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

on A.R. Ammons Ian Pople
2. Ian Pople

‘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.’A.R.Ammons

A.R. AMMONS was born into a poor, white, subsistence farming family near Whiteville, North Carolina in 1926. The house he was born into had no electricity and no indoor toilet. During that childhood, three other siblings were born and died young. His father’s venture into commercial tobacco farming failed with Ammons was seventeen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ammon’s Pentecostal Christianity didn’t last out his teens. And was, according to Helen Vendler in her introduction to these volumes, substituted with ‘the universal and inflexible laws of the universe in disciplines from the bacteriological to the astronomical’, i.e. science. After wartime service in the navy, where he learned to type, the GI Bill enabled Ammons to go to Wake Forest University, where he graduated with a BSc in General Science. After graduation and marriage, Ammons was firstly an elementary school teacher and principal; then, initially reluctantly but ultimately quite successfully, he became a sales manager in the company run by his father-in-law, where he rose to become Executive Vice President. After this, he spent the rest of his working life teaching in universities, particularly Cornell.

Ammons first wrote poetry during night shifts in the navy; poetry which Vendler describes as ‘inept’ and ‘varying from the sentimental to the comic’. At this time, too, Ammons come to ‘an interior illumination’ concerning the forces of nature as opposed to the forces of a God, ‘I began to apprehend things in the dynamics of themselves – motions and bodies… I was de-denominated’. As a result of this illumination, Ammons later commented that what he tried to do in his poetry was ‘a further secularisation of the imagination’. However, he still believed that ‘the spiritual has been with us and will remain with us as long as we have mind’.

Vendler comments that, ‘Ammons’ first two books were uncertain ones’. Coming to these poems now, what emerges from them is a sense of the gestural, as though they reach out to something slightly beyond them; as in this, the opening of ‘I Came in a Dark Woods Upon’, ‘I came in a dark woods upon / an ineffaceable difference / and oops embracing it / felt it up and down mindfully / in the dark / prying open the knees to my ideas’. As Vendler notes, Ammons embraced the colloquial early, and that sense of the empirical Ammons addressing the reader is present in much of Ammons’s poetry. Here, even as Ammons nods to both Dante and Robert Frost, the poem also communicates the sheer enjoyment of being in the natural world which characterises much of Ammons’s poetry. Perhaps it is expecting too much of the young poet that he elucidate ‘ineffaceable difference’ further and weave it in a more integrated way into the trajectory of poem – a poem which later goes on to state, ‘The dryads took body in the oakhearts / The Angels shuttered their wintry peepholes’. And a number of the early poems have this tendency to pick an apercu and then both push it at the reader and also avoid its consequences. Poems in these early books also have rather gestural titles, such as ‘Heterodoxy with Ennui’ or ‘Paradox with Variety’, or even, and this from his first book, ‘I Assume the World Is Curious About Me’. This latter poem is certainly filled with deflating irony, but even so.

It is with his third book, Corsons Inlet, and its wonderful title poem, that Ammons seems to settle into ‘the American grain’. In the title poem, Ammons walks along a tidal inlet, observing and commenting on the world of the shoreline, and his own place there. As he notes, ‘the walk liberating, I was released from forms, / from the perpendiculars, / straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought / into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends / of sight:’. In many ways, nearly all poetry is a revolt against Platonic forms; if nothing, poetry is an attempt to focus and particularise. And Ammons wants to tell as much as he wants to show. In this poem and in much of the rest of his poetry, Ammons constantly seeks to absorb and witness, and to leave ‘things’ essentially undisturbed. If nature to Ammons is, indeed ‘red in tooth and claw’ then Ammons’s witness is a fundamental acceptance, ‘caught always in the event of change: / a young mottled gull stood free on the shoals / and ate / to vomiting: another gull, squawking possession, cracked a crab, / picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs, a ruddy / turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits:’. Ammons’s selection of this scene leans towards the scientific and the objective, but as Harold Bloom comments, what we have here is Ammons’s ‘oddly negative exuberance’. Which we might allow Ammons, himself, to gloss, with the lines which end ‘Corsons Inlet’, ‘Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision, / that I have perceived nothing completely, / that tomorrow is a new walk is a new walk.’

Central to the first volume Collected Poems 1955–77 is the first of Ammons’s book-length sequences, ‘Tape for the Turn of the Year’, first published in 1965. It was written on one hundred feet of three-inch wide adding machine paper bought, by Ammons’s own admission, ‘in the House & / Garden store […] to penetrate / into some / fool use for it:’ Thus the poem is physically very thin on the page. But that attenuation does not extend to the contents, which include ironic allusions to the Odyssey, although the Ithaca Ammons seeks is the Ithaca which houses a job at Cornell. ‘Tape for the Turn of the Year’ also adumbrates Ammons’s search for a phenomenology which can suggest humanity’s relationship with the natural world, ‘here are “motions” / that play in and out: / unifying / correspondences that / suggest we can approach / unity only by the loss / of things – / a loss we’re unwilling / to take – / since the gain of unity / would be a vision / of something in the / continuum of nothingness:’. Ammons had lost much in his early life, but seems to be suggesting here that such loss might lead to a greater and more healing unity. It is perhaps this ‘unity’ which Ammon sees as ‘the spiritual which will remain with us as long as we have mind’. If, for Ammons and also for Stevens, God is Deus Absconditus, then what might replace that overarching and transcendent unifier is a closer sense of the world.

Ammons continues, ‘we already have things: / why fool around: / beer, milk, mushroom cream sauce, / eggs, books, bags, / telephones & rugs: pleasure to perceive / correspondences, facts / that experience is / holding together, that / what mind grew out of / is also holding together:’ Although that list of ‘things’ might seem bathetic, what Ammons seems to be doing is suggesting that humanity might find some of its location in just that sense of the domestic. Ammons has praised the gull cracking open a crab on the shoreline; he is now praising the commonplace products of humanity in the house. In ‘Tape for the Turn of the Year’, Bloom’s ‘oddly negative exuberance’ is surely turned to a positive exuberance. Ammons wants to sing all of the world of his experience; as Vendler puts it, this is a move from a neo-Platonic One ‘in favour of the Many – the vicissitudes of human life’, and not only human. It would have been interesting to see how such a sensibility would have reacted to the world of globalisation and social media, with the kind of anomie such ‘things’ have also created.

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