David Rollow reviews
The Complete Poems A.R. Ammons
W. W. Norton, 2017, 2 volumes
A. R. Ammons, called Archie by all who knew him, had routines. He met friends for conversation in the coffee shop in the basement of Goldwin Smith Hall at Cornell (where he taught from 1964 until his retirement). He wrote poetry in the mornings on his old-fashioned office typewriter, letters after the mail came around noon, and he took a walk in the afternoon along Ithaca’s creeks and waterfalls, “every day a new walk.” The walk was more than a habit, more even than a habit of mind. On his walk he got somewhere, and his poems often take a similar form, starting out without a goal but arriving by getting somewhere unexpected as if words were steps and the movement or progress from setting out to arrival constituted the form of the poem:
After rain I
walk and looking
the moon. I
back up to see
and the puddle splices
onto two hundred
thousand miles of
miles of depth
(ii, 35) 1977 (1978)
“I can tell you right now I don’t know how to write/verse, not even poetry: if I did I wouldn’t be here,” he wrote drily. (ii: 429) He pretends to be innocent of versification, but as one reads through his work it becomes evident that he writes consciously against meter; his line breaks are clever, conscious evasions of tetrameter and pentameter. [EXAMPLE] Emerson wrote, “It is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.” There could hardly be a better description of Ammons’s poetry, and Harold Bloom noted the link to Emerson long ago. Emerson continues: “The poet has a new thought: he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.” Walt Whitman was the first to offer this “new confession,” and Ammons is the poet of our age, one of the most original since Whitman. His work as a whole reforms and refreshes American poetic language and as such is a great gift to the future.
He’s most famous for writing a long poem, Tape for the Turn of the Year, on a continuous roll of adding machine tape. Forbidding himself revision, writing daily, he used anxiety to create. It’s not that there’s only one right way, as if a poem were an example of a Leibnizian principal of least effort. His roll of adding machine tape provided him with the net Robert Frost had said free verse lacked, not meter or rhyme but merely the width of the paper he wrote on, a postmodern kind of constraint, at once physical and conceptual.
—Yet I no sooner deny the Leibnizian principal than I find it full blown in Tape.
Ammons declares a wish to do “short rich hard/lyrics” after finishing his long, skinny poem:
lines that can be
gone over (and over)
till they sing with
Here “rightness” is Leibniz’s “pre-established harmony.” But Ammons is less a philosophical poet than the scientific observer, despite his quixotic long projects. He invokes the scientist’s “elegant parsimony” in the middle of—it is tempting to say—a long poem that resembles a Leibnizian proof, too long to be held in the mind all at once, a procedure or series of steps or leaps that the reader must attend to one by one and only in this way capture the world the way Ammons needed (his need) to capture it. In his long poems he sought “rightness” from another direction, aiming to get it right the first time.
This part of Tape shows the poem as a search for a “level of language” that can contain anything (“whatever the Muse/gives”). Almost 5000 lines into his “long, thin poem,” Ammons is still invoking the Muse! But as always, there is a dynamic or dialectic: “the denominator/here may be too low: the/lines may be/too light, the song/too hard to bear:/still, it’s not been/easy: it’s/cost me plenty” in what was then a “month of Sundays” at the typewriter waiting for the “marginal red/ink” to roll up at the end of the tape. The denominator: the lowest common one, another way of phrasing Leibniz’s principle. One would have thought that the constraints of the tape were more toward randomness, but that was not the movement of Ammons’s mind. While no review can do justice to Ammons’s long poems, it’s worth noting that he did find a level of language able to contain whatever he wanted to put into it—whatever he wanted to say. The width of the tape limits the line lengths, narrowing the possibilities for line breaks. He is working a possibility space that became available to poets only after the free verse of modernism had been explored and absorbed by Williams and Pound and because the constraint is entirely artificial and arbitrary and “rightness” is a criterion an earlier poet is unlikely to have thought of.
In addition to Tape for the Turn of the Year, he wrote two other very long poems, Garbage and Glare, on adding machine tape, though not necessarily single continuous strips. To write Garbage, he wrote when it came out in The Best American Poetry 1993, he “tore off the sections in lengths of a foot or more,” adding that “the arrogance implied by getting something right the first time is incredible, but no matter how much an ice-skater practices, when she hits the ice it’s a one-time event.” Ammons’s attitude toward revision was not as simple as it sounds. He said he didn’t revise Garbage, but Cornell has three different typescripts, one a computer printout typed in by someone else, one with edits from a copyeditor. One [Glare] manuscript has revisions the poet made by hand. Nevertheless, to a great extent these long poems try to get it right the first time and accept some “clutter” of failure. His poetic strategy stretched from a Kerouacian “first thought, best thought,” once mocked by Truman Capote as mere “typing,” as Ammons ironically observes, to working on poems (some quite short) for several years. The only clue to his process of rewriting comes at the end of the poem, where there are dates, the one in parenthesis indicating when he published the poem. So, for example, if the two dates are a couple of years apart, we can imagine the interval meant some “working and reworking.” But poems such as Tape for the Turn of the Year and Garbage were written, as a painter would say, premier coup or first strike. (His other long poem, Sphere, involved more revision). The remarkable thing about the first-strike poems, including those he called improvisations, is their rightness. Those he worked and reworked arrive at rightness by a different route, but he invoked the “pre-established” nature of both.
One example of a poem “worked and reworked” until it’s right must be quoted in full:
I found a
that had a
mirror in it
looked in at
weed in it
(i, 351) 1963 (1965)
Even difficult poets like Ashbery (with whom Ammons shared eminence) want readers, and Ammons always wanted more readers than he had. (“The only royalty I’m interested in,” he says, ironically commenting on Wallace Stevens’s search for his coat of arms, “is royalties.”) Yet the attention he received from readers (and students) could also annoy him; in Summer Place, he complains about having to buy stamps for recommendation letters “commanded” by students. In this poem he speaks of attempting, in Sphere, to write something unreadable, to put readers off, a “big gritty poem that would just stand/there and spit, accommodating itself to nothing,” which nevertheless sold a lot of copies. “My book on roundness/disappointed me some . . . I meant/to write one unreadable, but a lot of people have/bought it . . . I wanted something/standing recalcitrant in its own nasty massiveness.” (ii, )
It would be a mistake to suggest that Ammons is not a difficult poet like those he looked at over his shoulder. His language is bare of poetic frills and reads like plain speech but what he has to say and the ways he says it are complex and ambiguous. Richard Howard called him a “literalist of the imagination,” yet even this strikes me as somewhat off the mark. His mountains, rivers, estuaries, coasts, creeks, waterfalls, his perceptions and observations are his metaphors. Many of his poems, thought without frills, turn on sound patterns that involve internal rhyme or assonance, while others progress by turns of phrase. Absent is a specifically poetic diction and he makes it clear that he believes his “sway” will alter the course of American verse, as I believe it will.
The fifty years since Ammons began to develop a major reputation have been good to his poetry. I read Ammons when I was young and then for many years I paid no attention to his work. I am happy to say that he continued to grow throughout his life, that it was an expansive growth, and that his language remains as fresh and lively today as it was fifty years ago. The greats of the generation before his have begun to look wilted around the edges to the extent that they mimic Elizabethan or Jacobean “poetic” diction, whereas Ammons was fiercely committed to anxieties and resentments that made him strip his poems of the merely poetic. “Nobody has established a more cordial relationship with the heights than I have, a fact/which has already caused the elegance to shrink/even before it’s going to have a chance to wilt: but my sway will, as/time goes on, become the new elegance, bumpy and roughshod.”
Other poets were moving ever closer to the spoken word, but Ammons is among the most successful and today I read him with the feeling that he did more than anyone else of his generation to make spoken American English a language for poetry and with the certainty, fifty years on, that his poetry marks a turning point that fifty years from now will be seen as of historic importance. Something gave Ammons the nerve to write in a colloquial American English idiom that was governed by an active wit. Ammons, like Whitman as praised by Emerson, “led The States there—[has] led Me there. I say that none has ever done, or ever can do, a greater deed for The States, than your deed.”
Like many of his generation, Ammons benefitted from the GI Bill of Rights after WWII, which made it possible for him to go to college and graduate school, an opportunity he would not have had without the war, for the family tobacco farm failed just before Archie enlisted in the navy and trained as a sonar operator. He was later pleased to learn that James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara had also undergone sonar training in Key West. “Ping jockeys,” he called them, and joked (I think he was joking) that he was a New York School poet by association. He chafed at his isolation but he chafed more at the idea that he was an undereducated farm boy, the “nature poet,” who writes something that would go well with dinner, a hick. “I’m not just trash or white trash or country trash, I’m/tobacco country trash, high-principled Scotch-Irish,” he wrote, explaining that “trash” is, among other things, the word for the bottom leaves of tobacco, cropped off first, cured later. “I have/become, if not king of the cats, prince of the hogs & snakes,” a “born aristocrat, as anybody will tell you.” He talks ironically of lacking book learning, but read widely all his life. He was always sure of his vocation. “From where I started the/route was up or forget it, and I’ve come most of the way.” Insistent reference to his rural and southern roots is finally condescending and dismissive. Lingering class prejudice places Ammons as an “outsider” poet, or a folk poet of some kind. Helen Vendler in her introduction finds it necessary to tell us that he grew up in a house without electricity, only kerosene lamps, and an outdoor privy (then quite common on farms since cesspools were unknown and there were no sewers). The editor of this edition of his poetry teaches him as a southern writer at Mississippi State, but he was no primitive regionalist. Ammons’s poems return to childhood memories, but the locales that are local to his poetry are mainly Ithaca and the Jersey shore, not the North Carolina tobacco country.
Around the age of forty he became friends with the critic Harold Bloom, whose children were the same age as the Ammons’s son John. That friendship grew into a correspondence which, we may hope, will someday be published. This must have been when Bloom was writing his great book, The Anxiety of Influence. I don’t believe Archie felt too much influence, anxious or not (for example, he said he had little interest in the content of Williams’s poems, but borrowed their forms), but his poems are written out of what Bloom would call achieved anxiety, mainly the anxiety of the blank page. Bloom’s advocacy was important for Ammons’s reputation because he placed him in a line from Emerson and Stevens. Even at a distance of more than forty years I hear Ammons’s speaking voice as I read his poems, and I was surprised to learn that he was too shy to give readings—which Vendler attributes to his isolation and lack of fame relative to others such as the New York “school.”
I said I will find what is lowly
and put the roots of my identity
And, in Corson’s Inlet
I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning
to the sea,
then turned right along
“The walk liberating, I was released from forms,/from the perpendiculars,/straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds/of thought.” Many Ammons poems turn on a dialectic, one/many or light/dark, speech/silence, fullness/emptiness, something/nothing. “One can’t/have it/both ways/and both/ways is/the only/way I/want it,” he wrote, his disyllables precisely evoking his dialectic (“Coming Right Up,” ii, 215). He seeks to reconcile opposites. He likes to keep things in a kind of contrasting (reflective) equilibrium. In “Two Motions” he says “It is not enough to be willing to come out of the dark and stand in the light, all hidden things brought into sight . . .” However:
in separating light from darkness
have we cast into death
These oppositions lead to Zone:
I spent the day
and wound up
whole to keep
A poem like Small Song is apparently syllabic, made of three-syllable lines until the last one. And the extra syllable in the last line, the ‘a’ in ‘away,’ is so short as to be almost nonexistent, except that it gives the whole point a sudden suppleness. Ammons was not a writer of free verse, but neither was he a writer from a theory (as were Williams and Olson). He was playful. “Wind and give/the wind away” is quite a beauty as a pair of rocking linked lines:
The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away
In other poems, such as Room Conditioner, the meter is more dominant and more intricate.
After rain I trochees
walk and looking trochees
down glimpse spondee
the moon: I iamb
back up to see trochee/iamb
and the puddle splices anapest/trochee
onto two hundred anapest/trochee
thousand miles of trochee
height two spondee
hundred thousand trochee
miles of depth iamb (iamb acatalectic)
Close examination of the meter reveals that this poem, like many of Ammons’s shortest poems, is in a dimeter. Disyllabic lines (down glimpse and height two) are spondees; most of the remaining lines are strongly trochaic, with several anapestic substitutions that in effect make the lines iambic. I have the impression (though to do an adequate analysis would take a great deal more time) that his poetry tended increasingly toward iambic as he went on, and that he broke lines to vary the pentameter, perhaps to avoid what became a drone in Stevens’s pentameters. Some of his poems are syllabics, but I have not found that there is a dominant pattern to these, as in some other poets such as Marianne Moore or Philip Levine. I once asked Archie how he decided to break his lines, and he answered, evasively, that he broke them when he felt like it. I was disappointed because at the time I wanted to know more precisely what a foot in English was and what a line was. One eventually comes to hear the feet. In English—and in particular in American—poetry the dominant foot is the iamb, with substitutions (anapests and trochees primarily) and sometimes with omitted syllables. Dactyls are rare. Ammons’s poems follow this pattern strongly enough, I think, to say that they are metrical (that is, not merely rhythmic, and certainly not prose). I think it is evident also that he was a conscious practitioner of metrical writing, though not rigid about it. His poems are stressed and one hardly ever finds the strings of dactyls followed by iambs that characterize prose. Trochees, spondees, and anapests are all functionally iambs, but serve to vary the rhythm. In versification of this kind the distinction between meter and rhythm is unusually clear.
Other short poems might be called epigrams because they depend mainly on Ammons’s characteristic wit and wordplay, as in Metaphysic.
Because I am
Here I am
A brief review can’t do justice to the long poems, so I will simply state an opinion and end on it: that they are real, long poems, not stretches of free association that sometimes rise into brief lyrics. I suppose what bothers people who are uneasy with the long poems (I am not one of them), who think they are boring or sometimes stumble, is that Archie insisted on their rightness even when he did not revise or revised only minimally. It is true that they record both failure and success; like the skater to whom he compares himself, he sometimes falls. But more often he skates out on the thin ice of sense and keeps making more of it. To vary the analogy, he was like a tightrope walker, American poetry’s Phillipe Petit, and he almost never fell. A long poem by Ammons is not a practice run but an extended performance.
A short poem like Way to Go seems at first like a haiku captured in a zen-casual way, but then you look again and the complex sound pattern emerges that is not casual. “West light flat on trees” leads to a bird “deep out in glue glass” and then the wind stirs the leaves—“this is/the world we have.”
West light flat on trees:
deep out in glue glass
stirring the leaves: this is
the world we have:
I’ll take the poems. It’s good to have these two fat, heavy volumes. Anyone could read them all her life.
Ian Hacking, in his book WHY IS THERE PHILOSOPHY OF MATHEMATICS AT ALL, classifies mathematical proofs as either “Cartesian” or “Leibnizian.” Cartesian proofs are “surveyable,” meaning they can be contained in the mind all at once and understood in their entirety. “Leibnizian” proofs are too long and complicated to be thus surveyable and must be understood only a step at a time. Ammons’s long poems are too long to be held in the mind in their entirety and are written to be read at length, understood gradually, and sometimes not understood at all. They reward repeated reading and should be ready slowly (all poetry should be read slowly). The principle of pre-established harmony is a concept taken from Leibniz, analogous to the principle of least effort or the criterion of elegant parsimony that is a guide for scientific explanations, to which Ammons subscribed. The principle of least effort is best illustrated by the fact that light chooses the most direct path from source to target. Nature tends to take the easy way. Light goes to its target, a charge jumps across the gap, directly and instantaneously.
Tape for the Turn of the Year contains a typo (I can’t keep myself from pointing it out, because it is exemplary): “soilage,” a meaningless word or non-word in a context makes it clear that it ought to be “spoilage.” This edition of the poems, like several other major editions of major poets in recent years, makes no effort to establish a better text than that provided by the published books or occasionally by hand-corrected mss. in libraries. I cannot understand why.
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IN THIS ISSUE–––
• David S. Warren -
OOO Editor's Notes
• Georgia E. Warren -
• Sue Ryn -
I Never Imagined This
• Mary Gilliland -
• David S. Warren -
Poem to Archie
• Don Brennan -
Take Me To the River
• Peter Fortunato -
• Peter Wetherbee -
Sinister Ballad of a
David S.Warren -
We are Nuts
• Rhian Ellis -
• Garriel Orgrease -
• Daniel Lovell -
One for Miriam
• Nancy Viera Couto -
and the Queen
• David Rollow -
• Franklin Crawford -
When I Have Thoughts
That I May Cease to Pee
• David Rollow -
Review: A. R. Ammons
• Chris MacCormack -
Packages (an excerpt)
The running joke had become that I was being passed off as Billy Gibbons from Zee Zee Top. I wandered the streets of the French Quarter with family and friends of family. Whenever anyone of the group shouted, “Billy Gibbons, everyone, Billy Gibbons!” I was to go “Har har har.” (go to story)
When I Have Thoughts That I May Cease to Pee
by Franklin Crawford
My brain, which I am very attached to even though we’ve never met, is doomed to liquefy and bubble out of my ears, nose and mouth, shortly after I am as dead as the DNC.
It’s not the most pleasant thought my mind ever conjured, given that I suspect my brain doesn’t like to imagine its post-mortem condition any more than whatever this self – this symbiont with whom I share my weathered hide – wishes to dwell upon. (go to story)
by Georgia E. Warren
As soon as I got back to my dorm room I remembered. There was no textbook, we were supposed to research the famous artwork of Milan. The test was to identify and discuss the Italian Renaissance art was located in Milan. It was late. The library was closed. I decided I should go to bed and try to get to the library before class.
But I was exhausted: I sat on my bed ready to take my shoes off and fell asleep in my clothes.
Within a minute a very nice Catholic Nun shook my shoulder and told me I should not sleep in the pews of the sanctuary. I told her the problem about my class. I did not tell her it was thousands of miles away
(go to article)________________________
Reiki: Just The Facts
"Take Me To The River"
by Don Brennan
“Whoa! Where did you come from?’’ I set it down on the picnic table as fragments of memories washed over me. It was an old friend that I had found as a child, on a family vacation, somewhere one summer. Even though it was still covered with bits of soil, it was easy to see that it was loaded with interesting minerals. “I’m going to have to hose you off.”
The next two mornings, I spent more time staring at the stone than reading my book. The words were creating images not from The Celestine Prophecy, but from the day this stone first came into my life.
I had glimpses of it sparkling
in a shallow pool of water at
the bottom of a riverbed.
(go to article)
by David Rollow
The Muse came knocking at the writer’s window on a night of wild weather. Her skin seen through the windowpanes was luminous and pale, except for her flushed cheeks. Her green eyes glistened. Never had she looked more beautiful. Gladdened by this unexpected visit--for the page lay empty on his table and the pen lay untouched by the page--the writer stood and unlocked the window, his heart surging against his ribs as if they, too, somehow, were to be unlocked and his heart set free. (go to story)
by Mary Gilliland
Myth is longing. I lose myself in myth. When I would re-read the texts, or re-imagine them, myth led me out of family problems I could do nothing about. It contextualized the martyred strivings of Roman Catholic indoctrination. (excerpt, go to full story)
Margarida, José, and the Queen
by by Nancy Vieira Couto
Margarida saw the Queen in that summer of 1901 when all the days were damp and filled with the smell of salt. She couldn’t see the future through the fog, but she imagined machines, money, and motion, a city crammed with tenement houses and streetcars. She was fourteen years old. She and her mother, Maria Julia, had just arrived in Ponta Delgada, having said good-bye forever to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, the living and the dead.
(go to story)
The focus of our next Metaphysical Times will be "Memory." (see full size)