Entropy with Doxology
The Complete Poems (two volumes)
By A. R. Ammons
Edited by Robert M. West
W.W. Norton. $49.95 each.
In the last years of his life, A. R. Ammons (1926–2001) developed the habit of ending poems with capitalized phrases that thereby assume a somewhat lapidary quality, like proverbs—“we ford low water and ferry deep”—or punch lines to jokes—“that’s oil, folks” ends one called “Oil Ode”—or self-help-style injunctions: “cast the overcast.” The very last piece in his posthumously published collection of late poems, unpromisingly entitled Bosh and Flapdoodle (2005), concludes “drab pot.”
There is certainly much drab pottering about in Ammons’s collected oeuvre, which runs, in these magnificent volumes, to over 2,000 pages; for Ammons never tired of itemizing what the squirrels and chipmunks and jays were up to in his backyard, or of keeping us abreast of the progress of his zinnias or snapdragons, or shifts in the weather. Not since John Clare has a poet so relentlessly dedicated himself to depicting minor phenomena of nature, nor worked so completely on the assumption they shared that readers would be interested to know about the nesting habits of the yellowhammer or sand martin (Clare), or the flowering of a quince bush or the responses of a hornet to the onset of winter (Ammons). Like Clare, Ammons grew up in rural poverty, and neither ever lost their early fascination with the particulars of the natural world, and the struggles of even its humblest denizens for survival:
I picked up a wet leaftoday: itleft its shape moiston the macadamand there was an earthwormhis arteriesshining in the brilliant light—it really was brilliant today—andhepanicked at both endswith the threat of drying out:a basicconcern I shared with himand share with himfor I lifted him with the leafand took him to the grass:I’ll bet he knows nowhe can be seen through and turninto a little thong:I knew it all along though I’mnot in grassand the leaves that fallgive me no sense of refuge.—From Autumn Song
Neither Ammons nor Clare ever asks to be admired for their curiosity or sympathy—as William Wordsworth so often does, before converting each encounter or observation into evidence of his own poetic election and the mysterious workings of the divine. Ammons’s imperiled earthworm may, for a moment, trigger thoughts of his own vulnerability and transience, but his recording of such tremors remains at the level of the resolutely everyday: not for Ammons the expressionist dramas of confession or political denunciation or dark nights of the soul. Like Clare, he became a top bard, to reverse the letters of the last words of his last book, by never straying far from the drab—but also by finding a vast and varied series of poetic pots, from the tiny to the dizzyingly capacious, in which to store his observations of minutiae.
Ammons was born “big and jaundiced (and ugly),” as he put it in an autobiographical note of 1973, in a farmhouse near Whiteville in North Carolina. His parents were subsistence farmers, eking out a living with a mule, a plough, a few pigs and chickens, before branching out, disastrously, into tobacco. “We had rough times for years,” Ammons observed tersely of his childhood. A younger brother called Elbert died when Archie (as he was always known) was four, and a second brother was stillborn a year later. In “Easter Morning” of 1977, which narrates a trip back to North Carolina, Ammons movingly reflects on Elbert’s death, and on the intensity of his feelings about his “home country,” although he can characterize it only in terms of absence, of loss and failure:
I stand on the stumpof a child, whether myselfor my little brother who died, andyell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place, forfor me it is the dearest and the worst,it is life nearest to life which islife lost: it is my place whereI must stand and fail,calling attention with tearsto the branches not loftingboughs into space, to the barrenair that holds the world that was my world.—From Easter Morning
Although Ammons’s father was a Baptist and his mother a Methodist, the family generally attended the Spring Branch Fire-Baptized Pentecostal Church, it being under a mile away, while the local Baptist church was two miles away, and there were no nearby Methodist churches. The prophetic utterances of Ammons’s early alter ego, Ezra (“So I Said I Am Ezra” is the title of the first poem in his first book, the self-published Ommateum with Doxology of 1955), surely reflect the hellfire preaching young Archie imbibed on Sundays during his childhood. The elemental simplicities of Ammons’s early work have not worn particularly well, but he fortunately never lost—as the passage quoted above so vividly testifies—the ability to write in a manner that was direct and free-flowing, unencumbered by literary baggage or the parades of irony and sophistication that marked the work of the many poets of his generation who labored under the aegis of New Critics such as Ammons’s fellow Southerners Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. It seems, indeed, that the Ammons family library consisted of just three books, one of which was the Bible, along with the first eleven pages of Robinson Crusoe, which Archie read so often that he knew them practically by heart. The originality of his style, like that of Clare, can be attributed, at least in part, to his limited early access to the literature absorbed in childhood by his better educated contemporaries.
Ammons enlisted in the Navy when WWII broke out, and served on the USS Gunason in the Pacific. It was while on board the Gunason that he experienced the epiphany that—or so he later explained to David Lehman in his Paris Review interview of 1996—would shape his life:
One day, when I was nineteen, I was sitting on the bow of the ship anchored in a bay in the South Pacific. As I looked at the land, heard the roosters crowing, saw the thatched huts, etcetera, 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 landmass, determining where people would or would not live, where palm trees would or could 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 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. I was de-denominated.
The “religion” which animates Ammons’s poems, even the most Biblically-inflected early ones, is accordingly vague or gnostic (one reason that he found such a fervent champion in the critic Harold Bloom). His work extrapolates and articulates this “interior illumination” by tracing the ongoing flux of energies, from the micro to the macro, and by miming in language the flow through time of whatever physical aspects of the world engage his attention: the “de-denominated” divinity of Ammons’s world is entropy, and its chief signifier the colon, which was relentlessly used by the poet in almost all phases of his career as a means of linking the disparate but coexisting, and so staving off completion.
He attended Wake Forest University on the GI Bill, where he took a smattering of English courses, but majored in science. Ammons was readier than most poets of his generation to incorporate scientific terminology into his idiom, and at times he can sound like a mid-twentieth-century American Lucretius, extolling the wonders of the body or natural world in unashamedly technical terms: “honor the chemistries, platelets, hemoglobin kinetics,/ the light-sensitive iris, the enzymic intricacies/of control,” and so on. In this, as in so many other ways, he can be seen as taking his cue from Walt Whitman, and it is to Whitman, followed closely by Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, that his work is most frankly indebted. Like them, he could be outspoken on the need for an American poetry that rejected European traditions—and he even abruptly terminated a traveling fellowship from the American Academy to spend a year in Italy, returning after a mere three months: “I hated it,” he told Lehman when quizzed about this in his Paris Review interview; “I’m not interested in all that cultural crap. It was just a waste of time for me.” Ammons’s poetry dramatizes, to borrow a line from Stevens, “the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice,” and if Piero di Cosimo or Titian failed to “suffice,” then to Ammons, even if it made him sound like a philistine, they were so much “cultural crap.”
Nevertheless, he did end up teaching at a prestigious American university for over three decades (Cornell), and can be seen as a beneficiary, no less than such as Robert Lowell or John Berryman, of the American university system’s ability to monetize the writing of poetry. His route to his appointment was, however, a convoluted one. After Wake Forest he enrolled in a creative writing course at Berkeley, which he didn’t finish, but he did receive a modicum of encouragement from his teacher there, Josephine Miles, to whom Ommateum with Doxology is dedicated (an ommateum, incidentally, is the compound eye of an insect, and a doxology a short hymn in praise of God). Married, and needing an income, he took a job in his father-in-law’s scientific glassware business based on the South Jersey Shore—near Corson’s Inlet (the title of his third, and probably most celebrated book, published in 1965). Writing, like Stevens and Williams, in the evenings or on weekends, Ammons was dismayed to discover his work made no impression on the editors to whom he sent it; exasperated by so many rejections, he eventually decided to publish his first collection at his own expense, and although largely ignored—its title can’t have helped—it did find a few responsive readers, such as the Chicago poet John Logan; enough, at any rate, to reassure Ammons that his vocation was genuine.
The vatic strain in Ammons is at its most explicit in these early poems, many of which perform an open-ended melding of the visionary and the quotidian:
A crippled angel bent in a scythe of griefmourned in an empty lotPassing by I stoppedamused that immortality should grieveand saidIt must be exquisite—From A Crippled Angel
One is put in mind of Flannery O’Connor’s parables of modern-day martyrdom in small-town Georgia, although the “de-denominated” Ammons is determined to allow his eschatological language to float free of any particular religion. His best early poems are in fact those that more resemble a short story or character portrait, such as “Nelly Myers,” a loving depiction of a woman with painfully swollen legs who lived with the Ammonses; or vignettes of rural life, like “Silver,” a poem about the family mule who gets bitten by a snake, or “Hardweed Path Going,” which recalls the day that his pet hog Sparkle went to slaughter:
Oh, Sparkle, when the axe tomorrow morning fallsand the rush is made to open your throat,I will sing, watching dry-eyed as a man, sing mylove for you in the tender feedings.She’s nothing but a hog, boy.
Ammons, as such a passage illustrates, was as attuned as Clare to the gruesome imperatives of life on the land, and, like Clare, often found himself sympathizing with both butcher and butchered.
The job offer from Cornell came in the wake of a reading that he gave there in July of 1963; by this time he had established the template of an Ammons poem, most memorably in “Corsons Inlet” (composed in 1962), as a loosely structured ongoing interchange between precise observations of the outer world, meditative reflections on what has been called by John Ashbery (these two favorites of Bloom were also great admirers of each other’s poetry) “the experience of experience,” and self-conscious, metapoetic reminders of the need for his own work to stay open-ended and avoid what “Corsons Inlet” calls “narrow orders, limited tightness.” The alternative modes of poetry developed in the postwar years by such as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder—all featured in Donald Allen’s pioneering The New American Poetry, 1945–1960, which came out a few years too early to include Ammons—can be seen as analogous attempts to progress beyond the strictures of modernism, or at least beyond the forms of modernism that the New Critics embraced and expounded, into a poetry more attuned to the Whitmanian open road, or to the “open field” advocated by Olson. The result, in Ammons’s case, was an expansive series of free-flowing songs of the self pursued into whatever byways or loops of inquiry his consciousness happened to wander. “How does a poem resemble a walk?” he asked himself in a lecture of 1968, and then proceeded to answer in a passage that neatly summarizes his overall concept of poetry:
First, each makes use of the whole body, involvement is total, both mind and body. You can’t take a walk without feet and legs, without a circulatory system, a guidance and coordinating system, without eyes, ears, desire, will, need: the total person. This observation is important not only for what it includes but for what it rules out: as with a walk, a poem is not simply a mental activity; it has body, rhythm, feeling, sound, and mind, conscious and subconscious. The pace at which a poet walks (and thinks), his natural breath-length, the line he pursues, whether forthright and straight or weaving and meditative, his whole “air,” whether of aimlessness or purpose—all these things and many more figure into the “physiology” of the poem he writes.
“I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning,” opens “Corsons Inlet,” and the poem that follows celebrates both walk and poem as a release “from forms,/from the perpendiculars,/straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds/of thought.” It is interesting to compare “Corsons Inlet” with Robert Frost’s less uplifting “The Wood-Pile” (to which Ammons alludes in his lecture on poetry and walking), whose protagonist is similarly out for a stroll, although in the New England woods rather than on a New Jersey beach, and who feels imprisoned rather than liberated:
The view was all in linesStraight up and down of tall slim treesToo much alike to mark or name a place bySo as to say for certain I was hereOr somewhere else: I was just far from home.
Both poems go on to ponder all that eludes the urge for control, or ideas of order, and Frost’s final image of the titular abandoned wood-pile that he chances across ironically warming “the frozen swamp as best it could/With the slow smokeless burning of decay” neatly encapsulates the forces of entropy that would come to obsess Ammons, particularly in his great long poem of the early nineties, Garbage. But in “Corsons Inlet” his joy at the discovery of the ways in which he can braid together the experience of walking with expositions of his ars poetica is sufficient to make him feel able to cope with all the “looser, wider forces” of “disorder”:
terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilitiesof escape open: no route shut, except inthe sudden loss of all routes.
It is not clear if he is referring here to death or to the kind of lostness that afflicts Frost out in his almost allegorical frozen swamp. Ammons was himself prone to bouts of extreme anxiety, and a number of times figures the writing of poetry as his only possible means of salvation: “I’ll always love you,” he tells his Muse in the long poem he embarked on the year after writing “Corsons Inlet,” Tape for the Turn of the Year; “I have nothing else:/I have/nothing else besides you:/will you tear me/to pieces?” It is striking that he concludes his interview with Lehman with the somewhat troubling assertion, “I don’t feel at home—I’ll never feel at home—anywhere.”
The openness to contingency adumbrated in “Corsons Inlet” found its fullest expression in Ammons’s long poems, which often function as versified diaries, and are never afraid to comment on the processes that are bringing them into being. Tape for the Turn of the Year opens on December 6 of 1963 with a disarmingly straightforward statement of intent:
today Idecided to writea longthinpoem
In order to ensure his poem stayed as thin as promised, Ammons purchased for this experiment a roll of adding machine tape that he inserted into his typewriter. “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” Truman Capote famously commented of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, similarly composed on a vast spool of paper, but Kerouac was recreating his exhilarating odysseys across America with Neal Cassady, while Ammons faced the more daunting challenge of keeping the reader interested in his mundane daily doings in Millville, New Jersey. Nevertheless, he got going that chilly day with an idiosyncratic address to the classical Muse (“I salute her, lady/of a hundred names—/Inspiration/Unconscious/Apollo (on her man side)/Parnassus (as her/haunt)/Pierian spring (as/the nature of her/going)/Hippocrene/Pegasus”), and by the time the tape was all used up on January 10, 1964, it contained over seven thousand very skinny lines. “Muse, I’ve done the best/I could,” he reflects in his final entry: “sometimes you ran out/on me/& sometimes I ran out/on you.”
Intrinsic to the concept as well as to the nature of poems like Tape for the Turn of the Year (which was published in 1965), Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974), The Snow Poems (1977), Sumerian Vistas (1987), Garbage (1993), and Glare (1997) is a capaciousness and fluidity that make any critical perspective on them feel limited and partial. Like Ashbery’s equally long Flow Chart of 1991, they serve as repositories of a vast range of dictions, and allow Ammons to switch, as the mood takes him, from the sublime to the ornery, from the philosophical to the intimate, from the scientific to the metapoetic. When inspiration is low he is happy to fool around on his typewriter until some new idea or observation comes along, so all contain passages in which he frankly treads water—as when, in Tape for the Turn of the Year, he fills up four lines with a string of “& so”s. Or he might itemize what he has drunk and eaten and what it cost:
lunch: hot dogs and bakedbeans again: swell:2/23: 11½¢ a can: cheap:hotdogs run you around—oh let’s see:this morning’s coffee &a chocolate fudge cookie:maybe 30¢ altogether& allthat energyturned into verse
The act of writing poetry, at such moments, is viewed rather as the habits of an animal or a bird are in a nature documentary: the food is converted by his body into energy and thence into poetry—poetry that physically gathers in the wastebasket at his feet in which the steadily lengthening used sections of the tape are amassing. The revelation that he experienced at nineteen in the Pacific is dramatized in relation to his own “dynamics,” the motions of his own body, and the poem is both a product and a means of charting this corporeal economy.
All these long poems evolve their own systems of accretion and expansion in their basic struggle to keep going. Punctuation was important to the way Ammons orchestrated and paced the material flowing from his consciousness through the typewriter’s keys and onto the page, and in his long poems the full stop or period can often seem a kind of taboo—the equivalent of a death sentence, if you’ll excuse the pun. There is only one in the 1,860 lines of Sphere: The Form of a Motion, and that comes after its final word. Like that of Tape for the Turn of the Year, Sphere’s form, or perhaps format is the more accurate term, was predetermined, for it consists of 155 twelve-line sections, each arranged into four three-line stanzas. Whereas the earlier Tape for the Turn of the Year and the later Snow Poems are jerky, eccentric, erratic, Sphere pulses forward with an even-handed energy, although the observations that accrue in it, and the events described, are no less generated by whatever happened to happen in the period of its composition.
Most of Ammons’s long poems revolve and prolong themselves in relation to an image encoded in their titles: the unspooling tape; the photograph from outer space of planet Earth that stimulated Sphere; the relentless snow that falls in the winter months in Ithaca in Snow Poems; the garbage mound glimpsed from the interstate in Florida that prompted his excavations of, and meditations on, all that we throw away. Only his final long poem, Glare, is not directly centered by its title, which obliquely alludes to Ammons’s memories of the illness and death of his younger brother: in section 34 he recalls how his parents desperately attempted to cure Elbert with a pagan remedy that involved splitting a sapling and then passing the ill child through the halved tree, which was then bound up; as the tree’s wound healed, so would the child’s. This primal scene was imprinted on the young poet’s mind with hallucinatory, indelible power, like one of Wordsworth’s childhood spots of time: “it has become a foundation.” Ammons comments:
Whatever is now passes like earlysnow on a warm boulder: but theboulder over and over is revealed,its grainy size and weight a glare.
Ammons’s complex metaphor can be read as an attempt to capture the paradoxical nature of his survivor’s guilt, which, although it assumes the solidity of a foundation or boulder, is experienced as a blinding visual impression—or, as he puts it earlier in the section, as a “feeling” that is both “fleeting” and “carved in stone across/the gut.” And the glare itself surely derives from his memory of the scene in the woods itself: did he connect the staged ritual with the story of Isaac and Abraham, which he probably knew even at the age of four, and believe he was to be the sacrifice? “Let me forget the sharp/edge of the lit blade childish//unknowing, the trees seeming from/our motion loose in motion.” Ammons’s tireless recreation of the forms of motion, to adapt the subtitle of Sphere, can seem, in the light of this traumatizing memory, attempts to avert his eyes from a terrifying glare, from “the sharp/edge of the lit blade.”
The compulsive aspects of Ammons’s inspiration are as much in evidence in his dozen or so collections of shorter lyrics as in his book-length poems. Some of these shorter lyrics are very short indeed. Here are some from a 1990 volume entitled, with deadpan accuracy, The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons:
A day without rain is likea day without sunshine—Weatheringtime will washawaysoclean not acrywillbe left init—ThisWind rocksthe porch chairssomebody home—CallingYou must benearly lost tobe (iffound) nearlyfound—Poetry to the RescueWearing awaywearswearingaway away—Pebble’s StoryThe philodendron’s ear-leafby thewindowlistens for the moon.—Night Post
The appeal to Ammons of the Japanese hokku is evident in these micro-glimpses into the ways of the world. As much as the overflowing long poems, they can be seen as indicating Ammons’s need to subject to extremes the traditions of the post-romantic lyric, while also suggesting the extent to which mind-boggling expansion and radical compression were necessary imaginative complements for Ammons. “Pebble’s Story” sums up in six words what it takes Garbage 2,217 lines to articulate. While the long poems refract Ammons’s love of the poetry of Stevens, to whom they allude on a number of occasions, in the shorter pieces one is insistently conscious of the extraordinary possibilities for American poetry opened up by Williams. An appendix of Ammons’s uncollected poems includes one of 1963 called “Sung Reassertions” that initially appeared in a chapbook in memory of Williams, who died in March of that year. It riffs on the late Williams poem “Calypsos” from Pictures from Brueghel, part III of which reads:
We watcheda red roosterwithtwo hensbackof the museumatSt. Croixflap hiswingszippy zappyand crow
In “Sung Reassertions,” Ammons converts Williams’s zippy zappy rooster into a crowing cock boldly defying the dictates of time:
The cock wakes, crows, treadsfeeds, fights, sleeps: sleepsfitfully, impatientof time’s insinuating treachery,and crows defiantly in the middleof the night.
That night is now death, but Ammons’s poetic tribute, through its deployment of Williams-ish cadences and imagery, itself constitutes a prolongation of the dead poet’s imaginative life. “So much depends,” many of the shorter poems that Ammons wrote seem to murmur under their breath, on zippy zappy Williams’s iconoclastic reconfiguring of the lyric in “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
These superbly edited volumes include dates for all the poems that are datable, and I couldn’t help thinking, as I made my way from “So I Said I Am Ezra” of 1951 to the spate of poems written in 1996 collected in Bosh and Flapdoodle, of all the markers of American history unreferenced by Ammons. A poem of 1967 called “Pray without Ceasing,” not published until 1973, seems to have been his only explicit attempt to respond to the war in Vietnam: its imagery includes “fatigues snagged by wire,” a Buddhist nun burning for peace, a village woman returning to her home to find her shack on fire and her son and husband shot, and a child sitting “in explosion’s/clutter.” The six-year hiatus between the poem’s composition and publication perhaps indicates the degree of Ammons’s unease with the concept of protest poetry. From the works of Adrienne Rich or Robert Lowell or Ginsberg one might glean a fairly comprehensive set of responses to American political developments in the second half of the twentieth century, and the impact on individual citizens of decisions taken in Washington; the capital of Ammons’s nation state, in contrast, was his backyard, and no more than Emily Dickinson did he feel it in his brief to comment directly on domestic or foreign policy issues.
That is not to say, however, that a reader a hundred years or so hence would not be able to learn as much about everyday American life in this period—its rituals and textures, its consumption habits and waste products—from the work of Ammons as from that of any of his contemporaries. For he devoted his poetic life to turning his drab potterings into a low-key but mesmerizing apologia pro sua vita—and only a top bard can sustain interest in a song of myself that lasts for nearly half a century, and ends up over two thousand pages long.
Mark Ford was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and earned both his BA and DPhil from the University of Oxford. His collections of poetry include Landlocked (1991), Soft Sift (2001), Six Children (2011), Selected Poems (2014), and Enter, Fleeing (2018). He is the author of a biography, Raymond Roussel and the...