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Critical Essay by Frank J. Lepowski
SOURCE: "'How are we to find holiness?': The Religious Vision of A. R. Ammons," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 477-98.
In the following essay, Lepowski analyzes the religious element in Ammons's poetry and the poet's changing portrayal of God.
Critical attention to the religious element in the poetry of A. R. Ammons has generally subsumed it in an overall argument placing him as a modern Romantic visionary poet. Locating Ammons in this way has obscured somewhat the extent of his spirituality and its unique emotional tonality. A reading of Ammons sensitive to these may find in his development a spiritual pilgrimage with distinct phases. His idea of God, clearly present in the early poetry, undergoes a period of doubt, reconstruction, and denial in the middle of his career, and after a strong negation becomes a renewed theme in his later poetry. Meditation on the nature of God and interrogation of the visible world for revelation of the Divine occasion some of his most powerful writing.
Marius Bewley in an early review first pointed out that "Ammons is a mystical poet in the same sense that Whitman was." Somewhat later, Hyatt Waggoner discerned that "a sense of God's reality, whether as immanent or as deus absconditus, is everywhere present in the poems and should be recognized…. Ammons is a poet of religious vision," a view to which he has held true in subsequent assessments of Ammons's career, although he stresses a skeptical Ammons as well for whom religious beliefs "are like mirages, existing somewhere between fact and delusion." Helen Vendler has identified one of his greatest poems as a "a colloquy with God," yet elsewhere she qualifies Ammons as manifesting no more than a belief in a Quakerish "inner light," and certifies his work as being happily free of "disabling religious or ideological nostalgia." Vendler's uneasiness with Ammons's religiosity, even as her critical acuity registers its existence, indicates the difficulty others have had acknowledging it. The age wants to celebrate the poet, but is uncomfortable with the spiritual commitments that animate his work.
Ammons's belief in God's presence in the universe does not arise from allegiance to a particular institutional mode of revelation; in fact, while his early work can be quite overtly Christian, his later work includes elements of eastern religion. Furthermore, as both mystic and inheritor of the Williams branch of modernist tradition, he operates under Pound's injunction to "make it new," to perceive God and to articulate that knowledge without reference to institutions and sacred texts. Yet however syncretic or idiosyncratic his synthesis, there seems little doubt that Ammons, rather than showing "characteristic concepts and patterns of Romantic philosophy and literature" of "displaced and reconstituted theology or … a secularized form of devotional experience," instead shows a return to mystical devotional and meditation on the works and mind of God.
In the criticism of Ammons's work the religious has often been elided into the philosophical or psychological. Favoring the latter was Harold Bloom, who during the period of his own greatest influence was one of the first to champion Ammons. He applied a reading which relentlessly psychologizes the poet's work. Ammons is a Romantic seer whose achievement is the result of a creative will to power, continuously threatened by the universe's recalcitrance, and by the poet's awareness of the limits of his own mind. Bloom, like Waggoner, places Ammons in a visionary company of Strong Romantic Sensibilities, an avatar of his American predecessor Emerson. While philosophical similarities between Ammons and Emerson have been often noted, Bloom makes it an issue of filiation and treats the tensions in that relationship as the actual matter of the poetry.
Bloom invites us to admire the heroic struggle of a doomed subjectivity to establish its vision for a time, a struggle with the very fact of vision itself, a project in which "a poem is … as much an act of breaking as of making, as much a blinding as a seeing." When he traces the development of a poem he does so in primarily psychological terms, as when he sees the language of Ammons's "Guide" enacting "the psychic defenses of undoing and isolation, but only in order to recoil from this limitation so as to mount up into a daemonic Sublime, itself based upon a repression of this poet's deepest longings." To see Ammons's concern as the Sublime in isolation from what he tells us about the Divine is the "strong misreading" which has skewed the critical debate over Ammons. The primary question of interest for such critics becomes that of how successful a belated Romantic can be when transcendence has been rendered by the Zeitgeist an untenable alternative.
Portraying Ammons as a Romantic obscures the way his poetry reenacts spiritual inquiry and devotion, with a piety quite unlike anyone else in the American tradition, linking him more to the humility of George Herbert than to the vatic optimism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the present reading our goal is to show through a thorough examination of his ouevre the importance of the Divine in Ammons, who in his poetry offers a vision in which science tells of the works of God, whose presence is revealed to the patient and faithful inquirer.
Ammons's earliest strong expression of the Divine we find in the much-commented upon "Hymn," in which the poet addresses God directly, uniting the question of His nature with Ammons's abiding philosophical preoccupation with the one: many problem. The first stanza begins with the line "I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth," and the second with the line "And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth," and between the poles of transcendence and immanence we may track Ammons's project.
To know God at His most universal, the poet will have to ascend past sea marshes, hills, crater lakes, and canyons, through the atmosphere and out into space: "way past all the light diffusions and bombardments / up further than the loss of sight / into the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark." The poet's unpurgeable humanity and affiance to the things of this world make him pause when going out "past the blackset noctilucent clouds / where one wants to stop and look." God at His most absolute is infinite and eternal, hence "undifferentiated" and "unseasonal," and radically unembellished with anthropomorphic presence beyond the intimacy of address implied in the second person pronoun. To cross over into a transcendence so radical is incomprehensible and involves leaving the human completely behind.
Instead of pursuing God beyond this world, then, the poet seeks to find how God's presence may be revealed in the world of nature as perceived by the poet, moving from the macrocosm to the microcosm, "inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes" of science. In this direction faith ("trust") reposes in minute details of cell structure visible only through electron microscopy ("microvilli") or the tiny spore sacs of fungi ("sporangia") or animals so basic and rudimentary that they lack vascular systems ("coelenterates"). The Naturalist ultimately finds himself reduced to another point of human reluctance in this direction as he finds himself praying "for a nerve cell / with all the soul of my chemical reactions," which is to say that the scientific mode of perception, which helps the poet to understand creation at one level, when carried too far begins to radically diminish his humanity. Threatened in transcendence by expansion to a universal starkness, in the microcosm he is threatened by diminution through subdivision into the tiniest part of the whole.
These two motions are unified by the statement, "You are everywhere partial and entire / You are on the inside of everything and on the outside." The presence of the Godhead is everywhere in the universe; there is no place into which it does not reach, yet the poet's recognition of this still leaves him with an unavoidable human predicament. He is drawn both ways himself, for "if I find you I must go out into your far resolutions / and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves." He reiterates the two poles of spirit, essence and articulation, transcendence and immanence, one and many, with the final sense obtaining of the poet's remaining caught between them.
That the universal spirit we commonly call God is the object of address in this poem seems a not illogical supposition. The title of the poem, after all, is "Hymn," referring to a genre in which "you" almost always means "God." All the aspects of the presence Ammons attributes to what he is addressing are easily comprehended within what has commonly been thought of as the Deity. Of the poem's many commentators, however, only Bewley unambiguously observes that Ammons is "addressing a cosmic God who is diffused throughout nature, yet presumably transcends it." Waggoner refers to the object of "you" as "One" (as in One:many) and circumspectly notes that "In traditional religious terms, which he normally avoids, these lines would imply the simultaneous Immanence and Transcendence of deity." Alan Holder states that "The you appears to be a principle of absolute being, existing outside the realm of seeing"; Nathan Scott holds that "it is Being itself, the aboriginal reality from which everything else springs…. Ammons choice of an anthropomorphic idiom for his salute to this aboriginal reality is merely a conceit"; Bloom sees "you" as "Emerson's 'Nature,' all that is separate from 'the Soul' … the found 'you' is: 'the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.'" These last are strategies for eliding the religious into the philosophical or psychological, as the Divine is replaced with a principle or abstraction embodying some aspect of it. We can see in this one example the critical resistance that Ammons's religious sensibility faces.
Early in his career Ammons explicitly embraces Christianity. One poignant expression of it may be found in "The Foot-Washing" as the poet, summoning man and woman alike, enacts the same service that Christ performed for the Apostles (John 13:5-14). The ablution he has to offer is a healing one, which will cleanse the dust-humbled feet of his "brother," will heal with "serenity" the woman's "flat feet / yellow, gray with dust, / [her] orphaned udders flat." Of both brother and sister he asks forgiveness for himself, as if in apology to the broken and human for his visionary ambitions: "if I have failed to know / the grief in your gone time, / forgive me wakened now." The Christian pilgrimage here stands in rebuke, in its reminder of earthly suffering and requirement of charity, to the temptations of the egotistical sublime.
Another striking example of the Christian theme is "Christmas Eve," in which he juxtaposes an account of the nativity with that of a contemporary American husband, trying to sneak a nap and decorate the tree before his wife comes home. The poem begins, however, with an evangelical excursus, seeming to preach the totalizing gospel of science:
When cold, I huddle up, foetal, cross arms:
but in summer, sprawl:
secret is plain old
decreased in winter, retaining: in summer no
everything is physical:
chemistry is physical:
electrical noumenal mind
But the sleepy poet finds his "electrical noumenal mind" picturing Mary's experience by his own lights, the muse for the moment more morphic than orphic:
Christmas Eve tonight: Joseph
is looking for a place:
Mary smiles but
her blood is singing:
she will have to lie down:
hay is warm:
some inns keep only
the public room warm: Mary
is thinking, Nice time
to lie down,
good time to be brought down by this necessity:
His reverie is repeatedly interrupted by such travelers from Porlock as a telephone call and the need to find an extension cord for the lights, so that the poem plays back and forth between the mundane and the spiritual. This oscillation, with its gently comic tone, reaches a sudden, wrenchingly personal fusion of the two realms:
I better get busy
and put the lights on—can't find
Phyllis will be home, will say, The
tree doesn't have any lights!
I have tiny winking lights, too: she will like
them: she went to see her mother:
my mother is dead: she is
deep in the ground, changed: if she
rises, dust will blow all over the place and
she will stand there shining,
smiling: she will feel good:
she will want
to go home and fix supper: first she
will hug me:
an actual womb bore Christ,
divinity into the world:
I hope there are births to lie down to back
since we all must die away from here:
I better look for the cord:
The figure of Ammons's dead mother being resurrected, embracing him, all told in a guilelessly childlike tone, quite movingly bridges the personal and religious levels of the poem. That divinity ultimately receives the poem's assent over physics we see in the conclusion's treatment of Christ's mission:
Christ was born
in a hay barn among the warm cows and the
donkeys kneeling down: with Him divinity
swept into the flesh
and made it real.
This final affirmation that the ultimate meaning of human life is a spiritual reality clarifies the irony involved in Ammons's initial invocation of physics to explain "everything." Scientific knowledge, while having its profound uses, does not begin to address human reality at the level Christ does.
We find a Christmas scene as well in Ammons's first long poem, the book-length poetic journal Tape for the Turn of the Year, which contains the following description of a church service, notable for his sincere, unironic, unalienated participation in it:
I held a lighted candle
in my hand—as all the
others did—and helped
sing "Silent Night": the
church lights were doused:
the preacher lit his
candle & from his the
deacons lit theirs &
then the deacons went down
the aisles & gave light to
& the light poured
down the rows &
the singing started:
The song and light create a setting for Ammons to testify to the nature of his religious faith. The communal celebration of the very origin of Christian belief contextualizes his more individualist credo regarding fundamental spiritual realities, given the scientific, objectifying name of "forces":
though the forces
have different names
in different places &
times, they are
real forces which we
I can either believe
in them or doubt them &
I believe that man is small
& of short duration in the
& eternal: I believe
it's necessary to do good
as we can best define it:
I believe we must
discover & accept the terms
that best testify:
I'm on the side of
whatever the reasons are
we are here:
we do the best we can
& it's not enough:
What is most interesting about this passage is the humility with which Ammons treats the divine mysteries; in fact, as Frederick Buell has observed, "his acceptance of uncertainty is Judeo-Christian in overtone." He accepts the limits of his knowledge yet accepts the knowledge as well. The relentless clarifications and revisions of the reasoning, scientific mind in Ammons pause at the threshold of revealed belief. Such intellectual humility and acceptance of the insufficiency of the human will is not what we think of as a trait of the dauntless Romantic seer.
This poem not only includes a credo specifying the articles of faith, but also manifests faith's action in the form of a prayer for strength and guidance:
God, help us: help us:
we praise Your light:
give us light to do what
we can with darkness:
to celebrate Your
even while the
is being drunk:
give us the will
who cannot love:
a touch of the dark
so we can know how one,
hungry for the light,
Ammons concludes with a plea for "a song / sanctified / by Your divinity / to make us new / & certain of the right," lines which, in their naming the Lord as his muse emphasize what Vendler observes elsewhere in his work as the "utter congruence between Christian grace and poiesis." What is more audacious tonally than this public testimony of faith and prayer is the way he goes on to tell us that he "had / lunch after / 'who cannot love'—/ soup, sandwich, milk," much as he used the mundane details of "Christmas Eve" to contextualize that poem's vision of divinity. The diary-like accumulation of the quotidian in this lengthy work makes the outbursts of religious vision all the more remarkable.
None more extraordinary, perhaps, than this act of surrendering himself to God's purposes, and in effect dedicating his poetic work to be part of His work:
Lord, I'm in your
hands: I surrender:
it's your will
& not mine:
you give me
& you turn me into dust:
what form should my
The fruit of submission to God's will is poetic inspiration. Its result, seen in this key word of "praise," will appear often in Ammons, including poems during his middle period most commonly seen as purely Romantic. Clearly its object is divine, the Creator of all and His creation; the praise is the poet's just prayer. In Tape we encounter both spiritual longing and deep faith expressed so unaffectedly as to seem as natural as the meals, weather patterns, and other incidents that make up this extraordinary poetic journal. The absolute dependency of the human upon God for solace, for meaning, and for healing has not been more convincingly portrayed since Eliot. Ammons at this point in his career seems to view his own poetic vocation as a ministry in Christian terms, that of spreading testimony to God's grace and works.
The Divine continues as an abiding concern of Ammons in the work from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, but the perspective he takes on it changes. The poet comes to view God as a construct of the human imagination rather than as an independent, noumenal entity, the creator of the universe; he seems to agree with Blake that "all Deities reside in the human breast," and to begin to embrace a Religion of Man more Emersonian in tone. The reading of Ammons as latter-day Romantic may most convincingly be applied to works from this period.
In "Hibernaculum," when Ammons addresses God there is uneasy qualification alien to the earlier poems: "dear God (or whatever, if anything, is / merciful) give us our lives, then, the full possession, / before we give them back." Diffidence about knowing what God is is a sign of piety; diffidence about knowing whether God is at all is a sign of profound religious doubt. A tone of resentment has entered into the prayer as well, understandable since God seems to exist only as an endlessly fillable blank, a sort of floating signifier, rather than a powerful being who would care to hear and answer prayers:
I address the empty place where the god
that has been deposed lived: it is the godhead: the
yearnings that have been addressed to it bear
sanction: for the god is ever re-created as
emptiness, till force and ritual fill up and strangle
his life, and then he must be born empty again: I
accost the emptiness saying let all men turn their
eyes to the emptiness that allows adoration's life:
The focus has changed from the originary, constitutive presence of God in creation, which animates the spiritual seeking of the early poems from "Hymn" through Tape, to the promptings of the human imagination that needs to create an object of veneration. Rather than witness to God's presence in creation, Ammons offers only "antiquity's sanction" to validate faith. Making the Divine the creation of the human, though much more easily assimilable to the rationalist and secularizing thrust of intellectual history since the eighteenth century, is a significant reversal of the stance we have seen in his earlier work.
The long poem Sphere: The Form of a Motion marks a certain climax of this humanistic version of the Divine. Here the will to believe poses grave dangers, because people invest the objects of their belief with considerable power over themselves, conceptions to which they become captive:
make a mighty
force, that of a god: endow it with will, personality,
then, please it, it can lend power to you: but then you
have created the possibility of its displeasure: what you
made to be greater than you is and enslaves you
From being the transcendent and immanent creator of all toward whom the spirit yearns, the Divine here has become a treacherous projection of the mind which usurps our freedom.
In keeping with the circularity of Sphere's motion, Ammons returns to this theme in a tone more seemingly reverential, referring to God in the second person rather than the third:
spirit-being, great one in the world
beyond sense, how do you fare and how may we
fare to Thee:
what is to be done, what is saving: is it so to come to know
the works of the Most High as to assent to them and be
by them, so to hold those works in our imaginations as to
them our correspondent invention, our best design within the
governing possibilities: so to take on the Reason of the
High as to in some part celebrate Him and offer
Him not our
flight but our cordiality and gratitude: so to look to the
moment of consciousness as to find there, beyond all the
individual costs and horrors, perplexing pains and seizures,
joy's surviving radiance:
The initial voice of prayer recalls Tape, but the view Ammons takes toward the Most High here is considerably more qualified. He seems to be uneasily fusing two contradictory propositions, that God is a creation of the human imagination, and that God has the omnipotent existence of the creator of all. He argues that the same power of mind by which we repeatedly imagine and destroy our gods is itself the acting power of God's imagination remaking itself. By looking inside ourselves to our own consciousness, we find the Most High's way at work, and in so doing our imagination serves as an essential vehicle of God's self-creation. This is Ammons's closest approach to the Emerson who declared "that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite."
The overall movement of Sphere is toward affirming the world the way it is, in secular terms, as the place in which we have our happiness or not at all. In it alone may we find sufficient beauty to sustain us. We find "joy's surviving radiance" in the "moment of consciousness," that is through enjoying the motion of our minds in the here and now rather than in anticipation of a future transcendent state beyond our mortal life. This argument animates some of the great poems of his middle period, as for example "The Arc Inside and Out," which, after luxuriating in both poles of thought, ends with an injunction to inhabit a state between both of these motions of the mind, to accept this life as it is as a resting point and enjoy it as such:
here, the apple an apple with its own hue
or streak, the drink of water, the drink,
the falling into sleep, restfully ever the
falling into sleep, dream, dream, and
every morning the sun comes, the sun.
The poet articulates so remarkably an edenic equipoise of mind and feeling that it seems churlish to question its durability as a position for living, or its suitability as an answer to the spiritual searching that drives so much of Ammons's earlier (and, as we shall see, later) verse. But it is hard, after reviewing the whole corpus of his poetry to date, not to assent to Waggoner's criticism of the poems of this middle period as being "not entirely consistent, in tone or statement, with the best of the earlier lyrics or even with the prayer … and the several credos … in Tape. A little more defensive, more guarded, more 'intellectually prudent.'" The poems of the period, roughly speaking, from Uplands through Diversifications, "have pulled back a little from the letting-go and letting-out of the earlier work. There is less abandon, more control…. Their style might be described as more 'mature,' but maturity brings losses as well as gains." Ultimately this position would not satisfy the poet, and in fact it inspired a thorough demolition of the optimistic humanism on which it is based.
After the climax of critical reception attendant upon the publication of Collected Poems and Sphere, which received the National Book Award and Bollingen Award respectively, Ammons shocked many of his readers with The Snow Poems, a book Waggoner found "trivial and dull," which moved him to wonder aloud, "Does Ammons write too much?" In context of our argument here, The Snow Poems is a descent to the underworld, an exploration of the abyss of mind and will wrestling with the most intractable material of the human condition in isolation from God and His grace. In this book (at almost three hundred pages his longest single work) the poet seems awash in ennui and depression alternating with terror, confined by quotidian life, taking tranquilizers to get by, haunted by memories of his dead father. Precious little of the buoyancy of his previous work is to be found, and even the qualified, constructed God of Sphere has vanished. Earlier in his career he pictures God's universal, beneficent consciousness as
someone [who] has a clear vision of it all,
exact to complete existence;
loves me when I swear and praise
and smiles, probably, to see me
wrestle with sight
In The Snow Poems comes the bleak negation:
is no one watching, of
not even a gentle, universal
principle with a calming circularity
The poet has a sense of utter cosmic abandonment so intense it pushes aside the effect of the tranquilizer he uses to blunt it:
one is helpless: one weeps: e
terror raves beyond the tear: q
one is without help: u
and then one sees or recalls a
that on the balance line between n
purchases and payoffs i
indifference looks neither this l
way nor that:
our help is the call of
indifference that says
come where there is no
need of help
and have all the help you need.
Over the course of this book the poet enacts the drama of a resourceful mind isolated and unable to find a way to live with his human brokenness, most tellingly in the way in which he is haunted by the memory of his father, but really including all the other people and things in his life. In this record of spiritual isolation and alienation the vehicle of his "redemption" proves to be, oddly enough, a spring encounter with a neighbor's dog, whose kindly recognition endorses his existence from outside:
… old fellow,
friend, frizzled schnauzer
runs out of the driveway
and whines grievous
stretching up toward my face:
he knows me: we were
friends last fall:
I am myself:
I am so scared and sad I can
hardly bear to speak
and yet delight breaks
falls through me
and drives me off laughing
down a dozen brooks:
From this point the book's mood begins to rise from the Slough of Despond in which the poet has been caught, and move toward an acceptance of the world and his life in it, seen in essentially natural, secular terms.
In tracing the spiritual theme in Ammons's work, The Snow Poems stands as an oddly compelling record of a long, dark night of the soul, when the seeker feels himself abandoned by God, by the grace he had previously been able to find in the world of things, by what his understanding of the universe and his life has been. It is Ammons at his most reduced, least transcendental, least religious, least visionary; it is his fullest exploration of the estranged self in an abandoned universe. Its example points out as by relief the importance of the Divine in his work overall.
The Snow Poems contrasts dramatically with the book that follows it, A Coast of Trees, as Ammons takes up again his spiritual searching. The first poem, "Coast of Trees," invokes the Taoist Way to describe the origin of observed creation and its ongoing course for the pilgrim, one who is asking a question absent throughout the preceding book, "How are we to find holiness?" Only by accepting our fallenness, our "helplessness" of which we make "first offer and sacrifice," by accepting "a shambles of / non-enterprise" which represents our conscious, calculating, making-sense-of-the-world's failure to control reality the way we want it to, may we come to "know a unity approach divided, a composure past / approach." It is after thus emptying ourselves of the pretensions and intrusions of willful consciousness that "with nothing, we turn / to the cleared particular, not more / nor less than itself," seeing things for what they are and neither exaggerating nor deprecating their significance, their proper place in creation. Which is to say that we see things in their place in the Divine Nature and the Divine Nature's place in them: "and we realize / that whatever it is it is in the Way and / the Way in it, as in us, emptied full."
Seeing things in themselves and in their place in the Way reminds us of our nature, and of our place in the Way. The poet's acceptance of the "shambles" in this poem denotes a chastened return to the spiritual humility seen in his earlier work; a taste of earth now leavens his religious sensibility, and the optimistic humanism of his middle period has been replaced by an acknowledgment that this life is a Vale of Sorrow to be endured before our emergence after death into a better life.
In the elegy "In Memoriam Mae Noblitt" this world, instead of being our sufficiency, is rather a temporary abode before the eternal one: "this is just a place," whereas
our home which defines
us is elsewhere but not
so far away we have
Rejecting with Flannery O'Connor the notion that we are our own light, he questions:
is love a reality we
made here ourselves—
and grief—did we design
that—or do these,
like currents, whine
in and out among us merely
as we arrive and go:
Our ultimate consolation turns out to be our destination after death, a return to our true home:
the reality we agree with,
that agrees with us,
outbounding this, arrives
to touch, joining with
us from far away:
The consolation of this eternal frame of reference in no way eliminates the death and suffering that blight our earthly life. Looking forward to the next hundred million years in "Rapids," Ammons predicts that "the universe will probably not find / a way to vanish nor I / in all that time reappear." "Sweetened Change," "Parting," "Givings," and "An Improvisation for the Stately Dwelling" are all in some sense meditations on death, the last marked particularly by spiritual compensation for earthly travail:
I know a man whose cancer has
got him just to the point
he looks changed by a flight of stairs
people pass him and speak
he asks nothing else
he is like a rock
reversed, that is, the rock has a solid
body and shakes only
reflected in the water but he shakes
in body only,
his spirit a boulder of light
The problem of mortal suffering constitutes a constant counterpoint to spiritual reward which checks whatever temptation to the egotistical sublime the poet may still feel. In "Swells," a symbolic meditation on the magnitude and amplitude of the waves of the ocean, the climax comes not in lofty cresting but rather in a shattering collapse back into the rag-and-bone-shop base of human life from which this meditation has sought to ascend but will not be permitted to escape: "the immediate threat / shot up in a disintegrating spray, the many thoughts and / sights unmanageable, the deaths of so many, hungry or mad." Ammons recognizes, in "Breaking Out," that he has been "an earth thing all along," whose "feet are catching in the brush" now that the "balloons" of a self-deceiving afflatus have been released.
This dialectic of human sorrow and divine grace which consoles may be seen no more clearly than in the much-commented-on "Easter Morning." In fact, the poem could have been titled "Good Friday and Easter Morning" for it is a two-stage construction in which suffering and death in the first meets its complement of saving grace and resurrected spirit in the second. The via dolorosa is represented in a child's desperation, loneliness, and abandonment by his elders in which the poet sees that
the child in me that could not become
was not ready for others to go,
to go on into change, blessings and
horrors, but stands there by the road
where the mishap occurred, crying out for help.
The aborted life of this child within him the mature poet holds onto, suffers with over the course of his life. Ammons speaks from the center of his brokenness and sorrow:
I stand on the stump
of a child, whether myself
or my little brother who died, and
yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place, for
for me it is the dearest and the worst,
it is life nearest to life which is
He finally embraces this locale, and the suffering it represents, as his own:
it is my place where
I must stand and fail,
calling attention with tears
to the branches not lofting
boughs into space.
Finally he clings to that failure and the pain it holds with a certain tenacity, almost pride, since it defines him more truly than any exultation in his power as a seer.
The reclamation of the poet's spirit arises in the final section from finding holiness in the purpose and beauty of the natural world, or, as Vendler puts it, "grace—not offered by Ammons as an 'equivalent' to Bunyan's grace, but as the same thing, a saving gift from an external source," an observation as true of "Easter Morning" as it is of "Grace Abounding," the poem she has in mind. The contemplation of the flight of a pair of eagles allows Ammons his "assuaging human clarification":
it was a sight of bountiful
majesty and integrity: the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the
return: a dance sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brook's
ripplestone: fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.
The divinity revealed by nature, as announced by the poem's title, makes "Easter Morning" a capstone of the rest of the book's preoccupation with the human and the Divine.
The poem in which Ammons addresses God at the highest and most reverent level of expression of which he is capable comes from a later collection, Lake Effect Country. "Singling & Doubling Together" is like "Hymn" in that the poet refers to God in the second person, achieving here something of the tender familiarity we see in the poetry of George Herbert. Unlike "Hymn," in which God is sought by moving outward into an unimaginable transcendence, or downward into the minute particulars of the physical universe, the later poem finds Ammons recognizing God's grace as a personal gift in his own human identity: "My nature singing in me is your nature singing." The poem elaborates the felt intimate presence of the Lord from His articulation as well in the world of appearances:
you have means to veer down, filter through,
and, coming in,
harden into vines that break back with leaves,
so that when the wind stirs
I know you are there and I hear you in leafspeech
The poem does replicate the motion of the earlier "Hymn" in tracing out a polar relationship between the most remote and unknowable manifestation of the Godhead and its particular expressions in local nature, both the "far resolutions" and the "separate leaves":
though of course back into your heightenings I
can never follow: you are there beyond
tracings flesh can take,
and farther away surrounding and informing the systems,
you are as if nothing, and
where you are least knowable I celebrate you most
or here most when near dusk the pheasant squawks and
lofts at a sharp angle to the roost cedar,
I catch in the angle of that ascent,
in the justness of that event your pheasant nature
God at His most infinite and eternal is remote and inconceivable to the poet's mind, but in the natural world of creation reveals Himself in a variety of forms and ways of being, including a "creaking / and snapping nature" in the motion of bushes. In human form God shows a failing nature. Here as in "Easter Morning" failure summarizes what it is to be human, a state of brokenness and pain, in which God participates completely and sacrificially:
and you will fail me only as from the still
of your great high otherness you fail all things,
somewhere to lift things up, if not those things again:
even you risked all the way into the taking on of shape
and time fail and fail with me, as me,
and going hence with me know the going hence
and in the cries of that pain it is you crying and
you know of it and it is my pain, my tears, my loss
The final motion is that of testifying to God's forgiving grace, as the poet rededicates his art to His service, as he had done in Tape for the Turn of the Year. Ammons can see the desired end of his life's pilgrimage, the annihilation of his self in death, to be reunited with his Creator. Finally the poet looks forward to being liberated from his own particular voice to be blended with God's pure expression:
what but grace
have I to bear in every motion,
embracing or turning away, staggering or standing still,
while your settled kingdom sways in the distillations
and plunders down into the darkness with me
and comes nowhere up again but changed into
nature when I need sing my nature nevermore.
At this point in his poetic career Ammons is, like the George Herbert of "Love (III)," in communion with his creator. We sense a familiarity with God wrought of concentration, persistence, suffering, prayer, the reward of which is a trust foretelling eternal salvation.
Among Ammons's critics it has been easier to speak of the Sublime rather than the Divine, perhaps because the former is an ultimately subjective mode of expression, and can be tailored to the needs of the occasion as a one-size-fits-all spirituality replacement. Harold Bloom makes of it the centerpiece of an elaborate psychodrama in the poet's mind, the various discharges from which are the heart of his reading of Ammons. A critic like Nathan Scott can make it just consoling enough so that it becomes almost divine, without setting off the reflex of disbelief endemic to the modern mind. Given the ardor of Ammons's spiritual expression in these late poems, the lengths to which an otherwise sympathetic and acute commentator like Scott will go to elide the presence of God in "Singling & Doubling Together" indicates the operation of a powerful taboo:
In short, the "you" being addressed in "Singling & Doubling Together" is simply the Wholly Other, the Incomparable, the "dearest freshness deep down things": it is none other than Being itself…. And this aboriginal reality is addressed as "you," not because Ammons conceives it to be a being with personal attributes but rather, presumably, because he feels it to present itself with the same sort of graciousness that one encounters in the love of another person. He chooses not, in other words, to talk about "God" but, rather, to speak of that which approximates what Teilhard de Chardin called le milieu divin. Or, we might say that Ammons is a poet of what Stevens in a late poem, "Of Mere Being," in Opus Posthumous, called "mere Being": we might say that he is a poet of that which, though not coextensive with all things, yet interpenetrates all things with the radiance of its diaphanous presence.
This fails to be a satisfying account of the poem because as we have just seen, Ammons addresses an omniscient creator who feels his pain, who participates in his fallen human life even though having high and eternal origin, which is to say it is exactly "a being with personal attributes" and not merely some abstraction of "Being itself," which would indeed be "mere Being." The poem is addressed to a sympathetic consciousness who shares the poet's sufferings and who, moreover, will ultimately save the poet from them. In short, the address is not to some abstraction of Being but rather to the God in whom "we live and move and have our being," not the milieu but the Presence itself, such convincing witness to which is quite rare in contemporary poetry.
The later poems in their working toward a state of communion represent a culmination of Ammons's engagement with the Divine as a poetic subject, which has taken several phases. In the earliest, he combines an examination of nature for signs of the Creator with a faith basically Christian in origin as seen in "Hymn," "Christmas Eve," and Tape for the Turn of the Year. In his middle period, seduced by the egotistical sublime, he revises God into being a necessary construct of the human imagination, which needs to create a space to venerate. With the scorched-earth demolition in The Snow Poems of Romantic optimism Ammons shows the extremity of life without God in his most willful, isolated, and harrowing work, which clears the field for renewed spiritual pilgrimage in the later books. In these Ammons is strengthened to endure the trials of earthly life which threatened to undo him in The Snow Poems, and fixes his hope on eternal reward after death, nourished in his faith by signs of grace that he encounters in the natural world, and by God's speaking directly to his heart.
In its most affective lineaments, the idea of God that Ammons articulates is not dogmatic but partakes, rather, of the emotional context of personal spiritual encounter, and is revealed in an examination of nature as probing and scientific as one can imagine any poet performing. In the rigors of this unsparing intimacy we may see Ammons more fruitfully not as our Emerson, but rather our Herbert, not Romantic so much as truly Metaphysical. Such attention to nuance of thought and depth of feeling in spiritual experience grounds the rest of his concerns and makes Ammons's enterprise a singular achievement in modern American poetry.
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