Archie Randolph Ammons | Critical Review by Robert B. Shaw

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Archie Randolph Ammons.
This section contains 975 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Robert B. Shaw

SOURCE: "From A to Y," in Poetry, Vol. CLXIV, No. 2, May, 1994, pp. 97-107.

In the following excerpt, Shaw offers a mixed review of Garbage.

We have landfill to thank for A. R. Ammons's latest book-length poem. The sight of a huge mound of refuse beside I-95 in Florida was the epiphany that spurred him to this effort; like the garbage heap that fostered it, the resulting poem is imposing, at once anarchic and subject to a degree of formal design. It is also, fortunately, a lot more appealing. There is no question that you would rather read about the place as described by Ammons than be there. More than most poets, he knows what can be made of what others discard or overlook, reminding us how "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…." Although his stance and central metaphor recall those of Wallace Stevens's "The Man on the Dump," Ammons's poem is broader in reference as it is longer in pages. Certainly, like Stevens, he is concerned with the processes of imagination and treats the theme memorably. One passage, on pages 42-43, is one of the most remarkable descriptions of what it is like to write a poem, from initial gropings to final formal embodiment, that I have ever seen in verse or prose. But Garbage isn't only an ars poetica. It explores a less allegorical dump than Stevens's, and reaches into cosmology, enriched with the lore of physics and biology, as well as personal speculations touching on mortality and the possibility of states which may transcend it.

Like his earlier Tape for the Turn of the Year, this poem was written on adding machine tape, this time, as Ammons mentions, "a little wider, just about / pentameter." While pairs of lines are spaced apart from one another on the page, this seems to be more in the interest of legibility than anything else. The work is divided, in a somewhat rough and ready way, into numbered sections. Since it is meditative, not narrative, and since Ammons is as fond of digression as he is brilliant at it, the evolution of the poem's themes is freeform, arbitrary, dependent on the poet's roving voice. Ammons himself, in one of a number of self-conscious passages, worries about how all this will hold together: "I'm running too many / threads and dropping too many stitches in this // weaving which is about, what, life and, mais oui, / death." It is not a criticism but simply a description to say that the work struggles toward unity rather than achieving it. Like other modern long poems—The Cantos, Paterson, etc.—this is a congeries, not a single entity. I don't think this need be a problem for the reader who is enjoying what he reads, except perhaps toward the end. The poem doesn't work toward a single climax but offers a series of high points along the way; consequently the last lines seem more like a random cessation than a satisfying conclusion.

On the way, however, are numerous splendors and diversions. Ammons is intent to avoid the kind of long-poem solemnity that turns so easily into somnolence. He seasons his scoutings of the sublime with jokes, slang, ironies, Li'l Abnerisms. To some (and I admit, to me) the folksiness seems disingenuous at times in a work which after all is eminently sophisticated in its aim and design. Whatever its excesses, this is an approach to style compatible with Ammons's profound engagement of the old passionately yoked dichotomy, flesh and spirit. As he puts it in Part 2:

                                     there is a mound,
     too, in the poet's mind dead language is hauled
     off to and burned down on, the energy held and
     shaped into new turns and clusters, the mind
     strengthened by what it strengthens: for
     where but in the very asshole of comedown is
     redemption: as where but brought low, where
     but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we
     discern the savage afflictions that turn us around:

One notices how effortlessly considerations of life and letters interpenetrate, and how the metaphor of the dump invigorates both. Later he will tell us, "life, life is like a poem: the moment it / begins, it begins to end: the tension this // establishes makes every move and moment, every / gap and stumble, every glide and rise significant"—and as we approach the end of this wide-ranging poem we may find Ammons persuasive in his conviction that "anything, anything is poetry: effortlessness // keys the motion; it is a plentiful waste and / waste of plenty."

In the conscious jumble of Garbage certain passages stand out as matching anything Ammons has written. I think especially of the wonderful colloquy with nature in Part 13, of which I can quote only a portion:

     looked into the pit of death and it was there,
     the pit was, and the death: I circled it saying
     this looks like safety's surcease next to which
     risks' splits and roars, the sparrow's lone note
     in the gray tree, are radiances: the rocks
     came up to me in a wall saying they would say
     nothing, and the trees bent away as in wind
     their tops hanging on to silence, and I could
     make nothing out in the brook's fuzzy bustle:
     the bushes huddled down by the pinewoods as if
     looking for a path leading in, with no saying
     and no listening either, so I derived the nature
     of each thing from itself and made each derivation
     speak, the mountains quietly resounding and very
     authoritative, their exalted air perfect grain
     of the spiritual, the sense of looking down so
     scary half-love for height held….

Garbage doesn't appear to have been printed on recycled paper: a missed opportunity. Looking ahead, though, the issue is irrelevant, since this is one poem readers are unlikely to be throwing out any time soon….

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This section contains 975 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robert B. Shaw
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Robert B. Shaw from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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