This essay introduces new readers of Ammons’ work to the metaphysical courage of his ceaseless, restless poems, while also providing the first comprehensive overview of his Complete Poems from both a biographical and critical perspective.
– Chard deNiord
The Reliable Stream: On A.R. Ammons’s The Complete Poems, V. 1 & 2, W.W. Norton 2017
Human forms, as well as other forms, are temporal compendia of intemporal elements. Elemental things exist eternally, but constituted or compounded things, that is, forms, lose in wholeness elemental eternity. How tenuous are constituted things! If it is form, it shall die; if it is thin, fluxing, formless, it is eternal.
—From an unpublished essay by A.R. Ammons written in 1950
Stacked on my kitchen scale—a sleek digital one, ordered a decade ago from Williams-Sonoma—the two volumes of A.R. Ammons’s The Complete Poems in hardcover weigh in at 6 pounds 11.3 ounces. The same stack, measured with a green plastic ruler (provenance unknown) discovered in a kitchen drawer, is almost exactly seven inches thick. Twenty-three books are re-rendered here, abridged only when poems from one volume were originally reprinted in another, so that in the Collected, no poem appears twice—a wise editorial decision, given the scope of Ammons’s poetry (I was going to count the individual poems and include that number as another statistic here, but the question of whether to count, let us say, the book-length Snow Poems as one poem or to count each of its sections arose and daunted me).
Together, the volumes add up to 2033 pages, inclusive of notes, indices, acknowledgements, and a preface and introduction, the last two of which appear verbatim in both books, a redundancy that this reader is at a loss to understand: it seems as if someone was afraid the two volumes might be separated somehow and a catastrophic confusion might result. Then again, if all the critical apparatus were stripped out of the books, the green digits on my kitchen scale would scarcely alter.
Someone may object that weighing and measuring a book (or two) of poetry is hardly a sound way to make an assessment, and I cannot disagree. But my doing so is in the spirit of Ammons’s poetry, and I present these facts (for facts they are) as homage. Furthermore, I do not in fact intend to make an assessment. It would be late in the game to make pronouncements concerning the value or quality of A.R. Ammons’s poetry. That has been done, many times over. I am in no position to stack the critical response to Ammons on my kitchen scale, which probably would be crushed by it in any case. What would be the point in adding my opinion to that of Vendler, Bloom, et al., or the MacArthur Foundation and National Book Award committee?
My impulse instead is to assay this poetry: to determine, to the extent it is possible, what it is made of—to put the metal to a trial, as the assayer does, for the purpose of understanding its composition. Obviously, I mean composition in two senses: what the poems are made of, and also how they were made. In Ammons even more than in most poets, the materials of the poetry are subsumed in process; for him, process is more than merely essential: it is sacred.
Given the vector of his writing, there is a certain irony in the fact (inevitable though it may be) that it is materialized in such a physically dense form as these volumes present. Philosophically, Ammons ought to have been horrified by the prospect (though in fact I am sure he would have been delighted). He is a poet of motion, a word that occurs with such obsessive frequency in the poems that logically he ought to have been anxious about their arrival in fixed print at all. There is a dimension of his being that is preliterate, or at least (as he acknowledges) Pre-Socratic; and often, there is such a pressure of flux in his work that it seems about to erupt through and beyond its status as writing into a different state, like ice sublimating into vapor, or like the Logos on steroids. At the same time, he was relentlessly materially focused, both in subject and in his writing process, which was intimately tied to the typewriter, a tool to which only e.e. cummings has been more addicted.
For all their pressure to sublimate, poems such as these had to have been written; it’s impossible to imagine Sphere: The Form of a Motion, say, having been created orally, and there is something in this work (what that something is might as well be the subject of this essay) that makes these poems resist memorization. Ammons’s work is not unmemorable, but one does not remember lines or stanzas; one remembers riptides, currents, whirlpools, and stagnant stretches. Remembering Ammons is like remembering water.
One day around two years ago I received an invitation (not, in fact, from this magazine) to review the then-still-forthcoming Complete Ammons. I readily agreed, and was told that review copies would be sent as soon as they were available, which would be in a month. I put the prospect on hold in the back of my mind for awhile.
I had read a lot of Ammons over the years, it seemed to me, my first acquaintance going back to my university days, when I encountered “Corsons Inlet” sometime in the 1970s—that is, the poem “Corsons Inlet,” but not the book that has the same title. I had bought a copy of Tape for the Turn of the Year at the Strand Bookstore, maybe in the 80s, and read it with avid pleasure and a certain impatience at the sheer length and temerity of the thing (little did I know that it was only a tributary of a poetic Amazon River). I read Garbage when it first came out (1993). Had I ever actually read Sphere—the whole poem? I owned a copy but I wasn’t sure. I had read many of his poems individually encountered in magazines. I ordered a copy of Glare, which I certainly had not read; but since it was the third book Ammons composed on a continuous roll of paper (Tape for the Turn of the Year and Garbage being the other two) and since those were two of my favorite books, I wanted to see what more this interesting mode of composition had yielded. I also got a copy of Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues, edited by Zofia Burr for the University of Michigan Poets on Poetry series—a surprisingly slender book consisting far more of interviews than of anything else, since Ammons seems not to have enjoyed writing prose.
And of course I had available to me the information reservoir that is the internet, through which I was able to access as much Ammons criticism and scholarship as I wanted, especially through Jstor, to which—though I am retired—I still have free access via the website of my former academic employer.
But all the while I kept thinking: I know Ammons. Right?
But what exactly did I know? Either I had absorbed some conventional wisdom about his canon, or I had invented some. In my mind, for practical purposes, he began at “Corsons Inlet” (the poem) and ended at Garbage; he was a poet of keen observational powers with a bent for scientific discourse (he had an undergraduate degree in science). He was very prolific. He did not like public appearances. In short, I knew more about Ammons than 99.9% of the US population, and probably as much as (but not more than) 75% of US poets, a group that is unnaturally prone to read poetry regularly. But there was an enormous amount I didn’t know.
I waited for quite a long time; no books appeared in my mailbox. I sent queries and received assurances; still no books appeared. The project began to fade; clearly, for whatever reason, fate had decreed that I would not write about Ammons. On some level, I was relieved, though since the gods of poetry had proved capricious in the past I continued sporadically reading this or that just to keep my hand in.
Then one day, quite unexpectedly, a package arrived from W.W. Norton. It was about the right size to hold two normal books, so I thought, This is it. I opened it, and lo! it contained, inexplicably, The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons, Volume 2, all 1031 pages of it. But there was no sign of Volume I.
This was truly a perverse move on the part of the gods. I set Volume 2 on my bedside table, but refused to open it. It was a trap. I sent more queries and received more assurances, and the enterprise seemed closer to some sort of reality than it had before. Meanwhile, finally breaking my vow not to crack that book, I read Helen Vendler’s introduction to Volume 2, which is also the introduction to Volume 1, thanks to the prescience of someone’s aforementioned editorial redundancy. (Did I now understand it? Not really). And sure enough, almost one month to the day after Volume 2, Volume 1 arrived.
But the interim was significant. Feeling that a large labor was imminent, I went back to the internet and, playing that sort of internet roulette one often plays, I turned up an interesting piece by Justin Quinn, published in 2003 in Contemporary Poetry Review. Seeking to write an overview of the poetry piecemeal two years after Ammons’s death, Quinn observes
Norton, it would seem, has decided not to publish a Collected Poems that would span his whole career, preferring to reissue volumes that have gone out of print. Hence the clutch of books here, one of which was first published in 1972. The reason for this, I imagine, is that a single volume (or three volumes, in all likelihood) that gathered all Ammons’s works would simply be too intimidating for most readers and wouldn’t sell. Moreover, one feels that a full Collected would not endear Ammons to a younger generation of readers who did not encounter the collections singly, as readers of the preceding generation did, and find themselves confronted with a vast oeuvre all at once (CPR, 19 July 2003).
With the arrival of Volume 1, I found myself confronting what Quinn had prophesied would never come to pass. Though he was wrong about the number of volumes involved, he was I fear right about everything else.
The Complete Poems is river so large it might as well be an ocean; I dived in without so much as a pair of water wings. Immediately it was a baptismal experience, insofar as my sin of hubris was washed away. So you think you know Ammons, the two volumes said in one voice, but have you read Ommateum with Doxology (1955)? Have you read Expressions of Sea Level (1964)? Have you even read Corsons Inlet the book, not just the poem (1965)? Where were you, these books seemed to be asking me, like God in The Book of Job, when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Scanning the table of contents was humbling. I’ve read this, yes, but not that or that or that. I know about this, but what on earth is that? These two volumes, once delved into, were more than mere physical presences: they constituted a cosmos which I had glimpsed but never truly entered. In all honesty, it was—even for me, a grizzled, inveterate reader of poetry—intimidating.
Ordinarily in writing an essay of this kind, I would be at pains to hide whatever ignorance or other shortcoming of mind stood between me and a complete and authoritative understanding of the work in hand. But in the present case, I think ignorance and shortcomings are part of the subject of Ammons’s work—not my own in particular, maybe, but human limitation, the impossibility for the human individual to comprehend a cosmos.
I had never read Ommateum and Doxology. I had barely even heard of it. Who has? Ammons published his first book in 1955 with a vanity publisher, not knowing what else to do with it, and according to various sources it sold 16 copies in five years.
The poet A.R. Ammons—as opposed to the farm boy Archie Randolph Ammons—came out of nowhere. Understanding the deep implications of this fact is essential to getting on the wavelength of his poetry throughout. As a young poet, Ammons had no real mentors and no poetry peers. He did not attend Iowa or even Princeton. Many commentators call Ammons an “outsider” poet, which is accurate as far as it goes. Beyond a certain point it is difficult to see him that way. He won virtually all the major awards a poet of the US can win, except the Pulitzer; from 1964 until 1998 he was a professor at Cornell, ultimately with an endowed chair. He was championed by such critics as Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom. How much more “inside” can you get?
But outsiderness, if it goes deep, gets built in early. Like a good many other poets of his generation, he started writing poems during WWII while doing military service; the GI Bill took him to Wake Forest where he ended up doing a general science degree. Eventually he did graduate work in literature at Berkeley, where Josephine Miles gave him some attention and encouragement, for which Ammons was grateful—though her poetic temperament, incisive and intellectual and formal, was so different from his that he is unlikely to have gleaned much from her about craft. He has expressed gratitude for her praise, and for her clueing him into the existence of literary quarterlies, of which he had theretofore been innocent.
His subsequent career working nine years in his father-in-law’s business seems to have agreed with Ammons up to a point—he rose to a vice-presidency in the company and in several interviews he later expressed pride in the work he had done there. But when he was offered— more or less out of the blue, by contemporary standards, on the strength of his second book—a teaching post at Cornell, he jumped at it and never looked back.
Still, it is often the initiating conditions of a phenomenon that govern the shape of the whole. In the beginning, it seems, the fledgling poet Ammons was, as a poet, completely alone. This occurred, perhaps, because of his upbringing on a failing tobacco farm in deep rural North Carolina during the Depression, where everything was attenuated almost to extinction: education, religion, family life (Ammons had four siblings, of whom two died in childhood). Or perhaps it was genetic; he appears to have been intensely introverted and prone to anxiety (the latter, he said, was his primary inspirational goad). Even the books that shaped his early perceptions of poetry are hard to discern.
When I began to read Ommateum, I found to my surprise that I could not detect Ammons’s influences with any precision. This is very unusual for a first book. Furthermore, the poems did not seem at all like Ammons to me, at least not at first. There is little of the clean and startling accuracy of description intimately yoked to meditative discourse that delineates the sentience of “Corsons Inlet,” and even less of the energized, often calculatedly mundane riffing of Tape for the Turn of the Year. If I had been teleported suddenly to Easter Island, I could not have felt more disoriented. Ommateum is full of stark (and archetypal) natural “facts,” but it is also filled with strange ossified figures, carven effigies without a smooth, lubricated joint anywhere in their bodies: if they move at all, it is to bow stiffly, or to collapse:
The sap is gone out of the hollow straws
and the marrow out of my bones
brittle and dry
and painful in this land
The wind whipped at my carcass saying
How shall I
coming from these fields
water the fields of earth
and I said Oh
and fell down in the dust
So ends “The Sap is Gone Out of the Trees,” yielding up the first of more “Ohs” than you can shake a stick at, for the land of Ommateum is a plangent land in which there are quite a few gods and not many people, and the few humans who are there are very apt to be dead.
Even so, after awhile I could begin to make out a literary landscape built I think on the bedrock of William Blake (especially of “Songs of Innocence”) and Emerson and possibly of Eliot:
I broke a sheaf of light
from a sunbeam
that was slipping through thunderheads
drawing a last vintage from the hills
O golden sheaf I said
and throwing it on my shoulder
brought it home to the corner
O very pretty light I said
and went out to my chores
But with the word “chores,” another landscape emerges, that of the North Carolina farm where Ammons, like everyone else there, went about his duties among the animals:
The cow lowed from the pasture and I answered
yes I am late
already the evening star
The pigs heard me coming and squealed
From the stables a neigh reminded me
yes I am late having forgot
I have been out to the sunbeams
and broken a sheaf of gold
However much of Blake’s “The Lamb” there may be in this vision, there is an equal measure of the Ammons family farm.
In an interview, David Lehman puts this question to Ammons: “Did you like working on the farm?” and receives this answer:
I hated it. You had to work in all kinds of weather. In the winter,
you were in the swamp cutting trees for the fuel you needed in the
summer for curing the tobacco. I mean it was just a constant round
of hard work without reward because we remained in debt year
after year after year.
Later in the same interview, Ammons says
I grew up as a farmer and I had at one time a great love for the land because my life and my family and the people around me
depended on weather and seasons and farming and seeds and
things like that. So my love for this country was and is unlimited.
It’s not surprising that Ammons was ambivalent about his origins, or that ambivalence made its way into his poetry, especially, perhaps, in his earliest work, because he was chronologically closer to those places and people and events, obviously, than he would be decades later. In order to become the poet he wanted to be, he could no longer be Archie the farm boy; he had to transform himself into A.R. the poet. He needed an identity that could encompass the poetry he needed to write. And so, in the gesture from Ommateum that devoted Ammons readers are most likely to know, he became Ezra.
“So I said I am Ezra,” is the first line in Ommateum:
and the wind whipped my throat
gaming for the sounds of my voice….
Turning to the sea I said
I am Ezra
but there were no echoes from the waves…
I am Ezra
As a word too much repeated
falls out of being
so I Ezra went out into the night….
Just who Ezra is, Ammons never makes explicit: he is simply Ezra, period, a sort of persona perhaps, though that does not feel quite right. Ezra seems more an alter ego, whose presence opens vistas for the poems beyond the immediate: Ommateum evokes many historical periods and many mythic scenarios. There is a virtually continuous first person here—but is that first person speaker Ammons, or is it Ezra (or someone else entirely)? The opening gesture makes it clear that Ezra is an act of will—“I said I am Ezra”—like the universe at the Biblical moment of creation, spoken into existence.
The proper title of this book is Ommateum and Doxology. Many readers will know the word doxology from a church hymnbook; a doxology is an expression of praise to God. The modern Catholic church has the Greater Doxology, which, in English, begins “Glory to God in the highest.” In the sad Methodist church I attended as a boy, the Doxology began “Praise God to whom all blessings flow,” and always accompanied the circulation of the collection plate as part of the economics of praise. Ommateum is a less familiar word, and a casual reader (by Ammons’s design, I am sure) may be lulled into thinking it refers to another kind of hymn. Not so: ommateum is a term used by zoologists to designate a compound eye, the sort flies and spiders employ in mutual regard, that yields a faceted vision. From the start, Ammons was interested in the pairing of scientific discourse with religious or mystical (and other) language.
But if Ommateum and Doxology is intended to yield a many-faceted cosmos, I’d argue that it falls short (which is perhaps a good thing). The vision of Ommateum seems at base not multidimensional or fragmented but simply double: an imagined (or, if you prefer, mystical) landscape superimposed on a “real” one, a projected self aligning and misaligning with an “actual” one.
The book’s concluding poem, “Doxology,” begins
Should I bold in a moment intrude
upon a silence, hold my hands properly,
crossed, in a mock eternity,
would someone use my lips
for an expiation?
Who would use my lips, and how? But if such a thing is even possible, who am I again? Am I myself, or am I that someone else who is using my lips? Another poem is more explicit, if not much clearer, about this problem:
Behind the I
Falling too through scopes of
Behind the I
winds and seas
while he conceived outside
never wants to lose
Did Ammons know Rimbaud’s “I is an other”? Perhaps, though it seems unlikely; he expressed distaste for anything European, and his reading at this time seems to have been in the fundamental Anglo-American canon. But he surely knew Emerson, and had internalized early on the transcendentalist idea of the Oversoul; it is possible, too, that he had read Buddhist texts, to which he refers occasionally later on.
This doubleness at the heart of early Ammons stays with him, but changes over the years—it becomes less obvious, anyway, expressed less often on the surfaces of poems. It remains, however, solidly present in the work’s core. Decades after Ommateum and Doxology, he confronts the dichotomy head-on:
I have a life that did not become,
that turned aside and stopped,
I hold it in me like a pregnancy or
as on my lap a child…
the child in me that could not become
was not ready for others to go,
to go on into change, blessings and
horrors, but stands there by the road
where the mishap occurred, crying out for
help, come and fix this or we
can’t get by, but the great ones who
were to return, they could not or did
not hear and went on in a flurry and
now, I say in the graveyard, here
lies the flurry, now it can’t come
I stand on the stump
of a child, whether myself
or my little brother who died, and
yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place, for
for me it is the dearest and the worst,
it is life nearest to life which is
life lost: it is my place where
I must stand and fail,
calling attention with tears
to the branches not lofting
boughs into space, to the barren
air that holds the world that was my world…
Nothing in the work of a poet as broadly encompassing and as various as A.R. Ammons can be reduced to any one cause, biographical or otherwise, but there is this primal split in him that cannot be denied and should not be ignored.
Writing of his childhood in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ammons tells us
A strict change occurred that was deepened and made permanent by the death of my brother in May 1930. I have images of him lying in his cradle covered with a veil, and I saw his coffin being made, and I watched as he was taken away, his coffin astraddle the open rumble seat of a Model A. I see my mother leaning against the porch between the huge blue hydrangeas as she wept and prayed.
The surviving son, I must have felt guilty for living and also endangered, as the only one left to be next. Mourning the loss of life, in life and in death, has been the undercurrent of much of my verse and accounts for a tone of constraint that my attempts at wit, prolixity, and transcendence merely underscore.
In 1930, the family was already beginning to suffer the consequences of the Depression (“I have memories of some bright times before the Crash,” Ammons wrote) when his brother Elbert died, evidently of a gastrointestinal disorder possibly related to eating raw peanuts. Even Ammons seems unsure of what the impact of so much loss was on his four-year-old self: “I must have felt guilty…and also endangered.” The family’s economic well-being, and its status, was in the process of taking a hard hit, one from which it never recovered; at the same time, this younger brother died. How could life not seem unbearably precarious at such a moment, especially for the highly intelligent and sensitive child Ammons certainly was? So much had flowed away so suddenly: how could everything else not go too?
And of course, it did go. The poem quoted above (“Easter Morning,” from the 1981 book A Coast of Trees) provides a litany of the dead:
aunts and uncles, those who used to say,
look how he’s shooting up, and the
trinket aunts who always had a little
something in their pocketbooks…
teachers, just about everybody older
(and some younger) collected in one place
waiting, particularly, but not for
me, mother and father there, too, and others,
close, close as burrowing
under skin, all in the graveyard
assembled, done for, the world they
used to wield, have trouble and joy
The poem concludes with the narrator staring into the sky at two eagles at play overhead, following one another through the air, now together and now apart, looking for one another:
a dance as sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brook’s
ripplestone, fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.
A dance as permanent as ripples in a brook would seem an unreliable basis for much of anything; yet it here describes a relationship between two creatures in the world, and it delineates as well the world in which they are related. The child in the poem, after the “mishap” by the road, can no longer move with the others, who are powerless to return to the point at which he has been left. To die is to step out of the world’s motion, out of the ripple in the brook, out of the flood of sun.
The paradox is obvious, and the realization commonplace, but its arrival for the first time in any life may be devastating nonetheless. The world we love is melting away, and, the child may realize, no one, not even the omnipotent parent, can do anything about it. But it is the world we love and in which the others we love are likewise held. To say this so starkly is about as revelatory as to say “human beings are born to die,” a sentence (in every sense of the word) that the young Ammons would have heard pronounced every Sunday from the pulpit of the Pentecostal church his family most often attended.
For all its peculiarities—I don’t say weaknesses—Ommateum and Doxology surely grows centrally out of a struggle to grant an endangered self in an endangered world a permanence sufficiently tangible to make it bearable to be; and Ezra is an avatar, the “I behind the I,” through which the poems’ “normal” consciousness can visit the world of the disappeared, which in these early poems is not flowing away from us but is rather a static place toward which we flow.
If the child’s own loss is horrific, witnessing the grief and guilt of the parents, and the spectacle of their doomed gestures of expiation, may be even more so. “The most powerful image of my emotional life,” Ammons told William Walsh in an interview published in 1989,
is something I had repressed and one of my sisters lately reminded me of it. It was when my little brother, who was two and a half years younger than I, died at eighteen months. My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away. That’s the most powerful image I’ve ever known.
And when asked by David Lehman, “Where does inspiration come from?,” Ammons answered emphatically: “Anxiety.”
Ammons has said of Ommateum, “It’s a very strong book. It may be my best book…. The Ommateum poems are sometimes very rigid and ritualistic, formal and off-putting, but very strong…. Someone else said I was a poet who had not yet renounced his early poems. I never intend to renounce those poems.” Ammons’s steadfast allegiance to Ommateum is revealing: in his own mind, he was already there, as a poet, when he wrote Ommateum. And the writing of those poems was a life raft for him during his years in business—a life he did not dislike (he never intended to renounce his businessman self either) but within which, as a poet, he was completely alone.
Though Ommateum and Doxology is certainly different from Ammons’s later work, it is clearly a depiction of the same projected world created and viewed by the same mind, but seen, perhaps, in a convex mirror. The feeling I have, moving from Ommateum through Expressions of Sea Level and Corsons Inlet to Tape for the Turn of the Year is that Ammons in the beginning was like someone who, while dressing for work one morning, put his socks on inside out. Sometime mid-morning, he notices one of them and corrects it. Mid-afternoon, he takes care of the other. He is still the same person doing the same job from start to finish, but something is backwards for a while; then it’s half backwards; and then it isn’t. This doesn’t imply a radical evolution or a departure; it’s a series of mid-flight course corrections.
Ammons’s second book, Expressions of Sea Level, published nine years after Ommateum, much resembles his first—except that, where Ommateum foregrounds the metaphysical dimension, Sea Level keeps it more often in the background. But it is still emphatically present. The “I behind the I” steps in front; but that reversal leaves the same ambivalence in place with the terms reversed. One sock is turned right side out. But the burden of the poems remains the same. And so though the first poem in the book, “Raft,” presents us with a simple narrative—someone is rafting on a river, with no apparent destination—and that narrative is presented with plenty of verisimilitude, it is quickly apparent that the journey is more allegorical than literal: life’s journey, one hesitates to say out loud; or, the motion of a consciousness through the world, but metaphorized.
One of the best-known (and most gorgeous) poems in Sea Level is “Hymn,” the title of which emphasizes the duality of Ammons’s vision. Ammons grew up in a house with virtually no books, but “we read the Bible in Sunday school and we sang hymns. That was my exposure to words. And by the way I think that hymns have had an enormous influence on what I’ve written because they’re the words I first heard and memorized.”
His poem “Hymn,” of course, is not the kind of song he would have sung at the Fire-Baptized Pentecostal Church. It presents the same duality so emphatically present throughout Ommateum.
I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth
and go on out
over the sea marshes and the brant in bays
and over the hills of tall hickory
and over the crater lakes and canyons
and on up through the spheres of diminishing air
past the blackset noctilucent clouds
where one wants to stop and look
way past all the light diffusions and bombardments
up farther than the loss of sight
into the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark
The language of “Hymn”—like the language of Sea Level generally—is more fluid than that of Ommateum, more grounded in literal as opposed to ritual imagery, but the double vision remains front and center. “If I find you”—and just who is this “you”?—I cannot remain in this world, this stanza declares; but in the very next, we find the opposite:
And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth
inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes
and praying for a nerve cell
with all the soul of my chemical reactions
and going right on down where the eye sees only traces
Ammons’s characteristic deployment of scientific diction is now on full display—but that does not mean that he has committed himself to an empirical worldview. The speaker prays and has a soul, though it is a soul of chemical reactions; having traveled up and out to the limits of the earth in the first stanza of the poem, he now wants to gaze down and into the penetralia of the physical until there is nothing, or almost nothing, left to be seen there.
These motions result from his search for a you who is, we are now told, “everywhere partial and entire / You are on the inside of everything and on the outside.” Is this God? Some part of the speaker’s self? An as yet undiscovered beloved? His dead brother, or someone else no longer held within the motion of the world? Is this a dialog between self and soul, or between self (or soul) and some other? The poem is markedly unforthcoming on this point. But whoever and whatever the “you” in this poem is, it is the essence of ambivalence, pointing precisely two ways: “and if I find you,” the poem ends, “I must go out deep into your resolutions / and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves.”
Though Expressions of Sea Level was published in 1964, “Hymn” was written in 1956, soon after the publication of Ommateum. The only other poem in Sea Level written earlier is “Raft,” composed in 1955—but evidently revised in 1960. The dates of composition of many of the poems in The Complete Poems are known because, as editor Robert M. West informs us in his preface, Ammons was assiduous in writing dates on manuscripts, especially early on; beyond a certain point he becomes less so, and the exact composition dates for many of the poems in V. 2 are uncertain. I point this out to underscore the fact that Ammons included “Hymn” here after it had stood the test of several years—and I point this out because there are, in The Complete Poems, six poems titled “Hymn.” All except the first (and one other, to be explained) have roman numerals as part of the title, so it is clear they were a sequence. II and III are in Corsons Inlet (1965); IV is in Briefings: Poems Small and Easy (1971); and V in Collected Poems 1951-1971 (1972) where it appears as a previously uncollected poem. After 1972 there are no more of these, though there is one other “Hymn” poem, without a roman numeral, in The Complete Poems; it was never published in one of Ammons’s books, but it did appear in a journal, and so is included at the end of V 2 in a section of previously uncollected poems.
I dwell on the dates here because—and this discovery brought me up short—all six of the “Hymn” poems were evidently written between 1954 and 1958. “Hymn II,” in 1954, was composed before Ommateum was published; “Hymn V” is, in the Complete Poems, undated, so either Ammons failed to put a date on the ms or, more likely, the ms hasn’t come to light and West took the text of the poem directly from the book in which it appeared. V, therefore, could have a later composition date, but it is so much like the other hymns, and so unlike the other poems that surround it, that it seems most likely to have been written around the same time.
Why did Ammons keep distributing these increasingly old poems through his books for 15 years or so? To my mind, none of the hymn poems is as good as the first one. It would have been easy, and perhaps natural, for him to jettison this work. That he did not suggests a continuity in a certain stratum of his thinking. “Doxology,” maybe, is really his first hymn, and given Ammons’s loyalty to his first book, this strain is bedrock: the song of praise, however complexified by his increasingly turbulent examination of being.
Another of the best-known poem in Expressions of Sea Level is “Hardweed Path Going,” which is cited usually for its end. Hog-killing time has come to the farm, signalled by the season’s first freeze, and the narrator, a boy, has to contemplate the eventuality and then watch his father slaughter his pet pig Sparkle.
Oh, Sparkle, when the axe tomorrow morning falls
and the rush is made to open your throat,
I will sing, watching dry-eyed as a man, sing my
love for you in the tender feedings.
She’s nothing but a hog, boy.
Bleed out, Sparkle, the moon-chilled bleaches
of your body hanging upside-down
hardening through the mind and night of the first freeze.
It is no wonder that this part of the poem gets attention. What is less often critically noted is what comes before. The poem begins with a litany of those hard farm chores Ammons tells us he hated; then we turn to a little narrative about a bird, a jo-reet (another name for a towhee) which the boy, for his amusement, has caught and kept outdoors in a homemade cage all summer. But the coming cold signals time to release the bird:
Better turn him loose before
cold weather comes on.
Doom caving in
any pleasure, pure
The seasons change; everything must be let go. Everything flows away. One must be “dry-eyed as a man,” one must not feel. “Don’t look at me,” he tells the bird,
Winter is coming.
Disappear in the bushes. I’m tired of you and will
be alone hereafter. I will go dry in my well.
I will turn still.
A poem such as this one may seem a thousand miles from the graceful, fluid fusion of meditation and observation Ammons achieves just a few years later in “Corsons Inlet,” a poem about nothing more dramatic than taking a walk. But the narrator of “Corsons Inlet” is refusing stillness; he is freeing himself through motion:
the walk liberating, I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
This is not so much a throwing-off of the rigidities and inflexibilities of Ommateum and Sea Level as it is a stepping through a portal from the land of the dead to the land of the living, while never forgetting, in this realm, the reality and necessity of the other realm. In “Hardweed Path Going,” everything must be released because it is leaving anyway: this is motion as fate. In “Corson’s Inlet,” as he had not done in the poems in his first books, he now can “allow myself eddies of meaning: / yield to a significance / running / like a stream through the geography of my work….”
And so we come at last to what, I think, is most essential in Ammons’s poetry: the embracing of, indeed it is fair to say the worship of, motion. This idea is present in his work from the beginning, but it takes awhile for it to find its central place. The book Corsons Inlet still in many ways resembles the first two books more than the later work, as Ammons continues to return to ritual—perhaps habitual—gestures often enough; the vocabulary of the sciences is increasingly apparent, and but the balance and effective separation of the interior world and the exterior seem much the same as in his books from the start.
It is with Tape for the Turn of the Year that the emphasis shifts decisively.
Shopping one day, Ammons tells us, he saw a roll of adding machine tape and bought it on impulse, thinking it ought to be useful somehow. Shortly he realized that, by feeding the tape through his typewriter—the roll resting in a basket and the written end feeding into a convenient garbage can—he could write a continuous, short-lined poem.
In 1963 when I did Tape I had been thinking of having the primary motion of the poem down the page rather than across. The adding machine tape, less than two inches wide, seemed just right for a kind of breaking and spilling. Variations of emphasis and meaning which make the long horizontal line beautifully jagged and jerky became on the tape the left and right margins…. The point…was to get to the other end; an arbitrary end would also be an “organic” end. The tape itself became the hero…..
Beginning on December 6 of 1963, Ammons spent a chunk (a considerable chunk) of every day writing the poem, which is divided into dated sections ending on January 10, 1964; the resulting poem is 7035 lines long. Throughout, the work is very much in the moment of the writing—but of course there are many moments; the narrator is in many minds; and the poem encompasses many motions. Though he may have been concerned with shifting the motion of the poem from horizontal to vertical, he soon begins to make use of the fact that the tape—which is the “hero” of the poem, and is itself often discussed and described both by the poem itself and by critics—encompasses its own motion through the typewriter, but also the motion of time itself, and of Ammons’s mind moving in time: system within system, all revolving around a central image.
This phrase describes Tape for the Turn of the Year perfectly, but also, it’s fair to say, all of Ammons’s several book-length poems (two of which, Garbage and Glare, were also written on rolls of tape, though the tape was evidently deployed differently in their compositional process). At a stroke, he has at his disposal a way to imitate—if not actually capture and incorporate—the whole of the moving cosmos. “The story,” he writes on the first day of Tape’s composition,
unwinds on this roll
with time & event: grows
like a tapeworm, segment
stream corners: issues
like a snake
from its burrow: but
unwinding and unwound, it
coils again on
into the unity of its
Ammons seems to have had the whole plan for the poem clear in his mind at the very start; and if his own testimony is to be trusted, the poem was published just as it came out, unrevised—that being, also, part of the point.
“Today,” he writes on the second day, “is full of things, / so many, / how can they be managed, / received and loved, / in their passing?” How indeed? Unless—their passing being inevitable, of their nature—it is the passage itself that we must honor and love? Today is full of everything that has passed: a wild bird caught and loved and released; a slaughtered pig; a dead brother. Everything in the cosmos is moving in the same direction. How not to despair over motion’s inevitable stripping of the individual’s agency? How to manage everything in the cosmos other than to recognize and love that motion in which everything shares?
And the mind’s motion, too, is part of that movement; the dynamic flow of language is part of it. In Tape, Ammons finds a medium in which he can record many of these motions all at once—the tape itself, the tape moving through space and through time (embodied in the image of his old typewriter), time itself, and his own mind not merely in it but of it, identical with it.
those who rely on any shore
foolishly haven’t faced
only the stream is
right up next to the
dance like a bubble
held underwater by water’s
“Only the stream is reliable.” To describe Ammons as a “process poet” would be accurate, but, it seems to me, incomplete. While clearly the process whereby he makes his own poems is of great interest to him—the compositional process is, after all, an abiding subject especially of his book-length poems from Tape onward—it interests him not as an end in itself but because it is a manifestation of, and expression of, a motion greater than itself, of which it is a part.
Years earlier, while he was still in the navy, Ammons experienced a moment of fundamental understanding, a sort of gnosis.
I was sitting on the bow of the ship anchored in a bay in the South Pacific. As I looked at the land…I thought down to the water level and then to the immediately changed and strange world below the waterline. But it was the line inscribed across the variable land mass, determining where people would or would not live, where palm trees would or would not grow, that hypnotized me. The whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination: 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–runoff, wind currents, melting glaciers. I began to apprehend things in the dynamics of themselves—motions and bodies—the full account of how we came to be still a mystery with still plenty of room for religion, though in my case a religion of what we don’t yet know rather than what we are certain of.
At the time he experienced this “interior illumination,” Ammons was 19, the poems of Ommateum and of course all the rest still well ahead of him, though what he comes to understand in this moment seems more immediately of a piece with “Corsons Inlet” and indeed with Tape for the Turn of the Year than with the relatively static and ritualistic poems he would soon be writing. The epiphany might be seen as heralding Ammons’s turn toward the language and the habits of thought of science, which perhaps it was—but it does not explain why, when he went to Wake Forest he entered as a premed student, but ended with a degree in general science and a minor in English, or found himself a couple of years later working toward a masters degree in literature at Berkeley. In fact, what he found that day in the South Pacific was the core of his future poetry, his obsession with systems and their dynamics as manifested in a world divided by a fluid and yet definitive line.
“What is out there?” he asks in Tape:
the touch of what
stars shine through it
& bring us up
Science, it seems, is fascinating to Ammons, and its discoveries indispensable but provisional. Insofar as it strives to describe (and explain, but in Ammons it is more the clarity of description than the scientific explanation that matters) phenomena, But Ammons the poet is a phenomenologist who wants to embody in his poetry the flow of all that exists from some unknowable source toward some unknowable destination.
When I first read Garbage shortly after its publication, I was struck by the ballsy temerity of the thing—not only the overall subject (a landfill and all its infinite detritus) but also by the tone Ammons sets at the beginning. I was in my 30s, a poet setting sail on the same great stream Ammons had been charting for decades, and the opening lines of this behemoth poem are quite simply a gauntlet thrown down in the face of poetry:
…what do you
mean teaching school (teaching poetry and
poetry writing and wasting your time painting
sober little organic meaningful pictures)
when values thought lost (but only scrambled into
disentanglement) lie around demolished
That the you here is Ammons himself (or his surrogate in the poem: it is the I behind the I behind the I who speaks these incendiary words) makes it a challenge not merely to poetry and poets but to this poet and this poem. The landfill is the answer. It is the great ocean of refuse toward which everything in its vicinity flows, a black hole of demolished and centerless objects. At the same time, as the poem also makes clear in its glacial and yet fascinating progression, the landfill too is a process: a core of oxidation, a critical mass, an enormous slow fire consuming itself and flowing (albeit slowly) away:
garbage spreader gets off his bulldozer and
approaches the fire: he stares into it as into
eternity, the burning edge of beginning and
ending, the catalyst of going and becoming,
and all thoughts of his paycheck and beerbelly,
even all thoughts of his house and family and
the long way he has come to be worthy of his
watch, fall away, and he stands in the presence
of the momentarily everlasting, the air about
him sacrosanct, purged of the crawling vines
and dense vegetation of desire, nothing between
perception and consequence here….
It is motion that is everlasting, from our point of view, and everything in the cosmos is part of it, the universe a great landfill burning itself somewhere: into stars’ hearts or down the maw of black holes: every molecule of what you ate for breakfast and of Andromeda joined in the universe’s singular current, all under the aegis of time’s arrow.
“In the long poem,” Ammons told Lehman, “if there is a single governing image at the center, then anything can fit around it, meanwhile allowing for a lot of fragmentation and discontinuity on the periphery.” That is precisely how Tape and Garbage work; it is also a very precise description of the machinery of Sphere: The Form of a Motion (note that significant subtitle, which Ammons said occurred to him during an English Department meeting). That poem proceeds from Ammons’s first seeing a photograph of the earth taken from space: the earth is the image at the center, this poem’s landfill, and everything else, literally everything, constitutes fragmentation at the periphery, but—seen from another center—so does the earth, and the sun, and so on and so on to the edge of the shell of the great turtle of the cosmos, off of which all the little fragments flow.
Just as I was about to embark on the impossible, quixotic project of writing this piece, an article appeared in The New York Times about the brilliant and eccentric Joyce scholar John Kidd. Speaking of Kidd’s obsession with the minutiae of Joyce’s work, the author of the article observes
Theorists who study folk art sometimes describe those crowded, image-packed creations, like Howard Finster’s “Paradise Garden” or Grandma Moses’ “Country Fair,” not merely as a prominent theme but as a kind of mental illness common to the form. They argue that these artists’ works are expressions of a compulsion to fill an existential emptiness. This anxiety has its own Latin name, horror vacui, fear of the void….
Interested myself in art of this kind (“art” often seems a weak word for it), I had investigated various “outsider” creations of monumental proportions, such as the Gigal Sculpture Garden in Salt Lake City and Opus 40 in Saugerties, New York. Each of these is a monument to one human’s energy and (surely) obsession; respectively, they are like an Easter Island or a Parthenon constructed entirely by one person in the back yard (so to speak).
Ammons’s Complete Poems has that feel. I’m not willing to agree that any of these great labors is the product of “a kind of mental illness”; they may in fact constitute the reverse. Of Gilgal Gardens, its creator, Thomas Battersby Child, Jr., wrote: “Can I create a sanctuary or atmosphere in my yard that will shut out fear and keep one’s mind young and alert to the last, no matter how perilous the times?” This does not sound like illness, but like a paean to health—most particularly in the face of anxiety. A compulsion to fill an existential void? Perhaps. But maybe there is another impulse at work as well.
Critics say of Ammons, as they have the right and responsibility to do, that his work is more like this poet’s or that poet’s. Whitman comes up, as does Emerson and Stevens and William Carlos Williams. All those observations are appropriate and illuminating. To the list, I want to add a name I have never seen associated with Ammons: Gerard Manley Hopkins. One may object that Ammons’s work in no way resembles that of Hopkins (nor does it really resemble, I would argue, Whitman’s), or that Ammons is in fact the anti-Hopkins, enormously prolific where Hopkins’s output was very small. Those objections are true, but beside the point. Ammons is the only poet besides Hopkins I can think of in whom every particle, every gesture, every word, even every punctuation mark, all point one way. For Hopkins the crucial matter is praise of God in the Catholic sense (though his work was regarded with caution by his superiors in the church, who praised it but did not want it published). Even the music of Hopkins’s meter applies: accented syllables are spirit in a dance with unaccented matter, yielding the vision of inscape through the prosody of instress. In Ammons, it is not God the poems serve (or is it? Who is the “you” of “Hymn”?) but motion itself, the cosmos that is a Heraclitean river. But every detail of the poems right down to the obsessive use of colons which refuse to let the sentences ever stop, is in service of this singular end.
When I was a child I was baffled by the Biblical injunction—first encountered, if memory serves, in a Methodist Sunday school class—to pray without ceasing. What could that possibly mean? “You have to sleep sometime,” I might as well have thought. Later, visiting a Dominican monastery, I heard the continual soft sound of constant Latin chanting; later still, at a Buddhist monastery, I heard the same thing but in Tibetan. In each case, not individuals but a whole building was praying without ceasing. To me—neither Catholic or Buddhist or practitioner of any other religion—this felt strange and yet powerfully impressive. A poet must pause in the presence of such dedication to acts of language. Poetry (not poets) prays without ceasing, perhaps.
On the evidence of The Collected Poems, A.R. Ammons wrote without ceasing, seeking to become, himself, not an individual but a building full of voices, all gathered around the central image of the architecture of the place, but fragmented and discontinuous around the edges. Once he has hold of his central guiding principle, and has it the “right” way around, words without ceasing are the reliable stream not only of his work, not only of his life, but of the universe itself—because, in this frame, consciousness is as much a sacred flow as the brook, or the Amazon, or the Milky Way. The cosmos moves without ceasing, and its movement is (we might as well say) a prayer.
If Ammons opens himself to that fact in his poems, then every scrap, every bit of detritus, every piece of garbage, and every miracle are part of the stream. The monumental book-length poems (how have I not said a word about the magnificent Snow Poems? How have I not dug like a poetry terrier into Glare?) are the great deep channels; the shorter poems are tributaries, streamlets, and oxbows. But all of it, every ounce and every inch, is one continuous stream. Even the posthumous Bosh and Flapdoodle—a book whose irreverence to the “poetic” gives even his greatest champion, Helen Vendler, pause—is an embracing of the principle that nothing in the universe is trivial, that (contra the disciplines of meditation and serious prayer) the monkey mind and its effulgences are, like everything, holy in their ephemerality, in their inexplicable arrival and inevitable flowing away.
And how is it not, this poetry without ceasing, merely a monument to an ego? For the same reason that Song of Myself is not. Ammons has done more than create a static image of the stream of his own thought: he has made, in his poetry as a whole, a portal to the great singular stream that is bearing us all and everything away.
I have not done justice to the whole of The Complete Poems of A.R Ammons and did not set out to do so. Rather, in the spirit established by the questions asked by Justin Quinn in trying to review The Complete Poems in its absence, I have wondered: What would be the use of such an enormous compilation? Who would read it? Who would want it?
I had (I swear) already written the first few pages of this piece when the extremely kind, helpful, and generous Professor Roger Gilbert of Cornell University—for years a colleague of Ammons, who is writing Ammons’s biography—sent me a poem that Ammons published in a journal but never in a book (and it’s hard to understand why it isn’t included in the published but uncollected poems at the end of the Complete). Called “Ambivalence Reconciled,” the poem begins
I can’t decide which volume of The Norton Anthology I like better,
Though one has twenty five hundred and twenty one pages and the other
Only twenty five hundred and sixteen, a difference not distinguished
As to price….
The poem goes on to note that the two volumes of The Norton Anthology “contain the / Same Preface, allowing that though they come best together they can / stand on their own apart.” (Ironies abound here, and are so obvious that they need not be labored, but the fact that Norton is the publisher of The Complete Poems closes the circle.)
As to what reconciles the ambivalence, really nothing does. The poem concludes
I do: staved off from going one way or the other and convinced both ways
are valuable, I’ll take the set and dwell in the split between the covers.
Two volumes though The Complete Poems may be, the split is not between the covers but in the reader. These books are handsome, but large and heavy, hardly suitable for cozying up to read Garbage on a winter’s night. For readers who want a more intimate experience, go the Justin Quinn route and get individual volumes. But for any reader who wants the whole experience Ammons offers—the experience I am convinced he wanted us to have of his peculiar and yet precise metaphysics—The Complete Poems is indispensable.
Have it your own way. Six pounds eleven ounces of poetry is a lot of frozen phenomena. But it provides this gargantuan project by one of our most gargantuan poets a single home.
Ammons might well have been uncomfortable with the idea of such a river as his poetry ever having a single home. “If I get back to the Pre-Socratics,” Ammons told David Lehman, “I feel that I’m in the kind of world that I would enjoy to be in, but nothing since then.” The fragments of Heraclitus washed away in that philosopher’s river might not seem so congenial a home to most of us. But flow away we will, Ammons knows, along with Heraclitus and The Norton Anthology and The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons.
“I don’t feel at home—,” Ammons told Lehman. “I’ll never feel at home—anywhere.”
 I am informed by Professor Roger Gilbert of Cornell, University, who was Ammons’s colleague and friend and is now his biographer, that the original tape exists and is housed among Ammons’s papers, but is in such a fragile condition that it cannot be unrolled so that scholars can ascertain whether Ammons in fact revised it before publication. He also tells me that it will soon be digitized and made available in that form, at which point some compositional questions may be answered.