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This poem is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.

on A.R. Ammons

‘the things of earth are not objects’
Two Takes on the Poetry of A.R. Ammons
Vidyan Ravinthiran
The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons, Vols 1 & 2, ed. Robert M. West (Norton) $100

1. Vidyan Ravinthiran

A.R. (ARCHIE RANDOLPH) AMMONS grew up dirt-poor, subsistence farming in North Carolina. At twenty-nine, he published his debut, Ommateum, with a vanity press. It didn’t sell: he claimed the royalty for the first year was four four-cent stamps. Later, of course, he won it all, got a teaching job, and was acclaimed by heavyweight critics, including Harold Bloom (for whom he wrote a poem) and Helen Vendler. Her introduction is reprinted in both volumes of this overwhelmingly gargantuan Complete Poems. It’s as if the poet has been knighted, with a touch of the sword on both shoulders. We lovers of Ammons have had to cobble together, till now, our own boxsets out of reprints and secondhands (my copy of Garbage, fittingly, arrived from Amazon collied and smutched). Here, at long last, all in one package, are the long masterpieces – besides Garbage, there’s Sphere, and my favourite, Tape for the Turn of the Year – the genuinely amusing Really Short Poems (‘Their Sex Life’: ‘One failure on / Top of another’; ‘Coward’: ‘Bravery runs in my family’) – and, glittering like pebbles on the beach, shorter poems totally new to me.

Where to start? With, in my opinion, his most beautiful single lyric, ‘Hymn’, which appeared in Ammons’s second book, Expressions of Sea Level (1964). He was brought up in the Pentecostal Fire-Baptised Holiness Church (!) and the index to Volume 1 lists, besides this poem, ‘Hymn II’, ‘Hymn III’, ‘Hymn IV’ and ‘Hymn V’. Like Walt Whitman, he professes his wide love for all living and even unliving things: ‘though I have looked everywhere / I can find nothing lowly / in the universe: // […] moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent / with being!’. ‘Hymn’ is also shaped by the poet’s Romantic yearning for both ‘unity & diversity: how / to have both: must: / it’s Coleridge’s / definition of a poem’:

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
[…]
And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth
inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes
trusting the microvilli sporangia and simplest coelenterates
and praying for a nerve cell
with all the soul of my chemical reactions

...


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