June 2003

Tim Walker

incomplete education

A is for Ammons

Properly, "A" should be for "Auden." Not because A. R. Ammons is anything less than a fine poet -- his career is rightly garlanded with the nation's highest poetic awards and honors -- but because we should start with the giants. To my shame I admit that I've read no more than a dozen or two of Auden's poems -- and I could say the same for any of scores more of poets well worth anyone's time.

Regular poetry reading may be something like regular exercise. For those who do it, it can be rewarding in many interlocking ways, so much so that when you come back to it after a layoff, you ask yourself why you ever stopped. For those who don't participate, the appeal of each activity is inscrutable. Why would you put yourself through such torture?

The supposedly tortuous, eating-your-brussels-sprouts aspect of poetry reading was analyzed -- with mixed results, I think -- in this recent Newsweek article by Bruce Wexler:

Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?

"People don't possess the patience to read a poem 20 times before the sound and sense of it takes hold. They aren't willing to let the words wash over them like a wave, demanding instead for the meaning to flow clearly and quickly. They want narrative-driven forms, stand-alone art that doesn't require an understanding of the larger contextů Poetry is designed for an era when people valued the written word and had the time and inclination to possess it in its highest form."

Well, I do also get frustrated with poems that take 20 readings to come clear, but I don't share Wexler's love (expressed elsewhere in the piece) for television, bestsellers, and books with buzz. If it's a good book, I'll take it, but I'm much more interested in the "highest forms" part of the equation than with the clear-and-quick part.

What does all of this have to do with A. R. Ammons? This: Ammons is a subtle and often funny writer whose work typically doesn't hit you over the head. Sometimes the effects are right there for all to see, but more often the impact of his poems comes in their accreted details. Especially with longer poems like "The Ridge Farm" and Garbage, you find yourself slipping into his worldview, beginning to see things from his perspective, appreciating it more as you go along.

In many ways, this subtlety is more appealing than any pyrotechnics. While I welcome breathtaking effects -- three-run homers and the 1812 Overture and the most over-the-top sentences of The Right Stuff -- in many cases the impression made by flashy poetic lines wears off with repetition, or else the lines simply don't bear re-reading. In many of his poems Ammons is subtle from the get-go, so he's not counting on flash to beguile the reader. Rather, it seems that he's counting on bringing you along with him as he observes and comments upon the world.

Many of his poems take place out in the landscape. They are populated by grasses and sand, trees and wind, chipmunks and hawks and larks, or, in the case of the book-length Garbage, by our detritus. He is typically alone with his thoughts, and especially with his sense-impressions, on his long excursions into the world outside. As he describes the landscape he also shares the attitude he brings to it. In "The Ridge Farm," he writes: "along the ridge is a long march / and you don't have to sweat once you're / there: wild turkey, deer, grouse / inhabit the inaccessibilities and make / do: I would buy a whole 130-acre farm / for one hermit lark, his song, / especially his song at evening by a / pond."

Some poets who write about nature would have you believe it's all hallowed and reverent, or else it's all gory and red. Ammons is much more quotidian when he confesses, just a few pages further along in "The Ridge Farm": "I love nature especially if there's / a hospital nearby and macadam or / glass in between."

I've praised Gary Snyder in this space before, both for his poems and for his life up in the Sierras. And, little though he'd boast about it, Snyder's project has been more heroic, and certainly more strenuous, than Ammons's in upstate New York. Like Snyder, Ammons is observant of nature, but his observations come closer to town. What that also means is that, while Ammons's poetry is mostly rural, it might also be more relevant to the lives of more readers.

Many of his poems come across as contemplative, riffing essays in verse. While it's often a mistake to equate the poet with the narrator of the poems, if Ammons's poetic persona is much like him, I seem to know him better verse by verse. My surmise is that he is quirky and in some ways implacably apart from his neighbors in life, but a man well worth knowing.

He writes about his own strangeness and how it fed his poetic drive in Garbage:

. . . when
I was a kid I always, it seemed, had a point

I couldn't say or that no one could accept--
I always sounded unconvincing; I lost the

arguments: people became impatient and stuck
to their own beliefs; my explanations struck

them as strange, unlikely: when I learned
about poetry, I must have recognized a means

to command silence in them, the means so to
combine thinking and feeling, imagination and

movement as to spell them out of speech:
people would buy the enchantment and get the

point reason couldn't, the point delivered below
the level of argument, straight into the fat

of feeling: so I'm asking you to help me, now:
yield to this possibility . . .

Ammons certainly uses his poems to makes many of these "point[s] delivered below / the level of argument" about the ways we do live and might live. For example, the advice in "Correction" -- which at seven lines is too short to quote fairly -- is a useful corrective if you've absorbed too much geopolitical news lately. Another tidbit from Garbage is worth tacking up someplace you'll see it: "even in the midst of passion plant the seed / whose vine or tree may hang you: things // not followed as risks are risky: being alive / means being alive to mischance's chances."

As you'd expect from someone who taught English at Cornell for decades, Ammons has plenty to say about language, observation, and poetry itself. In "The Misfit," he writes about how our minds work to make sense of things, "not the million oriented facts / but the one or two facts / out of place, // recalcitrant, the one observed fact / that tears us into questioning." He's also none too full of himself, and none too haughty about humanity's place in the scheme of things, as this tidbit from Garbage suggests: "our language is something to write home about: // but it is not the world: grooming does for / baboons most of what words do for us."

Newcomers to Ammons's work would do well to start with his Selected Poems, which contains short pieces, or Sumerian Vistas, which includes the long poem "The Ridge Farm" along with dozens of shorter ones. But for a sustained tour of the sensibility of A. R. Ammons, I can recommend Garbage. The book is about much more than just our trash, but includes great exegeses of waste like this:

gather up the scraps for pig-swill: anything
thrown out to the chickens will be ground fine

in gizzards or taken underground by beetles and
ants: this will be transmuted into the filigree

of ant feelers' energy vaporizations: chunk and
smear, grease and glob will boil refined in

time's and guts' alembics, the air carbonized
rich, potash in lacy leavings' milding terrain:

a breadcrumb borne away by hundreds like a stone
waist-high many legs to the pyramid: but nothing

much can become of the clear-through plastic
lid: it finds security in the legit

museums of our desecrations--the mounds, the
heights of discard . . .

If that strikes you as too strange, give it time. Join Ammons for the ride, take it as it comes, and see if you don't find yourself slipping into his sensibility.*

In the article I quoted above, Bruce Wexler wrote, "I really do believe that poetry is the highest form of writing. Read Yeats's "The Wild Swans at Coole," Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Thomas's "Fern Hill," and you'll experience the true power of art. They touch the heart and the head in ways that movie-makers (our current artistic high priests) can only dream of."

I just took less than half an hour to read these three poems. (They're all in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, if you're interested.) Wexler's right, of course: works of art will by their nature move us, if we're willing to let them. But what I don't get -- I understand it, but it doesn't resonate -- is Wexler's reluctance to let go of his t.v. shows and his bestsellers. Seek out the strange and wonderful, I say; if it happens to be appreciated by many, so much the better; if not, then enjoy the private pleasure of it, and share it with your friends. Ignore buzz; focus on works of art like the ones Wexler cited.

Can Ammons's work stand alongside poems like "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"? I don't know, and I'm not sure it's a fair test. You don't say O'Keeffe was a bad painter because she wasn't Rembrandt. I'm a baseball fan, and I'll gladly watch a game with zero future Hall of Famers playing in it, because for me baseball, played well, is worth watching in its own right. I belive that poetry, written well, is worth reading in its own right. Part of what I hope to help you do is to skip past some of the lesser lights so you can focus on poets who will reward your time. Ammons is one of these.

Wexler's Newsweek piece reminds me of the essay "Metrical Illiteracy," which appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of The New Criterion. In it, poet and critic Brad Leithauser rightly lamented the ways in which modern poetic writers and readers are divorced from the collective poetic heritage and skills of English literature. As he put it, "Never before in the long line of English verse have we seen the ascendancy of generations of poets who have at no time in their careers worked seriously with form." I don't think that this can be applied to Ammons, but there is an extension to yours truly. Near the end of Leithauser's essay he also wrote: "Poets tend to resent, often rightfully, being reviewed by non-poet critics, who may not fully compass the actual ways a poem is constructed; but having once sacrificed a first-hand knowledge of poetic forms, these poets themselves are, when passing judgments on the formal masters of the past, in precisely the same position as the non-poet critics they resent."

Reading Ammons, I'm acutely aware of how much I'm missing as I go. Does this shock you, gentle reader? Surely not. The title of this column isn't just a canard: it's a real expression of my own sense of failing to know what I believe I should know about poetry, how it's built, and how to read it. Within the limits of a busy life, I'm doing the best I can to remedy this. I have a growing shelf of poetry -- new and old -- to read for the first time, along with critical, biographical, and analytical works to supplement my own understanding. And while I don't expect to contribute to the chatter of the minor poets filling the literary magazines, I may even put my own hand to the plow again, after many years in which I've written poetry fitfully or not at all. Will I be a major poet? No, and I might not ever publish a line. But might I learn something along the way -- something I might convey to you? Stay tunedů