Ammons, A(rchie) R(andolph) 1926–
An American poet in the romantic tradition of Emerson and Whitman, Ammons won the National Book Award in 1973 for Collected Poems. Originally from rural North Carolina, Ammons in his best poetry examines the relationship between nature and humanity. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
"When Whitman said 'O Pioneers'"—observed F. Scott Fitzgerald—"he said all." With Fitzgerald the cry had already become a groan, but the American urge to "sing possible/changes/that might redeem," in A. R. Ammons's words, proves stubborn, and our writers' wagons can still be heard heading out of town, creaking for joy. If not toward a greater America then toward "eternal being," or "heterocosm joyous," they make their dauntless way. The Romantic dream of returning at dawn "wet/to the hips with meetings" is quite dead in England, but our own Ammons and W. S. Merwin, among others, are out without their long boots. Like the more troubled Pound, Stevens and Williams before them, like Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, they are poets of a possibly redeeming change, a change sought in what Emerson called "an original relation to the universe."
At the start, Ammons and Merwin were like brothers out in the same field, and when Ammons began his "Hymn" with "I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth/and go on … into the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark," the words, the very style, might have come from either poet. But Ammons was always, as it were, the older brother—more moderate, hanging behind, less eager for "far resolutions." And while Merwin has run on toward "the decimal of being," Ammons has turned back. Once oblique, prophetic, isolate, cloud-browsed, he has become almost folksy. "Redemptions despise the reality," he observes, disapprovingly, and says: "I expect to promote good will and difficult/clarities: I'm tired of bumfuzzlement and bafflement."
Ammons's new "good will" is Romantic, but so democratic, so accepting, so rationalized, that it is almost casual: he is in no haste at all to hitch his wagon to a star. He now seeks "the good of all in the good of each." As for his "difficult" clarity, it is chiefly the "unmendably integral" connection of everything to everything else in the universe. "Touch the universe anywhere and you touch it/everywhere." What survives of his pared Romanticism is the seed-choked belief that "nothing is separate."… Ammons has gone on to develop … explicitly, laboriously, abstractly, the concept of reality as a great fugue, a holy unity. This concept is, as he says, the "mysticism" of modern science, the radiance glimpsed in the cooperative lives of a cell as well as in the long reach of the galaxies (which are directly accountable, observes this science, for the inertia of matter—for such calm as there is—in all the other galaxies). Nothing is separate. Nothing is even different, at the core: there the universal unit, the "nervous atom," "spins and shines unsmirched." Still, "having/been chastened to the irreducible," Ammons says, "I have found the/irreducible bountiful." There are "many rafts to ride and the tides make a place to go."
In colonizing for poetry the structural models of science, Ammons has become an intellectual's Whitman, afoot with a laboratory vision that, for all its abstract vocabulary, and however palely, he lectures and tweaks into poetry. Between the hieratic Romanticism of Pound, Stevens and Merwin and the "nude" Romanticism of Whitman, he takes a place near W. C. Williams, his language more textbooky but his procedures more open. Because his "idealism's as thin as the sprinkled/sky and...
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nearly as expansive," one can move about freely in his sensibility; it is neither frost nor frolic. The appeal of this new, pulled-up Romanticism is its levelness, including the way it constantly levels with the reader. The cold hand of science has taken the fever out of this prophet's brow: he just chats intelligently, on and on, happy with the scheme of things, wanting you to be happy, too.
With his "most open suasion," his desire for an "open form" that offers "room enough for everything to find/its running self-concisions and expansions, its way," Ammons has created a new poetic structure: the poem as democratic continuum. Where Whitman's numbered sections are new breaths, new embraces, Ammons's are artificial overlays on a non-stop monologue that keeps pace with the "progressing/motions" of the universe. Random, flexible, this "Form of a Motion" will turn in mid-line from, say, the "plenitude of nothingness" among galaxies to the "neck-nicking walk" of pheasants, or the United Nations, or a visit with the poet Philip Booth—turn as amiably and unanxiously as the universe itself includes the microbe and the Milky Way, being an intermediary to all. With its "full freightages of recalcitrance," "Sphere" means to be a vision "gravid" with reality, a vision of the contrarieties and reconciliations of the very motions of being.
One of those modern poems that pose in front of a mirror, "Sphere" talks repeatedly about itself, betraying hopes that it fails to fulfill. It tells us we may "dip in anywhere," which is true, but also that "the poem reaches a stillness which is its form," which is true indeed of most poems, but not of poems that let you "dip in anywhere." The "mutual magnetisms" between the manifold elements of the poems are as weak as Ammons's idealism—weak as a direct consequence of the theoretical securities, the abstractness, of that idealism. The "harmony" … simply fails to appear. There is only the continuity of Ammons's language, its "flexible path," and the telling and retelling of his intellectual beads: motion, multeity, diversity, form, nothingness, stayings, changes, radiality, etc. And how could it be otherwise in a poet, so given to ratiocination, to explicit "suasion"? (p. 2)
Having sacrificed the dramatic, having dieted and professed his Romanticism, having drained off all but a wetting of the implicit, Ammons has left almost everything to his intelligence, the crispness of his language, the geniality of his tone, and the greatness of his subject, his reasonable approach to Romantic "spirituality." If the result is the "open" American counterpart of the closed Augustan verse essay—equally an essay—still in this reader's palm, at first weighing, it feels major. Though it has nothing of the feat about it it has scope, is original and blandly imposing. And to his linear discourse Ammons gives just enough "jangling dance" to shock "us to attend the moods of lips." Although almost nothing in the poem moves or ravishes, almost everything interests and holds—holds not least because it tests, and find thin, the spiritual satisfactions available in being a conscious part of a universe afloat in nothingness. The talk is not desperate but, by and large, is just talk. The subject is not really in Ammons as the kind of happiness that threatens to swell into a yelp or surf onto silence. But Romanticism has always been in trouble; dissatisfaction is its nature; Ammons is doing what he can. (p. 3)
Calvin Bedient, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 22, 1974.
Diversifications … gracefully extends [Ammons'] ongoing achievement. There are no new departures here, but there are poems that join all but the heights of previous Ammons. Consistently an Emersonian, Ammons writes in a ceaseless dialectic of ethos or Fate struggling with pathos or Power, and is triumphant in the sparse but wonderful syntheses of Freedom that emerge in new poems like "Narrows," "Ballad," "The Unmirroring Peak," and most clearly in "Pray Without Ceasing," the longer, incantatory poem that ends the book with a chilled but assured comfort: "pray without ceasing: /we found hailstones in the grass/and ate them to cool:/spurred stones/with interior milkwhite halos,/an arrested spangling:/the high hard water/melted/aching our tongues." (pp. 24-5)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 29, 1975.
In the poetry of A. R. Ammons water is thicker than blood. He can devote a poem to the sinuous, sinewy course of a stream, he conveys the various musical qualities of snow melting from the roof and raindrops after a storm breaking out "at a thousand quiet/points." Water, like spirit, can stand for the real speech of nature, the expression the poet wants to catch in his poetry. This fluidity resembles the fluency of Ammons' best work: it flows, quick and slippery, or it meanders with broad sweeps till it moves to a majestic estuary, joining with the limitless ocean.
The language of the poems floats the reader through Ammons' experiences though he is careful to suggest that words are only traps and nets. Things are merely themselves…. But beyond the words is spirit, essence, the sound of words, that music which "by the motion of/its motion/resembles/what, moving, is." And motion announces life, the stretch and tension in and between things, the polarities: "the poet, too, moving and/saying through the scary opposites to death."
These references to water, motion and the relation of poetry to them are all brought into play at the end of his gossipy aesthetic credo, "Essay on Poetics," where Ammons quotes a section from a scientific article on the life of an estuary which emphasizes a kind of border region between salt and fresh water: the creatures are subject to the dangers of changes upsetting the balance between salt and fresh. Ammons sees that seething amphibious life with the imminence of sudden catastrophe as beautiful…. (p. 92)
Such an approach to poetry certainly has its own risks and possibilities. To look at all the diversities within nature, to generalize a philosophy to embrace the one and the many, to abstract thought from an observing eye that focusses haphazardly, such a poetry can lose itself in mere reportage of the wonders of nature or bog down in wordy philosophic discussion. Yet Ammons can take a limitless focus (and his poems, though they are finished, nearly always suggest an openness, as if the poetic spirit could continue to fix on other aspects of the subject he is writing about), indulge in digression, simply because all the multeity of existence has some place within his scheme of looking: "I think what I see: the designs are there. I use/words to draw them out." So there is an urge towards inclusiveness within a big poetic form in his poetry and, in a sense, to read through the Collected Poems is to immerse oneself in one long rambling discursive poem. Everything opens out—the book becomes a large form in which the mind can travel around, and just as a small creek changes, is diverted, flows fast and slow, widens to reach out to the sea, so the impulse behind Ammons' work is a continuing motion. For him, this urge in his poetry is to establish a central radiance (one of his favourite words) that shines at the centre beyond all this fiddle with words and detail: "the progression is from sound and motion to silence and/rest."
Such a poetic mission leads into all kinds of paradoxes: a piling up of detail may simply offer detail and nothing else, or it may lead to large abstractions, and it is difficult for the poet to define what is central or irrelevant if the poetry tries to include a mass of detail to stress diversity. It requires the reader to allow himself to be taken into the poet's confidence, as he presents the designs he sees…. The poetry becomes a mutual process of evolving from the poet's vision transformed into words that go two ways: defining and "sailing over." That accounts for the unique tone of Ammons' language—the large abstractions side by side with meticulous exactness of detail, the sudden lurches into colloquialisms to buttonhole the reader, and his conversations with living things in nature. He speaks directly to trees and mountains, to himself and to the reader. All is an ongoing flux, a method that found its way into his first book-length poem Tape for the Turn of the Year, in which Ammons found an almost perfect method to allow his notion of organic form to function…. Tape is just such a poem; the poet involved with his own life transfers that involvement to the adding maching tape he has threaded into his type-writer, a tape he will continue to write on until it is finished. So he transcribes his life, his ideas, his domesticities, his chagrin at the unwritten life of the tape lying rolled and untouched, cheating a little here and there, trying to find his muse on dead days, reporting directly, until the reader is caught within the process…. The lived poem will continue, so the mutual lives of poet and reader move on within the poem and outside the poem. Ammons in this poem succeeds splendidly, and the fundamental image of time around which the tape twines itself is a particularly effective one: the turn of the year, the new evolving from the old as the tape turns in the machine to unravel itself into a new poem.
No such wedding of form and content occurs in Ammons' latest long poem, Sphere: The Form of a Motion. The looseness that Ammons believes in derives here from the use of a form the poet has tried before…. [It is] written in three- or four-line stanzas, sometimes split into sections containing three or four stanzas, though there seems to be nothing definite about such paragraphing, running on as they do indiscriminately, often with no periods. Breathing space is provided by commas and colons only. Such a form fits snugly into Ammons' concern with flux and motion, and yet somehow the form seems too arbitrary…. Ammons has imposed a form but tried to free it from too rigorous a fixity, so that his usual digressions, his direct colloquialisms, his sudden switches into the common details of his domestic life find a place within this form, stitched within his generalizations about the one: many problem that is at the root of his ideas. But this form does not have the implicit rightness of Tape; its very looseness militates against the idea of a kind of order within diversity that the poem attempts to express. It does not give the sense of being an inherent part of the idea itself, whereas in Tape the form arises naturally within the process of the poem.
Right at the beginning of the poem Ammons sounds the theme of the cycles of creation, with death providing life for others, so that the polarities are an integral part of the process of living. (pp. 92-5)
Obviously such themes as energy and motion need the kind of open form Ammons has always attempted to find, but this one tends to straggle on, crossing over the boundaries of the stanzas, though no real unity comes across by means of the stanzaic pattern. But for the most part another structure manages to zipper the parts together. In each long ten-to twenty-stanza section, three items are repeated, so that a kind of parallelism operates.
Firstly, each section devotes itself to an idea which Ammons introduces by generalization or scientific precept. Secondly, he works the idea through by example. (pp. 95-6)
Each large section of the poem … coheres around some specific detail, and these, for me, are the memorable parts of the poem….
By such a method does Ammons move the separate portions of the poem to unity, for each large section of the poem veers into these specifics from a main generalization or abstract thought. Besides these two parallelisms, a third reference crops up in each section, a reference to the question of poetry's place in the cosmic motion. (p. 96)
Obviously, all these parallels and interconnections make for an interesting poem, though those abstractions and the stanzaic sloppiness constantly distract the reader from this vision of an energetic and expansive universe mirrored in the poem itself. Sphere will not replace Tape as the definitive long Ammons poem, but then Ammons has no interest in being definitive. As a poet he will continue to risk as many of his own poetic possibilities as are inherent in the motions of poetry itself, and I, for one, will look forward to his next volume, watching him "lean in or with or against the ongoing." (p. 97)
Peter Stevens, "Risks and Possibilities: The Poetry of A. R. Ammons," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1975 by The Ontario Review, Fall-Winter 1975–76, pp. 92-7.
Two things appear to be gaining ground in poetry. One of these is a fascination with the use of ritual. The other attempts what Paul Léataud calls in his journals "writing well by writing badly". Both turn up together in the later sections of Sphere.
The two are opposed in many ways. Treated as techniques, one is a controlling device, the other (if it represents more than a paradox, and I think it does) is a way of moving away from control at least temporarily. (p. 352)
In the early sections of Sphere Ammons uses rituals that are close to domestic habits, the familiar work patterns of the writer, and what goes on about him…. In the later sections the movement of the poem follows the "jangling dance" by which "Enlil became a god and ruled/the sky …". The rituals are part of a ceremony with cosmic significance carried out on the earth floor among ruins: "I want my ruins sanctioned into the artifice of ruins …".
A ritual dance is nothing if not formally structured, but close to the section I have quoted Ammons takes up the second theme:
… I don't know about you, but I'm sick of good poems, all those little rondures splendidly brought off, painted gourds on a shelf: give me the dumb, debilitated, nasty, and massive, if that's the alternative….
In a certain mood of impatience I can imagine almost any reader saying "yes" to that. But, in the first place the statement begs an almighty question—what is this "good poem" we agree to damn (Ammons hardly gives us an identikit portrait of one). In the second place, we are being forced into an either/or situation that is neither good sense nor good rhetoric ("Do you want your meat burnt or raw?"—I can think immediately of better choices). (pp. 352-53)
The attempt to include everything and to write on through bad and good regardless until you "write right", brings up at once the question of form. The search for a kind of "formless form" that gives a setting for experience, ideas, etc., without displaying them as nature morte—… has been an obsession in almost all the arts in the past seventy years. It is the subject of several poems in Ammons's Collected Poems: Summer Session…, Poetics, Essay on Poetics, and, most subtly and effectively, Corsons Inlet.
But there is nothing hidden or disguised about the form in Sphere, and the rigidity makes for difficulties over and over again….
There is another difficulty and that is the division of voices. Well over half the poem is written in the relaxed and casual voice of the poet as our familiar who ruminates over many things, most of them close to home. The ruminating is nothing if not low key. (p. 353)
Even the radical changes in Collected Poems—from high flying voice to lingo/vocative/colloquial, back to high flying voice again—do not prepare us for the voice of the poetavate who emerges in the later sections of Sphere. The Whitmanesque overtones are acknowledged and they result in passages that would be memorable in isolation—the complaint against the readers, the invitation to everyone to write poetry—but there are very obvious signs of strain and the transition from one voice to another is unnatural.
Problems of form and voice tend to emphasize something I find more disappointing than either, something I have touched on already. Certainly it is not the long, discursive, and philosophizing poem as such that I am judging, but the quality of thought in this particular poem…. Some of the longer poems in Ammons's Collected Poems are paradoxically fuller, as well as better realized, than Sphere. (p. 354)
Michael Mott, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1976.
[There is a] kind of nature poetry, rooted in times when most towns were small and many highly intellectual poets were rusticated for one reason or another, that has returned during this century in often rather baffling, footloose guise. Its shaping ritual is the walk, the climb, the trip, and the voyage, actions lending themselves all too easily to a vaporous abstraction.
A. R. Ammons began his career as the latter sort in full eclectic spate. The plot of his best poems of the Fifties and early Sixties before he started teaching at Cornell was largely a swift, sometimes brilliantly executed play of disjointed perceptions fleshing out a very private psychodrama. Charming and appealing digressions there were, to which I'll return. But the dominant voice seemed to have been sired on The Duino Elegies by an Emerson, a Dickinson transsexed, a Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, or Roethke—all the intoxicated solipsists of an age that requires such minds to fabricate their own plots, to expect little aid from tradition. Recently, though, with admirable recklessness and uneven results, he has been remaking himself closer to the Frost or Hardy model. Joining the academy just when its boom times were passing, assuming its by now well known and often dramatized responsibilities, he gave his existence a new visibility not unlike Frost's out there "north of Boston," a life gently freighted with old solemnities, not too far and not too near.
So much for the gains. Now the difficulties. Readers of his newest long poems, "Extremes and Moderations," "Essay on Poetics," "Hibernaculum," and especially Sphere: The Form of a Motion—a rambling, confiding, button-holing poem of 155 12-line sections—will know what they are. In Sphere Mr. Ammons makes a grand broken field run and a curious performance it is. To dodge about and reach a point not already plotted for him by one or more of the imposing exegetes lured to his earlier work by its obvious need for exegesis required some fancy footwork. You can think of Ammons as a sort of country-and-southern Prometheus nailed down on Cayuga Heights (above Ithaca!) by the Zeus of respectability, tormented by the eagle of higher criticism in the shape of Harold Bloom. Or, what seems more likely, you can detect in all his recent work clear notes of irreverence mixed with affection and amusement toward the gaudier theories of his friends. (pp. 49-50)
Ammons is cooler, more reflective, absorptive, and self-contained than [James] Dickey ever was and in him the Southeast may be making one last convulsive effort to put its message across; namely, that throughout its now expiring century of gothic, baroque, and neoclassical flamboyance it was secretly nurturing a middleness, an ordinary absolute center-cut Americanness, second to none. Faulkner's Ratliff and Horace Benbow suggested as much, so did the Faulknerian humor; but the message was ambiguous. Sphere, however, is not; it's an amiable but firm rejection of any highstrung ideologue's project for Ammons' apotheosis either as a sainted solitary or as a panurgic prophet of spiritual democracy. One must salute him for braving the pitfalls of such an operation—occasional forcings of tone, unwitting smugness, sententiousness, cuteness, blague. Denis Donoghue thinks he has isolated the problem by conceiving it to be formal, by accusing the poet of surrendering to an American mania for mere size, for imagining that a few dozen short poems strung end to end might make a qualitative leap into grandeur. But the fact that Ammons is keenly aware of such objections, has worked them into the poem, seems to indicate that he had no choice. The American atmosphere forced him into the optative mood—maybe these topics and digressions would make the orbicular leap, maybe if the poet's heart were pure enough a trip around his head would emerge as a mystic sphere. No choice in any case but to try.
Let me suppose for the rest of this review that a kind of intractable confusion may be the real entelechy, the formal and final end, of Dickey and Ammons who began so suavely and self-assured. And that we should make of it what we can and not waste time advising them to return and seek their lost innocence. Harold Bloom, always generous when his feelings are stirred, is prepared to call Ammons "great" but at the price of sternly reproving him for swerving from the path of Whitmanlike prophecy that his Emersonian instincts, again according to Bloom, fatally marked out for him. "Ammons has got to learn to be a different kind of poet than he was, and he is still in the process of learning that this different kind will return him to origins again, though with a more exacting music than he set out to bring into being." And why should he do this? Because he had early discovered a way to be transcendental and modern at the same time, by identifying the true American Sublime as the Void, by projecting the lyric pain of this discovery in a new species of Counter-Sublime. Like a man always seen going beautifully downhill. Which, Bloom finds, is quite in keeping with the "disastrous" times and makes Ammons the very latest of his cherished late-comers. The poems he chooses as the most telling expression of such counter-prophecy—"Corson's Inlet," "Saliences," "Gravelly Run," "Guide," "Bridge," "Peak," and the lovely passage in "Hibernaculum" that begins "… to lean belief the lean word comes,/each scope adjusted to the plausible:"—are the right poems for his thesis.
Still, one must pause to ask if in his zeal to consecrate only this high-tragical, philosophical Ammons Bloom may not be reserving too much drama to himself and making it too neat. There are facetious or whimsical notes in all but a very few poems that set us on our guard. Also many fine poems that don't cast so much as a glance at these elevations. Maybe Bloom should ask himself whether, if Emerson is the fountainhad of our poetry, we ought not to read as Emersonically as the sage's descendants write, with the same hospitality toward wide swings of mood and purpose, with the same dexterity in matching tone to technique, form to theme. (In formal variety Emerson's own poetry is as "romantically" unstable as Byron's. Sometimes he sounds like Plotinus arranged for a German village band, sometimes, as in the beautiful "Threnody" on the death of his son, like a pure-bred Metaphysical.)
My guess would be that it is neither Emerson nor Whitman (certainly not Whitman) that Ammons is currently undermining but a too portentous Idol of the Tribe called Poetry which, in some of its current academic investitures—subtlety piled on subtlety like the shawls of an Eastern princess—has become a real spook. Bloom is a great potentate who having been given an eloquent nightingale sends it out to be gilded and fitted with a clock-work larynx.
As a matter of act, Ammons' poems had already begun to group themselves into thematic clusters a good while before he began writing long poems in earnest. To my mind it's the interplay between these clusters that gives Ammons his chief vitality. (pp. 50-2)
Even Bloom acknowledges that this poet was never a naive visionary. Rather, a rueful, sportive, lyrical civil engineer, a musical geo-physician. Who would want to scuttle his prose sense of this transmogrifier of our prosiest disciplines, when he offers so novel a mixture of the contemplative and the suburban-saturnine, makes of "Extremes and Moderations" a pungent ecological fable, turns aside to tell us how to drain a swamp or dig a well, how to pick pears so the branches won't jerk the best ones out of reach, who above all is one of the most accomplished celebrators of the seasonal backyard drama since the great Alfred Lawn Tennyson himself? Rarely dropping his role as homme moyen américain Ammons can flourish a vocabulary of "saliences" and "suasions," motions, forces, and forms in mountain, wind, brook, and tree, with no missionary intent to substitute his vocabulary for ours. If he shaped his normally elegant style from examples of Williams, Marianne Moore, Dickinson, Cummings, Dickey, Roethke, or Merwin, he also aspires to their modesty.
Transplanted from the relative solitude of North Carolina to the goldfish prominence of Cornell, he issued a lowbrow poetics to balance the high, a Leopold Bloom to enliven the Harold. (pp. 53-4)
Diversifications features 65 new poems, most quite short, and two showpieces, "Three Travelogues" and the 19-page "Pray Without Ceasing." Its general effect is of the usual charm, of compactness, assurance, good-humored summary and mild second thoughts. Most of the poems seem thrown off in the intervals of harder work…. "Three Travelogues" is another handsome syncretic exercise in auto-intoxication out in the boondocks, pregnant with phrases like "a white-sailed cloud's blue hull of rain."… It's too early to say much about "Pray Without Ceasing," a phantasmagoria or verbal happening wherein passages of characteristic eloquence or quiet elegance are answered by tormented newsreel episodes from the Vietnam war, with frantic doodling, demented witticisms, and grim premonitions. My shaky opinion is that he had very little new to say about the poem's ostensible subject, or else put thought aside and ruffed like a grouse, spread like a peacock or cobra. The time of mutation is not yet, not for him, not for us. (pp. 55-6)
R. W. Flint, "The Natural Man," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1976, pp. 49-56.
Those who first became acquainted with the work of A. R. Ammons by reading his more recent poetry have probably been surprised by looking back to the early poems reprinted in his Collected Poems: 1951–71. A large number of the poems dated between the years 1951 and 1955 … do not seem to be characteristic of his mature work. Ammons has set these poems in a grim, at times overtly Gothic, world of death, shame, grief, and unexplained loss, and he has centered them around gestures of mysterious impotence or failure. (p. 67)
The landscape that haunts these early poems is less Ammons' native rural South than it is the ancient Near East. It is the landscape of Sumerian mythology, to which these poems abound in reference. Its God is unapproachable, and its earth is one of dust, sand, wind, and desert. One feels that the landscape is burdened with a timelessness that is stifling to the creatures of time; in it, apocalyptic transformation, though yearned for, is inconceivable…. Ammons' early poems abound in examples of failed heroes and seers.
Ammons' lyric voice in his early poetry is that of a seer who has no social or individual characteristics but is instead a presence of more than ordinary awareness and longing. The seer, moreover, is one who has lost or never securely had a saving message or special revelation; one could say that he is the creation of a Christian sensibility which had lost its faith in the "good news" of the New Testament and had delved back into the eschatological pessimism of the older Jews and Sumerians. The poems begin as the seer enters their largely mythic landscapes, unlocated in place and historical time. They begin with statements that have biblical and visionary overtones, such as "I went out to the sun," "Turning from the waterhole I said Oh," "I came in a dark woods upon/an ineffaceable difference," or "I came upon a plateau." The seer then moves through the mysteriously, often whimsically, often ominously changing landscape into encounters with gods or phantasmagora that are intentionally and suggestively indefinite. Though magically capable of extraordinary movement ("So I left and walked up into the air"), the seer is curiously unfree, damned to failure in an indeterminate quest ("How shall I/coming from these fields/water the fields of the earth/and I said Oh,/and fell down in the dust"), or to protracted wanderings, or to a quest for failure that ends without attainment of self-annihilation…. (pp. 68-9)
Ammons' early work … seems to lie far afield from the poetry that leads immediately up to "Corson's Inlet" and then into his major long poems; it seems to have little to do with Ammons' reputation as an Emersonian "nature poet." Though the distance between the absoluteness of the early poems and the speculative liveliness of the later work is great, the change is by no means arbitrary. Ammons' achievement has been to relativize and multiply the absolute for the sake of imaginative survival and the promise of a nearly unlimited intellectual growth. He abandons the seer of the early poems for an astonishing variety of inventions of voices and personae, the variety of which becomes clear only as one surveys a large number of poems. Ammons humanizes the seer and gives him specific identities. Though Ammons compromises thereby the absoluteness of his visionary quest, though he absorbs more of the imperfect properties and knowledges of time, he is imaginatively freer within these limitations. He has consciously humbled himself to accept an object, imperfect earthly nature, for his now controlled but always resurgent longings.
In doing this, Ammons begins to expand his work in two directions. He brings it closer to the American commonplace, and he opens it to a broad eclectism of knowledge and wisdom. He enters, in short, the mainstream of American visionary poetry. The poetry after Ommateum gradually reveals the extent of and the principal sources for Ammons' spiritual eclecticism. Behind the bulk of it (the only major exception being perhaps Tape for the Turn of the Year) lies a varied use of Greek thought, the lonian nature philosophy that is the point of origin of Western science, and a personalized use of ideas and terminology that comes from Eastern thought, ultimately Laotse, named by Ammons as his "philosophical source in its most complete version." Most of Ammons' mature writings—in idea and strategy—are made up of his interweaving of these separate sources, and their union is like the union of compensatory opposites. Ammons' juxtaposition of intellectual speculations with his references to emptiness or the void, his virtuosic capacity to give precise though fluid form to idea and perception coupled with his repeated attainment, within the rapid flow of his verse, of moments of stillness or serenity reveal how he has united his two very different sources. (p. 70)
Most immediately striking in the poetry dated in the Collected Poems between 1956 and 1966 is the great variety of voices and lyric selves that Ammons has created. Sly or serious inquirer, chanter, celebrant, country skeptic, diarist, observer, reasoner: the speakers range in utterance from the formal, hortatory, or celebrative Whitmanian chanter of songs to the wry, ironic doubter of prophecy. Ammons often addresses the reader directly, rupturing the absoluteness of the early lyrics. Sometimes, he will address the reader's soul with Whitmanian urgency, and sometimes he will appeal to the reader's interests and sympathies in a breezily chatty manner. (p. 71)
Ammons' main interest, as it emerges from the variety of his middle poems, is in the realm of the changing in nature and its accessibility to the mind. Ammons discovers two complementary approaches to this theme. The most familiar is Ammons' remarkable ability to rationalize process into flowing order and to make it intelligible by means of the Ionian concepts of the one and the many. This is a realm of intellection at which Ammons is an unparalleled master. Ammons presents his "one" as ungraspable, not to be fully thought or experienced; he sees experience of it as a destruction of self. The world short of the one is the human realm. In it, Ammons exercises the full play of his mind; he brings the world of multiplicity into changing orders by means of an intellectual resourcefulness which is as fluid and undogmatic as natural process. It is not logical reasoning, but an underlying motion in the mind which parallels, precariously, the motions of things. (p. 72)
The less familiar strain in Ammons' poetry is a mode that is not of motion and the mind, but of an underlying receptivity in both the cosmos and man. Ammons sees this receptivity as something prior to identity or self; it is his version of Taoist emptiness or void. In the cosmos, the void contains process, and, in the person, the void is a cultivation of inner stillness and receptivity…. Ammons argues that the poem, as well as the self and cosmos, has an inner stillness and vacancy. It is a wholeness accessible even where the mind in motion fails to attain the one, rebuffed by the provisionality of its orders. It is the stillness against which the provisionality of motion has meaning and form. Ammons makes explicit the fact that these two modes coexist as parallels in his imagination in his poem "Two Motions."
The justifiably well-known poem "Corson's Inlet" integrates rather than juxtaposes, as does "Two Motions," these modes of imagination. The poet's active mind is no longer animated into motion by an external wind, but is completely in his possession, and it is fused with the full acceptance that "Overall is beyond me," an acceptance that, fully realized, yields "serenity." The poem is a walk and thus a mixture of the active and the passive, not a voyage or a nonvoyage, the opposing terms of "Two Motions." The fact that it is a casual walk, yet a walk for meditative discovery, locates it somewhere between the uniqueness and goal-directedness of a quest and a passive vacancy of receptivity to its surroundings. In a walk, one loiters and absorbs as much as one attempts to get anywhere; in a repeated, daily walk, this passive absorbtiveness is emphasized. Ammons' controlling idea in the poem is active. It is the mind's ever recrudescent and expanding capacity to "fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder," to combat increasing entropy. (pp. 72-4)
The "freedom" of "Corson's Inlet" is the unfinished quality of nature and of vision. The poem balances subtlety in order with a maximum of possibility, and this balance of order and possibility allows the experience of freedom. (pp. 74-5)
In Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons takes the wisdom of "Corson's Inlet" as far into the American commonplace as one could wish. A long, skinny poem, written on an adding machine tape that Ammons found at a home and garden supply store, it extends through several hundred pages and a five-week period of time his achievement of freedom within time, his precarious balance of continuum and surprise.
Ammons bases his Tape upon an affectionate parody of the Odyssey. He relocates the epic story to a diary-like account of his passage through a little over a month's time, and he breaks the voyage of Odysseus up into a series of internal and external side-trips or forays and encounters with daily eventualities or accidents. Like Odysseus, Ammons has a destination, a home he seeks; this is one of the main themes of the poem. With wonderfully disguised slyness, Ammons seeks another Ithaca, as he is waiting to hear about a job offer from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. The theme of homecoming itself is, however, far more complex. The opening sections of the poem announce it as a story of "how/a man comes home/from haunted/lands and transformations" to an "acceptance of his place/and time." The poem thus becomes, in theme and in overall form, the attainment of a way of "going along with this/world as it is." Ammons' resources are those of "Corson's Inlet," active intellection and receptive wisdom; the goal of his quest can also be put in the terms of "Corson's Inlet" as the continuing and ever unfinished attainment of a partial humanization of nature and naturalization of the imagination. (p. 75)
The Tape is … set in the mid-world of "Corson's Inlet," a world whose visibility and clarity of form is rooted in the active knowledge of Greek philosophy and receptive wisdom of Taoism. Something that is specific to the Tape, however, is an expansion of Ammons' religious and philosophical eclecticism. More than in any other poem, save perhaps the most recent long poem, Sphere, Ammons suspends this mid-world in darkness, a darkness out of which the clarity of fact emerges with the same attained sweetness as invests the "natural light" attained at the end of the atypical poem "Bridge." (pp. 76-7)
The Tape is Ammons' essential poem of America. Whereas some of the poems prior to "Corson's Inlet" echo Whitman's mode directly and with remarkable success, the Tape is both highly personalized and rich in indirect echoes. Ammons writes it as a song of myself, a self, however, empiricized and provincialized. Though the poet remains the representative man and the poem is a poem of America, the poet and poem attain this status through their provinciality and smallness or homeliness of delineation. (p. 79)
Ammons' long poems since Tape for the Turn of the Year—the major ones are "Essay on Poetics," "Extremes and Moderations," "Hibernaculum," and the book-length poem Sphere: The Form of a Motion and a comparatively minor, but sheerly delightful one is "Summer Session"—make use of the continuous form of the Tape, but alter its import and effect in a number of ways. (p. 80)
Ammons' change in mode signifies an important development away from the Tape; it is a slight push away from his former attempt to naturalize the imagination and toward an attempt to assert the autonomous freedom of the imagination. Ammons explicitly avoids a complete liberation from nature, however; the distinction is an important and subtle one. At one point, early in the poem, Ammons writes "what this is about," the "'gathering/in the sky' so to speak, the trove of mind, tested/experience, the only place to stay … the holy bundle of/the elements of civilization, the Sumerians said." This "gathering in the sky" is akin to the Heavenly City and the ungrasped Overall of Ammons' earlier poems, though it is now no longer a destruction. It is "impossibly difficult"; it is an ideal that guides human action, inaccessible, nonexistent in a literal sense, but nevertheless an ideal to be striven for. (pp. 80-1)
[In "Essay on Poetics"] Ammons builds a model of the ideal poem which serves as the "symbolical representation of the ideal organization, whether/the cell, the body politic, the business, the religious/group, the university, computer, or whatever." "Ideal" means a level of abstraction from nature and not what constitutes nature; as an ideal, it is something nonexistent but which guides human striving.
To understand just how poetry forms a model for the ideal organization necessitates some reference to the controlling image for the "Essay," an image that comes from the field of cybernetics. Ammons' new form of conceptualization and thus partial humanization of nature involves transforming nature into information bits: this transformation means first an act of abstraction and second a kinetic act of relation of the parts. Ammons reworks the model of order and entropy he used in "Corson's Inlet" into the model of cybernetics. It is a cooler and a higher-speed model, and this determines a change in the tone of the verse. Interpreting physical processes now in terms of conceptual processes, rather than in terms of "laws of nature" which are prior to and perhaps antagonistic to those that govern mental processes, Ammons has made a subtle change in both the mode and the vision of his poetry. His abstraction of reality into information-bits is precarious, and "language must/not violate the bit, event, percept, /fact—the concrete—otherwise the separation that means/the death of language shows"; how precarious this is, and how impotent we are to control the processes consciously, is illustrated by Ammons' meditation on the word "true." The word "true," related etymologically to "tree" and therefore the elm tree of the essay, itself physically composed of more "bits" than the mind can handle, is shown to contain greater resonance and rootage of meaning than a logical mind can comprehend. Not in logic then, but only in poetry, a medium capable of dealing with greater complexity in motion, is abstraction possible. To accomplish this end, poetry has, for one thing, the capacity for illusion, as it can heighten "by dismissing reality." Once the bits are abstracted, they are immediately, as a part of that abstraction, brought into relational motion: both speed in motion and intellectual virtuosity are essential, as one can see from Ammons' stunning printout of variations on William Carlos Williams' "no ideas but in things." If Ammons should stop on any word, "language gives way;/melting through, and reality's cold murky waters/accept the failure." Just as computers in action retain information by rapid electronic circulation of it, so Ammons' verse retains its meaning in its mobility. (pp. 82-3)
The ideal is a maximum of unity without distortion or suppression of any of the bits. Poetry is the highest model: it has resources beyond those of computers. (p. 83)
We are back again in Greece and China in the long poems in Collected Poems, the themes of which are intellection and the quieting or giving up that represents wisdom. A familiar technique of the "Essay" and of the later poems generally is something that echoes classic American silent films. Ammons will multiply information, pour more into the poem than a rational analysis is capable of, will then, if an explosion of nonsense is not the result, recover himself with a gesture of giving up that returns the mind, suddenly, to integration. After multiplying the considerations that make it impossible to ever determine the location of the elm in his backyard, let alone say anything about its inner structure, Ammons falls back into a wonderful self-recovery that also recovers the wholeness of the elm:
I am just going to take it for granted that the tree is in my backyard: it's necessary to be quiet in the hands of the marvelous: (pp. 83-4)
Frederick Buell, "'To Be Quiet in the Hands of the Marvelous': The Poetry of A. R. Ammons," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1977, by The University of Iowa), Winter, 1977, pp. 67-84.