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A(rchie) R(andolph) Ammons 1926–
Because of his poetic adaptation of natural forces, forms, and phenomena in the American landscape, some critics consider Ammons, more so than Whitman, the fulfillment of Emerson's call for an American bard.
Although his first book, Ommateum with Doxology, was a commercial and critical failure, Ammons has since received much favorable recognition, including a National Book Award in 1973 for his Collected Poems: 1951–1971. Harold Bloom has stated that, "No contemporary poet, in America, is likelier to become a classic than A. R. Ammons…."
Remarkably prolific, Ammons has produced three new volumes of poetry (The Snow Poems, A Coast of Trees, and Worldy Hopes) and two collections of selected poems in the past five years.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 8, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
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When A. R. Ammons goes wrong, I think the problem is primarily one of voice. At his best, he is an objective poet who speculates on the nature of reality and its possible underpinnings. There is an observer present in such poems, to be sure, but his explicit role is a small one. Ammons is at his best when he most follows Emerson's inspired standard: "I become a transparent eyeball." In such cases, little or no attention is drawn to the speaker-observer. In The Snow Poems, however, all attention is consciously directed at the speaking character himself, and this fact accounts, I think, for the book's monumental failure. Good confessional poetry achieves its success by drawing on the tensions, neuroses, and self-destructive impulses of the poet's own life. Judging from The Snow Poems, Ammons lives an altogether too sane and ordinary life for him to operate successfully in this mode. The book has the form of a versified journal in which Ammons talks endlessly about the weather and professional football. The forms are pedestrian, as if the author's prose diary entries had simply been broken into lines. Occasionally, the words that comprise the lines are further broken down into letters, so that we think we are reading concrete poetry [but] … it is not good concrete poetry either. (pp. 944-45)
Happily, Ammons' other recent volume, The Selected Poems 1951–1977, is more than good enough, although it does not begin on a particularly strong foot. The book is arranged chronologically, and so the first poems that we encounter are the Ezra poems from Ammons' first volume, Ommateum. The problem with the speaking voice mentioned above is once again present here, though in a different way. These poems are written not in the disastrous confessional voice of The Snow Poems, not in the objective-meditative voice of Ammons' best poems, but in the voice of the biblical figure, Ezra. One of the recent vogues in American poetry is the portentous mythic or pseudo-mythic poem which purports to give modern man sage advice drawn from a less complicated but more spiritually authentic time. We ought to be the wiser for having read such poems, and for a time perhaps we were. But the mode now seems predictable and obvious, even dated, and one longs to meet no more shaggy prophets bearing sonorous aphorisms from the loneliness of an empty desert. Ammons thus opens his second Selected Poems (the first appeared in 1968) in a common, conventionalized voice not characteristically his own.
Beginning somewhere around the twentieth page, however, we find ourselves in more comfortable surroundings. Ammons has been widely praised as an Emersonian Transcendentalist—optimistic, somewhat mystical, a lover of nature. The connection between the two writers is most certainly there, and does appear in these areas. What is equally—and perhaps more importantly—striking, but far less widely recognized, is the Platonic basis or bias of Ammons, which may again be traced to Emerson. At the beginning of the sixth section of his most famous work, "Nature," Emerson sends a seismic shock through his reader by asking—and this after describing and praising physical nature for five long and complicated sections—whether nature actually, that is, physically, exists. He concludes that probably nature does not outwardly exist, though, since we believe that we perceive it, we can proceed as though it does exist. At heart, Emerson is a Platonist—the ideal forms, the abstract, spiritual laws that lie behind the things of this world, are of greater reality and importance to him than the things of this world themselves. That is one reason, among others, why Emerson hired Thoreau to spade his garden, despite his own idealistic praise of gardening; and it is why he really preferred meditating in his study to going with Henry on nature walks.
In Ammons we find a deep and abiding love for nature constantly being expressed. But through it all, Ammons is always searching for the general within and behind the specific, for the abstract, spiritual laws that govern and actuate physical reality—and it is the abstract realm that most deeply engages his interest and attention. Where Emerson felt able to identify the spiritual principle behind reality as the Oversoul, Ammons—while convinced that some such thing exists—is unsure of its exact nature or identity. Thus he could accurately be called a speculative poet, as he openly pursues unseen reality through his poems. As he says in "Snow Log": "there's some intention / behind the snow snow's too shallow / to reckon with: I take it on myself."
The poem "One: Many" may be Ammons' fullest expression of this theme, and once again the perspective is decidedly Emersonian. Unity, he decides, cannot be imposed upon diversity from above…. Variety, and the freedom implicit in variety, are themselves aspects of the principle of unity. (pp. 945-46)
Elsewhere, Ammons is less complicated, in poems that praise and describe nature for what it is without searching out the principle of unity. Poems like "Cascadilla Falls," "Rectitude," "Eyesight," "Bonus," and especially the very remarkable "Jungle Knot" are supremely beautiful and rewarding works. It was wise of Ammons to follow the disaster of The Snow Poems so closely with the triumph of The Selected Poems 1951–1977. Our faith in his powers is restored. (p. 947)
Peter Stitt, "Book Reviews: 'The Snow Poems' and 'The Selected Poems 1951–1977'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 944-47 [the excerpt of Ammons's poetry used here was originally published in his The Selected Poems 1951–1977 (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.; copyright © 1977, 1975, 1974, 1972, 1971, 1970, 1966, 1965, 1964, 1955 by A. R. Ammons), Norton, 1977].
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After he has published a "major" collection, a poet can be excused for some time. A few may groan a little, but nobody will long lament if he never approximates that height again. They will think that you were lucky to have been there once. It would be still more rare for a poet, in the span of seven years, to follow two "major" collections with a third. But in his new book, The Snow Poems, that is exactly what A. R. Ammons has done. In Collected Poems: 1951–1971, in Sphere: The Form of a Motion, and in The Snow Poems this prolific poet shows no signs of letting up.
In an age when most poets have pulled in their claws to confront us with mushy, probing soft paws, Ammons comes at us with his talons bared, aiming at the Universal Heart. The man's drive is unique in that it does not produce bulk at the expense of quality. Few poets match his productivity or his level of excellence. When we sit down to Ammons we need never grieve about warmed leftovers. With a painter's eye for color and detail he writes about the things he sees. You will not catch him astride the dark merely imagining—he reports and imagines. This way, for the true poet, is the one way. The risks and rewards are infinitely greater. There are pitfalls, but they are overshadowed by sustained periods of unbridled flight. Even when Ammons stumbles, even when he makes mistakes, he is never sloppy or less than completely honest about himself. He appears to be riding the crest of a wave with no descent in sight. In that state of grace it looks as if he could go on forever.
The Snow Poems contains 119 poems in which an admirable craftsmanship is indisputable. But taken together the poems also read as one long poem. The sense of the book is best assimilated through this approach. It is refreshing to encounter a contemporary long poem that is not just another self-indulgent joke, another tedious and forgettable specimen of "literature." How tired we are of encountering poems in which there is nothing more substantial than random words on a page. The Snow Poems has little to do with such a tradition.
Ammons brings to his new work familiar concerns: the ongoing, minute examination of his inexhaustible world, the continual reduction and reconstruction of the Self. There are new wrinkles as well: encroaching middle age (the poet's fiftieth year) and the gradual deterioration of memory. All are linked together by the symbolic snow. It is an apt device that functions ably on two levels. There is the level that Melville pondered in the whiteness of the whale, the sacred, white dog of the Iroquois, the white bear of the polar ice, the white stallion of the plains. "This elusive quality it is," Ishmael says, "which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds." For Ammons the "object terrible in itself" is the oblivion of which Death is the gatekeeper.
Snow also functions on a more prosaic level that reminds the poet of the shutdown of exterior exertion. He finds himself deep in a severe East Coast winter. People anxiously watch the weather forecasts and bear confinement with that gritty patience familiar to those acquainted with the harshness of winter. In such a claustrophobic schema the Self cannot be ignored. The frigid solitude spurs Ammons into interior monologues, the extensive periods of talking to one's Self, into the face-to-face encounter with the terror that is the whiteness of the whale.
Conflict is at the center of poetry. No poem can be successful without it. The poem must do more than settle for a presentational approach. It is not enough to say, "this is conflict—I'm done." A poet has to work it out in an objective way that comprehends both sides. A poet must be Cain and Abel. Therein tension lies, and that makes the poem go.
The ability to create tension and sustain it is sadly missing from much contemporary poetry. Whether poets have forgotten how to develop tension in their work or whether they even recognize it in themselves I cannot say. It is enough for me that Ammons is not plagued by this difficulty…. [The poem "This Is"] is an Ammons trademark: the toughminded treatment of the modern, suburban man. It is no subjective observation from a poet hunched in a corner, drooling with self-pity, pounding a gavel to certify each arbitrary notion that comes to mind. His compassion is unquestionable. Even the most skeptical reader must see that Ammons fully comprehends both sides [of every conflict]. (pp. 203-04)
In the hands of this poet there is a poignant grandeur, far from pity, that marks [the] peculiar American inability to make contact…. We make money. We take out the garbage and never quite feel that we are doing it correctly. We pull out weeds and drive our children to school. We attend meetings and watch television and make more money … and we are terribly alone. Ammons feels the weight of this dilemma and yet, he heroically transcends it. It is the major Whitmanesque achievement of an uncommonly big-hearted man who embraces his country and sees in it the material for a still better place.
How does Ammons do it?… Often he will write in the conversational modes he is used to hearing. The language is simple, clear and pliant. It is occasionally wrenched by contemporary words of science, words like "Curvature," "Numeration," "interpenetrations," "discontinuity," and "differentiation." Normally, such words in a poem make me shudder. But when Ammons uses them I merely quiver cozily like a fawned-over aspic. In short, we see this poet doing the things that you or I do every day. But he also does some things that maybe we don't do. He sits at the window, for instance, and watches a bird in a tree…. Or he watches the snow fall, transforming the houses. He watches and "snow / ghosts stand up / and walk off the roof." With Ammons' help we can see them, too…. [Ammons'] gift does not simply aim for the breadbasket. It impresses the ear as well. For Ammons has always been a first-rate lyricist. The more I read his work the more I am convinced that he can (and will) do anything with the language that he wants. He is just that precise. He has that much control and, bless him, he has an ear. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his brazen and brilliant word play. (pp. 204-05)
The overall achievement of The Snow Poems becomes more remarkable when I consider that encroaching age is a recurrent, central concern. The poet has reached his fiftieth year and must contend, in a furious winter, with the ominous implications. The comfortable promises of youth have faded. He is haunted by ghosts…. Surrounded by material gain and artistic accomplishment, by fifty years of experience and the necessity, born of instinct, to make something worthwhile out of his remaining years, Ammons meets the lonely struggle with perfect honesty. Perceiving the limitations in whatever he attempts, the poet expresses himself with the graceful ease of an eloquent river…. Ammons knows himself. What emerges is an indomitable spirit forged in conflict, tempered by compassion, ready to advance on a questionable future with confidence and delight. Richard Eberhart said on accepting last year's National Book Award: "Poets should not die for poetry but should live for it." Nobody better personifies this sentiment than Ammons. He is as huge as the country he inhabits, as compassionate as it would like to be…. (p. 205)
Robert McDowell, "The Spirit in Mid-Winter Rises," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 202-06.
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Although they shade off into one another, there are basically three kinds of poem in [A. R. Ammons's The Selected Poems: 1951–1977], and they all have to do with nature. First there is the quasi-imagist poem that usually describes a scene or develops a single metaphor while doing so ("Rectitude," "Right On," and "Winter Scene," for example). These poems are the slightest, on the whole, but usually charming. Then there is a parable, distinguished from the preceding by the prominence of the moral and, often, by a dialogue between the poet and his favorite solitary, the wind, or some crusty gulch or sage old mountain ("The Wide Land," "Terminus," "Dunes"). In this mode Ammons can be as winsome as Cummings and as pithy as Frost. The wonder is that he can be both at once. The meditation on nature differs from the parable by virtue of the sweep of the vision, the scope of the speculation, and, sometimes, simple length and a left-hand margin that traces out a "waterline, waterline inexact, / caught always in the event of change" ("Corsons Inlet," "Expressions of Sea Level," "Identity"). This is the most provocative Ammons, the man who puts you in mind of Emerson, Whitman, D'Arcy Thompson, and Whitehead, and whose language and movements are still unpredictable as jumping beans. (p. 96)
It is wonderful how Ammons's poems work, which is as much like the world he loves as possible. As he defines it in "Summer Session," too long to be included in this selection, "the problem is / how / to keep shape and flow:"—a problem momentarily resolved in those lines by the speech unit-line coincidence and the eye rhyme, on the one hand, and the asymmetrical stanza and the characteristic colon, the one punctuation mark that urges forward, on the other. Ammons tries to merge form and flux, to make himself "available / to any shape." If nature continuously changes, he will not come to a full stop during a poem; but if in nature "through change / continuities sinuously work," he will develop a poem in which the idea of shape continues through a series of unique stanza forms. Things in nature are "separate particles" yet related in a "'field' of action," so that is the way they will appear in his poems. (p. 97)
"The structure of poetry and the structure of reality are one": Stevens's dictum could gloss the unity of vision that accounts for much of the vitality and the "widening / scope" of Ammons's work. Sometimes it even seems that he is trying to expand his work until it is coextensive with reality. He wants "no conclusions" and "no boundaries," wants to be as indulgent as "the radiance" he describes in "The City Limits," where he is a wealthy spendthrift of lustrous phrases…. (pp. 97-8)
So it comes as rather a shock to realize that these poems are after all limited. They are limited especially in terms of subject matter, for they have almost no people, no human relationships, and thus a restricted range of emotions. Awe, exultation, bemusement, and mild disappointment we have aplenty—but of such passions as love (excepting two very short "love songs"), grief, and pity, we hear next to nothing…. But it would be ungrateful, in view of all that we have here, to dwell on what we do not have. Besides, Ammons, one aspect of whose outflanking genius is that his poems forecast their possible marginalia, long ago redeemed his own "omissions" when he wrote that "it is not that words cannot say / what is missing: it is only that what is missing / cannot / be missed if / spoken."
Those lines are from "Unsaid," which will indeed be missed. Everyone who knows Ammons's work will discover that at least a couple of favorites have been passed by ("Coon Song" is not here either), but that is inevitable. Going through the short poems in Collected Poems: 1951–1971, from which all but three of these come, one is in the frustrating situation of the tourist visiting the huge collection of small gold pieces from Mycenae: Stunning, but look at that one, and isn't that one exquisite…. The advantage of a reduced selection is that one finds things previously neglected somehow: "The Wide Land," perhaps, or "Project" or "The Quince Bush." On the other hand, in spite of a gesture or two in the direction of a quest for essence (see the opening third of "The Arc Inside and Out," which will bear any comparison with Stevens it provokes), the preference of this "periphery riffler" has always been for inclusion rather than exclusion. And for that reason the Collected Poems represents him more faithfully: it comes closer to the ideal plenitude. As he says wryly in "Cut the Grass," "less than total is a bucketful of radiant toys." (pp. 98-9)
Stephen Yenser, "Recent Poetry: Six Poets," in The Yale Review (© 1978 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXVIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1978, pp. 83-102.∗
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Ammons is hard to read, not because he is hard to understand, but because his vatic poems make the reader want to get everything from them. Ammons's usual persona is a prophet in the sense that E. M. Forster meant the word—not that he predicts outbreaks of war or encounters with handsome strangers but that he speaks as though inspired. A glance at some of the shorter poems (using the texts in Selected Poems 1951–1977 and Diversifications) bears this out. In an early one, "Bees Stopped", the persona derives complete satisfaction from his understanding of nature's quiet but ceaseless activity…. In another early poem, "The Wide Land", nature's noisier aspects are broached, but still the persona is happy. The wind blinds him and then apologizes, yet the doughty persona is unflappable…. Bee song or blizzard: anything nature throws his way is fine with him.
Lest this persona seem smug and overweening, a third poem from roughly the same period should be cited as evidence that he is taking his vatic duties seriously. In "Choice" the persona comes to a stair that goes in both directions. He spurns "the airless heights" and sinks into what seems to be "the inundating dark", but there is a surprise in store…. Though he tries to descend, the persona ends in a place much like the airless heights he wanted to avoid. The idiot happiness of the two earlier poems is absent here; the persona takes seriously his struggles with a deceitful god and reveals that he is aware of the serious and possibly dangerous implications of "loose stones" and "sudden alterations of height".
The persona's awareness of his awareness grows as Ammons's career develops. In "Dunes" and "Center" he says "Firm ground is not available ground" and "nothing gets/caught at all". A superb short poem entitled "Mountain Talk" …, combines the persona's joy in nature (which characterizes "Bees Stopped" and "The Wide Land") with his understanding of his inability to apprehend nature (as seen in "Dunes" and "Center")….
[In such short poems as "Mountain Talk", it] is clear that Ammons is bearing out William James's belief that you ought not to distinguish where you cannot divide, yet sometimes you must. Temperatures have to be taken, cuts to be made. The trick is to cut cleanly, and there are few surgeons tidier than Ammons. His short lines, his overall brevity, his avoidance of punctuation marks other than the occasional comma and that quick stop-and-go colon are the hallmarks of his minimalism, his exquisitely unencumbered technique. "For Harold Bloom", the last poem in Selected Poems 1951–1977 and one of the longest poems in the book (though it is only a page), expresses the persona's struggle with the central paradox of Ammons's poetry, namely, that it is necessary to distinguish though never adequate. The poem that expresses best the poet's (especially the prophet-poet's) need to continue is "Measure", which says that the objects of nature "promote the measure" and that there is no "other measure but man". The trick is to measure in the most judicious and subtle way.
For some reason the critics who have attempted to take Ammons's own measure have been prone to use other writers as their yardsticks. His thought and art has been compared to that of Henry Vaughan, Sir Thomas Browne, D'Arcy Thompson, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Roethke, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Creeley. A list of such length of poets of such brilliance almost precludes additional comparisons, but perhaps its self-evident appropriateness will permit the suggestion of one more name: that of Stephen Crane. His other roots notwithstanding. Ammons characteristically writes like Crane at his best (though Crane was not at his best very often, at least as a poet)…. What makes Ammons's poetry technically closer to Crane's than anyone else's are not only its minimalist characteristics but also the recurrent and perhaps conscious sophomorisms on which both writers rely. Both of them have personae who wrestle with gods and talk to the wind. Both use words like "foreverness" (Ammons) and "impenetrableness" (Crane). Both have in common the stock poetic situations, the abstractions, the poems so brief that they seem more the jottings of the apprentice who wants to be known as poet than the attempts of the maturing artist who wants to perfect his craft. The odd thing is that both writers, and especially Ammons, manage to pull it off. All great ideas are simple, as Tolstoy said, but he might have added that it takes a great artist to present great ideas simply. Ammons is such an artist, which is why he is one of a handful of American lyric poets meant to be read again and again.
[As indicated by the recently published Selected Longer Poems, his] achievement as a writer of long poems is another matter, however. Not that any writer of long poems has it easy. Even the best of us have a built-in resistance to length in literature…. But literature abounds with splendid long poems: in America alone there is Whitman's Song of Myself, Hart Crane's The Bridge, Williams's Paterson, Stevens's Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, Eliot's Four Quartets, Pound's Cantos, W. D. Snodgrass's Hearts Needle, Ginsberg's Howl, and Alvin Greenberg's marvellous but little-known In/Direction. With one exception, though, none of these poets uses the sophormoric language that Ammons employs so successfully in his short poems. (The exception is Whitman, who makes up for the sophomoric language in his long poetry with sheer energy and who, paradoxically, fails when he uses the same language in his short poems, which are often flaccid and tired.) And that is the problem. Ammons is a prophet, a vatic poet. Yet oracular utterances are gnomic, not windy; when they become windy, we lose interest and turn away. In Ammons's short poems, sophomoric language resonates long after we finish reading; in the long poems, the resonances come one upon another, and the effect, if there is any effect at all, is discordant and finally numbing. Someone with some Sitzfleisch may find Ammons's Essay on Poetics, one of the poems in [Selected Longer Poems], a masterpiece, but I found it "a project" (as Ammons calls it in the last line) that helped the poet while away a snowstorm.
And yet one of these five longer poems is a work of sustained artistry that ranks with any on the list above. In Summer Session, Ammons's persona is a teacher whose gentle ruminations range from wry advice to his students … to voluptuous reminiscences of picnics alfresco…. What sets this longer poem apart from the others is its use of sophomoric language comically … and its avoidance of it otherwise….
Alas, that leaves the Essay on Poetics and three other poems like it which are "projects" for the snowbound poet. Prophecy is essentially a Mediterranean art; perhaps poets who don't live in sunny climes should realize that there is nothing wrong with writing novels and cook-books.
David Kirby, "The Measure of Man," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4073, April 24, 1981, p. 466.
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A. R. Ammons means to be a meditative poet, but he keeps getting distracted. He would, like Wallace Stevens, write the poems of the mind in the act of finding, but what he finds, as often as not, is natural appearance or natural fact. He is thus led around to a conflicting tradition, that of Frost, in which ideas are presented not directly but through the medium of natural imagery. His poems shuttle back and forth between image and abstraction, description and discursion, even seeming, on occasion, to blur those distinctions. Confusing those opposites, Ammons at times successfully accommodates both; when he attempts to compromise, he more often falls down between them.
"A Coast of Trees" shows Ammons working in the vein of such earlier volumes as "Briefings" and "Uplands," short lyrics annotating a single perception or enclosing a single inflection of thought. The voice Ammons assumes in these new poems, that of the reflective, perambulatory naturalist, is familiar from his earlier work, as is the peculiar mix of lofty argument and plain wordplay; botany, metaphysics, punning and alliteration tumble freely one after another through the poems. If anything, Ammons's characteristic inwardness and reticence are more than usually pronounced in this volume. Proper names and pronouns other than "I" scarcely appear, and the rhetorical eruptions Ammons has occasionally indulged in are absent. Familiar, too, is the goal toward which these poems, however obliquely, work: an acceptance of the two harsh faces nature shows to man, that of change and corruption and that of a cold, mechanical order. Ammons endeavors, if not to praise, at least to admit of those aspects of nature.
This is high matter indeed, and one can hardly accuse Ammons of wanting ambition. Yet he draws back from elevating his style to the height of his argument, as if he had bankrupted his supply of daring on his conceptions and had none left to spend for their execution. Too often the force of thought in these poems is dissipated in the comfortable abstractions that embody it…. Too fond of the chance congruities between the mind and the world it inhabits, he hesitates to set the mind against that world. Ammons certainly delivers real satisfactions of one kind, but he raises without satisfying expectations of another order altogether. In that gap lies the difference between a fluent, interesting poet and a great one. (p. 12)
Vernon Shetley, "Nature and Self," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 10, 1981, pp. 12, 41.∗
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Ammons' work is almost always about man in nature, attempting to make the visible yield the visionary. His writing, Harold Bloom reminds us, confirms his "vital continuities with the central Whitmanian tradition of our poetry."
I could take issue with the Whitman parallel. Of course Ammons writes pastoral poetry, of the common man, and frequently achieves the mystical. But Ammons' voice and line and vision are ultimately anti-Whitmanesque. His poems are nearly always brief, his lines nearly always narrow. He does not conduct self-interviews, and he never sermonizes. Moreover, he has never attempted a real epic. (His longest poems are his lightest.) Rather than attempt to change the reader's life, he is content to report, vividly, what he has felt and seen.
This makes Ammons sound simple. He is not. Often, in the course of a brief poem, he will zig-zag wildly away from a linear thought construction (—but he always returns!). While his language is usually of the simplest kind, the poems deal with the complex. (p. 429)
A Coast of Trees collects Ammons' most recent shorter poems written since The Snow Poems and Highgate Road. It contains several that rank with his best. These include "Swells" (which reveals his intense interest in science, as if we didn't know), "Rapids" (beginning with a case for the superiority of autumn over spring and ending in the nature of the universe 100-million years from now—all within 12 lines!), "Parting" (atypical: about a stroke victim and the illness's effect upon a marriage), "Sweetened Change" (also atypical: a Williamsesque poem on a marriage and a hospital), and "Persistences" (about man's indomitability).
In all these poems, the mind is seeking truth…. Yet Ammons maintains his light touch. He is also, alas, capable of parodying himself—perhaps unintentionally. Any poet who has published sixteen collections in twenty-six years runs a risk of repetition, of stating a felt concern less well the third or fourth time. (pp. 429-30)
Ammons does continue to renew the language of the tribe by making verbs of nouns: In one poem an argument is said to "thruway." His occasional tendency to sound like Frost, as in his early sand dune poem and "Visit," is repeated … in "Range," a meditation on divine order inspired by observing a spider, a poem which inevitably recalls Frost's "Design." Ammons even becomes as folksy as Frost….
On the positive side, in this tidy book there is less abstraction, more people, and a continuation of Ammons' explorations of light, color and radiance. It is a fine place to begin for any reader not yet familiar with this poet who is determined to capture the shape and flow of the universe and to untell its dreams. (p. 430)
Robert Phillips, "Poetry Chronicle: Some Versions of the Pastoral," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1981, pp. 420-34.∗
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Ammons deals with his world immediately. The macrocosm and microcosm of nature occupy his imagination, and he defines himself by his way of facing these ultimate challenges. In his engaging new collection [A Coast of Trees] he has some exquisite love poems and a couple of tender descriptions of old men trying to look after their frail wives. He also has an elegy on his own boyhood.
But as usual, nine-tenths of the poems invite us to stand with the speaker isolated in a landscape, sharply observing some particulars of the scene while responding with quasi-didactic reflections. The most densely populated of the poems is centered on a graveyard.
As if to make up for the lack of human agents, Ammons regularly personifies the features of landscape that hold his attention. Sometimes this habit can give sharpness to an image, as when a thawing brook "steps" down a ledge;… But when the poet exchanges opinions with a mountain (as in "Continuing"), I balk.
Selfhood, for Ammons, means the establishment of healing continuities in the face of unpredictable, often withering disruptions. So it is restorative for him to notice how the elements of landscape survive and establish a new balance after destructive assaults. On such images of change, loss, and restoration he concentrates an attention sharpened by scientific training.
Ammons's handling of free verse evokes the process he celebrates. One characteristic of the normally short lines is what might be called radical enjambment, or the ending of lines after words that demand an object or complement—adjectives, prepositions, transitive verbs, conjunctions. Another peculiarity is the repetition of a few key words, often three times or more. In spite of the apparent freedom of form of the whole poem, Ammons generally returns at the end to an image prominent at the start, to which he then gives new depth; and the poem often turns formally on the movement from observation to reflection. The effect of the enjambments, the repetitions, and the circular form is to suggest the disruptions, continuities, and resolutions of the flow of our emotions. The short poems of Ammons have more power than the long, because he tends to neglect shape and point when he becomes discursive.
An invitation to misread the poetry is the surface of calm in Ammons's work. Strangers may suspect him of complacency. But like Stevens and Bishop—two other poets obsessed with landscape—Ammons has only a slight hold on his hard-won moments of tranquillity. The bleakness of human life breaks out in phrases like "the many thoughts and / sights unmanageable, the deaths of so many, hungry or mad."…
The underlying sadness rises to anguish in "Easter Morning," the longest poem of the book. Here the lonely poet expresses his bitterness over the deformations produced in a child like himself by the imperviousness of adults who die before they can recognize and redeem their errors. Mourning for the person he might have been, the poet faces the graveyard in which are buried those people—teachers, relations, parents—who could have saved him from becoming a man more at ease with brooks and hills than with human society. The power of the poem springs from the central conceit of the isolated individual standing before the sociable dead.
But he does not see his crucifixion as unique….
In the last third of the poem, the theme of resurrection emerges, in the shape of two large birds seen flying together. When one veers from the straight way, the other notices and joins him. Then both return to the original route. The watcher admires their possession of free patterns which they may companionably leave and return to, unlike the rigidity of his own development; and he admires the beauty of the "picture-book, letter-perfect" morning. (p. 46)
Irvin Ehrenpreis, "Digging In," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 28, No. 15, October 8, 1981, pp. 45-7.
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Ever since Schiller distinguished naive from sentimental poetry, we have been worried by the pathetic fallacy (as Ruskin named it). It is the aesthetic version of the tree falling in the woods; does it make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? Is nature hospitable of itself to meaning (by its rhythms and its orders, its catastrophes and its variety) or are our symbolic uses of it truly abuses, a foisting of our sentiments onto an inert and indifferent scenery? This question has become one that no modern "nature poet" from Wordsworth on can avoid addressing in a perfectly conscious way. (p. 26)
In Ammons, the question of the pathetic fallacy is raised again and again, most luminously and painfully in his great poem "Grace Abounding," where the title makes explicit his claim that in states of inchoate feeling he finds a relief so great in the clarification offered by a visual image chanced upon in nature that the feeling corresponds to that which Bunyan named "grace abounding." We recall that in the Biblical formulation, where sin abounds, grace will the more abound: in Ammons's frame of things, the emphasis changes from sin to misery. In the poem, where he is trapped in a vise of misery, the sight of a hedge completely encased and bound down by ice so strikes him that he realizes that it is an image, perfectly correspondent, of his inner anguish, the more anguishing because it had as yet remained unimaged, unconceptualized, and therefore indescribable. The relief felt when the hedge strikes his eye, and his state is at last nameable, is grace—not offered by Ammons as an "equivalent" to Bunyan's grace, but as the same thing, a saving gift from an external source. A poet who has felt that unexpected solace will seek it again.
Ammons looks literally for sermons in stones, books in the running brooks. He has been reproached for the minuteness of his detail, for scrutinizing every letter of the natural alphabet, even every syllable in the genetic code, seeking to extract from each item its assuaging human clarification. If a hedge of ice can explain him to himself, why so can a pebble (and it has) or a wave (and it has). "Grace Abounding" is a critical poem in Ammons's canon because it tells us his habitual state—one of a mute congestion of burdened feeling that must go abroad, baffled, letting the eye roam aimlessly, if minutely, until it feels the click that tells it, when it sees the hedge of ice, that that visual form is the mirror of its present feeling. (pp. 27-8)
[Ammons's new collection, Worldly Hopes, reminds us that he] is always oscillating between his expatiations and his "briefings" (as between, from another angle, his hymnody and his nihilism). The short poems here are more of Ammons's experiments in the minimal. The question is how few words can make a poem, and how densely can a few words be made to resonate. (pp. 29-30)
If these brief forms seem constricting at times, it is because we know Ammons's discursive amplitudes. I have not found any poem in this book to equal the sublime "Easter Morning"…. There are new versions here of themes Ammons has touched before: they range from the artist's defense of his life … to exercises in pure verbality…. Science, as always, provides apt metaphors … and the antagonisms of writing are made ever more cunning.
In Ammons, the compulsion to form lurks as a danger. When he says that a poem "begins in contingency and ends in necessity" he is of course right, but necessity need not always wear a necessitarian aspect; it can assume an openhanded stance too, as it sometimes does in Williams or Stevens…. As Ammons packs words ever more densely and punningly, perhaps necessity begins to usurp some of the place of contingency.
If we step back, after reading Ammons's account of the alternate burgeoning and collapse of "worldly hopes" (as religion would call them) as well as his hymns of thanksgiving for "grace" …, we can see in him a representative figure for the persistence of the Protestant vein in American poetry. He uses the strategy of religious language with much of Dickinson's attachment to it, but he preserves, as Dickinson did not, the tonality of genuine prayer (resembling in this Stevens above all). If this were all he offered—religious language, religious tonality—Ammons would be simply a poet of religious nostalgia, a whited sepulcher. That he is not, we must attribute to two virtues of style which coexist with the religious elements and counterbalance them. One is the grounding of reality in the seen (like Williams, he finds his ideas in things). And the other is his stubborn inclusion of the recalcitrant detail, the hard ragged edge resisting the spherical sheerness of ultimate religious vision. In his naturalist speech, in his untroubled admitting of the psychic origins of the pathetic fallacy, Ammons is modern; in his willingness to substitute the word "grace" for the poetic experience of nature in lieu of the words "pathetic fallacy," he argues, like all poets, for the primacy of feeling in the naming of inner response. If the clarification conferred by the natural world—there is one in almost every poem by Ammons—feels like what Bunyan named "grace," then it is grace. What does not feel like a fallacy cannot be truthfully called one. Ammons is sure that the number of fluid inner states is infinite, and that the only matrix of possibility ample enough to correspond with the inner world is the massively various outer world. And the only mediating instrument between the liquid currents of mind and the mountains and deserts of matter is language, that elusive joiner of rivers to rock…. (pp. 31-3)
Helen Vendler, "Spheres and Ragged Edges," in Poetry (© 1982 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXLI, No. 1, October, 1982, pp. 26-33.
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Few human beings inhabit the typical Ammons landscape—indeed, the poems that home toward the center of his visions are landscapes: either literal mappings of place and event or philosophical graphs of the questing mind and spirit. The powerful imprint of a primal communion between poet and place that informs Tape for the Turn of the Year is never entirely erased from Ammons' pages, no matter how quickly they are written and gathered into books. That Ammons must remember one-ness and is forced—by inner compulsion as well as by conscious choice—to measure each new walk, each new moment, against those "blackcherry" days gives his voice both its great particularity and its pathos. (p. 4)
Surely no poet actively writing today observes with Ammons's precision—he captures each flick and rustle with clean, indelible strokes. Yet, faced with displays of such meticulous calibration of mainly transient phenomena, we may properly recall Ammons' injunction for us to pay heed to what he has "left out," to what has fallen outside his gaze. And here we will wish to turn back once more toward an earlier Ammons, toward the author of "Corsons Inlet," who could still both record and praise…. (pp. 4-5)
In "Corsons Inlet," Ammons walks the shore-edge of possibility, at the extreme and shifting border of the sea which, alone—in this austerely beautiful but, for Ammons, forever alien landscape—can offer wholeness: absolute loss and gain. For certainly it is true that "Corsons Inlet" is the poem, above all others up to this point in his career (1965), in which Ammons reiterates the course of his poetic enterprise. It is an inlet into the ungraspable sea of being and event, a summing up of the main current of the journey. In this "overcast" seascape, says Ammons, he was "released from forms." This kind of release has always been a requirement for spiritual travel, for embarking on a visionary quest. And it is the impossibility of sustaining this delicate balance-point of spiritual and artistic freedom that is the chief precipitator of the poet's despair…. Driven by this knowledge that, in the world he lives in—which is not the lost Eden of his emptiest hopes—"terror pervades but is not arranged," Ammons vows to meet the challenge of loss with courage: "I will try," he declares, "to fasten into order enlarging groups of disorder…."
Unfortunately, this fastening of "enlarging groups of disorder" into the eddying lines of his longer and more complex poems is precisely what they cannot bear. For Ammons is a lyric poet (often despite himself) who is most poignant and most sure of his voice when he sings in a celebratory or elegiac key. As a metaphysical or philosophical writer, he is consistently inventive and engaging, but he can rarely achieve the coherence he seeks. What is most forceful and arresting in both the longer poems, like "Essay on Poetics" and "Hibernaculum," and the shorter, more obviously lyric pieces, are what [David] Kalstone calls the "lightning weddings of the self to the outside world." This sense that momentary harmony may be achieved—that a bridge may be built between inside and outside, between mind and nature—is nearly always present in Ammons' strongest work, as is the corollary: the bridge must collapse. This perception is cleverly articulated in Tape for the Turn of the Year:
just as the
Even more suggestive is Ammons' characterization, early in this 205 page poem, of the precise nature of his personal venture: "running to catch up: to/be at the /crest's break, the/running crest, / event becoming word:" The problem, for Ammons, is that this struggle to "catch up" is foredoomed. As he laments, also in Tape for the Turn of the Year,
we can approach
unity only by the loss
a loss we're unwilling
Despite this terse summation of the danger there are a few poems at the center of Ammons' work that were given shape by his willingness—his daring—to "approach unity," to take this great risk, to experience this great loss. "Hymn" is a special case, almost but not quite unique, in Ammons' poetry, in which a kind of balance is reached between the poet's knowledge of the doomed nature of his mission and his obsessive search for the sacred in the fragmented past and partially fragmented present. For clearly the true yearning in this poem proceeds from Ammons' search for the "deposed" god and from his never-to-be-satisfied hunger for the lost home, the lost ground of being where he first felt himself enwombed by that sacred present. Ammons has never been more clear or affecting than here, in this magical poem that articulates his loss and his questing after this nameless deity and the place where he held sway over being. Ammons knows that if he should succeed in finding this lost god, he will cease to be a poet: that he "will have to leave the earth / and go on out / … up farther than the loss of sight / into the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark."
But to be drawn out of earthly being is only half—the expected half—of the terror…. Ammons knows there is an equal, if less awesome, danger: that he will not transcend earthly existence but, instead, will be condemned to follow an increasingly narrow spiral of perceptions, that he "will have to stay with the earth," and with all the minutiae of temporal being. What Ammons sees is that, if God is, if God can be "found," he is to be found in each separate fragment of created matter, in each electron, in each subatomic particle of the energy-field we call the universe. This is the ultimate dimension of the problem, the final ambivalence, which is as fully biochemical and phenomenological as aesthetic or metaphysical in origin. The "you" that Ammons seeks—has always sought—is "everywhere partial and entire." (pp. 5-7)
Although it is not obvious in the "Hymn" sequence that Ammons includes in the Collected Poems, "Still" is clearly intended to stand side by side with "Hymn" in any final ordering that may be brought to Ammons' poems. Like "Hymn," "Still" is given over to the mystical and visionary. But here we see Ammons drawn away from "the empty stark." Although he flirts with the idea of unity, he is no longer centered but has moved into an eccentric orbit, in which he searches not for a bridge to the "not me" but, instead, and with intentional irony, for "what is lowly," for "a ready measure of my significance." The fact that Ammons is unable to track down even one living organism that is not "magnificent with existence" leads him to the essential recognition that "there is nothing lowly in the universe" and that nothing in nature is intended to serve him as a gauge of his own worth. (p. 8)
In seeing "lowly" organisms like the moss and the tick as "magnificent," Ammons shows himself to be a man who properly values the "separate leaves" of creation. In perceiving the love that shakes the mutilated body of the "lowly" beggar, he demonstrates his compassion and empathy. But when he recognizes that his own anguished, lonely, yearning self also partakes of the magnificence of being, Ammons achieves a close encounter with the lost home, with the deposed god of the sacred place that lingers in his memory and imagination. In "Still," the mystical union is nearly attained in a vision of significance-in-being. He realizes that nothing in Nature can be his place because he is his place: in him, in the self, is the holy ground; in him, only, can he discover home, wholeness. But this great knowledge is, as we have seen, fatal knowledge—fatal, that is, to the progress of the work. For, in bringing him home, to center, it would also bring to a close the journey that is the necessary spur and momentum behind the art. In "Still," at "one sudden point," the forward motion appears to stop; briefly, briefly, a bridge between the physical and spiritual appears to rise up in the empty spaces of the poem, between the bounding limits of language. For one moment, Ammons seems to be home, which—for the poet—is to be in "the mouth of Death."
One other poem in the Selected Poems appears central to me, if we are to know Ammons as he has directed us to know him—in his silence. I am thinking of "Expressions of Sea Level," which stands with "Corsons Inlet" as a major poem of what Richard Howard has called the "littoral" imagination. Here, as in "Still," Ammons walks the naked edge of possibility, seeking a complete vision of the cosmos. However, in "Expressions of Sea Level," there is no single moment when revelation comes, when the troping stops, when the journey turns in upon itself like a spiralling galaxy or whorled shell. Here the abiding question must once more be asked: "is there a point of rest where / the tide turns: is there … an instant when fullness is." Yet this poem, which is perhaps not "a statement perfect in its speech," is nevertheless a showing-forth of the all-but-invisible. In this masterful poem, Ammons gives form to his yearning to express the flow of event and being with the precise nuances evident in the natural language the wind and sea inscribe on the shore, where "broken, surf things are expressions: / the sea speaks from its core…." Ammons, too, wishes to speak with the force and exactness and centrality of the sea. But, as he concedes in a later poem, "Plunder," human language appropriates things in a way the "core" language of the sea does not. At the poem's center is a wonderfully accurate metaphor that explains this distinction. Ammons focuses on a clam shell that "holds smooth dry sand, / remembrance of tide: water can go at / least that high." If, Ammons assures us, we were to come "at the right time" to observe the process—how the sea turns and fills the shell's shallow cup, marking off in granules the depth of its penetration—we would witness that, in nature, things are not displaced; they are the record of their being-in-the-world and bear the clear marks of their presentness, which is also their history. (pp. 8-9)
In this, one of his most physically rooted poems, we see Ammons at his most mystical, Romantic, visionary. Here, he shows us—as did the early Romantics, Blake and Wordsworth in particular—that wholeness is recovered in a whole view of the universe. (p. 9)
Charles Fishman, "A. R. Ammons: The One Place to Dwell," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1982 by Hollins College), Vol. XIX, No. 5, December, 1982, pp. 2-11 [the excerpts of Ammons's poetry used here were originally published in his The Selected Poems 1951–1977 (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.; copyright © 1977, 1975, 1974, 1972, 1971, 1970, 1966, 1965, 1964, 1955 by A. R. Ammons), Norton, 1977].