Archie Randolph Ammons | Critical Review by Edward Hirsch

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Archie Randolph Ammons.
This section contains 689 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Edward Hirsch

SOURCE: "Trash and Other Wonders of Nature," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 98, December 12, 1993, p. 30.

In the following excerpt, Hirsch praises Ammons's Garbage.

Archie Randolph Ammons's book-length poem, Garbage, the winner of this year's National Book Award, has a rueful grandeur and characteristically splendid oddity. Following the abbreviated lyricism of the retrospective volume The Really Short Poems, Garbage is a single extended performance, a meditation, as the poet says, "assimilated into motion." Over the last 40 years Mr. Ammons has consistently demonstrated the democratic precept that "anything is poetry" and here he playfully takes up—takes on—the subject of trash. Thus a mountain of junk near the I-95 in Florida becomes the site of his moving and often comic speculations about natural processes:

     garbage has to be the poem of our time because
     garbage is spiritual, believable enough
     to get our attention, getting in the way, piling
     up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and
     creamy white: what else deflects us from the
     errors of our illusionary ways.

Like Wallace Stevens in "The Man on the Dump," Mr. Ammons is a philosophical poet whose abstruse flights—on the correspondences between the species, the commerce between the One and the Many, the mutability of experience—are brought back to earth by the bluntness of matter.

Garbage might well have been subtitled "Self-Portrait at 67" since it presents the poet in late middle age tallying things up, leaning forward or looking back even as he tries to dwell in the present, to stay available to the moment and make a clean sweep of the past.

"I can't believe / I'm merely an old person," he says near the beginning of the poem, "whose mother is dead, / whose father is gone and many of whose / friends and associates have wended away to the / ground." Yet he refuses to be encumbered by losses or memories, asserting "life is not first / for being remembered but for being lived!" The key to Mr. Ammons's poetics, and possibly to his philosophy of life, is his scientific pragmatism, his determination to "study the motions" and then "take action," to "keep the mind / allied with the figurations of ongoing." His highest praise is reserved for the spiritual and material transformation of energy, an Emersonian commitment to "renewing change."

Garbage is written in a loose pentameter approximating speech. (Like his Tape for the Turn of the Year, it was composed on adding-machine tape.) In the past, many of Mr. Ammons's poems have felt like solitary neighborhood walks, but this is more like a long, companionable drive through the country. The poem moves freely, insistently, on a ribbon of two-line stanzas punctuated by the poet's quirky use of colons, what has been called his "colonization" of English. Its 2,200 odd lines are divided into 18 sections or chapters, each a momentary resting place before the speaker sets forth again for new territory. He never stays put for long, though he also moves generally in the direction of his main subject:

     no use to linger over beauty or simple effect:
     this is just a poem with a job to do: and that
     is to declare, however roundabout, sideways,
     or meanderingly (or in those ways) the perfect
     scientific and materialistic notion of the
     spindle of energy.

The engine of this poet's astonishing fluency is his resolve to stave off death by praising transfiguration and keeping on the move.

Garbage is a poem that enacts what it is about: "action and / action's pleasure." The poet avows no purpose and endorses a certain poetic aimlessness ("the right / time to write is when you have nothing to say"), yet the work repeatedly returns to, indeed is deeply informed by, a series of ethical propositions: "nature models values" and "likes a broad spectrum approaching disorder"; "right regard / for human life" must respect "all other forms of life"; we, too, are a form of trash, "plenty wondrous." In this major new installment to his life work, A. R. Ammons has given us an American testament that arcs toward praise, a poem of amplitude that confronts our hazardous ends and circles around to saying. "I'm glad I was here, / even if I must go."

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This section contains 689 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Edward Hirsch
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