Archie Randolph Ammons | Critical Review by Lawrence Sail

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Archie Randolph Ammons.
This section contains 810 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Lawrence Sail

Critical Review by Lawrence Sail

SOURCE: "Recent Poetry," in Stand Magazine, Vol. 36, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 77-8.

In the following excerpt, Sail discusses the virtues and flaws of Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Year and Garbage.

… Should a poem be, formally or thematically, open or closed? What is the poet's responsibility to himself or herself, to the poem, to the tradition, to the events of the twentieth century? Can the modesty that history may seem to demand also mislead into political oversimplification? Where does an awareness of complexity become clutter or prolixity? When does spacious equal specious? At what point might self-consciousness become self-defeat?

A. R. Ammons, now nearing his 70th year, would appear to have found a novel answer to such challenges in his long poem Tape for the Turn of the Year, dating from 1965 and now reissued. What he calls 'this foolish / long / thin / poem' aims to benefit from a mechanical imperative, as the blurb explains: 'In the form of a journal covering the period December 6, 1963, through January 10, 1964 … [it] … was written on a roll of adding-machine tape, then transferred foot by foot to manuscript. He chose this method as a serious experiment in making a poem adapt to something outside itself.' There follow 210 pages of vertical notebook, in a confident mode which has affinities with both Whitman and Ashbery. As far as I could see, the only full stops are those after the poet's initials: breaks are provided by vertical spacing, by question and exclamation marks and brackets, with the colon easily the most frequent irrigation in Ammons's sweeping landscapes. From ebullient listings to somewhat indulgent monologues, he develops a speculative vein which mostly gets away with stating what is mostly obvious. Less successful are the bathetic jokes, such as 'the snails are sluggish' or the spelling of Sisyphus as 'Sissy Fuss', though the poem ends with rather a neat joke as farewell—'so long'. The key Ammons word is 'exchanges'—he sees everything as transactional: the moment and eternity, loss and (re)gain, fragmentation and unity. He commutes between the language of philosophy, lyricism and a clipped-demotic register, conducts a running dialogue with the Muse, and frequently asks questions of himself, such as 'Why do I need to throw / this structure / against the flow / which I cannot stop?'—to which he provides an answer 55 pages on, suggesting that the thing is to 'leave structure / to the maker / & praise / by functioning'. If all this sounds too naked, it is fair to say that much of the poem is anchored in a good sense of the local: the winter landscape and weather, birds, the daily round, shopping, cooking, all play their part. One or two of the later entries (I'm thinking of 2 and 8 January in particular) sag a bit, partly because Ammons himself draws attention to the way in which he is waiting for the tape to run out and so for the poem to end.

Appearing in tandem with the Tape is another long Ammons poem, Garbage, written fully 30 years on and winner of the 1993 National Book Award for poetry. In 18 sections, mostly of five or so pages, it is written in unrhymed couplets, mostly with four or five stresses, and runs to 121 pages with seven full stops, and colon still king. Like Tape, it relies on the anchorage of vivid details—but here the debate is about meaning and the possibility of it, and much of Ammons's speculation centres round what kind of poem he should be writing. It can get pretty convoluted at times: '… I'm trying to mean what I // mean to mean something: best for that is a kind / of matter-of-fact explicitness about the facts'. As before, the virtues and vices are closely entwined: Ammons can be self-critical and self-forgiving, sententious and acute, modest and smug. There are elements of greater strain in this poem than the earlier one and it is a bit relentless, like being constantly beaten over the head with good news. But it has really memorable things, too, such as this vivid picture of his father in hospital, 'gussied up with straps, in a wheelchair, a catheter leading / to the little fuel tank hung underneath, urine / the color of gasoline, my father like the / others drawn down half-asleep mulling over his // wheels'. From his worst, it would be tempting to conclude that a long Ammons goes a little way: but the sheer energy and zest of the man are winning qualities—you imagine him sitting there, synapses sparking away as he leaps from the local to the cosmic and back again. And his poetry's real virtue is that, like Whitman's earth in 'To the sayers of words', it 'closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out.'

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This section contains 810 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Lawrence Sail
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