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Excerpt by Ian Sansom
SOURCE: "Cheesespreadology," in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 5, March 7, 1996, pp. 26-7.
In the following excerpt, Sansom discusses Ammons's critical reception in England.
In a power-rhyming slap-happy parody of Thirties doom-mongering published in 1938 William Empson famously had 'Just a Smack at Auden':
What was said by Marx, boys, what did he
No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end.
Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend,
Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end.
By contrast, in a lecture on 'Rhythm and Imagery in English Poetry' to the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961, Empson gave William Carlos Williams and his reviewers an exasperated wallop:
The most unexpected American critics will be found speaking of him with tender reverence; they feel he is a kind of saint. He has renounced all the pleasures of the English language, so that he is completely American; and he only says the dullest things, so he has won the terrible fight to become completely democratic as well. I think that, if they are such gluttons for punishment as all that, they are past help.
It may in fact have been Empson who by 1961 was past help—at only 55 he was already describing himself as an 'old buffer'—for he was clearly unable to pick up the subtleties of intonation in Williams's drawl in the way that he had instinctively been able to tune in to the rhythms of Auden's Oxford patter. Empson's is a classic English misreading and misunderstanding of American poetry, caused largely by lack of proximity but also by a wilful refusal to hear. 'I suspect,' Emerson wrote, 'that there is in an Englishman's brain a valve that can be closed at pleasure, as an engineer shuts off steam.'
The closing of the valve, the deliberate shutting off of steam, is one of the things that helps regulate English poetry, producing its iambic highs and lows, its mood-swings and its syncopations. In American poetry there is often no such clear cut-off, no shut-up or shut-down; the language seems to be on automatic, which can be disconcerting: 'the English often feel,' as Empson put it, 'that some Americans quack on with a terrible monotony and no pause for the opposite number to get in a word.' A. R. Ammons's poetry is a case in point: his massive oeuvre amounts to a kind of giant bulk bin fed by his extraordinary brush-equipped pick-up belt of a brain, which has managed to load and deliver material at a speed of about one collection every two years for forty years, yet it is an achievement which remains either politely ignored or quietly sniggered at in England. His titling his latest book Garbage probably won't help, but then his verse has always been something of a dumping ground for Platonic, Romantic and Emersonian notions of effluence, confluence and the common harmony of the created order. As he put it in Sphere: The Form of a Motion,
under all life, fly and
dandelion, protozoan, bushamster, and ladybird,
and tendrel (excluding protocelluar organelles) is
Indeed, Ammons's theory of poetic form, as set out in Hibernaculum, amounts to a kind of trashcan theory:
much have I studied, trashcanology,
laboratorydoorology, and become much
dismayed: have, sad to some, come to care as
a fluted trashcan as a fluted Roman column: flutes
flutes and the matter is a mere substance design
its shape in …
According to William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, garbage archaeologists with the University of Arizona's Garbage Project, garbage 'refers technically to "wet" discards—food remains, yard waste, and offal', while trash refers to the 'dry' stuff—'newspapers, boxes, cans, and so on'. Refuse, however, covers both, and rubbish 'refers to all refuse plus construction and demolition debris'. It is worth bearing such distinctions in mind, for Ammons's Garbage is most certainly not rubbish; it is something far more wet and slippery. Ammons states that
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 …
Garbage for Ammons, in other words, is nothing so simple as evidence of mere over-consumption: it is a kind of sacrament, an outward and visible sign of certain inward and spiritual truths—in fact, another illustration of the truths and graces of the Emersonian version of Neoplatonism that he has been espousing since his first collection Ommateum and which found its most profound expression in Corsons Inlet. Ammons's is a philosophy in which, as he puts it in Garbage, 'all is one, one all'; it finds a natural expression in paradox—'we're trash, plenty wondrous'—and often comes close to sliding into determinism:
oh well: argument is like dining:
mess with a nice dinner long enough, it's garbage.
This kind of Transcendental shruggery gives his poetry its very un-English tone of patient endurance and content—'don't worry, be happy,' he counsels at one point in Garbage—and in this latest collection results in a reconsideration of waste products and wasted moments:
Marine Shale are said to be 'able to turn
wastes into safe products': but some say these
'products are themselves hazardous wastes':
well, what does anybody want: is there a world
with no bitter aftertaste or post coital triste:
what's a petit mort against a high moment:
I mean, have you ever heard of such a thing …
The restless and continuous movement of Ammons's poetry is undoubtedly impressive but it is nonetheless semi-automatic: although he can and often does adjust the size of his nozzle to alter the pressure of mood, mode or tone in a poem, it's basically always the same stuff coming out. For example, Tape for the Turn of the Year, first published in 1965 and recently reissued, is pretty bog-standard Ammons, with its reflections on 'motions / and intermotions', and surely was and now most certainly is remarkable only for having been written on a roll of adding-machine tape. With the tape's length and breadth determining its shape and size, Tape for the Turn of the Year quite literally invites readers to never mind the quality but feel the width; when Ammons ends the poem with the throwaway phrase 'so long' some readers might welcome the words not only as a farewell but also as a statement of unfortunate fact.
Ammons's extraordinary overflow also raises questions about quality control, a problem that he states as fact in 'Cold Rheum', from The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons:
what's not …
Of course, snot is not always to be sniffed at. There is a children's riddle:
Q: What is it that the rich man puts in his pocket that the poor man throws away?
Substitute 'American' for the riddle's 'rich man' and 'English' for 'poor' and you have a workable definition of the differences between American and English poetry. In a gloss on the snot riddle in his book Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value, Michael Thompson explains that the riddle
succeeds by playing upon that which is residual to our system of cultural categories. When, in the context of wealth and poverty, we talk of possessable objects we unquestioningly assume that we are talking about valuable objects. The category 'objects of no-value' is invisible and we only notice its existence when it is pointed out to us by the riddle. But the riddle contains much more than this. If the answer is simply 'an object of no-value' (say, pebbles or sweet papers) it is not very funny. What makes it funny is that the answer 'snot' is an object, as it were, of negative value; something that should be thrown away.
One might describe Garbage as the logical extension of Ammons's sustained attempt to dignify objects and experiences of no apparent value, a project in which silt, sludge and slurry are not so much by-products as the stuff of life.
This section contains 1,281 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)