By A.R. Ammons
Original and Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
A.R. Ammons also won the National Book Award in Poetry
in 1993 for Garbage.
Christopher Shannon writes:
done is to be
from Pray Without Ceasing
In 2001, a friend gave me Brink Road for my twentieth birthday. I read this book, A.R. Ammons’ 23rd collection of poetry, but at the time, I preferred my poets to be circus masters, and Ammons seemed like a 19th century amateur scientist. I found Brink Road’s skinny trimeter and tetrameter poems too reliant on empty paradox and repetitions I thought self-satisfied; his lines lacked even a drop of personal color. The essential dreariness of the book's cover art—a blurry, empty, winding road—was echoed by the sparingly staged poetry. A month later, at the age of seventy-five, Ammons died and already I had moved on to John Ashbery, the poet Ammons most admired.
But now, after many years, I've gone back to Ammons, reading most of his available work. For this blog, I’ve thoroughly re-read Collected Poems, 1951-1971 and Garbage, the two books that won National Book Awards in 1973 and 1993, respectively. Together, they represent the arc of Ammons’ oeuvre, which began in 1951 with Ommateum, a book that sold 16 copies, and culminated with the posthumous publication of Bosh and Flapdoodle in 2005.
And, of course, the lore of Ammons’ American life—in the line of Thoreau, Emerson, and Charles Ives—is well-known. It seems that he built a life based on a natural-born set of robust personal by-laws that were uniquely his. Ammons sailed on boats—he served in the Navy—but preferred to avoid airplanes. He was once Principal of a school in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. For ten years, he managed a biological glass factory in southern New Jersey. His writing changed over time, but not in a “try a little of this and a little of that” trajectory, but in concentric fashion that constantly sought to widen the scope of its inquiry.
Since reading Brink Road, my view on Ammons has changed. Now, I see the richness of a fully-occupied experience in each of his poems. By eschewing third person points of view, using the present tense, and via the immediacy of his diction, Ammons’ poems—especially the earlier of the Collected—articulate not only each human being’s inherent disconnection with one another, but the train of thought that led to that conclusion.
I think of her
but cannot remember how I thought of her
as I grew up: she was not a member of the family:
I knew she was not my mother,
nor an aunt, there was nothing
visiting about her: she had her room,
she kept her bag of money
Thus begins “Nelly Myers,” one of the earlier poems of the Collected in which Ammons examines his connection to childhood memories and those who inhabited them. At this point, Ammons admits that both he and Nelly are not long for the world, but he refuses to let go of his sorrow:
I will not end my grief, earth will not end my grief,
I move on, we move on, some scraps of us together,
my broken soul, leaning toward her to be touched,
listening to be healed.
Ammons’ poems have an abundant ability “to keep our language strong, and our minds and feelings engaged,” quoted here from Ammons’ 1993 National Book Award acceptance, wherein he praised his fellow nominees for the very talents he abundantly possessed. In Collected Poems, I admire the ways Ammons engages readers through a minimalist yet constantly shifting syntax that moves unencumbered by ornament, especially in the very famous “Corson’s Inlet” and “City Limits.”
Another poem I would draw attention to is “Four Motions for the Pea Vines,” which Helen Vendler identifies as the first poem wherein Ammons makes “rhythms ...the masters of his subject matter.” Here, I quote the poem’s entire fourth and final section:
slow as the pale low-arcing sun, the women move
down windy rows of the autumn field:
the peavines are dead:
cornstalks and peapods rattle in the dry bleach
the women glean remnant peas
(too old to snap or shell) that
got past being green; shatter from skeletal vines
handfuls of peapods, tan, light:
bent the slow women drag towsacks huge
with peas, bulk but little
weight: a boy carries a sack on his
shoulders to the end of the rows:
he stoops: the sack goes over his head
to the ground: he flails it with a tobacco stick,
opens the sack, removes the husks, and
from sack to tub winnows
dry hard crackling peas: rhythms reaching through
seasons, motions weaving in and out!
How incredibly resonant—peapods rattle, snap, shatter, and all under the agency of human beings reacting to the motion of natural forms over time. Here Ammons establishes a theme he would treat for his entire career.
And yes—Ammons wrote about that subject with an intensity of purpose and ambition. Garbage, the 1993 National Book Award winner, is a 122-page, 18-part poem consisting of one sentence in which the poet negotiates the notions of community and isolation.
“I never dreamed of being a Poet poet,” Ammons once told the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, “I think I always wanted to be an amateur poet.” Yet Garbage begins:
Creepy little creepers are insinuatingly
curling up my spine (bringing the message)
saying, Boy!, are you writing that great poem
the world’s waiting for: don’t you know you
have an unaccomplished mission unaccomplished:
someone somewhere may be at this very moment
dying for the lack of what W.C. Williams says
you could (or somebody could) be giving: yeah?
Written at the age of 63, Garbage serves as a coalescence, if not summation, of Ammons’ pursuits. Here, we read about a man living on social security, reading up on “national osteoporosis week, gadabout tours, / hearing loss, homesharing programs, and choosing / good nutrition!”
In its first part, Garbage evidences Ammons’ compassions and concerns more readily than many of his other longer poems, providing human analogs to the items in the natural world:
I mean, take my yard maple—put out in the free
and open—has overgrown, its trunk
split down from a high fork: wind has
twisted off the biggest, bottom branch: there
was, in fact, hardly any crowding and competition,
and the fat tree, unable to stop pouring it on,
overfed and overgrew and, now, again, its skin’s
broken into a disease may find it and bores
of one kind or another, and fungus: it just
goes to show you: moderation imposed is better
than no moderation at all: we tie into the
lives of those we love and our lives, then, go
as theirs go; their pain we can’t shake off;
their choices, often harming to themselves,
pour though our agitated sleep, swirl up as
no-nos in our dreams.
Given that what first turned me away from Ammons’ poetry was what I misinterpreted as a lack of personality, I find it ironic, now, that I enjoy Ammons’ work because of its personality—which willingly gives itself to its readers, entirely, accurately, without censor, and, most importantly, without deflecting attention from itself.
More than any other poet I’ve read, reading Ammons is to grow acquainted with the movement of another person’s mind. Forget his personal life, his loves, and I daresay forget nature, the subject matter he most often took up. In fact, it almost seems that Ammons chose nature as his subject not because it fascinated him (though perhaps it did), but because he somehow knew that natural elements gave him the ideal form to examine as he traced the effects of motion over time.
The critical perception of Ammons is that he wasn’t a personal poet. I disagree. His poetry touches on the deep, abiding personal nihilism that can be far too heavy-handed in some poems. Instead of bemoaning our essential nothingness, Ammons traced the way things—all natural things, including humans—come together and fall apart; the way the movement of one thing results in the movement of all things, and, finally, how the movement of all things (snails, lacunae, the earth, vehicles, birds, spiders, and especially human beings) amounts to nothing at all.
Christopher Shannon’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, and 32 Poems. He has published reviews in the Germanic Review, and is the editor of Cellpoems.
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- W.H. Auden for Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems
- John Berryman for Delusions, Etc.
- Richard Eberhart for Fields of Grace
- Samuel Hazo for Once for the Last Bandit
- John Hollander for Town and Country Matters
- Denise Levertov for Footprints
- Archibald MacLeish for The Human Season
- James Merrill for Braving the Elements
- Frederick Morgan for A Book of Change
- Ishmael Reed for Conjure
- Louis Simpson for Adventures of the Letter I
Poetry Judges that Year: Harold Bloom, Daniel Hoffman, Muriel Rukeyser,
Helen Vendler, Robert Penn Warren
The Year in Literature:
- Up Country by Maxine Kumin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Daniel Hoffman was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.
- A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) was born in Whiteville, NC.
- While some of Ammons’ poems are as short as one line, others span entire volumes. Ammons went on to receive many accolades, including the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award and a MacArthur Fellowship.
- A.R. Ammons's 1973 National Book Award Acceptance Speech for Collected Poems
- Ammons's profile at Poets.org
- Discussion about Ammons, The State of Things on WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio
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