiritual? Will the poet finally become literally one with the word? The answer, enforced by the devices of the poem, remains ambiguous. In its every complexity the poem signals the mysterious, paradoxical, somehow linearly unknowable experience of doubling with the divine. It stands as evidence of the precarious moment the poet praises.
SOURCE: "Ammons Beside Himself: Poetics of 'The Bleak Periphery,'" in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 99-116.
[In the following essay, Jarraway discusses Ammons's "Essay on Poetics" in relation to American literature.]
In the context of American literature, the presentiment of the writer-as-critic or the critic-as-writer is likely to be inherently a more available one than in other literatures. This is due in no small part to the fact that American literature, as Kenneth Dauber pointed out several years ago, "is a literature whose primary concern has always been its own nature," and whose object, even in the classic period of American letters, "[is] its own process," the "act of writing" in other words, "into which all forms of the written are returned." American literature, therefore, will repeatedly sensitize us to a historical moment in the writing of its poetry in which the traditional "apology" conventionally located outside the artifact—one thinks, for instance, of the classic statements of poets such as Sidney, Shelley, and Wilde—will be gathered up inside the American poem, allowing the text itself to become its own medium of authorization and legitimation. From the auto-affection of "Song of Myself," through to "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," the romance in American poetry for self-reflexivity is given without apology—at least, without any kind of formal apology. Writing continually turning back upon itself in such a manner thus elides any clear separation between introspection and retrospection in the poet's art. "The Philosophy of Composition" then, as "Composition as Explanation" now, both seem somewhat beside the point when it is actually the practice that constitutes the theory (and the theory constituting the practice) that forms the basis of America's long-standing romance with text. In this regard, Gerald Graff has therefore been quite correct to surmise that "It has taken little time for earlier theories of Americanness of American literature to be written in the deconstructionist register … [since] Americanness lay not in the romance of the symbol or the frontier but in reflexive awareness of the problematic of writing itself, which is to say, in the romance of self-deconstruction and of heterogeneity." In keeping with "the 'secret' autobiographical agenda of [American] writing," A. R. Ammons thus contends that a poem, once it is thoroughly known, "contains / its [own] motion," and that this modus operandi can be reproduced completely whole to the mind—"all its shapeliness intact"—as the mind travels in and around it. He says this in a longer poem called, characteristically, "Essay on Poetics," the significance of whose title I must return to later. Using this poem primarily, I would here like to explore Ammons' own re-versal of the classic defense in the self-reflexive scene of modern American poetry, and specifically, to investigate further both the possible and what I consider to be the impossible wager his textuality dares to encumber in so dividing, on both theoretical and/or practical levels, the discourse against itself.
The self-defensiveness of American letters as a whole, in view both of the absence of a historically stabilizing tradition within and the presence of a politically intimidating authority without, is by now a commonplace among the master-narratives attending to the sanctioning of American literature's own Declaration of Independence (for example, Weisbuch, Fredman). In the literature's repudiation of arché and deregulation of telos, one becomes rather easily persuaded to the view that writing is grounded in no metaphysical principle outside writing itself, indeed, that "we descend into the void that the loss of metaphysical grounds for words has opened up." At an early point in his "Essay on Poetics," this appears to be a view to which Ammons is somewhat partial, a view of writing he labels "enterprise":
enterprise is our American motif, riding horseback between the obscure beginning and the unformulated conclusion, thinking grace that show of riding, the expertise, performance, the intricacy of dealing: to be about something … enterprise then's the American salience, rainbow arch colossus: but the aristoi are beauty, wealth, birth, genius & virtue who should be governors: enterprise somewhat, though not necessarily, inconsistent with those, we lack governors:
With the disavowal of beginnings and endings, the emphasis of these lines lands firmly on the movement of the writing itself: riding, thinking, dealing, etc. Moreover, this is a movement that, on the most basic level of the text, converges into that "main confluence" of what Ammons calls his "one:many" mechanism, and as an earnest of self-reflexion, demonstrates what "all this essay is about" (emphasis added). And just as many lines turn back on one movement and many motions turn back on or are contained by one mechanism—"whatever turns turns—in [on?] itself"—so, on another level, many poems turn back onto one grand poem. In the punning "lyric in[-]formation" that begins the essay, therefore, the curvature of each turns back on the curvature of all:
… 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:
If the "high / recognition of wholeness" in this passage clinches a gradually accretive and autotelic structuralism that we tend to associate with High Modernism, it's surely no accident. For in such a structure, where all objects turn back upon and in a sense re-present their subjects, we are given a system of signification which, in Mark Taylor's words, "perfectly mirrors the structure of the modern subject that begins with Descartes and comes to completion in Hegel's speculative or specular System." Ending the recognition of wholeness in the above passage by remarking upon "that synthesis" as it does, Ammons' modernist narrative here merely serves to underscore how both "sign and subject are thoroughly reflexive," and so resemble the self-coinciding artefact that produces nothing other than itself." "I've often said," Ammons states in another place, "that a poem in becoming generates the laws of its / own becoming." With this assertion, we finally begin to see how the aesthetic trajectory of the American poem is made even more intensely to coincide with the historical and political trajectory that I alluded to previously in remarking upon a certain self-defensiveness in American poetry with respect to the whole notion of authority—a defensiveness that can appear iconoclastic equally from a Puritan as from a Modern (or Postmodern) point of view. For in generating the laws of its own becoming, Ammons' discourse generates for itself as well an image of self-referentiality "without practical rhyme or reason … [and] is at once eloquent testimony to the obscure origins and enigmatic nature of value in a society which would seem everywhere to deny it, and an alternative to this sorry condition." In the sheer pointlessness of its "enterprise," then, Ammons can joke that his American text "must be ever in search of the rapier that / holds the world on guard!" In the same gesture, however, it's impossible for Ammons to escape sounding somewhat reactionary, if not paranoid—"schizophrenic," as Deleuze and Guattari would perhaps say, and as my title in part suggests. For, as Deleuze and Guattari ask, "Isn't the destiny of American literature that of crossing limits and frontiers, causing deterritorialized flows of desire to circulate, but also always making these flows transport fascisizing, moralizing, Puritan, and familialist territorialities?"
If whatever circulates, turns in (or on) itself in American poetry's most self-reflective moments, Ammons' poetics would argue that there ought really to be "no reason for confusion: that is / what this [essay] is about," after all. Yet a discourse layering practice over theory and theory over practice in precisely the etymological sense suggested by the word con-fusion is, in fact, the very thing this essay is about, and this "thing" perhaps cannot slip by without the need for some further questioning. Confusion, then, like the very self-reflexivity it betokens, is simple and impossibly difficult, by turns: "simple by grandeur, impossible by what all must answer there." And so we are given a quite intractable sense in which Ammons, somewhat more hesitantly now, admits his text may be far more profoundly divided against itself than we might at first have thought. For what the text at the level of a high recognition of wholeness finds impossible to answer there is how all that simplicity and all that grandeur of curvature comes into being in the first place. Wholly outside the plane of recognitive wholeness and synthesis, therefore, lies Ammons' quite different conception of reality. This is a reality that we're likely to find unbelievable (to recur to the poem's opening once again), "because it permits / another wholeness, / another lyric, the same in structure, / in mechanism of existence, but bearing a different weight" (emphasis added). What could this reality be?
For one thing, it appears to mark a level of discourse entirely resistant to any kind of unitive synthesis, the kind that eventuates, for example, when language is made to take hold of reality in an empirical, objective, or eidetic sense, as a parley to reflexive order. Reality "captured" in such a restrictively correspondent sense is entirely analogous to the educations of "arborescent" discourse described by Deleuze and Guattari, a hierarchical system of communication whose "corresponding models" (the imprint, engram, tracing, photograph, etc.) "still cling to the oldest modes of thought in that they grant all power to a memory or central organ." By contrast, as "an acentered nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automation" (the fascicle, map, intermezzo, etc.), "rhizomatic" discourse seeks to establish an experimental contact "with the real." Rather than an invocation of language, then, Reality, in this quite improvisational mode of discourse, is more like its provocation, and in Ammons' text, seems somewhat akin to Nietzsche's Chaos, Heidegger's Being, or Althusser's History—a radical multiplicity or Otherness that (simply) cannot be rationalized:
… all I mean to suggest is that the reality under words (and images) is too multiple for rational assessment and that language moves by sailing over: the other way definition has is to accept the multiplicity of synthesis: of course, synthesis is at work in certain levels of analysis, but I mean by synthesis the primary intent: look at it this way: I am experiencing at the moment several clusters of entanglement:
In an even more revealing passage, we find the former rapier-like wit of the well-wrought poem's conception in the image of unenlightened "blades of reason" sinking and melting through the quite other motion of "reality's cold murky waters." Here, the verbal symbol operating on behalf of reason tries to control reality's "level of abstraction" by suppressing it, imagining that a symbolical salience of meaning—a "sheet of ice" in Ammons' very telling image—can perhaps be the last (and lasting) word on the matter. In thus heightening language "by dismissing reality" in this way, the symbol only serves to violate reality, reducing it to what Ammons calls an "artificial clarity." The point is made even more emphatically in Ammons' "Hibernaculum":
… the poet, baited by illusion, figures that massive tangling will give locus to core-tangles and core-tangles to the core-tangle that will fix reality in staid complication, at that central core's center the primordial egg of truth: ah, what an illusion …
The fact of the matter, however, is that reality cannot be fixed, a point which Wallace Stevens only came to discover quite late in his own Modernist project. In more rigorously postmodern terms, Deleuze and Guattari view reality's construction through metaphor—the radical of all symbolization—as equally problematic: "There is no 'like' here…. The plane of consistency is the abolition of all metaphor; all that consists is Real … veritable black holes, actual organites, authentic sign sequences. It's just that they have been uprooted from their strata, destratified, decoded, deterritorialized, and that is what makes their proximity and interpenetration in the plane of consistency possible." Consequently, though language may be formed and sustained by reality, the symbol can only operate at an "impositional remove" from reality—a "nothing," as Ammons goes on to expand the notion in "Hibernaculum," "an infinitesimal dot of void at the center of / the primordial egg" just described, a veritable black hole if you like. Like Paul de Man on the subject of "The Task of the Translator," then, Ammons fully owns up here to "the inadequacy of any symbol in relation to what it means." Paul de Man, of course, arrives at this conclusion after working many years on the symbol in the context of Romanticism. Using the word "image" rather than "symbol" (or "metaphor"), Rodolphe Gasché makes a similar point in this context, but he also hooks it up with the conventional reflexivity of language developed previously: "if [a word like 'hymen'] re-marks its textuality, it is not because it would be a totalizing emblem which, like the romantic image, would assume the eschatological function of subduing a text to having its meaning in reflecting itself." Once below this textual repression, however, it is precisely Ammons' point that "the symbol carries exactly the syrup of many distillations"—"hard endurance," it is true, but also "soft inquiry and turning."
The other thing about Reality that intensifies the division of Ammons' text at a deeper—perhaps more distilled—level than transparent self-coincidence is a certain opacity which the text sets up to frustrate every avenue to univocal meaning or singular truth. This is particularly evident when the "Essay on Poetics" endeavors "to turn the essential image of a tree into the truest / rational wordage," "tree" into its etymology, in ME. treue and AS. trewe and G. treu, hoping at some point to end with Truth, and at last, "'conformity / with the facts.'" But like the highly perspectival character of Nietzsche's Fact or the inexhaustible nature of Heidegger's Thing, Ammons' Tree proves to be equally multiple and incorrigibly dense. Constantly influenced and influencing, it hardens and enters the ground at some "fairly reliable point" that does promise a degree of "general unalterability," but only to veer off at some other point, in "an outward, expanding / reticulation / too much to deal precisely with." The point of rupture here that makes all the difference, in Deleuze and Guattari's surprisingly similar terms, between a tree in its reductively transcendent or "arborescent" aspect, and its productively immanent or "rhizomatic" aspect is, in the more historically resonant terms alluded to earlier, a point of demarcation that separates American literature from all others:
… [America] is not immune from domination by trees or the search for roots. This is evident  in the literature, in the quest for a national identity and even for a European ancestry or genealogy (Kerouac going off in search of his ancestors). Nevertheless, everything important that has happened or is happening takes the route of the American rhizome: the beatniks, the underground, bands and gangs, successive lateral offshoots in immediate connection with an outside. American books are different from European books, even when the American sets off in pursuit of trees. The conception of the book is different. Leaves of Grass … there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American "map" in the West, where even the trees form rhizomes.
What complicates this whole matter of mapping, of course, is language itself, and according to Ammons, its withholding of any "core center of the planet" from which to gauge the tree's true material being. And even if such a core could be settled upon, it would very soon betray the kind of "slow—perhaps universal—slosh" that before long gives every fixed point and every core position over to an entirely new set of references. This is rather like the hapless position of Borges' "Funes, the Memorius," in his confrontation with every last detail of a similar tree, and a thousand others besides. But if Funes is unaware that to think—to abstract and generalize—is to forget a difference, at least that lesson has not been lost on the writer of the present essay, whose own "wide application of averaging" seems the only way round a "massive pile-up of information" otherwise "recalcitrant to higher assimilations." I don't think Ammons means to imply here that the opacity of experience that greets us on this second level of his text necessarily strengthens and thereby privileges all that we secure for ourselves in the way of unity and wholeness found on the first. If the poem is making sense at all, there is a certain application of averaging operative at both levels. But what I do think we sense when the essay becomes more deeply divided on this second level is how it is enabled more completely to account for itself when the discourse seeks to become open to that which is other than itself. "Read a few lines along the periphery of any of the truly / great," Ammons instructs us, "and the knowledge delineates an open shore," and the experience of a "landless, orientationless" beyond. But to obtain experience in such a prospect—reductions, identities, suasions—is perhaps to know it for the first time in all of its "difficult absoluteness." "Philosophy," it has been said, "has its reasons for wanting to know beyond, across, and between what it itself is and what it is not … for being itself as well as being other than what it is." Yet can anything less be said about a literary text that problematizes its own identity to an equal degree?
From all of this, I think it might now be possible for us to see that the point in the self-reflexive scene of American poetry at which the same is divided against (or by) its other, that one is divided by many, and identity by difference is precisely the point at which Modernism gives place to Postmodernism, the point, that is to say, at which writing exceeds the symmetrical bifurcation between theory and practice and discovers in theory itself—Against Theory, if you will—a genuine source for its own production and power. In saying this, I entirely concur with Gerald Graff's recent suggestion that theory "is what is generated when some aspect of literature"—its conditions of production, in this case—"ceases to be given and becomes a question to be argued in a generalized way." In this way, the concern for the "poetics" of a text will yield a "description of the way in which a work means" that a concern for "hermeneutics" or the meaning itself of a work never can. In electing, therefore, to title his own work, "Essay in Poetics," Ammons in the same way aims to foreground the productive syntactics of textuality rather than a reductive semantics—the how rather than the what—underscoring, in an important place near the end of the poem, that he is "more certain that [he is] about than what [he is] about." As with the co-dependent relation between Modernism and Postmodernism, of course, neither syntax nor meaning is completely separable from the other, the very "meaning-producing function" of all discourse residing in "the fundamental oneness of language." And it is this oneness, too, which is fundamental to Ammons' own "one: many" mechanism, no longer a shorthand for pluralism in the restricted and equilibrated economy of reflexion. "Bearing a different weight" now, to repeat the earlier citation, this one: many mechanism becomes something very much akin to "the primordial structure of repetition" in the more general economy of his text, manifest both from within and from the outside:
that is, a different, perhaps contradicting, bit-nature and assimilation: wholeness then is a condition of existence, a one: many mechanism, internally irrelevant to scope, but from the outside circumscribed into scope:
As a gloss on the one: many mechanism here, particularly in relation to "the outside" in the final line, it may be instructive to recall the discursive "war machine's relation to an outside" in Deleuze and Guattari once again, a relation which is "not another 'model'" by which to represent or reproduce or replicate the world. As in the case with reality previously, "we think that one cannot write sufficiently in the name of an outside [for] the outside has no image, no signification, no subjectivity … with which to assemble in heterogeneity." In terms of this formulation for Ammons' one: many machine, then, we're now invited to view "the high levels of oneness" as relays of force, "examples of integration" that set limits against which a text's "energy flows with maximum / effect and economy," generating "numerous subordinations and divisions of diversity" for itself. The control of the flow and organization of the energy is signal here; Ammons says he cannot stress that enough. "If I am to celebrate multiplicity / unity, and such," he declares, "I'll be obliged to free myself by accepting certain limitations … [for] it seems to me / a possibility of unceasing magnitude that [only] these structures / permit these eventualities." Seen from the other side, as in "Extremes and Moderations," limitation forms an extreme the "strictures and disciplines of which prevent loose-flowing phantasmagoria," and when broadly and densely exploited, empowers "the outbreak of dialectical alternatives." Derrida stresses the same point, time after time, in his own work:
The adventurous excess of a writing that is no longer directed by any knowledge does not abandon itself to improvisation. The accident or throw of dice that "opens" such a text does not contradict the rigorous necessity of its formal assemblage. The game here is the unity of chance and rule, of the program and its leftovers or extras.
The "unity of chance and rule" states precisely the "oneness" that divides both Ammons and his text, and indeed Postmodernism more generally, against themselves, for it is "out / of that bind"—perhaps we should say, double-bind—as he says, "I proceed a little way into similarity and / withdraw a bit into differentiae." "In short," Deleuze and Guattari affirm, "there is no deterritorialization of the flows of schizophrenic desire that is not accompanied by global or local reterritorializations, reterritorializations that always reconstitute shores of representation." Hence, in Ammons, "one recognizes an ocean even from a dune." But Ammons' one: many mechanism can take off in the completely opposite direction, and through the deterritorialization of the previous "shores of representation," discover a repetitive means—"say ocean over / and over"—by which, in a passage already cited, to "delineate an open shore."
The most surprising thing about Ammons' essay, the thing that perhaps puts it most beside itself, comes with the revelation that, by the end, its theory really cannot be saying anything radically mind-altering or subversively earth-shattering at all. Those who detect in certain lines of Ammons' thought as I have outlined them yet another weary diatribe in the deconstructive mode, rife, once again, for institutional appropriation—or "routinization" or "domestication" or "neutralization"—at least have one thing right. There can be no mistaking the very conservative direction from which Ammons' theory comes. His is not a brief against lyricism or confessionalism or formalism or traditionalism or anything else. A delimitation of the self-reflexive gestures in American poetry is not an attack on those limits, but if anything, an intensification of them. To decipher, we proceed by way of the cipher, and to deconstruct, we honor not the destructiveness of human endeavor, but rather its opposite. "I am not so much / arguing with the organic school," he tells us at the conclusion, "as shifting true organismus from / the already organized to the bleak periphery of possibility." Along that "periphery of integrations"—the integration of chance and rule, again—there may be what he describes as "an exposure / to demons, thralls, witcheries, [a] maelstrom black / of possibility … an area transcendental only by its bottomless entropy." But that is a blackness, a bottomlessness, a bleakness seen only from "that point in the periphery where / salience bends [back] into curve" once again, the curve of sameness from which we began. It rings a kind of cordon sanitaire around all those who will not know, nor indeed would ever care to know, the possibility of something other. Yet what if what happens at the periphery presents us with the possibility of adding to our store of knowledge rather than merely recycling or recircling what we may already possess? In other words, "you start by delimiting a first line consisting of circles of convergence around successive singularities." But then, picking up on the gesture of intensification just noted, "you see whether inside that line new circles of convergence establish themselves, with new points located outside the limits and in other directions." As Ammons envisions the process, the curvature of sameness suddenly begins to take on the appearance of an effect constituted from a point at the furthest remove from sameness, that is to say, from a point of unlikeness or difference as the centrifugally fecundating category. And the burgeoning "strings of nucleations" engendered from this newly focused sense of otherness that eventually opens us up to greater knowledge and to greater insight—do these new lines of flight not please us so much more than merely "representative details" only because, at that same point on the periphery, but from where, this time, "the mind is brought to silence, the / non-verbal, and the still" from an other or outside—do these nucleations of mind not please us more because for the first time we are actually able "to see how [the mind's] motion goes?"
… split its green periphery and divide: John's old tractor on the lawn only shows its steering wheel: the snowplow's been by and blocked the driveway: it's December 26: yesterday was Christmas: I got a pair of water-resistant gloves with a removable woolen lining: I got Phyllis three charms for the bracelet I bought her in Rome: John got a snowsled, a beautiful wooden train set, Lincoln logs, toggles, and several things operated by non-included batteries: this morning he has no fever:
In the "irreducible errancy of [the] parapraxis" here, in Mark Taylor's phrase—which can risk moving beyond the periphery only by moving through it—we approach generative and accumulative reaches of the expanding mind so insubstantial and inscrutable, so filled with the pure heat of "potentiality" and "undisclosed possibility," that we're given to stand in terror and amazement. And undoubtedly it's at that moment that we fall back into our more established and secure patterns of disciplinary discourse, rather pendantically attempting to talk a poem down through a study of its sources, its history, its influences, and other less "peripheral," though perhaps more widely footnoted and more amply rewarded ways.
This is not to imply, in a final word, that a Postmodern poetics of the "bleak periphery" is to be located at a diametrical remove from the study of history and culture and society, as some are likely to charge. If in bearing down on the force of articulation, "procedure's the only procedure," as we are given in conclusion to "Hibernaculum," then one wants to have at one's disposal as many procedures as one can in order to circumscribe its motion and contextualize its operation, a kind of "pragrammatology," as Derrida would say, that would aim to take the whole sociohistorical situation of the marking (and re-marking) into account. This also means, of course, that the "poetics" of force is not restricted merely to literary discourse, although to many, that would seem a fairly likely place within which to begin charting its motions. Once underway, however, the opportunities for expanding and exceeding the periphery, like the expanding energies of discursive expression itself, seem boundless:
… I am seeking the mechanisms physical, physiological, epistemological, electrical chemical, esthetic, social, religious by which many, kept discrete as many, expresses itself into the manageable rafters of salience, lofts to comprehension, breaks out in hard, highly informed suasions, the "gathering in the sky" so to speak
Once Ammons' poetics takes this final turn against its own containment within a purely Modernist literary self-reflexion, the only absolute limit it dares impose upon itself is "patience": the patience to understand how oneness cannot be useful "when easily derived," and to understand how manyness cannot be truthful when "thinly selective." Hence, Ammons' well-known ending to "Corsons Inlet":
I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will not run to that easy victory: still around the looser, wider forces work: 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, that I have perceived nothing completely, that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
If Ammons' bleak poetics risks leaving us with a theory of American literature that can't add up to some kind of high (re)cognition anymore, the ultimate reflection of some kind of metaphysical Being or Presence, perhaps it's because, like Neitzsche's well-known Becoming that can only be explained without recourse to final intentions, Ammons finds so much more to interest him at every moment. That is to say, his is a model of textuality "that is perpetually prolonging itself, breaking off and starting up again" simply because it is in the very character of American literature to "do away with foundations, nullify endings and beginnings … [in] a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away … and picks up speed in the middle." The image of the periphery, in sum, seems an appropriate one with which to foreground this sense of a poetics processually "in the middle," that is to say, perpetually machining its way as a movement in-between. As readers and writers of contemporary American discourse, in a final citation from the Anti-Oedipus, "We no longer believe in a primordial totality that once existed, or in a final totality that awaits us at some future date…. We believe only in totalities that are peripheral. And if we discover such a totality alongside various separate parts, it is a whole of these particular parts but does not totalize them; it is a unity of all these particular parts but does not unify them; rather, it is added to them as a new part fabricated separately" (initial emphasis added). "Scope eludes my grasp," as Ammons has stated: "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk." And if that means nothing—"the greatest hazard of all is alien water," we learn in a final anecdote from "Essay on Poetics"—it could very well be that to risk meaning nothing, at last, is to begin to play. When one gets lost for fun, as Ammons' "Essay" wryly claims, "there's no chance of getting lost."
SOURCE: "A Poet's Long Path to Literary Honors," in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. XL, No. 15, December 1, 1993, p. A6.
[In the following review, Ponce discusses Garbage, stating that "As in his earlier poems, he uses an object as a springboard into thoughts of a universal significance."]
Writers usually prefer not to have their work labeled as garbage, but the poet and Cornell professor A. R. Ammons has found phenomenal success with the label.
Garbage, his latest book, won Mr. Ammons his second National Book Award for Poetry two weeks ago. It is a single, 121-page poem inspired by a heap of garbage that Mr. Ammons saw in Florida.
For the author of 21 books, Mr. Ammons is reticent about his work. "It's just what I do," he says.
His colleagues are more forthright. David Bonanno, an editor at The American Poetry Review, says Garbage is "a major poem by a major poet."
Roald Hoffman, a Cornell chemistry professor who has published two books of poetry, calls Mr. Ammons "an inspiration." Over the last 10 years, Mr. Hoffmann has participated in an informal poetry-reading group with Mr. Ammons. "He's more than a fellow poet," says Mr. Hoffman, a winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry. "He's sort of my guru."
Although Mr. Ammons says that poetry was his "governing energy from the age of 18," his path to publication was a long one. Born in Whiteville, N.C., in 1926, he attended Wake Forest University on the GI Bill after serving in the Navy during World War II.
He spent his first year out of college as the principal of an elementary school in Cape Hatteras, N.C. He moved to New Jersey and worked for 12 years as an executive for a biological-glassware factory.
In 1955 Mr. Ammons published his first book of poetry, Ommateum, with Doxology. Printed at his expense, the book, he says, sold 16 copies in five years.
In 1963, Mr. Ammons was asked to do a reading at Cornell University. He has been teaching poetry there ever since.
Nine years separated the publication of Ommateum and the appearance of his next book, Expressions of Sea Level. This was followed by Corsons Inlet in 1965.
In his early poems, the author wrestles with the conflict between the artist, who tries to structure the world, and the world itself, which defies structure. As expressed in the title piece of Corsons Inlet, "in nature there are few sharp lines." Mr. Ammons observes:
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, that I have perceived nothing completely, that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
Of Mr. Ammons's technique, Mr. Hoffmann says: "He makes us walk the hard edge of syntax. He uses language to make us read slower, to feel something in a way that no other poet does."
Since he began to publish steadily, Mr. Ammons has been no stranger to literary success. His work won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1973, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1973–74, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 1981.
Garbage was conceived during a trip Mr. Ammons made to visit his mother-in-law in 1987. While driving on I-95, he saw a mountain of garbage at a landfill. He didn't stop, but the image stayed with him.
After an unsatisfactory first draft, he returned to the poem in earnest in 1989. He used a roll of adding machine tape to compose "because you don't have to stop to change the sheets of paper."
A heart attack later in the year and triple bypass surgery in 1990 forced him to set the poem aside again. The first five sections of the completed poem did not appear in print until 1992 in The American Poetry Review, but the positive response encouraged Mr. Ammons to submit it to his publisher.
Garbage comprises 18 sections that follow the poet's thoughts, both sacred and scatological, as he contemplates a pile of trash. As in his earlier poems, he uses an object as a springboard into thoughts of a universal significance:
garbage has to be the poem of our time because garbage is spiritual, believable enough to get our attention, getting in the way, piling up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and creamy white: what else deflects us from the errors of our illusionary ways …
Of Garbage, Mr. Bonanno of The American Poetry Review says: "Part of what makes it a successful poem is that once he gets going, he can move so quickly from subject matter to subject matter and it's all of one piece." Mr. Bonanno likens the tone to the improvisational style of a jazz musician.
Mr. Ammons declines to discuss his future plans, except to say that he wants to retire from teaching after this academic year.
Despite his success, Mr. Ammons keeps a perspective on his work that is as uncompromising as his compressed and complicated use of language in poetry.
"The most important thing to me about poetry is writing the poem," he says. Reflecting on his long apprenticeship before publishing his poetry, he remarks, "Do you think the audience sustains you during that period? They're not even there. I write poems whether anybody reads them or not. I read them."
SOURCE: "Trash and Other Wonders of Nature," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 98, December 12, 1993, p. 30.
[In the following excerpt, Hirsch praises Ammons's Garbage.]
Archie Randolph Ammons's book-length poem, Garbage, the winner of this year's National Book Award, has a rueful grandeur and characteristically splendid oddity. Following the abbreviated lyricism of the retrospective volume The Really Short Poems, Garbage is a single extended performance, a meditation, as the poet says, "assimilated into motion." Over the last 40 years Mr. Ammons has consistently demonstrated the democratic precept that "anything is poetry" and here he playfully takes up—takes on—the subject of trash. Thus a mountain of junk near the I-95 in Florida becomes the site of his moving and often comic speculations about natural processes:
garbage has to be the poem of our time because garbage is spiritual, believable enough to get our attention, getting in the way, piling up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and creamy white: what else deflects us from the errors of our illusionary ways.
Like Wallace Stevens in "The Man on the Dump," Mr. Ammons is a philosophical poet whose abstruse flights—on the correspondences between the species, the commerce between the One and the Many, the mutability of experience—are brought back to earth by the bluntness of matter.
Garbage might well have been subtitled "Self-Portrait at 67" since it presents the poet in late middle age tallying things up, leaning forward or looking back even as he tries to dwell in the present, to stay available to the moment and make a clean sweep of the past.
"I can't believe / I'm merely an old person," he says near the beginning of the poem, "whose mother is dead, / whose father is gone and many of whose / friends and associates have wended away to the / ground." Yet he refuses to be encumbered by losses or memories, asserting "life is not first / for being remembered but for being lived!" The key to Mr. Ammons's poetics, and possibly to his philosophy of life, is his scientific pragmatism, his determination to "study the motions" and then "take action," to "keep the mind / allied with the figurations of ongoing." His highest praise is reserved for the spiritual and material transformation of energy, an Emersonian commitment to "renewing change."
Garbage is written in a loose pentameter approximating speech. (Like his Tape for the Turn of the Year, it was composed on adding-machine tape.) In the past, many of Mr. Ammons's poems have felt like solitary neighborhood walks, but this is more like a long, companionable drive through the country. The poem moves freely, insistently, on a ribbon of two-line stanzas punctuated by the poet's quirky use of colons, what has been called his "colonization" of English. Its 2,200 odd lines are divided into 18 sections or chapters, each a momentary resting place before the speaker sets forth again for new territory. He never stays put for long, though he also moves generally in the direction of his main subject:
no use to linger over beauty or simple effect: this is just a poem with a job to do: and that is to declare, however roundabout, sideways, or meanderingly (or in those ways) the perfect scientific and materialistic notion of the spindle of energy.
The engine of this poet's astonishing fluency is his resolve to stave off death by praising transfiguration and keeping on the move.
Garbage is a poem that enacts what it is about: "action and / action's pleasure." The poet avows no purpose and endorses a certain poetic aimlessness ("the right / time to write is when you have nothing to say"), yet the work repeatedly returns to, indeed is deeply informed by, a series of ethical propositions: "nature models values" and "likes a broad spectrum approaching disorder"; "right regard / for human life" must respect "all other forms of life"; we, too, are a form of trash, "plenty wondrous." In this major new installment to his life work, A. R. Ammons has given us an American testament that arcs toward praise, a poem of amplitude that confronts our hazardous ends and circles around to saying. "I'm glad I was here, / even if I must go."
SOURCE: "From A to Y," in Poetry, Vol. CLXIV, No. 2, May, 1994, pp. 97-107.
[In the following excerpt, Shaw offers a mixed review of Garbage.]
We have landfill to thank for A. R. Ammons's latest book-length poem. The sight of a huge mound of refuse beside I-95 in Florida was the epiphany that spurred him to this effort; like the garbage heap that fostered it, the resulting poem is imposing, at once anarchic and subject to a degree of formal design. It is also, fortunately, a lot more appealing. There is no question that you would rather read about the place as described by Ammons than be there. More than most poets, he knows what can be made of what others discard or overlook, reminding us how "anything / thrown out to the chickens will be ground fine // in gizzards or taken underground by beetles and / ants: this will be transmuted into the filigree // of ant feelers' energy vaporizations…." Although his stance and central metaphor recall those of Wallace Stevens's "The Man on the Dump," Ammons's poem is broader in reference as it is longer in pages. Certainly, like Stevens, he is concerned with the processes of imagination and treats the theme memorably. One passage, on pages 42-43, is one of the most remarkable descriptions of what it is like to write a poem, from initial gropings to final formal embodiment, that I have ever seen in verse or prose. But Garbage isn't only an ars poetica. It explores a less allegorical dump than Stevens's, and reaches into cosmology, enriched with the lore of physics and biology, as well as personal speculations touching on mortality and the possibility of states which may transcend it.
Like his earlier Tape for the Turn of the Year, this poem was written on adding machine tape, this time, as Ammons mentions, "a little wider, just about / pentameter." While pairs of lines are spaced apart from one another on the page, this seems to be more in the interest of legibility than anything else. The work is divided, in a somewhat rough and ready way, into numbered sections. Since it is meditative, not narrative, and since Ammons is as fond of digression as he is brilliant at it, the evolution of the poem's themes is freeform, arbitrary, dependent on the poet's roving voice. Ammons himself, in one of a number of self-conscious passages, worries about how all this will hold together: "I'm running too many / threads and dropping too many stitches in this // weaving which is about, what, life and, mais oui, / death." It is not a criticism but simply a description to say that the work struggles toward unity rather than achieving it. Like other modern long poems—The Cantos, Paterson, etc.—this is a congeries, not a single entity. I don't think this need be a problem for the reader who is enjoying what he reads, except perhaps toward the end. The poem doesn't work toward a single climax but offers a series of high points along the way; consequently the last lines seem more like a random cessation than a satisfying conclusion.
On the way, however, are numerous splendors and diversions. Ammons is intent to avoid the kind of long-poem solemnity that turns so easily into somnolence. He seasons his scoutings of the sublime with jokes, slang, ironies, Li'l Abnerisms. To some (and I admit, to me) the folksiness seems disingenuous at times in a work which after all is eminently sophisticated in its aim and design. Whatever its excesses, this is an approach to style compatible with Ammons's profound engagement of the old passionately yoked dichotomy, flesh and spirit. As he puts it in Part 2:
there is a mound, too, in the poet's mind dead language is hauled off to and burned down on, the energy held and shaped into new turns and clusters, the mind strengthened by what it strengthens: for where but in the very asshole of comedown is redemption: as where but brought low, where but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we discern the savage afflictions that turn us around:
One notices how effortlessly considerations of life and letters interpenetrate, and how the metaphor of the dump invigorates both. Later he will tell us, "life, life is like a poem: the moment it / begins, it begins to end: the tension this // establishes makes every move and moment, every / gap and stumble, every glide and rise significant"—and as we approach the end of this wide-ranging poem we may find Ammons persuasive in his conviction that "anything, anything is poetry: effortlessness // keys the motion; it is a plentiful waste and / waste of plenty."
In the conscious jumble of Garbage certain passages stand out as matching anything Ammons has written. I think especially of the wonderful colloquy with nature in Part 13, of which I can quote only a portion:
I looked into the pit of death and it was there, the pit was, and the death: I circled it saying this looks like safety's surcease next to which risks' splits and roars, the sparrow's lone note in the gray tree, are radiances: the rocks came up to me in a wall saying they would say nothing, and the trees bent away as in wind their tops hanging on to silence, and I could make nothing out in the brook's fuzzy bustle: the bushes huddled down by the pinewoods as if looking for a path leading in, with no saying and no listening either, so I derived the nature of each thing from itself and made each derivation speak, the mountains quietly resounding and very authoritative, their exalted air perfect grain of the spiritual, the sense of looking down so scary half-love for height held….
Garbage doesn't appear to have been printed on recycled paper: a missed opportunity. Looking ahead, though, the issue is irrelevant, since this is one poem readers are unlikely to be throwing out any time soon….
SOURCE: "Recent Poetry," in Stand Magazine, Vol. 36, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 77-8.
[In the following excerpt, Sail discusses the virtues and flaws of Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Year and Garbage.]
… Should a poem be, formally or thematically, open or closed? What is the poet's responsibility to himself or herself, to the poem, to the tradition, to the events of the twentieth century? Can the modesty that history may seem to demand also mislead into political oversimplification? Where does an awareness of complexity become clutter or prolixity? When does spacious equal specious? At what point might self-consciousness become self-defeat?
A. R. Ammons, now nearing his 70th year, would appear to have found a novel answer to such challenges in his long poem Tape for the Turn of the Year, dating from 1965 and now reissued. What he calls 'this foolish / long / thin / poem' aims to benefit from a mechanical imperative, as the blurb explains: 'In the form of a journal covering the period December 6, 1963, through January 10, 1964 … [it] … was written on a roll of adding-machine tape, then transferred foot by foot to manuscript. He chose this method as a serious experiment in making a poem adapt to something outside itself.' There follow 210 pages of vertical notebook, in a confident mode which has affinities with both Whitman and Ashbery. As far as I could see, the only full stops are those after the poet's initials: breaks are provided by vertical spacing, by question and exclamation marks and brackets, with the colon easily the most frequent irrigation in Ammons's sweeping landscapes. From ebullient listings to somewhat indulgent monologues, he develops a speculative vein which mostly gets away with stating what is mostly obvious. Less successful are the bathetic jokes, such as 'the snails are sluggish' or the spelling of Sisyphus as 'Sissy Fuss', though the poem ends with rather a neat joke as farewell—'so long'. The key Ammons word is 'exchanges'—he sees everything as transactional: the moment and eternity, loss and (re)gain, fragmentation and unity. He commutes between the language of philosophy, lyricism and a clipped-demotic register, conducts a running dialogue with the Muse, and frequently asks questions of himself, such as 'Why do I need to throw / this structure / against the flow / which I cannot stop?'—to which he provides an answer 55 pages on, suggesting that the thing is to 'leave structure / to the maker / & praise / by functioning'. If all this sounds too naked, it is fair to say that much of the poem is anchored in a good sense of the local: the winter landscape and weather, birds, the daily round, shopping, cooking, all play their part. One or two of the later entries (I'm thinking of 2 and 8 January in particular) sag a bit, partly because Ammons himself draws attention to the way in which he is waiting for the tape to run out and so for the poem to end.
Appearing in tandem with the Tape is another long Ammons poem, Garbage, written fully 30 years on and winner of the 1993 National Book Award for poetry. In 18 sections, mostly of five or so pages, it is written in unrhymed couplets, mostly with four or five stresses, and runs to 121 pages with seven full stops, and colon still king. Like Tape, it relies on the anchorage of vivid details—but here the debate is about meaning and the possibility of it, and much of Ammons's speculation centres round what kind of poem he should be writing. It can get pretty convoluted at times: '… I'm trying to mean what I // mean to mean something: best for that is a kind / of matter-of-fact explicitness about the facts'. As before, the virtues and vices are closely entwined: Ammons can be self-critical and self-forgiving, sententious and acute, modest and smug. There are elements of greater strain in this poem than the earlier one and it is a bit relentless, like being constantly beaten over the head with good news. But it has really memorable things, too, such as this vivid picture of his father in hospital, 'gussied up with straps, in a wheelchair, a catheter leading / to the little fuel tank hung underneath, urine / the color of gasoline, my father like the / others drawn down half-asleep mulling over his // wheels'. From his worst, it would be tempting to conclude that a long Ammons goes a little way: but the sheer energy and zest of the man are winning qualities—you imagine him sitting there, synapses sparking away as he leaps from the local to the cosmic and back again. And his poetry's real virtue is that, like Whitman's earth in 'To the sayers of words', it 'closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out.'
SOURCE: "Cheesespreadology," in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 5, March 7, 1996, pp. 26-7.
[In the following excerpt, Sansom discusses Ammons's critical reception in England.]
In a power-rhyming slap-happy parody of Thirties doom-mongering published in 1938 William Empson famously had 'Just a Smack at Auden':
What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend? No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end. Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend, Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end.
By contrast, in a lecture on 'Rhythm and Imagery in English Poetry' to the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961, Empson gave William Carlos Williams and his reviewers an exasperated wallop:
The most unexpected American critics will be found speaking of him with tender reverence; they feel he is a kind of saint. He has renounced all the pleasures of the English language, so that he is completely American; and he only says the dullest things, so he has won the terrible fight to become completely democratic as well. I think that, if they are such gluttons for punishment as all that, they are past help.
It may in fact have been Empson who by 1961 was past help—at only 55 he was already describing himself as an 'old buffer'—for he was clearly unable to pick up the subtleties of intonation in Williams's drawl in the way that he had instinctively been able to tune in to the rhythms of Auden's Oxford patter. Empson's is a classic English misreading and misunderstanding of American poetry, caused largely by lack of proximity but also by a wilful refusal to hear. 'I suspect,' Emerson wrote, 'that there is in an Englishman's brain a valve that can be closed at pleasure, as an engineer shuts off steam.'
The closing of the valve, the deliberate shutting off of steam, is one of the things that helps regulate English poetry, producing its iambic highs and lows, its mood-swings and its syncopations. In American poetry there is often no such clear cut-off, no shut-up or shut-down; the language seems to be on automatic, which can be disconcerting: 'the English often feel,' as Empson put it, 'that some Americans quack on with a terrible monotony and no pause for the opposite number to get in a word.' A. R. Ammons's poetry is a case in point: his massive oeuvre amounts to a kind of giant bulk bin fed by his extraordinary brush-equipped pick-up belt of a brain, which has managed to load and deliver material at a speed of about one collection every two years for forty years, yet it is an achievement which remains either politely ignored or quietly sniggered at in England. His titling his latest book Garbage probably won't help, but then his verse has always been something of a dumping ground for Platonic, Romantic and Emersonian notions of effluence, confluence and the common harmony of the created order. As he put it in Sphere: The Form of a Motion,
under all life, fly and dandelion, protozoan, bushamster, and ladybird, tendon and tendrel (excluding protocelluar organelles) is the same cell …
Indeed, Ammons's theory of poetic form, as set out in Hibernaculum, amounts to a kind of trashcan theory:
much have I studied, trashcanology, cheesespreadology, laboratorydoorology, and become much enlightened and dismayed: have, sad to some, come to care as much for a fluted trashcan as a fluted Roman column: flutes are flutes and the matter is a mere substance design takes its shape in …
According to William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, garbage archaeologists with the University of Arizona's Garbage Project, garbage 'refers technically to "wet" discards—food remains, yard waste, and offal', while trash refers to the 'dry' stuff—'newspapers, boxes, cans, and so on'. Refuse, however, covers both, and rubbish 'refers to all refuse plus construction and demolition debris'. It is worth bearing such distinctions in mind, for Ammons's Garbage is most certainly not rubbish; it is something far more wet and slippery. Ammons states that
garbage has to be the poem of our time because garbage is spiritual, believable enough to get our attention, getting in the way, piling up, stinking …
Garbage for Ammons, in other words, is nothing so simple as evidence of mere over-consumption: it is a kind of sacrament, an outward and visible sign of certain inward and spiritual truths—in fact, another illustration of the truths and graces of the Emersonian version of Neoplatonism that he has been espousing since his first collection Ommateum and which found its most profound expression in Corsons Inlet. Ammons's is a philosophy in which, as he puts it in Garbage, 'all is one, one all'; it finds a natural expression in paradox—'we're trash, plenty wondrous'—and often comes close to sliding into determinism:
oh well: argument is like dining: mess with a nice dinner long enough, it's garbage.
This kind of Transcendental shruggery gives his poetry its very un-English tone of patient endurance and content—'don't worry, be happy,' he counsels at one point in Garbage—and in this latest collection results in a reconsideration of waste products and wasted moments:
Marine Shale are said to be 'able to turn wastes into safe products': but some say these 'products are themselves hazardous wastes': well, what does anybody want: is there a world with no bitter aftertaste or post coital triste: what's a petit mort against a high moment: I mean, have you ever heard of such a thing …
The restless and continuous movement of Ammons's poetry is undoubtedly impressive but it is nonetheless semi-automatic: although he can and often does adjust the size of his nozzle to alter the pressure of mood, mode or tone in a poem, it's basically always the same stuff coming out. For example, Tape for the Turn of the Year, first published in 1965 and recently reissued, is pretty bog-standard Ammons, with its reflections on 'motions / and intermotions', and surely was and now most certainly is remarkable only for having been written on a roll of adding-machine tape. With the tape's length and breadth determining its shape and size, Tape for the Turn of the Year quite literally invites readers to never mind the quality but feel the width; when Ammons ends the poem with the throwaway phrase 'so long' some readers might welcome the words not only as a farewell but also as a statement of unfortunate fact.
Ammons's extraordinary overflow also raises questions about quality control, a problem that he states as fact in 'Cold Rheum', from The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons:
You can't tell what's snot from what's not …
Of course, snot is not always to be sniffed at. There is a children's riddle:
Q: What is it that the rich man puts in his pocket that the poor man throws away?
Substitute 'American' for the riddle's 'rich man' and 'English' for 'poor' and you have a workable definition of the differences between American and English poetry. In a gloss on the snot riddle in his book Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value, Michael Thompson explains that the riddle
succeeds by playing upon that which is residual to our system of cultural categories. When, in the context of wealth and poverty, we talk of possessable objects we unquestioningly assume that we are talking about valuable objects. The category 'objects of no-value' is invisible and we only notice its existence when it is pointed out to us by the riddle. But the riddle contains much more than this. If the answer is simply 'an object of no-value' (say, pebbles or sweet papers) it is not very funny. What makes it funny is that the answer 'snot' is an object, as it were, of negative value; something that should be thrown away.
One might describe Garbage as the logical extension of Ammons's sustained attempt to dignify objects and experiences of no apparent value, a project in which silt, sludge and slurry are not so much by-products as the stuff of life.