from A. R. Ammons: Selected Poems, ed. David Lehman
A. R. Ammons had reason to consider himself, as he capriciously put it in a late poem, a "drab pot" "top bard" spelled backwards partly to conceal and partly to revel in the distinction. A solitary figure, self-made and largely self-taught, he approached the centers of literary industry as an outsider and from a distance.Without ever quite overcoming his distrust of the establishment, he accepted the recognition that came his way the Bollingen Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Award (twice) though the accolades did little to lessen the state of pent-up anxiety that Ammons identified as an impetus for his writing, if not itself a source of inspiration. By the time of his death in February 2001, a week after his 75th birthday, Ammons had long held a titled professorship at Cornell, where he was well-loved. His poems were and continue to be championed by formidable critics (Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler) and a diverse array of poets. (Douglas Crase: "What I learned from Archie was that I didn't have to write poems about Italy.") Yet possibly because he stands outside of schools and affiliations and resists classification by region or genre, Ammons's poetry remains for many readers a discovery they make on their own and love all the better for it.
The best of Ammons's poems can have a transforming effect they make you want to take a walk along a bay and chronicle your impressions, or compose a hymn in his manner or a meditation on a word like sanctuary or longing, or start a diary in skinny lines as Ammons does in Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), which he typed on a roll of adding-machine tape, the width of the tape serving as the arbitrary but fixed restraint determining the shape of the poem. Ammons, who loves walking in his poems as greatly as in their differing ways Wordsworth and Frost do, developed a distinctive style in keeping with his peripatetic habits. "The perfect journey is / no need to go," he will say cheerily before taking a walk "between the pine / colonnades / up the road on the hill" where the breeze can be counted on to sift "figurations from the snow." The Ammons manner is casual, direct, at ease in nature; his diction unpretentious and capable of abrupt shifts. He is often witty, sometimes bawdy, with a wide range of reference, on a perpetual quest to find forms capacious enough for an imagination intent on finding a place for everything. He values, above all things, motion and momentum in his innovative prosody. A short poem may pivot on a reversal (sparked by "so" or "nevertheless") and end on an epiphany. A long poem is likelier to feature more authorial self-consciousness ("today / I feel a bit different: / my prolog sounds phony & / posed"), more down time for jokes, recipes, weather reports, assorted asides ("anybody doesn't believe in / reality should / try to start a dead car / on a 10-degree / morning"), and an even more intimate relation to the reader. "Ideally," he writes near the end of Tape for the Turn of the Year, from which I have been quoting, "I'd / be like a short poem: / that's a fine way / to be: a poem at a / time: but all day / life itself is bending, / weaving, changing, / adapting, failing, / succeeding."
Born in Whiteville, North Carolina, in 1926, the youngest of a tobacco farmer's three surviving children, Archie Randolph Ammons grew up on the family farm during the meanest years of the Great Depression. He had two sisters; two brothers died as infants, one of them when Archie was four years old. The traumatic memory of his younger brother's death enters Ammons's poetry in "Easter Morning" (1981) and again in Glare (1997), in the passage that gives the book its title, where the poet recollects the desperate folk ritual to which his parents resorted: they split a sapling and passed the ailing child through the split tree-trunk. But the boy didn't recover. "One Must Recall as One Mourns the Dead" (from The Snow Poems, 1977) achieves sublime pathos by refusing to mourn:
do not mourn the dead too much who bear no
knowledge, have no need or fear of pain,
and who never again must see death
come upon what does not wish to die
The elegiac strain in Ammons's poetry is surpassed only by the countermining impulse to say yes to the universe. "I know / there is / perfection in the being / of my being, / that I am / holy in amness / as stars or / paperclips," he writes in "Come Prima." The knowledge coexists with the recognition that the universe moves "from void to void" and that void and being are indistinguishable. Yet the poet's elation survives. Determined to convert fear into praise, and anxiety into poetry, Ammons balances his scientist's skepticism with the Romantic conception of the imagination as redemptive of, or compensatory for, the bitterness of actuality. Like Robert Frost, he knows nature too intimately to sentimentalize it or flinch in the face of its cruelties. But he is less chilly than Frost. The transcendent "radiance" he considers in "The City Limits" illuminates equally a sublime landscape or "the glow-blue // bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped / guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit..." Despite the ugliness that it encounters, the "radiance" never "winces from its storms of generosity."
The young Archie everyone who knew him called him Archie, and it is hard to think of him any other way heard hellfire sermons in church each Sunday. In Glare he makes light of them:
sixty years ago, I used to hear every
Sunday that Jesus was coming: the
preacher wasn't specific but said it
could be any hour or minute but
certainly before next Sunday: next
Sunday would come but no Jesus, and
the preacher never seemed embarrassed
for his disaster quotient was as high
as ever . . .
Ammons's equanimity here is a triumph of tone. The repeated prophecy that "Jesus was coming" terrified the young man. The hymns he heard as a boy at the Spring Branch Fire-Baptized Pentecostal Church had an influence on his poetry, even if it was mostly unconscious.
Around the time of President Roosevelt's death in April 1945, while serving aboard a destroyer escort in the South Pacific, the 19-year-old sailor had an experience of almost religious intensity. Sitting on the bow of the ship anchored in a bay, he found himself staring at the land, the water level and the life beneath it, and "the line inscribed across the variable land mass, determining where people would or would not live, where palm trees would or could not grow." It suddenly struck him that "the water level was not what it was because of a single command by a higher power, but because of an average result of a host of actions run-off, wind currents, melting glaciers." In that moment Ammons felt all the mystery and faith and passion of religion attached to a scientific explanation of the universe. He wrote his first serious poems as a result of this "interior illumination."
In many subsequent works Ammons fuses a religious impulse with scientific knowledge, substituting facts for articles of faith, arriving at sublime ends through secular means, in a triumph of wonderment. (See, for example, "Cascadilla Falls.") He writes about matters of scientific and philosophical complexity as few American poets have done, yet never without the homespun humor and sly wit that sometimes raise bantering wordplay to transcendent paradox: He may "see no / god in the holly, hear no song from the / snowbroken weeds," as he admits in "Gravelly Run." Nevertheless, "somehow it seems sufficient." Ammons's brand of the American religion can be summed up in the title of a late poem: "God Is the Sense the World Makes without God."
After his discharge from the Navy, Ammons attended Wake Forest on the GI Bill and majored in science. In 1949 he married his Spanish teacher, Phyllis Plumbo. He made his living at a variety of occupations, none of them remotely literary. He worked briefly as the principal of the tiny elementary school in Cape Hatteras and later managed his father-in-law's biological glass factory in southern New Jersey. At the University of California at Berkeley, where he and Phyllis spent three semesters in the early 1950s, he benefited from the warm support of Josephine Miles, a greatly underrated poet and teacher, with whom he corresponded faithfully for years thereafter. (Miles, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis so severe that it confined her to a wheelchair, is the spirit presiding over Ammons's early poem "A Crippled Angel") In 1955 Ammons published Ommateum, his first book of poems, with Dorrance, a vanity press. A total of 16 copies were sold in the next five years. Not until 1963, when he was 37, did Ammons's vocation and avocation dovetail. Expressions of Sea Level, his second collection, came out that year from Ohio State University Press, and Archie was invited to give a reading at Cornell. The faculty liked what they heard and Archie accepted a low-level teaching appointment to begin the next fall. Critical recognition followed; Ammons rapidly went from nearly total obscurity to wide acclaim.
Though his intellectual curiosity was boundless, Ammons remained academically incorrect in some fundamental and attractive way. He groused about "the whole business of getting degrees in the writing of poetry," likening the practice to "putting chains on butterflies' wings." In retrospect the years of obscurity looked pretty good. "In business I knew I was a fish out of water and I had many a miserable day," he once told me. "But I felt more like a writer then. In universities I always felt the presence of a cottony wad of verbalisms between the poet and the poem the constant presence of all kinds of extraneous and farfetched theories and explanations of poems. Everything is discursive opinion instead of direct experience. There's something to be said in favor of working in isolation in the real world." The self that sustains itself on speech reigns as supreme in Ammons's universe as in Emerson's or Stevens's, and feels itself to be as isolated.
In poem after poem Ammons obsesses over the philosophical question of "the one and the many" as others may obsess over their favorite basketball team or popular singer. Consider the opening of "The Fairly High Assimilation Rag" (1983): "Plato derives the many from the one and Aristotle / the one from the many." In a nutshell, the question of the one and the many is whether reality inheres in countless particulars (the many) or whether there is a motion and a spirit (the one) rolling through all things. Understood as a tug-of-war between unity and diversity, the question has an immediate application to the American scene. "They ask why I'm so big on the // one:many problem, they never saw one: my readers: what do they / expect from a man born and raised in a country whose motto is E / pluribus unum?" In a bravura section of Sphere, Ammons translates "the one and the many" into figures (a mountain or "an isosceles triangle," with the peak standing for unity and the base for diversity) and ratios (with "base:periphery:diversity" on one side and peakcenter:symbol:abstraction" on the other). To Ammons, this is a way not only to renew ceaselessly a fundamental question about the nature of reality but to organize the world into poems. Many of his come down squarely on the "many" side of the ledger. Not "a whit manic" about Whitman's influence, Ammons uses the inventory for the same reason it appealed to the author of "Song of Myself": it is democratic, anti-hierarchical, a gathering of particulars, a reveling in what is at the "base" of the triangle, "base" understood as having an ethical or class meaning as well as a geometrical one. "Shit List" (1982) is an apt illustration of the irreverent Ammons inventory. On the other hand, when the poet reaches the "summit," as he does in the poem on the dedication page of Sphere ("For Harold Bloom") he feels a certain desolation or emptiness:
for the word tree I have been shown a tree
and for the word rock I have been shown a rock,
for stream, for cloud, for star
this place has provided firm implication and answering
but where here is the image for longing:
Staring into space and into the sun from the "high nakedness," the poet is forced to acknowledge that "nothing answered my word longing." The word nothing recurs in this poem, its meaning as complex as a primal word signifying itself and its opposite. Ammons's late friend Jerald Bullis paraphrased Ammons's nothing as "the plenum of factual reality: the universe cleansed of supernatural agency."
Harold Bloom minimizes the influence of William Carlos Williams on Ammons, but it is there not only in allusion (on the first page of Garbage, for example) but in the pacing of his poems and in his conception of the poet. These lines from Williams's "The Wind Increases" anticipate a favorite Ammons trope:
Good Christ what is
a poet if any
whose words will
home being actual
having the form
For the subtitle of Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974), Ammons liked crediting a Cornell faculty meeting ("Can someone put that in the form of a motion?"), but these lines may have lurked in the back of his mind.
Ammons dispenses with rhyme and meter, disdains the "sonnet or some fucking cookie-cutter" form, and rejects the notion that American literature is part of a larger entity encompassing the English literary tradition. An entertaining digression in Glare begins with the remark that "I / cannot, to pause momentarily, bear the Brits," as if he might provide the counter-note to Philip Larkin's grouchy view of America. The contempt might have been mutual: Larkin wrote in strict form, and the principle of restraint applies even to his output, which was modest though choice; the prolific Ammons is wholly committed to free verse, contriving ways to enact motion, process, and flow as guiding principles. Ammons capitalizes on the humble colon, using it as an all-purpose punctuation mark with the effect of a continual postponement of closure. In poems of the great middle period "The City Limits," "Triphammer Bridge," and Sphere, to name three he writes in three-line stanzas that resemble a species of terza libre: a rhymeless version of the stanza unit of Shelley's "Ode to the Western Wind." Like Robert Creeley, a poet he otherwise little resembles, Ammons skillfully deploys the line-break to advance (or at times to undercut) the meaning of his poem. Take the opening of "Gravelly Run":
I don't know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
The enjambment encourages us to consider the first line as a self-contained unit rather than as part of a longer clause, with the result that the it in "somehow it seems sufficient" acquires greater force.
Ammons's short poems are definitively lyric, a record of the encounters of the self with all that is foreign to the self in the universe. People turn up in his poems, though sometimes for no better reason than to illustrate the difference between a blabbermouth and a loudmouth (Garbage, in a passage not included here) or complain that the poet is "sneaky" ("Shot Glass"). Ammons knows himself too well to deny, as he puts it in "Poverty," that "it is not the same for / me as for others, that / being here to be here / with others is for others," not for him. He would much rather confer with the wind ("Mansion"), with an affable or sourpuss mountain ("Close-Up"), or even with a talkative willow ("Ballad") than with a cranky neighbor too absorbed in his errands to note the day's wondrous comet with "ten-million-mile tails" ("Dominion"). Ammons freely admits, in "The Put-Down Come On," that he is less interested in "contemporary / literature" than in letting his mind roam "where ideas of permanence / and transience fuse in a single body, ice, for example, / or a leaf." Or, for that matter, a weed. In "Reflective," one of his most celebrated short poems, there is artful symmetry and repetition: weed appears twice, sandwiching the three instances of mirror; notice, too, how much work the reiterated in does:
I found a
that had a
mirror in it
looked in at
weed in it
Ammons's friend Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, says that "Reflective" is the "best poem in the English language written in words of no more than six letters." I like the specificity of this remark and would, in the same spirit, nominate "Their Sex Life" as the finest poem consisting of six words or less:
One failure on
Top of another
The symmetry here is fearful: there are three words per line, three words in the title; One and on flank failure; failure refers both to individuals and events; the capitalized Top makes us see the two lines themselves as the parallel lives of Mr. and Mrs. Failure. The key word is failure, but the sublime gesture is performed by the line break that separates on from top, and places top on the bottom.
In his long poems, Ammons figures out ways to extend and prolong the lyric impulse while assimilating the quotidian facts of his days as though they were trials and adventures and he a mild-mannered Odysseus, whose "story is how / a man comes home / from haunted / lands and transformations." Ammons, who made Ithaca, New York, his home for nearly forty years, told me once that he "came north and felt, as soon as people heard my accent, that I had to shoulder the whole burden of the South." And for other reasons as well, he writes in Glare, "sometimes I get the feeling I've never / lived here at all":
time collapses, so that nothing happened,
and I didn't exist, and existence
itself seems like a wayward temporizing,
an illusion nonexistence sometimes
In long poems he characteristically seeks one image strong enough to sustain multiple perspectives: the earth as photographed from the moon in Sphere, a mound of rubbish off an interstate highway in Florida in Garbage. Garbage as the subject and theme of a poem was not without precedent in Ammons's work. The long poem "Summer Place," written in 1975 but not collected until Brink Road (1996), has some of Ammons's best riffs on trash:
we should call this The Republic of Barrels of Trash: we could
now be entering the bicentennial year of The United States of
Barreling Trash: "pretty soon the people on welfare gone
be richer than working people": The United States of
Shining Garbage from Sea to Greasy Sea: the litter
glitter: all that remains of free enterprise is if
you fail you deserve it: the land of the hopeless case:
the land of the biggest lobby:
The fascination with waste ("a waste is a terrible thing to mind"), trash ("I know trash, there's so much of it, democratic, / everything turns into it, and so few people want / it, there's a surplus of it, pick up free"), and garbage goes back to Ammons's habit, when typing Tape for the Turn of the Year, of letting the typed-up tape spiral into a wastepaper basket. The analogy with body processes presents itself, but perhaps the more pertinent analogy is with the image of the dirt at the close of Whitman's Song of Myself:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Like Whitman, Ammons believes with all his heart that as he writes in "Still" there is "nothing lowly in the universe." And as for that bitter hug of mortality, as Whitman calls it, Ammons can school himself to accept "the harmonious / completion of the / drift," and even the "annihilation" of consciousness, as he puts it in a poem strategically entitled "Continuity." That is so because death imagined is not an end but a continuation and because our atoms and molecules rejoin in other bodies, other lives. At the end of "Still," Ammons stands in awe of his own epiphany: all that he beholds is magnificent: "moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent / with being!" In a different mood Ammons is not above telling the reader that "magnificent" in the back woods of his childhood comes out "most-maggie-went-a-fishing." Still, his homespun wit doesn't diminish the visionary greatness of his poetry, the aim to affirm the magnificence of creation, however lowly in appearance, however dark in design.
About the Author
David Lehman is the author of five collections of poems, including When a Woman Loves a Man and Other Poems (2005), and several books of criticism, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (1998). He is also the series editor of The Best American Poetry. He teaches at the New School University in New York.
The Library of America
American Poets Project