This section contains 1,740 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Review by Wendell Berry
SOURCE: "Antennae to Knowledge," in The Nation, Vol. 198, No. 13, March 23, 1964, pp. 304-6.
In the following review, Berry discusses Ammons's focus on knowledge in his Expressions of Sea Level, and analyzes the poet's use of form and scientific language.
In this admirable book, [Expressions of Sea Level], Mr. Ammons' aim isn't beauty, though there are poems here that I think are beautiful, and it's not the suggestiveness which is sometimes meant by the word "poetic." His aim is knowledge, the getting of it and the use of it; the art of poetry is held out to the world like an antenna. A man who is concerned with knowing must necessarily be concerned with what he does not know; and one of the principles here is an honesty which insists on clarifying the difference and will then consider what is unknown or unaccountable: "I admit to mystery / in the obvious…." The suggestive is confined to what is authentically mysterious. These poems take place on the frontier between what the poet knows and what he doesn't; perhaps that explains their peculiar life and sensitivity. They open to accommodate surprises and accidents. The poet's interest is extended generously toward what he didn't expect, and his poems move by their nature in that direction.
The poems are worked out, not by the application of set forms to their materials, but in an effort to achieve form—in accordance with a constant attentiveness to, a hope for, the possibility of form—the need of anything, once begun, to complete itself, meaningfully. Mr. Ammons' way in this can be seen in the poem called "Mechanism." The movement begins with a goldfinch lighting in a bush:
bird flashes black wing bars
in the new-leaving wild cherry
bushes by the bay….
flitting to a branch where
flash vanishes into stillness….
And then there's a consideration of the multitudinous biological dependencies of the goldfinch—all the minute causes and effects of digestion, sex, instinct, habitat, etc., almost inscrutably complex, and involving a kind of miracle: "mind rising / from the physical chemistries…." The poem then returns to the bird itself, a model of the world, both containing and caught up in the natural workings, ignorant of all of them, singing on its perch: the
goldfinch, unconscious of the billion operations
that stay its form, flashes,
chirping (not a
great songster) in the bay cherry
bushes wild of leaf.
The form here is circular; we wind up where we started. But by the time we've come all the way around though the bird hasn't changed, we have. We've learned something. We see differently, and better. We've seen the world working, which is not only informative but dramatic. This gives a fair idea of how Mr. Ammons goes about his task. He attempts to mediate, make or discover an intelligible continuity between the complex and the simple, the vast and the small, the over-ruling laws of creation and the creatures.
In several of the poems there's a large proportion of scientific language. In the following you can see how the scientific talk is broken into, made flexible, by the commoner language of everyday:
Honor a going thing, goldfinch,
morality: any working order
animate or inanimate: it
has managed directed balance,
the incoming and outgoing energies
are working right….
However, in lines where the language is predominantly or purely scientific the effect the poet's ear can have on it is extremely limited:
honor the chemistries, platelets,
the light-sensitive iris, the
That language is by nature stiff, like a wooden shoe. No conceivable amount of use would limber it up. Except for the word "honor," the poet is taking the scientific vocabulary pretty much as it comes. About all he can hope to do with it, as a poet, is to place it exactly within the large rhythm of his poem—everything seems to depend on that.
"Mechanism," I believe, makes more use of this kind of language than any of the others. But so many of the poems include lines or passages that have the cadences of prose that I assume it must be deliberate, part of Mr. Ammons' usual method. The only near-equivalent or precedent for this, so far as I know, is the gathering in of prose quotations, statistics etc., in such modern poems as Paterson and The Cantos. And it works, I think, the same way: the prose detail is admitted raw into the poem not to be transformed into poetry by it but to be illuminated or newly clarified by the energy with which the poem surrounds it—and to serve the poem in some way in which only prose can serve it. This use of prose in poems may be justified by the poet's conviction that poetry might legitimately deal with subject matter which is customarily the subject matter of prose—his realization that some of the things he knows and is concerned about are new, and haven't been prepared for poetry by any considerable period of association or usage. What I'm indicating here is that Mr. Ammons aims to bring science into his poems as subject matter, not just to borrow words or images from it.
The poet attempting to lay hold of such materials is up against the possibility of enlarging the powers and working spaces of his art at the risk of weakening it. The effort is experimental in the purest sense of the word, and involves the risk of experiment. The only measure for it is: Does it work? Can the reader take it in?
I think that Mr. Ammons makes it work often and well. The poetry doesn't inhere consistently in the verbal texture of the poems, but in the forms, the arrangements of the contents. Sometimes the reader is unsure that what he's reading is poetry until he has read all the way through. But when he comes to the end of a poem like "Mechanism"—which attempts to bring to bear on the image of the singing bird, and to bring under the control of that poetic image, all that the poet knows about it—he's conscious that a unifying exciting energy has been released among the subject matters; and he knows that it's the energy of poetry, which takes over the language of science only as a resource, and causes it to belong to a larger, more exuberant statement than the specialized vocabulary alone could make. "Mechanism" isn't a biologist's poem; it's the poem of a poet who knows biology.
There's a nearly opposite kind of Ammons poem, represented here by "Nelly Myers," "Hardweed Path Going" and "Silver." These poems recollect the poet's country boyhood. Again the use of prose, this time a kind of narrative prose, is characteristic. And again the necessity for prose seems one of the conditions imposed by the materials. Here the subject matter is not difficult because, like the scientific, it has been kept pure of emotional or literary associations; it's difficult because it has been too much and too poorly written about—too much condescended to, you could say, by the conventions that claim to have been invented for it. I'm talking about all the oversweetening, distortion, falsification that have been left sticking to rural things by the pastoralizers, sentimentalizers and folksifiers since God knows when. Such things are usually both written and read about in a kind of institutional blindness to the sweat, crap, blood, and biting insects which are as much a part of the real experience as white lambs and new-mown hay. Mr. Ammons' poems of this life manage an honesty about it which is an achievement. He proceeds in these as he does in the poems of scientific lore, keeping a respectful loyalty to what he knows, refusing to think of it or write about it in any falsifying rhetoric. It must be given to the reader in the most direct way, otherwise there can be no meeting of minds.
The poem "Nelly Myers" is about a simple-minded woman of that name, a maker of brooms, who lived with the poet's family during his boyhood. The difficulty of writing this poem must have been Mr. Ammons' sense both of the uniqueness and the meaningfulness of her life, the presence of her life in his life. The two would, I imagine, have tended to cancel each other out: her uniqueness would have threatened to overpower her meaningfulness, make it incommunicable; or to emphasize the meaningfulness might have reduced her to a stereotype. Mr. Ammons' solution is to be openly personal. Some of the details of the poem are given with the directness, not even of prose fiction, but of biography:
my grandmother, they say, took her in
when she was a stripling run away from home
(her mind was not perfect
which is no bar to this love song
for her smile was sweet,
her outrage honest and violent)
and they say that after she worked
all day her relatives
would throw a handful of dried peas
into her lap
for her supper
and she came to live in the house
I was born in the
northwest room of….
The poem is an elegy, and the relaxed passages of description or narrative support and give their specificness of feeling to an elegiac lyricism which is authentic and powerful, and which charges not just the passages in which it occurs purely, but the whole poem:
oh I will not end my grief
that she is gone, I will not end
my songs like blueberries
felt-out and black to her searching
fingers before light
wherever her thoughts ride with
mine, now or in any time
that may come
when I am gone; I will not end
visions of her naked feet
in the sandpaths: I will hear her words
We're moved by Wordsworth's solitary highland lass because she's seen at a distance, and the poet is left free to suppose and suggest. We're moved by Nelly Myers because we're brought very close to her. She's not idealized, nor idealizable—she's too much present, we know too much about her. The power of the poem is that we're made to know her as she was, and to care for her as she was. Only the sympathy approaches some kind of ideal.
There is a wonderful eagerness in this book, a whetted appetite for the phenomena of seashores and farms and landscapes and factories. And the interest is not directed at things as objects or appearances, but at their ways—how they act, how they mix. The excitement of anything is that it moves, changes, influences other things—"boundless in its effect, / eternal in the working out / of its effect…." Each poem is, in a way, an ecology—the revelation of a harmony which is both found and made.
This section contains 1,740 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)