To Be Quiet in the Hands of the Marvelous: The Poetry of AR Ammons

The Iowa Review
Volume 8
Issue 1 Winter
Article 32
1977
To Be Quiet in the Hands of the Marvelous: The
Poetry of A. R. Ammons
Frederick Buell
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Buell, Frederick. "To Be Quiet in the Hands of the Marvelous: The Poetry of A. R. Ammons." The Iowa Review 8.1 (1977): 67-85. Web.
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It is damp there, the cement floors are cool.
But you keep your place in line.
It is a penance you impose upon yourself
Uke kneeling on unpadded
prie-dieux.
You owe her that much.
Whether
you loved her or not
you owe her that much.
OF ACTION
FIELDS
AND
POETRY
/ CRITICISM
"To Be Quiet in the Hands of the Marvelous":
The Poetry of A. R. Ammons / Frederick Buell
first became
with the work of A. R. Ammons
acquainted
by
more
his
recent
have
been surprised by looking
poetry
reading
probably
in his Collected
back to the early poems reprinted
Poems: 1951-71. A large
of the poems dated between
number
the years 1951 and 1955 (the date
was
when his first volume of poetry, Ommateum,
do not seem
pubUshed)
to be characteristic
of his mature work. Ammons
has set these poems
in a
at
times
world
of
and
death, shame, grief,
grim,
overtly Gothic,
unexplained
or
them around gestures of mysterious
loss, and he has centered
impotence
move
failure. Even where
the poems'
toward
the
self-extinction,
speakers
result is neither peace nor catharsis, but a state of sensibility
that is haunt
a
want
to
For
of
I
describe.
better
call it a
would
ingly difficult
phrase,
is
state of incomplete
An
suffocation.1
the conclusion
of the vol
example
ume's best-known
poem, "So I Said I Am Ezra":
Those
who
Imoved
my feet and turning from the wind
that ripped sheets of sand
from the beach and threw them
Uke seamists across the dunes
swayed
and said
as if the wind were
taking
me
away
I am Ezra
67
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As a word
too much repeated
falls out of being
so I Ezra went out into the
night
Uke a drift of sand
and splashed among the windy
that clutch the dunes
of unremembered
oats
seas2
"fall out of being" is not a metaphysical
It is not a loss of
fulfillment.
self to a cosmos, to a larger order. Ezra falls out of being into a partly psy
limbo; this place does not bring peace, but the
partly mythical
chological,
sense of suffocation
in the way
and unexplained
that is expressed
turbulence
the oats "clutch" the "dunes of unremembered
seas." The poem's Ezra, a
to a hunchback
reference
of Ammons'
playmate
youth and also ironically
the
of
cannot
assert
Ezra
the
bibUcal
his name against
scribe,
suggestive
ocean.
of
the
wind
indifference
and
visionary
native rural
The landscape
that haunts these early poems is less Ammons'
It is the landscape
of Sumerian
South than it is the ancient Near East.
Ezra's
is unap
Its God
in reference.
to which
abound
these poems
is one of dust, sand, wind,
and desert. One feels
and
its
earth
proachable,
that is stifling to the
is burdened
with a timelessness
that the landscape
in
creatures
of time;
for, is
it, apocalyptic
transformation,
though yearned
into
of
the
domain
thus blends imperceptibly
inconceivable.
The landscape
"none
from
which
the
realm
of
the Queen of Darkness
epic, the
Gilgamesh
there is no coming back."
who enters ever returns . . . the road from where
a
is place of suffocation where
As Enkidu's
dream reveals, the underworld
men endure forever, retaining
selfhood but not their vitaUty, their connec
no one can escape death,
tion with Being. In the Gilgamesh
epic, moreover,
two-thirds a god, nor the "priests of the incan
neither the hero Gilgamesh,
in examples
of failed
abound
tation and ecstasy"; Ammons'
early poems
heroes and seers.3
in his early poetry is that of a seer who has no social
Ammons'
lyric voice
of more than ordinary
but is instead a presence
or individual characteristics
is one who has lost or never
awareness
and longing. The seer, moreover,
one could say that he
or
a
special revelation;
saving message
securely had
a
its faith in the "good
had
lost
which
Christian
of
is the creation
sensibility
into
had
the eschatological
and
delved
back
news" of the New Testament
of the older Jews and Sumerians. The poems begin as the seer en
pessimism
time.
in place and historical
unlocated
ters their largely mythic
landscapes,
such
statements
bibUcal and visionary overtones,
that
have
with
They begin
I said Oh," "I came
as "I went out to the sun," "Turning from the waterhole
or "I came upon a
in a dark woods upon / an ineffaceable
difference,"
pla
mythology,
68
seer
then moves
the mysteriously,
often whimsically,
or
encounters
into
with
ominously
landscape
phantas
changing
gods
are
and
indefinite.
that
magora
intentionally
Though magically
suggestively
movement
of extraordinary
("So I left and walked
up into the
capable
seer
an
to
is
in
the
damned
indeterminate
failure
air"),5
curiously unfree,
the fields of the
("How shall I / coming from these fields / water
quest
earth / and I said Oh, / and fell down in the dust"),6 or to protracted wan
or to a quest for failure that ends without
attainment
of self-annihi
derings,
teau."4 The
through
often
lation:
PeeUng off my being I plunged into
the well...
went
on
deeper
innertubes beer cans
finding patched
and black roothairs
along the way
but went on deeper
till darkness snuffed the shafts of light
against
the well's
side
night kissing
the last bubbles
from my Ups7
a pressure
are filled with
that one feels
journeys and encounters
if time and the
transformation
have been a hunger for apocalyptic
not
of meaningful
ceased. Of that
change had
possibihty
already effectively
in
remains
the
consciousness
there
the
of
there having
poems
only
hunger,
a
as
In
in
been
the well,
Enkidus
dream, vitaUty is lost, while
great longing.
These
would
consciousness
remains.
one of the proximate
sources for these poems,
Though EUot's poetry is
they
are far more turbulent with their unsatisfied
Land"
desire than "The Waste
and related poems. Behind Ammons'
looms a desire too large
early work
or
too corrupted by indefinite
and sometimes
sin
decay to be able to find
in nature an image for itself or to be able to make,
nature,
going beyond
is so
The
behind
the
itself.
failures
for
longing
poems'
incomplete
objects
across the poem "This Black Rich
comes
one
when
that,
strong
Country,"
one reads it as a result of a
It begins with the Une
nearly heroic endeavor.
me of beUef"; in
of his longing and
the absoluteness
renouncing
"Dispossess
in attempting
to claim for himself a world of ordinary
the poet,
mortaUty,
who is now as much a man as he is a seer, appeals to an unnamed
force to
leave me
this black rich country,
labor, fear: do not
uncertainty,
steal the rewards
69
of my mortaUty.8
sus
It is one of the first poems to end with a period rather than a timeless
are
it
in
and
for
searches
of
the
achieve
earlier
what,
poems,
pension,
light
ments.
It would
find uncertainty,
rather than a Umbo in which
all possibiU
ties are suffocatingly
it
would
have labor rather
voided,
though unstilled;
means
ex
than an impotent
to
realize itself; and it would
longing without
a
seems
to be alienated
fear rather than
state of
that
perience
sensibility
from all merely human emotions.
Ammons'
thus seems to lie far afield from the poetry
that
early work
to
leads immediately
"Corsons
and
Inlet"
then
into
his
up
major
long
as an Emer
it seems to have Uttle to do with Ammons'
poems;
reputation
sonian "nature
the distance between
the absoluteness
of the
poet." Though
and
the
is
later
liveliness
of
the
work
early poems
speculative
great, the
no means
is
to rela
Ammons
has
achievement
been
change
by
arbitrary.
tivize and multiply
the absolute
for the sake of imaginative
survival and
the promise of a nearly unlimited
He
intellectual
the seer
abandons
growth.
for an astonishing
of the early poems
of inventions
of voices and
variety
as
one
becomes
of
which
clear
the
personae,
surveys a large
variety
only
number of poems. Ammons humanizes
the seer and gives him specific iden
tities. Though Ammons
of his vision
compromises
thereby the absoluteness
more
absorbs
of
he
and knowl
the
ary quest, though
imperfect properties
is
of
he
freer
within
limitations.
He has
these
time,
edges
imaginatively
an
to
himself
humbled
accept
consciously
object, imperfect
earthly nature,
for his now controlled but always resurgent
longings.
to expand his work in two directions.
In doing this, Ammons
He
begins
a
it
to
it
to
the American
closer
and he opens
broad
brings
commonplace,
eclecticism
of knowledge
and wisdom.
He enters, in short, the mainstream
re
of American
poetry. The poetry after Ommateum
visionary
gradually
sources for Ammons'
veals the extent of and the principal
spiritual eclecti
cism. 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 Ionian na
ture philosophy
that is the point of origin of Western
science, and a person
that comes from Eastern
aUzed use of ideas and terminology
thought, ulti
as
source
in its most
Ammons
his
named
"philosophical
by
mately Laotse,
Most of Ammons' mature writings?in
and strategy
idea
version."9
complete
?are made up of his interweaving
of these separate sources, and their union
Ammons'
of in
is Uke the union of compensatory
opposities.
juxtaposition
or
to
vir
his
his
references
the void,
tellectual
emptiness
speculations with
to
to give precise
idea and perception
tuosic capacity
though fluid form
within
the
his
with
attainment,
rapid flow of his verse, of
repeated
coupled
moments
of stillness or serenity reveal how he has united his two very dif
of sudden rest in his verse, moreover,
free
ferent sources. These moments
idea and perception
from logic and referential
70
knowledge;
by them
the mind
so that it is
and per
and refreshed
speculation
ready for renewed
use of these sources, then,
ideas
for the
The
ception.
controlUng
provides
as well as resources of mood and mode. Ammons' use, for
poetry
example, of
is a
derivation
from
the colon as a structural device
these
polari
sty?stic
ties. Perhaps
the best summary of how the two sources help constitute
Ammons'
vision would
be to say that the one is the basis for his active
is stilled
in the
and the other is the wisdom
that enables him to engage
knowledge
of
activity
knowledge.
Ammons'
creation of a nature with which he could initiate a richly pro
was a conscious
visional expressive
reaction against the direc
relationship
tion of his early poetry. Ammons' mature poetry is not a rebellion against a
Unitarianism.
As Ammons'
indicate, his re
corpse-cold
early poems would
too
too
to
if
was,
hot,
ligious background
passionately
anything,
apocalyptic
was
To naturalize
his imagination
thus a saving
be dealt with directly.
as "This Black Rich
and the pro
indicate,
achievement,
Country" would
visional accords with nature in Ammons' work should be seen as an accomp
that is often most
it is most humble,
Ushment
sub?me when
brilUantly
comic.
and
equivocating,
overtly
in the Collected
Poems
immediately
striking in the poetry dated
1956 and 1966 is the great variety of voices and lyric selves that
or serious
Ammons
has created.
celebrant,
country
inquirer, chanter,
Sly
reasoner:
from the
the speakers range in utterance
skeptic, diarist, observer,
or celebrative Whitmanian
chanter of songs to the wry,
formal, hortatory,
ironic doubter
Ammons
of prophecy.
often addresses
the reader directly,
Most
between
he will address
the absoluteness
of the early lyrics. Sometimes,
rupturing
the reader's soul with Whitmanian
sometimes
and
he will appeal
urgency,
to the reader's interests and
a
manner.
in
breezily
sympathies
chatty
Equal
in these poems
for metaphysical
ly various are the terms that he employs
and for definition
of the nature of temporal process. He writes
speculation
the
of, reasons about, or chants the one, unity, the overall, the underlying,
in different poems, and he uses terms
and the divine
void, the changeless,
and weaving
and unweav
like motion,
order, entropy, accident, mechanism,
of nature in time.10
ing to present in different poems the processes
in
It would be incorrect, I think, to call these poems mere
experiments
for the longer,
voice and idea, though they do estabUsh many of the modes
more
poems to come. (One could even say they require Am
encyclopaedic
as acts of
mons to attempt the
) Their variety
self-integration.
longer poems
a
a mode of
comes instead form
and organic impulse: to develop
pragmatic
or mood
that is suited to the different
Some
expression
subject
presented.
are
to
and wisdoms
Ammons'
modes
direct
the
Christian
peripheral.
appeal
in "Christmas Eve" is unusual,
of the incarnation
the
mystery
although
71
book Tape for
mode and tonaUty of the poem are crucial for the wonderful
an amniotic
into
the Turn of the Year; Ammons'
regression
unity in "Sphere"
is most unusual; and his weaving
and unweaving
of self in "Muse" is unusual
in the Whitmanian
and direct
cadences of the first half and the immediacy
ness with which
of
In
overt recreations
this theme is handled.
the
general,
in
not endure
it
in
abounds
Ammons'
Whitman's
do
work, although
style
him.
indirect echoes of
wonderfully
Ammons' main interest, as it emerges from the variety of his middle poems,
to the mind.
in nature and its accessibiUty
of the changing
to this theme. The most
two complementary
discovers
approaches
to rationaUze process
is Ammons'
into flowing
fami?ar
remarkable
abiUty
means
it intelUgible
Ionian
of the
order and to make
of
the
concepts
by
one and the many. This is a realm of intellection
at which Ammons
is an un
not to be
his "one" as ungraspable,
master.
Ammons
presents
paralleled
sees experience
or
it as a destruction
of self.
he
of
fully thought
experienced;
one
is
realm.
Ammons
the
human
In
exercises
the
of
the
The world
short
it,
or
into
the
world
of multipUcity
full play of his mind; he brings
changing
un
as
an
is
fluid and
resourcefulness
intellectual
which
of
ders by means
as natural process.
It is not logical reasoning,
but an underlying
dogmatic
the motions
of things. Am
in the mind which parallels, precariously,
motion
in the mind
in the act of poetry,
mons
motion
and he
that
experiences
is in the realm
Ammons
images
it as the wind:
but the music
in poems
is different,
points to nothing,
traps no
reaUties, takes
no game, but
by the motion of
its motion
resembles
is?
what, moving,
the wind
underleaf, white
the tree.11
against
a destruction;
it ends the motion
try for totaUty is
and the creative mind.
The less famiUar strain in Ammons' poetry is a mode
in both
and the mind, but of an underlying
receptivity
To
72
that
informs
nature
that is not of motion
the cosmos and man.
as
or self; it is his
sees this
to
receptivity
identity
something prior
or void. In the cosmos, the void contains pro
version of Taoist emptiness
of inner stillness and re
cess, and, in the person, the void is a cultivation
Ammons
arrives at a statement
ceptivity. Ammons
a
about
the soul:
"Terrain,"
poem
of it at the end of the fine poem
it is an area of poise, really, held from tipping,
dark wild water, fierce eels, countercurrents:
a habitat,
precise ecology of forms
to some extent
mutually
a crust afloat:
tolerable, not entirely self-destroying;
a scum, foam to the
and
other-natured:
deep
but deeper than depth, too: a vacancy and swirl:
itmay
be spherical, Ught and knowledge merely
iris
and opening
the
of its sight: how it comes and
to the dark methods
whirls
goes, ruptures and heals,
and stands still: the moon comes:
terrain.12
is, according
essay, "A Poem Is A Walk," which
so
not
is
dark once
Emersonian,"
perhaps
"infuriatingly
work is recognized. A poem, as Bloom quotes Ammons,
Ammons'
is a motion
reaUzation.
to no-motion,
Its knowledges
to the still point
are all negative
to Harold Bloom,
this strain in his
of contemplation
and, therefore,
and deep
more posi
tive than any knowledge.13
argues that the poem, as well as the self and cosmos, has an inner
even where
It is a wholeness
in
accessible
stillness and vacancy.
the mind
fails to attain the one, rebuffed by the provisionaUty
of its orders. It
motion
of motion
has meaning
the provisionaUty
and
is the stillness against which
as
two
fact
that
coexist
the
makes
these
modes
form. Ammons
exphcit
Motions."
in
his
"Two
his
in
poem
imagination
parallels
Inlet" integrates
rather than
The justifiably well-known
poem "Corsons
as does "Two Motions,"
modes
of
these
The poet's
imagination.
juxtaposes,
an external wind, but is
into motion
is no longer animated
active mind
by
and it is fused with
in his possession,
the full acceptance
that
completely
an
is
"Overall
that, fully reaUzed, yields "serenity."
acceptance
beyond me,"
of the active and the passive, not a
The poem is a walk and thus a mixture
terms
of "Two Motions."
the opposing
The fact that
voyage or a nonvoyage,
Ammons
it is a casual walk,
yet
a walk
for meditative
73
discovery,
locates
it somewhere
and goal-directedness
of a quest and a passive va
the uniqueness
a
to
its
In
of
walk, one loiters and absorbs
cancy
receptivity
surroundings.
as one
a
as much
in
to
this
attempts
get anywhere;
repeated,
daily walk,
is
in
Ammons'
idea
absorbtiveness
the
poem
passive
controlling
emphasized.
is active. It is the mind's ever recrudescent
and expanding
capacity to "fasten
between
to combat
grasps of disorder,"
increasing
enlarging
an
rest in
is
to
that
related
the
finds, however,
insight
passive
in the walk:
elements
into order
entropy. He
or
receptive
there is no finaUty of vision,
that I have perceived
nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.14
thus reveals how the activity of mind and the receptive
stillness
are
are
to each other. When
related
of wisdom
necessarily
they
integrated
forever
with each other, the poet can achieve a fuller and fuller
(though
nature.
his
naturaUzation
of
humanizaci?n
of
and
imagination
incomplete)
can become more and more a part of and
of the poet's mind
The motions
to nature's active motions.
"wind,"
They neither need be merely
supplement
in the human mind
of something
for moments
the appearance
essentially
a
or autonomy
nor need
that would be threat
nonhuman,
they attain
finality
in its conclusiveness.
They need neither be too natural
ening and unnatural
nor too human and conscious
to
consciousness
to
human
in origin
include
resources
a
wis
intellection
and
the
of
find
place in natural process. With
can locate himself within
of natural process,
the mid-world
dom, Ammons
can
root
himself precariously
within
the
the realm of time and change. He
use of the colon, a staple now of his poetic syn
In
his
this
context,
flowing.
In Emerson's
luminous.
tax and to remain so, becomes
prose style, each
sentence often seems to be a unique origin, and an essay is at best a cumu
re
at worst a collection
of mutually
lative series of original
insights and
accents
in
continuation
Ammons'
contrast,
poetry,
by
particles.
pellent
in natural fate or law
as much as it does surprise and involvement
process
into a balance
as it does freedom. Ammons mitigates
and brings
as much
in "Cor
in Emerson's
terms that are paradoxical
Indeed,
thought.
polarities
the terms 'law" or "fate" in order to make
son's Inlet," Ammons modifies
Ammons
to his scientific understanding
of
a total
of
original
discontinuity
law or fate. Nature
adamantine
bound
by
thing
order and disorder, cause and
process of mingled
them responsive
sees as neither
natural process, which he
nor some
self-recreations
a
the
is, Uke
poet's mind,
event and prob
accident,
ability.
nature and
The "freedom" of "Corson's Inlet" is the unfinished
qua?ty of
a maximum
in
order
with
of possibil
of vision. The poem balances
subtlety
74
of free
allows the experience
ity, and this balance of order and possibility
attains is risk: the risk of possi
dom. The price for the freedom Ammons
of death will shatter time, and the risk of
biUty, the risk that the accident
an apparent
risk
the
that
the
order,
imagination will quail before
rigidity of
food-chain
the
of
death.
order,
tight
In its celebration
of provisionaUty,
"Corson's Inlet" is a self-conscious
to
of
Ammons'
that
work
to ration
summary
point. In it, Ammons
attempts
a mid-world
alize his diversity
of thought and voice. In firmly estabUshing
of imaginative
existence within
and in its attainment
of
temporal process,
inner and outer coherence within
the changing,
the poem looks forward to
the impressive
for the Turn
Poems,
of Ammons'
later work,
the Tape
particularly
in
that
the
Collected
appear
long poems
"Extremes and Moderations,"
and "Hibernacu
developments
of the Year,
on Poetics,"
"Essay
lum," and the book-length
the
poem
Sphere.
In Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons
takes the wisdom
of "Cor
as one could wish. A
son's Inlet" as far into the American
commonplace
on an
found
long, skinny poem, written
adding machine
tape that Ammons
it
at a home and
extends
several
hundred
store,
pages
garden supply
through
and a five-week period of time his achievement
of freedom within time, his
and surprise.
precarious balance of continuum
Ammons bases his Tape upon an affectionate
He
parody of the Odyssey.
account of his passage
a Uttle
relocates the epic story to a diary-like
through
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
even
daily
or
a
a
tuaUties
accidents. Like Odysseus,
Ammons
has
home he
destination,
themes of the poem. With
dis
seeks; this is one of the main
wonderfully
seeks another Ithaca, as he is waiting
to hear about
guised slyness, Ammons
a
Ithaca, New York. The theme of home
job offer from Cornell University,
more
itself
far
sections of the
is,
however,
coming
complex. The opening
it as a story of "how / a man comes home / from haunted /
poem announce
to an "acceptance
of his place / and time."15 The
lands and transformations"
in
in
and
theme
overall
thus
of a way
becomes,
form, the attainment
poem
resources are those of
of "going along with this / world as it is."16 Ammons'
and receptive wisdom;
"Corson's Inlet," active intellection
the goal of his
can also be put in the terms of "Corson's Inlet" as the
and
quest
continuing
ever unfinished
of a partial humanization
attainment
of nature and naturali
to deal with the
zation of the imagination. Ammons
attempts
continuously
at the end of the poem:
raises
he
question
have
our minds
far, out of nature,
complete
taken us too
out of
acceptance?17
75
The home
tion; Ammons
sought is thus finally
realizes that
those who
fooUshly
it that
not a fixed
rely
haven't
residence.
It is a home
in mo
on any shore
faced
stream is
only the
reUable:18
includes in the poem a number
Indeed, "home is every minute."19 Ammons
vivid and clear remembrances
of his boyhood
in the South;
of wonderfully
are too
for
he
reaUzed
for
recollects
them
with the in
they
finely
nostalgia,
is no way home in going back. Ammons
thus
that
there
sight
distinguishes
in
lost. He also distinguishes
for paradises
himself
himself from a yearning
a
to
it
for
that
his
be
clear
from
yearning
Tape
paradises
regained, making
but not the ideological
of time retains the irreversibiUty
conception
goal of
Christian
history.
Miltonic
echoes Ammons
intends; he also expUcitly echoes Words
not to
His
of God to
worth's
justify the ways
high quest is
"Prospectus."
the mind
man nor to effect a marriage, with apocalyptic
overtones, between
of changing
of man and the external world, but to come to an acceptance
as a
a reconciliation
he describes
this /
"going along with
place and time,
nor final as a mar
as it is." This reconciliation
is never so
world
complete
a blend of continuous
activity of wit and intellect
riage. Instead, it involves
to being
abandonment
of acceptance,
with a large draught
swept along,
a poem that is as
in
and ending as is
and it necessitates
arbitrary
beginning
sense of
the Tape, a going along with a section of the poet's time. Ammons'
was
more
in
even
in his
extreme
this
than
is
Emerson's
transience
poem
These
nature.
of apocalyptic
with
itself a resistance
essay "Circles,"
marriage
awareness
about himself,
each
Rather than draw larger and larger circles of
a return to time and which neces
one an attainment which
is dissipated
by
to ride a "moment- / to
Ammons
sitates a further self-recovery,
attempts
in short, to ride rather than to circumscribe.
moment
crest."20 He attempts,
now a
of daily Ufe,
of "Corson's Inlet" has become
The wisdom
possession
attained at the end of a medita
not the sublime assertion of a recognition
tests that assertion to see if it will be capable of sustain
tive walk. Ammons
man in the disorder and homeUness
an
of daily life in a house
ing
ordinary
from the ocean margin).
in inland New Jersey (a location now removed
of "Corson's Inlet," a world whose
The Tape is thus set in the mid-world
in
is
rooted
the active knowledge
of Greek
and clarity of form
visibiUty
is
of Taoism.
that
and receptive wisdom
Something
specific to
philosophy
an
of Ammons'
is
the Tape, however,
expansion
religious and philosophical
76
than in any other poem, save
most recent long
perhaps the
Ammons
this
in
mid-world
darkness, a darkness out
poem, Sphere,
suspends
as in
of which
sweetness
the clarity of fact emerges with the same attained
vests the "natural
at
the
end of the atypical poem "Bridge."
Ught" attained
In writing
that the
eclecticism.
More
eternal
significance
is of some
to me: I
significance
how: but
don't
know
just
is
temporal significance
a world I can
partly make,
loss & gain:21
the processes
of time with something
larger, something
in terms of inner need and external knowledge;
Ammons
surrounds
unknown
and unknowable
is still beyond
in the
the "Overall"
him, it is very much
though
a natural
if only in the background
winter
of the New
Jersey
nights,
ness. This darkness,
more
however, may at times suggest
something
nature to "the terror-ridden
/ homeless man / wandering
through /
verse of horror"; this homeless
man
haunts
the
wandering
always
even
to
of
"man
at
the
Ammons
seeks
be
the
poem,
ground
though
in a universe of
Ught," saying
poem,
dark
than
a uni
back
ease /
let's tend our
feelings &
leave the Lord
His problems
(if any): He
got us this far on His own:
& milUons have come
and gone in joy
(predominantly ) :22
leaves the Lord on his own and only comically
Though Ammons
gives
one could not call even the moment
Him personal
identity, and though
in intention, his acceptance
Ammons
of un
speaks of the Lord devotional
overtone.
in
is Judeo-Christian
The atmosphere
of the Christmas
certainty
to a certain extent its tone and substance.
setting for the Tape determines
to an unknownable
Between
of Abraham,
the obedience
will,
submitting
of PauUne faith, a death and rebirth to a new world,
and the regeneration
the poet
of the Tape
is to be found. Of
77
course,
Ammons
follows
neither
of
and whimsy
and he tries to
these paths. He retains his Umited freedoms
as
mere
time
But
Ammons'
middle
road is flanked
within
that
stay
ongoing.
is
from
clear
his
the
these
credo,
by
Judeo-Christian
paths
Tape's central
a
an
after
service
in which
of
afternoon
church
moment,
description
spoken
to / each row / & the
"the deacons went down / the aisles & gave
light
Ught poured / down the rows & / the singing started":
though the forces
have different names
in different
&
places
are
times, they
real forces which
we
don't understand:
I can either beUeve
in them or doubt them &
I beUeve:
I believe that man
is
small
& of short duration
in the
great, incomprehensible,
& eternal: I believe
it's necessary
to do
good
as we best can define
I believe we must
& accept
discover
it:
the
terms
that best testify:
I'm on the side of
whatever
we
the
reasons
are
are here:
we do the best we
& it's not enough:23
can
terms of this poem are finally a nonintellectual
and Umited
humiUty
an
not
and
of the void. The
acceptance
entropy and order
serenity,
hope,
indicates what
lies beneath
the poem's rich play of the
credo's humiUty
it comes from choice, faith,
mind, and the highly conditional
hope?whether
or the
comic
of
the
American
desire to be on "the
rendering
deUghtfully
for
the
from within
side
of
acceptance
poem's quest
right
things"?underUes
and always hopeful
fabric of daily American
time. Just as it is the humble
The
78
is
this poem as its imaginative
setting, it
humiUty and pro
sustains
the
that
speaker.
hope
his speculative
Ammons
thus deprecates
of
ideas to the nonintellectuality
and hope and to the routines of daily life they inform. It
Christian humility
be doing an injustice to the Tape, both in its own right and
would, moreover,
in its position as forerunner
to the more difficult
and intellectually
brilUant
to omit a notation
later long poems,
of the poem's range of thought. Am
mons
in this poem to take account of the whole
attempts
range of man's
life that sustains
visional
he deals with questions
aesthetical,
knowledge:
epistemological,
metaphysi
cal, re?gious, psychological,
social, sexual, and scientific. The
sociological,
to find models
the later poems' attempts
that include and
Tape previsions
some
at
in con
I
shall
this
all
realms.
discuss
these
later
point
unify
length
nection with the "Essay on Poetics"; here I only wish to note that the Tape
cosmoses.
is the herald of the later poems' intellectual
In the Tape, Ammons
does not yet assert ideas as ideals, saying "ideas are human products,
/
&
full
this
he
modifies
but
of
process";
temporal
description
sig
slightly
in the later
ideas
undercuts
nificantly
long poems.24 In the Tape, Ammons
them to the fabric of daily life, a poetic resource which pro
by juxtaposing
as well as wisdom
vides much of the entertainment
of the poem. Ammons
will, while on a flight of thought, frequently
interrupt himself with a paren
thesis "(just went to take a leak: / jay on the back lawn, / hopping,
looking
in a
around, / turning leaves)"25 or refer back to a past speculative
flight
not
is
comic
that
but
had
lunch
after
who
/
/
"(I
way
deflating
completely
cannot
love')".26
some of the
poem of America. Whereas
Inlet" echo Whitman's
mode
and with
poems prior
directly
is both
in in
and
rich
remarkable
success, the Tape
highly personaUzed
a self, however,
it as a song of myself,
direct echoes. Ammons writes
empiri
man
the poet remains the representative
cized and provinciaUzed.
Though
and the poem is a poem of America,
the poet and poem attain this status
or homeliness
and smallness
their provinciaUty
of deUneation.
through
uses the word "we," his tone is f amiUal and
some
Ammons
When
sharing,
a poem about a quest for home and to a poem that is
to
thing appropriate
rich with the Christmas winter
atmosphere. He seeks to temper the external
the weather,
the long dark winter nights of ice, and the near
of
adversity
ness of an inscrutable mystery
the internal hearth warmth
of
by recreating
are a
event and shared daily eventuaUties.
voices
These
and
attitudes
family
is a rebel against the
barbaric yawp, a genuine one for our day. Ammons
in American
in
the
and
humble, casual,
"Uterary"
catching
provincial
speech
a
an
an event re
American
of
and event;
Christmas,
sympathetic
portrayal
as the f ountainhead
of kitsch, is a remarkable
literary
garded by the merely
in aWhitmanian
vein.
achievement
The
Tape
is Ammons'
essential
to "Corson's
79
for the Turn of the Year?the major ones
and
and
Moderations,"
"Hibernaculum,"
"Essay
a
a
Form
Motion
and
the book-length
The
of
poem Sphere:
comparatively
one is "Summer Session"?make
use of the con
minor, but sheerly deUghtful
tinuous form of the Tape, but alter its import and effect in a number of ways.
I shall focus on "Essay on Poetics' as representative
of the major long poems
to the others, for, even
and content myself mainly with references
taking
on Poetics" alone, I am all too conscious
that justice cannot be done
"Essay
to its richness in a brief survey of Ammons' whole
body of work.
The speaker of the "Essay" has a somewhat
different
than had
identity
as a
identifiable
the speaker of Tape. No longer primarily
provincial Ameri
and mock-Victorian
can, he emerges more vividly as an ironic Stevensian
a
in a
The essayist writes
essayist-comedian.
lang
language of propositions,
as
as
not
is
various
that
its
of
that
of
the
uage
variety
Tape, though
thought
is stunning. The language of the "Essay" rehes heavily upon
and expression
and aphor
the resources of connective
syntax, as its propositions,
thoughts,
not
continuation
and
isms are connected
of
the
the
the surge
colon
only by
or
that modify
of continuation
of thought, but also by a host of connectives
etc.
of the thought,
such as "indeed,"
direction
the
"still,"
"but,"
qualify
to at one "point
that the essayist himself calls attention
(This is a language
in the poem.)27 The effect of the poem's freedom
of provisional
summation"
is to multiply
its thought rather than to restrict it. Like the
with connectives
in motion,
is far more rapid and
is
but this motion
the
Tape,
"Essay"
always
more
in the other long
still
than that of the Tape, and it quickens
sustained
mood of an essay.
poems, less tied to the meandering
The "Essay" has a quotidian
setting, for it is written
during the "natural
a snowstorm,
it refers often to the weather
and
and the look
of
suspension"
of the land outdoors.28 In contrast to the setting for the Tape, the snowstorm
in which
is a "natural suspension,"
the poet distances
himself
sUghtly from
a
a
not
has
his normal life in order to write
essay,
poetic
diary. Thought
as
even autonomy.
a
and
of
primacy
Though,
sUghtly greater degree
gained
it is now a middle
hews a "middle way,"
of
in the Tape, Ammons
way
a way cut between
an "artificial
rather than experience,
Unearity"
thought
Ammons'
are
and
long poems
on Poetics,"
since Tape
"Extremes
"nonsense."29
an
in mode
away from
important development
signifies
change
a
to
from
his
former
naturaUze
the
it
is
the Tape;
attempt
sUght push away
an
autonomous
assert
to
the
freedom of the
and toward
attempt
imagination
a
Uberation
avoids
from nature,
Ammons
complete
expUcitly
imagination.
is an important and subtle one. At one point, early
the distinction
however;
"
in the
"what this is about," the
in the poem, Ammons writes
'gathering /
so to
trove of mind,
tested / experience,
the only place to
the
speak,
sky'
. . . the
of civiUzation,
the Sumerians
stay
holy bundle of / the elements
Ammons'
80
un
in the sky" is akin to the
"gathering
Heavenly
City and the
a
no
now
Overall
of
Ammons'
earlier
it
is
de
poems, though
grasped
longer
an
is
is
struction. It
it
ideal that guides human action,
"impossibly difficult";
in a literal sense, but nevertheless
an ideal to be
nonexistent
inaccessible,
said."30 This
feels an immense risk of loss and a profound
pa
out of nature is clear from the
for something
slightly
that begins the book Sphere.
(for Harold Bloom)
poem
moving
dedicatory
returns to the mood and Sumerian
In it, Ammons
setting of his earUest poetry
as he
was removed from nature
himself
identifies
with
who
Enkidu,
covertly
at the cost of his
converse
to
and humanized
ability
directly and Uve in har
it.
with
Ammons
his
concludes
lament
with the Unes:
mony
magnificent
striven
thos
for. That Ammons
in his quest
now
this place has provided
firm impUcation and answering
but where here is the image for longing:
so I touched the rocks, their
interesting crusts:
I flaked the bark of stunt-fir:
I looked into space and into the sun
answered my word longing:
I said,
nature so
goodbye,
goodbye,
grand and
are
into
healed
their own
reticent, your tongues
up
element
and as you have shut up you have shut me out: I am
as
as if I had landed, a visitor:
foreign here
so Iwent back down and
gathered mud
and with my hands made an image for longing:
and nothing
I took this image to the summit: first
I set it here, on the top rock, but it completed
then I set it there among the tiny firs
nothing:
but it would not fit:
so I returned to the city and built a house to set
the image in
and men
came into my house and said
that is an image for longing
and nothing will ever be the same again31
in the Collected
and the other long poems
Poems do not,
to attain or give themselves
up to such finaUty. Instead, Am
draws in them the line between
naturalization
and apocalyp
the imagination;
he makes
the distinction
clear in two pas
The first expUcitly resists apocalypse:
sages in "Hibernaculum."
The
"Essay"
seek
however,
mons
carefully
tic freedom of
some think mind will
continue
81
of its own self
growing out of nature until possessed
itwill bespeak
its own change, turn with
second-nature
or
it grew: I'm pessimistic:
against the loam out of which
23
for my Uttle faith, such as it is, is that mind and
nature
grew out of a common
motions
The
second
the previous
passage,
one:
...
node
and so must
obey
common
:32
however,
the mind's
one: it
pre-existed,
sets itself against
the apparent
I think: even before
naturaUsm
of
it was
it was mind
it was the earth: when
plausible:
it
will
be
another
born,
earth, just Uke
fully
the earth, but visionary, earth luminous with sight:33
mind
it is
are not
the second passage
the
echoes
These
finally. Though
oppositions,
new heaven and earth of Revelation,
it is a new earth exactly Uke the old,
and the progress
toward it is not a second birth but a continuation
of the
Emerson wrote of extremes,
the poetic recreation of a second
first. Whereas
naturaUzation
of the mind, Ammons
and the complete
world
precariously
holds
both
and
together
possibi?ties.
edges against
on Poetics"
is a poem that quite obviously
is about poetry.
It is,
"Essay
was
an
as
it
the
and
also
what
however,
poem,
attempts
Tape,
encyclopaedic
an
realms of knowledge
of the different
that
the Tape avoided,
integration
serves as the
of the ideal poem which
it draws on. Ammons
builds a model
whether
of the ideal organization,
/ the cell, the
"symboUcal representation
or
the
the
the
business,
university,
computer,
/group,
re?gious
body poUtic,
a
from nature and not what
"Ideal" means
level of abstraction
whatever."34
but which
constitutes
nature; as an ideal, it is something nonexistent
guides
human striving.
a model
for the ideal organization
To understand
just how poetry forms
an
to the controlUng
some reference
necessitates
image for the "Essay,"
new form of con
comes from the field of cybernetics.
Ammons'
that
image
of nature involves transforming
and thus partial humanization
ceptuaUzation
means
this
transformation
first an act of ab
bits:
nature into information
reworks
straction and second a kinetic act of relation of the parts. Ammons
of order and entropy he used in "Corson's Inlet" into the model
the model
It is a cooler and a higher-speed
and this determines
of cybernetics.
model,
now in
in the tone of the verse. Interpreting
a
processes
physical
change
terms
in
than
of
"laws
of
rather
nature"
terms of conceptual
which
processes,
82
are
prior to and perhaps antagonistic
Ammons
has made a subtle change
His
to those that govern mental processes,
in both the mode and the vision of his
is precarious,
into information-bits
and
abstraction
of reality
must / not violate
concrete
the bit, event, percept,
/ fact?the
"language
means
that
otherwise
the separation
/ the death of language
shows"; how
con
this is, and how impotent we are to control the processes
precarious
on the word "true." The word
sciously, is illustrated by Ammons' meditation
to "tree" and therefore
the elm tree of the
"true," related etymologically
more
itself
of
"bits"
than
mind can handle,
the
essay,
composed
physically
is shown to contain greater resonance and rootage of
than a logical
meaning
can
a medium
in
in
mind
Not
but
poetry,
comprehend.
logic then,
only
in
is
of
with
abstraction
motion,
greater complexity
pos
capable
deaUng
sible. To accomplish
this end, poetry has, for one thing, the capacity
for il
the bits are ab
lusion, as it can heighten
"by dismissing
rea?ty."35 Once
as a
of
that
into
stracted, they are immediately,
abstraction,
part
brought
relational motion:
are es
both speed in motion
and intellectual
virtuosity
on
of variations
sential, as one can see from Ammons'
stunning printout
"no ideas but in things."36 If Ammons
WilUam
Carlos WilUams'
should stop
on any word,
gives way; / melting
"language
through, and reaUty's cold
waters / accept the failure."37 Just as computers
in action retain in
murky
verse retains its
circulation
formation by rapid electronic
of it, so Ammons'
in
its
meaning
mobility.
Ammons'
of poetry as bits thrown into motion
is based
cybernetic model
on an ideal of
into
his
He
feeds
of dif
bits
poems
organization.
gradually
and then, in the course of the poem's
ferent information
(ideas, themes)
or
of the
high-speed motion, he produces different clusterings
core-tang?ngs
are Ammons'
new approach
to the famiUar one:
bits. These core-tanglings
and they form a model
for societies, businesses?whatever?
many problem,
as well as for
and
for
of unity
computers
poetry. The ideal is a maximum
or
without
is
distortion
of
of
the
bits.
the
any
suppression
Poetry
highest
it has resources beyond
model:
those of computers.
It has forms of order
that are more than merely an increase of the motion's
speed:
poetry.
nothing
defined
can
be still: the verbal moves, depends
there, or sinks into unfocused
is
mind
the
when
but
brought to silence, the
irreaUty; ah,
it's
the
whole
and
still,
non-verbal,
again to see how motion goes:38
and China in the long poems in Collected
again in Greece
are
or
intellection
and the quieting
Poems, the themes of which
giving up
A familiar
of
the
that represents wisdom.
and
of the
technique
"Essay"
is something
that echoes classic American
later poems generally
silent films.
We
are back
83
Ammons
will multiply
information, pour more into the poem than a rational
is
an
is not the re
of nonsense
analysis
capable of, will then, if
explosion
recover
a
himself with
sud
sult,
gesture of giving up that returns the mind,
to integration. After
the
considerations
it
that
im
make
denly,
multiplying
to ever determine
location
in
the
of
elm
his
the
let
alone
possible
backyard,
falls back into a wonderful
say anything about its inner structure, Ammons
that also recovers the wholeness
of the elm:
self-recovery
I am
just going to take it for granted
that the tree is in my
backyard:
to be quiet in the hands of the marvelous:39
it's necessary
NOTES
1
Examples of these poems are: "So I Said I am Ezra," "The Sap Is Gone out of the
a Moment
in 1349,"
to
"Rack,"
Strasbourg
"Turning
Say So Long,"
"Dying
a Diminished
"With Ropes
of Hemp,"
"I Struck
Place,"
"Eolith,"
Seventh,"
'1 Assume
the World
Is Curious
about
"One
a
"I Came
Me,"
upon
Composing,"
and "Whose
Timeless
Reach."
Plateau,"
"Sumerian,"
"Gilgamesh,"
"In
Trees,"
in a Mirthful
2 A. R. Ammons, Collected Poems 1951-1971
be
3 The
4
5
6
of Gilgamesh,
10, p. 14,
Epic
CP,
p.
CP,
p.
6, p.
3.
CP,
p.
2.
7CF,
8 CP,
pp.
to
trans.
p.
27,
from
an
N.
K.
and
Sandars
p.
(Baltimore,
1972),
92.
p.
31.
10-11.
p. 37.
9 The
comes
comment
p. 51.
mature
(1973),
Ammons'
to "discredit
as he
(New York, 1972), p. 1. Hereafter
to as CP.
referred
uses
interview
The
verse
rehgiously
the present
reveals
is; the rural South,
and intellectually"
tense
in the
in the Ammons
interview
also
how
in which
and
interview?"no
issue
self-conscious
and
was
Ammons
thus
a man
became
culture."
His
of Diacritics,
a
chosen
iv
III,
creation
came
up, he
had?and
brought
who
transformation
has,
of himself
into a poet of the tradition of the New England mind would have something in it of
of a provisional
assumption
on
not
so, based
overtly
it resembles,
that
unobtrusive
for Ammons
question
tantalizing
the
when
his
individual
to the
To
view
deal
talent;
later
poems
with
these
have
reveals,
framework
ceptual
10 A list of the
the
than
spirit
Eliot's
disguise.
an allusive
ever
so
Indeed,
revision
is often
poetry
tradition
literary
tall tale told with
his
of
a
slightly,
will be, I
predict,
Possum
be more
may
criticism
of Old
poetry
was
the question
or,
overtly
parodie
that is so wry yet
a
face. A
straight
of
in
tradition
indirect
important,
the
influence
upon
early
as the Diacritics
criticism
will,
as a direct
and
ways,
poems.
inter
Ammons
questions
adequately,
a different?both
to
more
subde
and more
American?con
provide
in his articles
on Ammons.
than that employed
Harold
Bloom
by
I consider
most
in this connection
be helpful
poems
important
may
84
"The Golden
"Come Prima,"
"Mechanism,"
"Guide,"
Mean,"
"Prodigal,"
"Hymn,"
"
and Possibilities,"
"Unsaid,"
"Terrain,"
"Uh,
Philosophy,"
"Sphere
"Bridge,"
"Christmas
"What
"The Strait,"
Eve,"
"Muse,"
"River,"
"Catalyst,"
"Open,"
"Identity,"
Sea Level,"
for Motion,"
of
This Mode
of Motion
"Motion
"One:
Said,"
"Expressions
here:
"Risks
"Two Motions,"
"Corson's
Many,"
11
146-147.
CP, pp.
12
CP, p. 90.
13 Harold
You
"When
Bloom,
Inlet,"
Consider
and
the
"Saliences."
Radiance,"
The
Ringers
in
the
Tower
(Chicago, 1971), pp. 270-271.
14
CP,
151.
p.
15A. R. Ammons,
Tape for the Turn of the Year (Ithaca, 1965), pp. 9-10.
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
p.
203.
Tape,
p.
202.
Tape,
p.
19.
Tape,
p.
31.
Tape,
Tape, p. 37
26.
Tape,
p.
Tape,
p.
155.
Tape,
p.
98.
Tape,
p.
32.
Tape,
p.
38.
p. 61.
Tape,
27
CP, p. 299.
28
CP, p. 317.
29 CP,
pp. 301-302.
30 CP,
p. 300.
31 A. R. Ammons,
Sphere: The Form of a Motion
32 CP,
p. 358.
33 CP,
p. 367.
34
p.
315.
CP,
p.
298.
CP,
p.
310.
CP,
p.
304.
CP,
(New York, 1974), dedicatory page.
35 CP,
p. 298.
36 CP,
p. 308.
37
38
39
POETRY
/ A. R. AMMONS
When
IWas Young the Silk
I was young the silk
of my mind
hard as a peony head
When
85