Sumerian Vistas

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

With fifteen volumes and four collected editions of his poetry published in thirty-two years, and numerous national prizes to his credit, A. R. Ammons is one of America’s most prolific and honored poets. Sumerian Vistas contains few surprises for readers versed in his earlier work, but overall it does strike a somewhat more serene and contented tone as Ammons reaches the age of sixty-one. The perennial polarities of his work—between form and expansiveness, abstraction and concreteness, unity and plurality, matter and spirit, reality and the imagination—now seem less like urgent tensions that are a matter of torment to Ammons than like familiar points on his poetic compass that he is content to explore at leisure, giving each its due in a proportionate balance with the others. The theme of death takes on increasing importance for the aging Ammons in this collection, but he turns even this somber theme into occasions for celebration of the creative spirit shared by nature and the poet.

A professor of English at Cornell University since 1964, Ammons is well known for two types of poems—long, meditative rambles and short, concentrated lyrics—and Sumerian Vistas, which is set mainly in the woods and pastures near Cornell, contains substantial achievements in both forms. “The Ridge Farm,” the thirty-eight-page poem which begins the book, is at its best when it explores the poet’s attraction to the natural sights and sounds of a farm on a high ridge, as winter turns toward the warmer seasons:

the high farm beseeches my mind,thought, my mind soars up the hardclimb to the ridge but thenfeels the backing of the ridgeto the sweep, the high passoverso laborious, everything under itgentled, the still ponds, swallowsplinking them with fine lines, fliesspinning to burr shook into the surfacetension, nipper fish catching achink in the mirror informative asa web: the earth is so fearfuland beautiful! ticks, mites,flukes . . .

For all the stylistic eccentricity of such lines (Ammons typically strings his ideas together with commas and colons rather than periods, so as to suggest the radical fluidity of his experience and expression), his verse also reveals his firm roots in the American transcendentalist tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, and later of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Building on details of nature that are often minute and mundane, Ammons’ descriptions of his late-winter walks uphill to the ridge farm become metaphors for the feelings of uplift with which nature sometimes rewards a person’s close observations and spiritual strivings. Further, the instances of growth and motion that Ammons observes in contrast to the stasis of winter become metaphors for the subtle “swerves” of mind and language, moving out of static attitudes and forms, that he values in his verse.

Elsewhere, “The Ridge Farm” is less impressive as poetry, though still valuable as poetic instruction, when Ammons digresses from his vivid imagery to lecture a fellow poet (and, by extension, the reader) on the theories which guide his poetic practice:

we assemble the variable materials untilbalance beginsdefining out, then we explore thevalidity of the balance, collecting...

(The entire section is 1593 words.)