The box-like structure of rhymed, measured verse is pretty well shot

"I've noticed a few things in my verse lately that arouse my curiosity..."

It was curiously characteristic of A.R. Ammons that when he penned a "Note on Prosody" for the September 1962 issue of Poetry, he used his own work as a study text. Why not! (Poet, know thyself, right?) After all, as he explains -
"Before, or while, writing a poem, the poet listens to himself as truly as he can to hear how the poem is trying to happen. After the poem is written, he has another chance to listen, not this time to himself but to the poem, to hear what has happened. By this unbiased, open listening, the means and use of himself as an instrument are brought more perfectly into knowledge."
That's when he continues:
"I've noticed a few things in my verse lately that arouse my curiosity, and I wonder if they reflect important little real things that are happening to poetry or just willed nerve."
What sly, funny precision: "important little things" ... "just willed nerve."
These are the lines he examines:
and the mountain
but reluctant to
admit my praise could move it much
shook a little
and rained a windrow ring of stones
to show
that it was so

The analysis: "Here the box-like structure of rhymed, measured verse is pretty well shot. The emphasis has shifted from the ends of the lines (see German sentence structure, see the concluding emphasis that rhyme itself imposes) toward the lefthand margin..." and so on for one and a half dense pages. In the end, Ammons finds a pendulum effect in his own lines, "a central poise." Or put another way, the poem's "real center is passed in rapid motion."
The piece ends: "I think the quoted fragment and these thoughts suggest that a non-linear movement is possible which uses both the beginning and the end of the line as glancing-off points, so that the movement is not across the page, but actually, centrally down the page."
Ammons, the great prosodic centrist of American poetry, appeared in our pages dozens of times - and appears once again (actually, twice!) in the June issue of Poetry, thanks to two previously unpublished poems, framed and hung on the wall of the folks to whom they were written.
Also this month, you can read Stephen Burt's essay, "Naive Melody: The Vast Diction—and Dibbles and Blips—of A.R. Ammons" on the magazine website.
Now let's see who can figure out where those self-quoted lines came from!

Originally Published: May 30th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. May 30, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Great post, Don. Being new to this dirty, valiant game in the grand scheme of important little real things, it is natural–after turning to verse again and again–to slowly feel awakened to a deeper sense of this long conversation that is poetry. Folks I've come into contact with respond to Ammons's work in one of two ways: either shrug their shoulders or go slack-jawed with awe. I'm the latter, but would love to understand the former ...