Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) (Vol. 5)
Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) 1926–
Ammons is an important American pastoral poet in the Emersonian tradition of Robinson and Frost. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
All of a sudden, with an unheralded and largely unacknowledged cumulus of books,… A. R. Ammons has exploded into the company of American poets which includes Whitman and Emerson and articulates the major impulse of the national expression: the paradox of poetry as process and yet impediment to process. More honestly than Whitman, acknowledging his doubts as the very source of his method ("teach me, father: behold one whose fears are the harnessed mares of his going!"), though without Whitman's dramatic surface, Ammons has traced out the abstractive tendency, the immaterialism that runs through all our native strain, in both acceptations of the phrase: to suffer or search out immersion in the stream of reality without surrendering all that is and makes one particularly oneself. The dialectic is rigorous in Ammons' version—the very senses which rehearse the nature of being for the self, the private instances of the sensuous world, must be surrendered to the experience of unity…. "Stake off no beginnings or ends, establish no walls," the poet urges, addressing that Unity: "I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth and go on out … farther than the loss of sight into the unseasonal, undifferentiated stark"—a region, a Death, to speak literally, where there is no poetry, no speech to one's kind, no correspondence perceived and maintained, but only the great soft whoosh of Being that has obsessed our literature from its classical figures, as Lawrence saw so clearly, down to Roethke, Wright Morris, Thornton Wilder. (pp. 1-2)
Yet even in [Ommateum, his] first book, especially as we tend to read it with the later work in mind, as a propaedeutic function of that work, it is evident that Ammons has discovered his tremendous theme: putting off the flesh and taking on the universe. Despite a wavering form, an uncertain voice, Ammons means to take on the universe the way Hemingway used to speak of taking on Guy de Maupassant—the odds, it is implied, more than a little in favor of the challenger. (p. 4)
By the time, ten years later, of his second book, Expressions of Sea Level, Ammons had extended and enriched this theme to stunning effect—not only in versions of nature and the body, but in terms of poetics as well, enforcing the substitution of the negative All for the single possibility of being. (p. 5)
In Expressions of Sea Level we are given a lot more to go on, and consequently go a lot farther, than the persona of Ezra and some rhapsodic landscapes of apocalypse. We are given, with great attention to vegetable detail and meteorological conditioning, the scenes of the poet's childhood in a North Carolina backwoods, the doctrine and rationale of his metaphysical aspirations … and the resignation, the accommodation of himself to the tidal marshes of New Jersey as the site of the poet's individual drama. 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:
So it came time
for me to cede myself
and I chose
to be delivered to. (pp. 6-7)
One of Ammons' most interesting sidelines, a lagoon of his main drift, is a concern with archaic cultures whose aspect often reminds us, in its amalgam of the suggestive detail and the long loose line, in its own prose music, of Perse…. But not until a more recent book, Corsons Inlet, would this mode be brought into accord with the main burden of Ammons' song—the made thing of his impulse. Song may seem an odd word for a verse in which I have descried the music of prose, a verse which is as near as words can get us to our behavior, no more than a fairly cautious means of putting down phrases so that they will keep. Yet though the iambic cadence, and all it implies and demands by way of traditional lilt, has been jettisoned as utterly as Dr. Williams ever decreed, there is a song in Ammons' windy lines, a care for the motion of meaning in language which is the whole justice of prosody. (pp. 7-8)
The most luscious of his books so far, Corsons Inlet …, stands as the farthest and still the most representative reach into, upon, and against Being which the poet has yet made. It opens with a poem that nicely illustrates the perfected diction Ammons has now achieved, a rhythmical certainty which does not depend on syllable-counting or even accentual measure, but on the speed and retard of words as they move together in the mind, on the shape of the stanzas as they follow the intention of the discourse, and on the rests which not so much imitate as create the soft action of speech itself. There is a formality in these gentle lines which is new to American poetry, as we say that there is a draughtsmanship in the "drip-drawings" of Pollock which is new to American painting: each must be approached with a modulated set of expectations if we are to realize what the poet, the painter is about. (pp. 11-12)
It is characteristic that so many of [the Corsons Inlet] poems—and in the previous book as in the one to come—take up their burden from the shore, the place where it is most clearly seen that "every living thing is in siege: the demand is life, to keep life"…. (p. 13)
Ammons rehearses a marginal, a transitional experience, he is a littoralist of the imagination because the shore, the beach, or the coastal creek is not a place but an event, a transaction where land and water create and destroy each other, where life and death are exchanged, where shape and chaos are won and lost. It is here, examining "order tight with shape: blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab: snail shell" that Ammons finds his rhythms, "fastening into order enlarging grasps of disorder," and as he makes his way down the dunes, rhythms are "reaching through seasons, motions weaving in and out!"
The rebellion against Being and into eternity is put down by the body itself on these expeditions the poet makes, safaris into mortality which convince him that "the eternal will not lie down on any temporal hill," and that he must "face piecemeal the sordid reacceptance of my world." It is not acceptance, but reacceptance which must be faced, the world which must be learned again as the poet, borrowing Shelley's beautiful image, "kindles his thoughts, blowing the coals of his day's bright conscious" in order "to make green religion in winter bones." In Corsons Inlet doctrine has been assimilated into "one song, an overreach from which all possibilities, like filaments, depend: killing, nesting, dying, sun or cloud, figure up and become song—simple, hard: removed." That is Ammons' definition of his aspiration—a long way from the breezy expostulations in Ommateum—and, I believe, of his achievement as well: his awareness and his imagination have coincided. (p. 14)
Richard Howard, "A. R. Ammons" (originally published in Tri-Quarterly), in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 1-17.
Beyond its experimentation with Poundian cadences, Ommateum shows no trace of the verse fashions of the fifties; I cannot detect in it the voice of William Carlos Williams, which indeed I do not hear anywhere in Ammons's work, despite the judgments of several reviewers. The line of descent from Emerson and Whitman to the early poetry of Ammons is direct, and even the Poundian elements in Ommateum derive from that part of Pound that is itself Whitmanian.
Ommateum's subject is poetic incarnation, in the mode of Whitman's Sea-Drift pieces, Emerson's Seashore, and Pound's Canto II. The Whitman of As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life is closest, suggesting that poetic disincarnation is Ammons's true subject, his vitalizing fear. In the "Foreword" to Ommateum he begins his list of themes with "the fear of the loss of identity." (p. 257)
Ammons's poetry does for me what Stevens's did earlier, and the High Romantics [Bloom's term, by which he refers to Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron] before that: it helps me to live my life. If Ammons is, as I think, the central poet of my generation, because he alone has made a heterocosm, a second nature in his poetry, I deprecate no other poet by this naming. It is, surprisingly, a rich generation, with ten or a dozen poets who seem at least capable of making a major canon, granting fortune and persistence. Ammons, much more than the others, has made such a canon already. A solitary artist, nurtured by the strength available for him only in extreme isolation, carrying on the Emersonian tradition with a quietness directly contrary to nearly all its other current avatars, he has emerged in his most recent poems as an extraordinary master, comparable to the Stevens of Ideas of Order and The Man With the Blue Guitar. To track him persistently, from his origins in Ommateum through his maturing in Corsons Inlet and its companion volumes on to his new phase in Uplands and Briefings is to be found by not only a complete possibility of imaginative experience, but by a renewed sense of the whole line of Emerson, the vitalizing and much maligned tradition that has accounted for most that matters in American poetry. (p. 261)
The shore, Whitman's emblem for the state in which poets are made and unmade, becomes the theater for the first phase of Ammons's poetic maturity, the lyrics written in the decade after Ommateum. These are gathered in three volumes: Expressions of Sea Level (1964), Corsons Inlet (1965), and Northfield Poems (1966), which need to be read as a unit, since the inclusion of a poem in one or another volume seems to be a matter of whim. A reader of Ammons is likeliest to be able to read this phase of him in the Selected Poems, whose arrangement in chronological order of composition shows how chronologically scrambled the three volumes are. (p. 263)
Ammons fully claims his Transcendental heritage in his Hymn, a work of poetic annunciation in which the "you" is Emerson's "Nature," all that is separate from "the Soul." The Hymn's difficult strength depends on a reader's recognition that the found "you" is: "the not me, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body."…
Emerson's fixed point oscillates dialectically in Ammons's Hymn. Where Emerson's mode hovers always around metonymy, parts of a world taken as the whole, Ammons's sense of the universe takes it for a symptom. No American poet, not Whitman or Stevens, shows us so fully something otherwise unknown in the structures of the national consciousness as Ammons does. It cannot be said so far that Ammons has developed as fluent and individual a version of the language of the self as they did, but he has time and persistence enough before he borrows his last authority from death. (p. 264)
The burden of Ammons's poetry is to … name that enlargement of life that is also a destruction. When the naming came most complete, in the late summer of 1962, it gave Ammons his two most ambitious single poems, Corsons Inlet and Saliences. Though both poems depend upon the context of Ammons's canon, they show the field of his enterprise more fully and freely than could have been expected of any single works. Corsons Inlet is likely to be Ammons's most famous poem, his Sunday Morning, a successfully universalizing expression of a personal thematic conflict and its apparent (or provisional) resolution. But Saliences, a harder, less open, more abstract fury of averted destructions, is the better poem. Corsons Inlet comforts itself (and us) with the perpetually renewed hope of a fresh walk over the dunes to the sea. Saliences rises past hope to what in the mind is "beyond loss or gain / beyond concern for the separate reach." Both the hope and the ascension beyond hope return us to origins, and can be apprehended with keener aptitude after an excursus taking us deeper into Ammons's tradition. Ammons compels that backward vision of our poetry that only major achievement exacts, and illuminates Emerson and all his progeny as much as he needs them for illumination. Reading Ammons, I brood on all American poetry in the Romantic tradition, which means I yield to Emerson, who is to our modern poetry what Wordsworth has been to all British poetry after him; the starting-point, the defining element, the vexatious father, the shadow and the despair, liberating angel and blocking-agent, perpetual irritant and solacing glory. (pp. 268-69)
The Ammonsian literalness, allied to a similar destructive impulse in Wordsworth and Thoreau, attempts to summon outward continuities to shield the poet from his mind's own force. A Poem Is A Walk is the title of a dark, short prose piece by Ammons that tries "to establish a reasonably secure identity between a poem and a walk and to ask how a walk occurs, what it is, and what it is for," but establishes only that a walk by Ammons is a sublime kind of Pythagorean enterprise or Behmenite picnic. Emerson, who spoke as much wisdom as any American, alas spoke darkly also, and Ammons is infuriatingly Emersonian when he tells us a poem "is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization. Its knowledges are all negative and, therefore, more positive than any knowledge." Corsons Inlet, Saliences, and nearly a hundred other poems by Ammons are nothing of the kind, his imagination be thanked, rather than this spooky, pure-product-of-America mysticism. Unlike Emerson, who crossed triumphantly into prose, Ammons belongs to that company of poets that thinks most powerfully and naturally in verse, and sometimes descends to obscure quietudes when verse subsides. (pp. 270-71)
The anguish that goes through Corsons Inlet, subdued but ever salient, is more akin to a quality of mind in Thoreau than to anything in Emerson or Whitman…. In Thoreau, whatever his final differences with his master, the Emersonian precipitateness and clarity of the privileged moment are sharpened. When I read in his Journals, I drown in particulars and cannot find the moments of release, but The Natural History of Massachusetts, his first true work, seems all release, and very close to the terrible nostalgias Corsons Inlet reluctantly abandons. (p. 272)
[Saliences, the] major poem written immediately after Corsons Inlet, emerges from stoic acceptance of bafflement into an imaginative reassurance that prompts Ammons's major phase, the lyrics of Uplands [and] Briefings…. (p. 276)
Saliences thus returns to Corsons Inlet's field of action, driven by that poet's need not to abide in a necessity, however beautiful. Saliences etymologically are out-leapings, "mind feeding out," not taking in perceptions but turning its violent energies out into the field of action. If Corsons Inlet is Ammons's version of The Idea of Order at Key West (not that he had Stevens's poem in mind, but that the attentive reader learns to compare the two), then Saliences is his The Man With the Blue Guitar, a discovery of how to begin after a large and noble acknowledgement of dark limitations. Saliences is a difficult, abstract poem, but it punches itself along with an overwhelming vigor, showing its exuberance by ramming through every blocking particular, until it can insist that "where not a single single thing endures, / the overall reassures." Overall remains beyond Ammons, but is replaced by "a round / quiet turning, / beyond loss or gain, / beyond concern for the separate reach." Saliences emphasizes the transformation of Ammons's obsessive theme, from the longing for unity to the assertion of the mind's power over the particulars of being, the universe of death. The Emersonianism of Ammons is constant; as did Whitman, so his final judgment of his relation to that great precursor will be: "loyal at last." But Saliences marks the clinamen; the swerve away from Emerson is now clarified, and Ammons will write no poem more crucial to his own unfolding. Before Saliences, the common reader must struggle with the temptation of naming Ammons a nature poet; after this, the struggle would be otiose. The quest that was surrendered in Guide, and whose loss was accepted in Corsons Inlet, is internalized in Saliences and afterward.
Saliences approximates (indeliberately) the subtle procedure of a subtradition within Romantic poetry that goes from Shelley's Mont Blanc to Stevens's The Auroras of Autumn. The poet begins in an austere, even a terrifying scene of natural confrontation, but he does not describe the scene or name the terror until he has presented fully the mind's initial defense against scene and terror, its implicit assertion of its own force…. [Saliences includes] seventy magical lines of Ammons upon his heights (starting with: "The reassurance is / that through change / continuities sinuously work"), lines that constitute one of a convincing handful of contemporary assurances that the imagination is capable always of a renovative fresh start. (pp. 276-77)
A poem like [Upland] is henceforth Ammons's characteristic work: shorter and more totally self-enclosed than earlier ventures, and less reliant on larger contexts. He has become an absolute master of his art, and a maker of individual tones as only the greater poets can accomplish. (pp. 281-82)
All the poems in Uplands have [a] new ease, but the conscious mastery of instrument may obscure for us the prevalence of the old concerns, lightened by the poet's revelation that a search for saliences is a more possible quest than the more primordial romancing after unity. The concerns locate themselves still in Emerson's mental universe; Ammons's Periphery, like Dickinson's Circumference, goes back to the astonishing Circles of 1840 with its insistence that "the only sin is limitation" and its repeated image of concentricity. The appropriate gloss for Ammons's Periphery (and for much else in Uplands) is: "The natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations which apprise us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed, but sliding." Ammons calls so being apprised "hesitation," and his slight dislocation is the radiant burst of elk, snow-weed, lichen, white rocks, and verbena that ends Periphery so beautifully. (p. 283)
Despite its extraordinary formal control and its continuous sense of a vision attained, Uplands is a majestically sad book, for Ammons does not let himself forget that his vision, while uncompromised, is a compromise necessarily, a constant knowing why and how "unity cannot do anything in particular." (pp. 285-86)
From [the] self-imposed pathos [in Uplands] Ammons wins no release. Release comes in the ninety delightful lyrics gathered together in Briefings (first entitled, gracefully but misleadingly, Poems Small and Easy), this poet's finest book. Though the themes of Briefings are familiarly Ammonsian, the mode is not. Laconic though transfigured speech has been transformed into "wasteful song." The first poem, Center, places us in a freer world than Ammons would give us before. (p. 286)
Briefings marks an end to the oldest conflict in Ammons; the imagination has learned to avoid apocalyptic pitch, but it has learned also its own painful autonomy in regard to the universe it cannot join in unity. With the confidence of this autonomy attained, the mind yet remains wary of what lurks without. (p. 287)
The one particular of dying remains; every unmastered particular is a little death, giving tension to the most triumphant even among these short poems. Hymn IV, returning to the great Hymn and two related poems of the same title, seals up the quest forever:
You have enriched us with
fear and contrariety
providing the searcher
confusion for his search
teaching by your snickering
wisdom an autonomy
Bear it all
and keep me from my enemies'
wafered concision and zeal
I give you back to yourself
whole and undivided
I do not hear bitterness in this, or even defiance, but any late Emersonian worship of the Beautiful Necessity is gone. With the going there comes a deep uncertainty in regard to poetic subject, as Looking Over the Acreage and several other poems show so poignantly…. The whole of Briefings manifests a surrender of the will-to-knowledge, not only relational knowledge between poetic consciousness and natural objects, but of all knowledge that is too easy, that is not also loss. (pp. 287-88)
Transcendent experience, but with Emerson's kind of Higher Utilitarianism ascetically cut off by a mind made too scrupulous for a new hope, remains the materia poetica of Ammons's enterprise. A majestic recent poem like The City Limits suggests how much celebration is still possible even when the transcendent moment is cruelly isolated, too harshly purified, totally compelled to be its own value. Somewhere upon the higher ridges of his Purgatory, Ammons remains stalled, unable … to break through to the Condition of Fire promised by Ommateum, where instead of invoking Emerson's Uriel or Poe's Israfel he found near identity with "a crippled angel bent in a scythe of grief" yet witnessed a fiery ascent of the angel, fought against it, and only later gained the knowledge that "The eternal will not lie / down on any temporal hill." (p. 289)
Harold Bloom, "A. R. Ammons: 'When You Consider the Radiance'" (1970), in The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (© 1971 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 257-89.
Imagine … Thoreau, his sensibility, his powerful attention to the natural fact, his feet on his rural threshold, his mind contemplative of the newspapers, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Harvard Library (with more than 75% of its holdings composed of old sermons and Calvinist treatises), and the behavior of the micro-macro-cosmos, notebook ever in hand. Resurrect him in 1950, and you have, very loosely and maunderingly incarnated, A. R. Ammons as he appears in his Collected Poems: 1951–1971. But much diminished though, perhaps by entropic processes. Recall Thoreau as Yankee mystic, poet-manqué devolving into obsessive observer, losing, perhaps necessarily, the grand drift in weltering detail, but having already achieved the metamorphosis of fact into hard, beautiful prose pregnant with wit and probity—and intellectual power. Whereas Ammons, having begun as fervent initiate to the landscapes of the Southwest, and whose voice on the page refracts Pound and W. C. Williams, sometimes also echoing what seems Amerindian poetry as translated by Gibran, ends in this recent decade writing garrulously on the universal quotidian, and (and this is a bad sign) poetics. (pp. 64-5)
Still, what's interesting for 200 pages [that is, the poetry of the first decade] is his religiosity, after all: Ammons talks to the wind and to the mountain, to a "you" that is perhaps Manitou, perhaps our absconded "Thou," and they, He, It, talk back in the seminarian prose of a cuneiform translator. As he gains strength, he leaves that mix of Gibran-McKuen-Sumerian behind …, dedicates himself to observations, and begins his long rambles about the Northeastern littoral and riparian scenes, the molecular-galactic, organic-cellular landscapes, chatting about the Creation, as might have Cowper, Goldsmith, Wordsworth, Whitman, were they writing today. Removed from the desert, he has been taken also from the voices of the winds. Instead, he makes his daily American rounds about lawn and meadow, wood, hill, stream, in an easy, articulate, flat, utterly uneventful expository syntax. Altogether unlike Thoreau's sinewy, exacting, apothegmatic prose, and unlike that suavely undulant later Stevens from whom he borrows some of his stanza structures or envelopes, transmogrifying the Master of Imagination into a freshman-text writer who uses the colon for endless, undigestible linkages, never daring Stevens' comma, or venturing Thoreau's period.
As for Ammons' communications? The Scop traditionally conveyed poet-lore until Wordsworth relinquished his Excursion. (MacDiarmid and Pound in their long works, Marxist and Fascist bards, both lost bardry, willingly, to the extent they dignified pamphlets of propaganda.) Ammons' world-lore, however, is much better conveyed to us each month by The Scientific American. For this poet has by and large done little more than to act as a plain-speaking redactor of such reading matter. That he can summarize our contemporary scientific interests when gazing at the worlds of summer and Ithacan blizzard-winters, or walking the tidal swamp or the maze of geological times, is his chief skill; but it is far, far less interesting, alas, then reading the journals and the science writers themselves, and doing the imaginative work for oneself while strolling and watering one's own lawn. At the end of 20 years and 400 pages, Ammons is lecturing endlessly, mostly on himself writing: he has subsumed flower and storm, flood and glacier to the analysis of himself as provider of the facticities—like the later Thoreau, a failed mystic. For critics and readers who can't meet general science as it comes to us on the news-stand in Science, Ammons must seem the very image of a major poet. But there's more poetry to be found in a year's subscription to the Scientific American than in all of Ammons, more clear evidence of immense imaginative work getting done by smart people in the labs, non-writers who write better about the things of this world than this poet does…. Five years from now, when they change the communications-engineering jargon again, what will Ammons' efforts at postulating a poetics of the cerebral networks that form the cultural-historical-linguistical-existential anastomosis of conscious-cum-unconscious-consciousness appear to be? Vacuous, as they are to me now. Shoot me quick! but don't talk about major poetry in the central line down from Emerson: this poet is Erasmus Darwin reborn as J. B. Watson! And, by remaining on the exterior of the scientists' descriptions of the exterior side of matter, Ammons has remained exterior to the phenomena of the imagination too. Neither the "Thou" he once cried to in the Southwest, nor we ourselves are likely to be grateful for such a concern and such a printout of toneless, mechanical work. If you like your nature and your nature poetry in hypostasis and at 3rd hand, fine. But if you want the source of such poetry, if you can call it poetry, do read the scientists rather than this stuff. (pp. 65-6)
Jascha Kessler, "Exteriors," in Kayak (copyright © July 1973, Kayak Books Inc.), Summer, 1973, pp. 64-6.
[Ammons's] work is sometimes interesting, sometimes boring. Men like Harold Bloom, however, are able to find in Ammons' weakest quality—his windy intellectualist rambling—intellectual and aesthetic themes which they can then track back to the work of the Romantics, to Emerson, to late Wallace Stevens … a true abstractionist, living in Ulro, is able easily to overlook the fact that the poetry is boring if he can find these themes. Precisely in that lies the evil effect of their laborious prose and Jurassic phrasings. (p. 50)
Robert Bly, in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1973 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Robert Bly), September/October, 1973.
Ammons' strongest thrust is in the nature poem, the contemplative nature walk such as the title poem of the volume Corsons Inlet or the poem "Cascadilla Falls." A typical poem—and one of Ammons' best—is "Motion for Motion." After the earliest poems, there is an accrued sense of a precise, contemplative, solitary observer, a whimsical naturist alternating wonder with an abstract and analytical turn of mind. (p. 158)
To isolate these very few poems [from Collected Poems: 1951–1971] is to over-simplify the abundance presented, for there is wide variety of tone, subject, voice, form, and persona. There [is] a group of libidinous poems which are typified by the current hip parlance; these "Baby" poems, such as the "Guitar Recitivos," are amusing but slight. A more impressive group of poems are the autobiographical pieces about Ammons' Carolina childhood—"Silver," "Nelly Meyers," and "Mule Song"—certainly a vein which the poet has exploited only partially.
Although Ammons has not included the long Tape for the Turn of the Year, written in a burst of enthusiasm in 1964 on a single reel of adding machine tape, he nevertheless has included in the latter part of the volume several long and garrulous philosophical compositions, which I will call "project" poems—such as the poem "Art of Poetry" which was written to while away a snow storm, or "Summer Session," likewise written on a self-confessed quota basis during the summer break, or the long piece "Hibernaculum," a chatty, speculative poem in which Ammons gives full rein to his penchant for cataloguing and "philosophizing." In this Christmas vacation project, the startling simile is offered that poetry is like soup. More like spaghetti, one is inclined to say, for stringing it out.
Although the impression is distinct that Ammons has allowed himself too much looseness and latitude in some of these recent poems, there are also those poems like "Laser" and "The Arc Inside and Out" that recall the tautness of such earlier, rigorous pieces as "Corsons Inlet." At his best, Ammons leaves the impression of breathless contemplation of interstellar spaces and transcends the merely temporal from the incised image of the felt present; there is a brooding isolative contemplation which is compelling. (pp. 158-59)
With all due recognition of the hyperbole of jacket blurbs, one concludes that this is merely a competent volume by an adept and interesting poet, National Book Award notwithstanding. One hopes that the next collection will be more selective, that his compositions will be more trim, spare, and intellectual. Just this sort of new metaphysical poetry is required to bridge the widening gap between the two cultures. (p. 159)
David Jenkins, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1974, by the University of Georgia), Spring, 1974.
In his collection [Collected Poems, 1951–1971] Ammons includes every moment and modulation of his talent: the luminous leafed in with the trivial, the carefully achieved with the self-indulgent, the too long with the too short. One has to wade through a great deal of tentative language before coming upon the fine sparse poems which represent Ammons's best. But the labor is by no means all loss. The very shagginess and roughness of the collection forces the reader to become intimate with Ammons's elusive rhythms. One has the experience not so much of reading a work, as of entering into a process, in the course of which finished poems emerge, like pure crystals, their stony husk refined away. There is power in all of this. The roughness and profusion of Ammons's work becomes, somehow, a figure for his obsession; the sense of a process rushing brilliantly, though inconclusively forward is, finally, true to the idea of his poetry. As a result of sifting and panning all of this ore—a labor not without tedium—one understands, finally, why Ammons's turn at the banquet table has come.
At a time when the limits of the conversational style have come to be felt more and more strongly, Ammons offers, in great abundance, precisely those qualities neglected during the 1960s: intricate language and conceptual ambition. Reading through many of his longer poems, one is impressed by Ammons's attempt to connect a density of style reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with an elaborate reflective framework which recalls Wallace Stevens. The echo of Stevens is inevitable, since Ammons's main concern is to articulate a philosophy of perception which must be simultaneously argued and demonstrated in the poetry. The main point of Ammons's conception seems to be his view that the mind and the world are joined together in a seamless intricacy. It is not simply that the mind and the world mirror each other, for mirrors contain settled forms; they connect but they also interpose limits. Like Alice, the poet has solved the surface of the mirror. He perceives, and renders in language, the interpenetrating gusts of movement by which the mind and the world make each other whole…. [The] aim of his poetry is not finishing, but unfinishing; it is to cut the world loose from the illusion of settled forms, and set it flowing in the ever new flood of perception. His words cascade irregularly on the page in a mimetism of released energy. The "idea" is there all right. But the poetry is cold, the experience, for all its intricacy, is thin. And here is Ammons's gravest fault. All too often he fails to connect the conceptual framework of the poem with the local effects of his language. This is especially true in the early work, but it remains true of his longer, more ambitious poems throughout. His images turn moments of experience into sensuous complexities; Hopkins-like compressions of syntax offer the reader "a hundred sensations a second," as Ammons remarks. But a gap yawns between this brilliant seething of impressions and the overarching discourse which Ammons intends as his "idea of order." Between sensuous mimetism and cold philosophy there is a space, which Ammons does not fill often enough. But the space between is where we live. It is where the "idea" thickens into passion, where passions clarify into thought and perception. (pp. 608-09)
Academic critics like Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman have been partly responsible for the enlarged interest in Ammons's work…. After years of a poetic style which militated against ideas and repudiated conceptual ambition, they found in Ammons a poet both thoughtful and complex, whose work invites the sort of critical scrutiny which the great works of modernism also invited. Like Stevens, Pound, and Eliot, Ammons in his poetry demands explication. And let us be reminded, explication is not simply a form of detached analysis. It is a mode of reading required by, and appropriate to, complex poems. (p. 610)
But these critics have done Ammons a curious disservice, for they have focused their praise on his weakest quality—his attempt to formulate complicated ideas in poetry—and overlooked what seems to me to be his real achievement: the lyrical articulation of small moments of experience; his ability to organize shapes of language into an epiphany of movement, a frozen flood of perceptions which is visionary not because of any passionate metaphysics, but because of the sheer clarity of the poet's ability to recreate what he "sees." I don't mean to say that Ammons doesn't think well, or that his ideas are not interesting. They are; more important, they provide a framework which releases the intensity of his best short poems. But they do not make good poetry. Unlike Eliot or Stevens, Ammons does not write well about ideas. His conceptual reach does not intensify his language. When he writes "philosophical" poems, or inserts reflective passages into poems, he becomes boring and abstract. Only when his poem plunges into the moment itself does it gain the exhilarating clarity which is Ammons's best quality, as in [the] short poem, "Winter Scene"…. In poems like these, the scaffolding has been forgotten; the poet is naked in the world, and the world has become naked to him. He is thinking with his "eyes" not his mind, or rather, his mind has let itself loose into the fusing brilliance of perception.
In another mode more special to his vision, Ammons has written poems which are intricate mimetisms of change, expressing his sense of the unceasing movement which is all we can know of experience, and of the world. Such poems succeed when they grasp the form of movement in a kind of visual onomatopoeia, instead of offering conclusions about a metaphysics of change. Given Ammons's obsession with instability and process, it is no surprise that he should have trouble with conclusions, both in the philosophical and in the formal sense. It is only in mid-movement, like a sudden vision of all the drops in a column of falling water, that his poetry attains a sort of cold ecstasy. (pp. 610-11)
Clearly, a poet refuses the dominant language of his time at his peril. Often those poets who succeed create a new language, as Allen Ginsberg did when he wrote Howl amid the overpolished tones of the 1950s. At first glance Ammons too seems to be a maverick, working vigorously against the limitations of the plain style, making a case in his work for a new intricacy of conception. Yet his best poems are closer to the plain style than one might think. It is when one hears William Carlos Williams in the background of his voice that the poems work clearly and solidly, not when one hears Hopkins or Stevens. Like so many other poets of the 1960s, Ammons's strengths and limitations derive from his flight into immediacy, his unwillingness to work with or against the limiting framework of culture and tradition. In this sense, of course, Ammons is extraordinarily American. But the impulse to reinvent all language, and all thought, falls short in his work. What survives is Ammons's version of the dream which is at the heart of so much recent poetry: the anticultural, Rousseauean dream of a purer, more articulate nature. (p. 612)
Paul Zweig, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 4, 1974.
He is neither polemical, esoteric, alienated nor even suicidal. Yet A. R. ("Archie") Ammons has belatedly emerged as a poet of major stature. Given the present state of poetry, that is not an all-out accolade. Yet as his best, Ammons is a poet who finds high images in the familiar. He celebrates earthworms and maggot flies, the trackless ocean and flooding brooks, and sees them all as shapers of a higher order, an order of diversity and character that makes life infinitely interesting and indomitably self-renewing. If he has a bias, it is praise:
for the inexcusable (the worthless
merely tiresome, the obviously
Ammons' finest poems meld the hugest images with the most familiar speech to make his points with tight concision….
Of late, Ammons has indulged in several very long poems. They are perhaps verse rather than poetry (verse being what good poets write when they are waiting for a poem to strike). But at least it is verse of a high caliber….
More than any living modern poet, Ammons successfully connects the intricacies of science to the mystery of human nature and what he perceives as the high design of God.
A. T. Baker, "Whole Look of Heaven," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 30, 1974, p. 58.
I am way behind, getting to [Ammons's Sphere: The Form of a Motion] only now. And I know why; everything I ever heard about him said that he wasn't my cup of tea. (The Britishness of that idiom is much to the point.) He was, I gathered, a poet who said "Ooh" and "Ah" to the universe, who had oceanic feelings about the multiplicity of things in nature, and the ubiquity of nature's changes; a poet enamoured of flux, therefore; and so, necessarily, a practitioner of "open form"—which last comes uncomfortably close for my taste to being a contradiction in terms. In short, he was one whom Harold Bloom had applauded as "a major visionary poet"; and if that doesn't raise my hackles exactly, it certainly gives me goose-pimples.
And everything that I heard is true. Imagine! A poem 1,860 lines long, with only one full stop in it, at the end of the last line; and put before me, who likes to think of myself as Doctor Syntax, all for demarcations, a devotee of the sentence! Whatever the opposite of an ideal reader is, I ought to have been that thing so far as this poem is concerned. How could I be anything but exasperated by it, profoundly distrustful, sure I was being bamboozled, sure I was being threatened? And how is it, then, that I was on the contrary enraptured? Have I gone soft in the head? Have I suffered a quasi-religious conversion? Shall I drag myself on penitent knees to the feet of the saintly Bloom? No. I am as suspicious as ever I was of Ammons's initial assumptions and governing preoccupations. I still hunger for sentences and full stops, and for a colon that has precise grammatical and rhythmical work to do, instead of being the maid-of-all-work that Ammons makes it into. The cast of his temperament is as alien to me as I thought it would be. And yet I can't refuse the evidence of my senses and my feelings—there wasn't one page of his poem that didn't delight me….
We tend to think that a poetry which celebrates Becoming will find itself in organic or expressive forms; but it is more logical for it to use, as it does here, a form that is inorganic, rigid, mechanical, and arbitrary. Of course this makes for difficulties; the poem is too long, also too dense and exuberant, to be read at a sitting, and yet these open-ended sections provide no resting places, where we can break off and later resume. If, like me, you roughly and provisionally mark places where one stage of the argument is completed and another starts, what is startling and—given the scheme of the whole—very impressive is that these breathing spaces virtually never coincide with the spaces between sections. As for "argument," does it have one? Didn't poems stop having such things, quite some time ago? Apparently not: this poem has an argument; in fact it addresses itself to that hoariest of all arguments, the problem of the Many and the One, no less! (p. 10)
Donald Davie, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), March 6, 1975.
In the coda to his Collected Poems, Ammons asked himself for a poem of "plenitude / brought to center and extent," a poem of "periphery enclosing our system with / its bright dot and allowing in nonparlant / quantities at the edge void"—the achievement still denied by his thin Tape for the Turn of the Year and tentative "Hibernaculum." Sphere is that poem. Inevitably in a work of such length there are patches of tedium, discursive chats and catalogues, as the poet's mind moseys. But then the poem is a deliberate anthology of observations and perceptions that can swerve, with "in-sweeps of alteration," from a cosmogony to a quince bush, a patchwork that "insists on / differences, on every fragment of difference till the fragments / cease to be fragmentary and wash together in a high flotation / interpenetrating like the possibility of the world." (p. 430)
If the poem has any patron besides the early Ammons, it is Lucretius, the poet of space and solids, of regeneration and reform, of distinctions rather than closure. The lyrical interludes of natural detail in Sphere counterpoint its fascination with "the high syrup invisible moving under, through, / and by discretions our true home, not these bodies so much / change makes and ends." The energies of relationships between matter and meaning, and the imposition of the given, are Ammons's "true home". (pp. 430-31)
The deepest motive … is finally celebration—the kind of poetic praise that, as Rilke insists, must digest so much of the world's sorrow. Sphere celebrates the "heterocosm joyous," the radiance that an earlier poem proclaims all of nature is accepted into. It lies along "the route / from energy to energy," so that "motion is our only place." This "mathematics of stoop and climb" figures the final harmony "in the highest / ambience of diversity." Sphere is an unwieldy, absorbing, "abstract" poem; both its ambition and accomplishment are rare, and remind that
if you do everything with
economy and attention, the work itself will take on
essentialities of the inevitable, and you will be, if causing,
participating in grace. (p. 432)
J. D. McClatchy, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1975.