Archie Randolph Ammons | Critical Essay by Josephine Jacobsen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Archie Randolph Ammons.
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Critical Essay by Josephine Jacobsen

SOURCE: "The Talk of Giants," in Diacritics, Winter, 1973, pp. 34-8.

In the following essay, Jacobsen discusses the major sources of tension in Ammons's poetry, including limitation, utility and waste, and compensation, as well as the features which make Ammons's work so strong.

The publication of A. R. Ammons' Collected Poems, 1951–1971, has focused attention on a poet who has quietly risen to the top rank of American poets. Actually, it was obvious in his first book (Ommateum), that his work was strong and original, and formidable in its promise. Belonging to no clique, identifiable by no gimmicks, he continued to publish increasingly commanding books, while still having a relatively narrow contact with the poetry-reading public. In the past ten years his poetry began to come into its own, with the publication of Expressions of Sea Level in 1964, and the rapid appearance of three other books, Corsons Inlet and Tape for the Turn of the Year in 1965, and Northfield Poems in 1966. By the time Selected Poems arrived in 1968, his stature had been fully recognized by a number of critics. From that period to the recent publication of his collected poems, his reputation has widened and deepened, and he is now being recognized for what he is—one of the finest American poets of his generation.

Ammons' poetry is a poetry which is profoundly American, without being in any way limited by this characteristic. His use of language, his vocabulary and phrasing are utterly and flexibly American. The universal terms of science emerge accurately and naturally from the poems' roots.

The poetry can now be read in its bulk and ripeness. It is science-minded, passionately absorbed with the processes around the poet, the constant, complex, fascinating processes of water, wind, season and genus. But if Ammons' poetry is in the tradition of "nature poets," its essence is far different from the lyric, limpid joy of John Clare, or the pay-sage moralisé of Wordsworth, or the somber farmer-wisdom of Robert Frost, or the myth-ridden marvels of D. H. Lawrence's tortoises, serpents and gentians. Ammons sees the datum of nature as evidence; intricate, interlocking fragments of a whole which cannot be totally understood, but which draws him deeper and deeper into its identity. No poet now writing in English has so thoroughly created on the page the huge suggestion of the whole through its most minute components.

One major aspect of the work is its concern with choices: limitation. There are choices for the root, the bird, the insect, the poet: and there are the limitations within which these choices operate. There are alternatives, but these are affected constantly by all the other alternatives chosen by contingent forms of life. The poet chooses between silence and words, and the proportion of each. Silence takes the forms of deliberate omission, understatement, statement in a lower or off-beat tone, abbreviation, refusal to be governed by the reader's satisfaction. "Coon Song" (Collected Poems), is a perfect example of the last. The coon, in actuality, has no alternatives, but the poet arbitrarily creates an alternative for him, without affirming it:

       You want to know what happened,
     you want to hear me describe it,
      to placate the hound's mouth
        slobbering in your own heart:
        I am no slave that I
     should entertain you, say what you want
      to hear, let you wallow in
        your silt: one two three four five:
     one two three four five six seven eight nine ten:

The poem is moving underground, in silence, as the count goes on. In Tape for the Turn of the Year the process shows itself clearly: the thread of the poem, the authentic connection with the invoked Muse, is followed through the diversions of eating, getting the mail, shovelling snow, carting groceries, as the poem shows itself, dives into the ordinary detail which is part of its crucial silence, surfaces again.

Choices are limited, but vital. Does one love enough, and rightly? At what point does compassion rot into sentimentality, pessimism become ingratitude? At what point does optimism corrupt the attention to truth?

The choices: limitation duality becomes more important as the work progresses. Often the choice is more illusory than actual; usually something, somewhere else, is invisibly interacting to limit that choice. Nevertheless, the element of choice exists. In the case of the poet, it is brilliantly evident and utilized. He chooses the large, or the small, though inevitably, at their extremes and beyond his control, they will merge into the indefinable. He chooses speech, or that defining shadow of speech which is silence, attempting to employ just so much of silence as communication will allow. He chooses irregularities, within the limiting tone of the poem; the respites of colloquialisms, abbreviations, clowning, which are the poem's own kinds of varied silences. He chooses above all, not to make a choice final:

     my other word is
     we'll talk about that
       tho you may guess
     the meanings from ecology:
     don't establish the
       the squares, triangles,
       of preconceived
       and then
       life into them, trimming
     off left-over edges,
     ending potential:
       let centers
     self-justifying motions!

Over and over we are warned that the closed conclusion, like the attempt to distort evidence for the salvation of our hopes, is death. We are allowed only the constant tension between the defined and the indefinable, between the need to be identified and the need to be lost, between hope and reality:

      have I prettified the
           the irrecoverable
           losses: have I
      glossed over the
      unmistakable evils:
      has panic
        tried to make a flower:
        then, hope distorts
        turns wishes into lies:
      I care about the statement of fact:
        the true picture
        has a beauty higher
        than Beauty:

A second vital aspect of the poems is the concern with utility: waste. When Ammons writes in "Catalyst" (Collected Poems),

        Honor the maggot,
        supreme catalyst
      he spurs the rate of change:
      tall scavengers are honorable: I love them all,
      will scribble as hard as I can for them)

his is not a merely ecological admiration for maximum efficiency. It is the admiration of the poet, this particular poet: the belief that the Muse is as formidably economical as the natural system of waste and replenishment. Poetry has no accidental lapses: instead, it continues to define, by its underground presence, by its silences and invisibilities, by those surrounding silences which define its metaphors, as a plain sets forth a solitary tree.

      but betimes & at times
      let me out of here:
      I will penetrate into the void
      & bring back
      to surround all these
            shapes with!

In Ammons' poetry there are differing silences—all useful, all used. There is the silence which ensues when the thing contemplated becomes too large or too small for speech, when the particular disappears into sizelessness, the sizelessness of the unimaginably small, the unimaginably great. In neither direction does the imagination cease to function, but silence takes over as its expression. Often one has very clearly this sense of a speech just beyond the imagination's speech: a minute, insect-like voice drilling at an unimaginable height: a subterranean, immense rumble at a depth too deep for the imagination to fathom. They meet. And this is the ultimate economy of Ammons' poetry. This is the talk of giants, illustrating the illusion of size: the atom which can destroy a mountain, the drop of water complex as a galaxy.

Sometimes this economy has a terrifying quality, and there is often the sense of the poet moving, carefully, through a world in which a more acute consciousness has been substituted for the "normal" illusory proportions. This is one reason why the earlier poems tend to confine overtly defined emotions to isolated poems, individual incidents. The vast process observed and reported on is so intricate, so incredibly able in its motions, so frighteningly economical, that all poetic energy is absorbed into that observing, that reporting. Conclusions, other than tentative conclusions on immediate evidence, are postponed, are presently inappropriate.

A pig, the comfortable familiar of a hundred mornings, will be slaughtered when the inescapable calendar says so: the individual and precious mule will be carted off when the inescapable financial calendar says so: a marvelous and battered human figure will shine out of the inescapable processes of pain and death. But what, if anything, this means cannot yet assert itself: there is still too much evidence to be accumulated. The pig will feed other bodies, the mule will balance a debt: the servant-friend's gnarled body responds to the demand of toil.

The parallels are too numerous and beautifully varied to belabor. Among these, the bones of the poet on which the wind will perform the song the poet did not manage: the glossy flies winging up from the dead cat's putrifaction; the poet's use of his tape, which permits and limits.

A third important tension of Ammons' poetry is that of levels: compensation, and this is perhaps most powerfully represented in the title poem of Expressions of Sea Level, one of the most remarkable poems of its time. It is as though this poetry, for an instant laid a finger on a pulsating heart exposed to touch. Expressions of Sea Level is a poem so close to non-verbal reality that the reader feels he is in the presence of some miraculously sensitive instrument. That instrument fixes the position of the poet, the spot from which he works. It establishes that fractional instant of balance, that living center of a shift so secret and so momentary as to be almost a metaphor in itself—a point from which all the infinite interplay, fluctuation, compensation, choices, are redistributed, redefined, again set in motion.

In a body of poetry which must reject, by its very nature, the appearance of a highly-organized overplan, it is no small triumph that the poems—the very long as well as the very short—show at almost unbroken parallel in their structure to their conception of the natural and poetic worlds. The ebb and flow, the periods of dryness, with catalogued details, provide a duplication of the poem's intent, a sort of root-tree, shaped like the tree in air.

The form of the lines upon the page turns out to be a physical expression of the poetry's basic element: a dominant sense of form, evidenced in flexibility and a variety of modes and tones. The lines in the long poems—and these are by far the greater number—assert a fundamental character: a breath-oriented, serious but not solemn, discussion, varying according to season, mood, the advent and termination of incidents; however indented, stretched, abbreviated, the discussion always maintains the balance between the poetry's intention and the levity of failures, disappointments, the ridiculous and necessary frustrations of actuality. The very real lyric quality in the poems is so conditioned by the other ingredients, humor, information, discoveries, that it can be easily missed.

Humor in Ammons' poems, being the manipulation of proportion, weaves in and out of even much of the serious poetry. It is overt in regard to the poet himself: he sees himself at once as a weed, a fool, and Ezra, the speech of the wind: above all, as a servant to the Muse:

    help me:
    I have this &
                       no other comfort:
                           the song,
    the slight, inner
    unmistakable song you
    give me
    and nothing else! what
                         are you,
    some kind of strumpet?
    will you pull out on me?
    look: I have faith: I
    have faith: come or go:
    I'll always love you:
    I have nothing else:
    I have
    nothing else beside you:
    will you tear me
                     to pieces? I'll go
    on without you, until
    you come again:

The poet shoots himself down at the first hint of the portentous.

One major fact has contributed greatly to the strength and toughness of Ammons' writing: the matter of reinforcement. Most of those poets who signally avoid stasis, and the slow process of petrifaction within their own accomplishment, move sequentially, developing forward from past accomplishment by way of experiment, and advance upon new territory. Ammons has moved circularly, in the manner of seasons and tides, reinforcing the nature, the manner, the approaches of his poetry. New growth constantly appears, compelling changes by development, variation, richness, penetration. But what is happening is unmistakably, organically, what was happening in his very first poems. It is not just that one can identify an Ammons poem by its essential tone and flavor: it is that the concerns, the self-admonitions, the scrupulous search, the vast undertaking, are exactly that to which his first poems were addressed. To be able to control so much renewal, to strengthen and deepen new insights and hints, upon so permanent a project, to maintain so much oneness and flexibility in such an unrelentingly coherent poetic purpose, is perhaps the most solid of Ammons' achievements.

One of Ammons' preoccupations is the poet's relation to his reader. Ammons works within the tension between the wish and need to communicate, and a vigilant sense of the poet's need for freedom—freedom from the dictation of the reader's taste and approbation. (As for the more sordid dictates of poetic fashion, it would be hard to find any poet now writing more totally free from the taint of other-directed concessions to any sort of bandwagonism.) Dickinson and Hopkins come to mind, but each was sealed into (or freed by) certain rigid habits of life, while Ammons' work is freely exposed to an almost unnerving range of interests. His poetry, owing nothing to any school, group, clique, critical pressure, has developed its unique tone in a sort of solitary soliloquy which is simultaneously an open response to life, and a dialogue with the self. Its originality, so unostentatious as to make only a gradual impression, is amazing—far less an easily-identifiable matter of technique, vocabulary, subject matter, than of breath, tone and texture. It is this sort of originality which argues best for the permanent value of his poetry.

Ammons' sense of the necessity to communicate accounts in part for the organic quality of his poetry. Solipsism would be ludicrous: poetry must be a part of a speak-hear process of shared discovery. But a refusal of the hearer's influence comes at the point where any concession would distract the poet from the quest for his quarry, from the balanced point of a position which must be constantly realigned. The "Coon Song," having addressed life, death, survival, defeat, at their deepest level, starts back abruptly from the reader's "Well, what happened?" pressure. Within the poem, nothing is inevitable: so the thread is roughly snapped. The near-solemn vocabulary is abruptly subverted. The coon, having a secret knowledge, will cause the hounds to disappear, but will end in disorder in the teeth of hounds:

                           now there
      one two three four five
         are two philosophies:
      here we go round the mouth-wet of hounds:
         what I choose
         is youse:

There is a very strong pressure on the poet to "reflect his own time." What is his identity—personal, political, social, national—within the parentheses of his dates of birth and death—specifically, the birth and death dates of his life as poet? If any demonstration were needed (which seems unlikely) that poetry of major caliber relates to, and indeed affects, every aspect of its own time, regardless of subject matter or specific reference, Ammons' poetry would afford it. American it is, as earlier noted, by its accent and tone. Its personal and social relevance to its own time comes through the compliment it pays to continuity: it examines doggedly those interactions of environment, characteristics, chance, and law, which shape human history. There is no section in his entire work which is not applicable to our immediate predicament. Unquestionably, a reader's taste for more explicitly considered human problems may be thwarted: Ammons' poetry supplies the key and the energy; it is up to the reader to open any door he wishes.

There is in the work, however, a growing sense of the personal emerging from the poetry, and this must be a consideration in any attempt to understand its present direction. Eighty lives are lost when a plane crashes over Delaware:

      grieved, we
      as a man rejoices saved
          from death: we beg
      that men be spared
      calamity & the hard turn:
      we make an offering of our
      praise: we reaccept:
     our choice is

Gladness is chosen; but it is a hard and constantly eroded choice. It is mostly in the recent work that human sorrow, of which the early deprivations were foretokens, has become more explicit. It is as though the poet's universe had to be formerly so passionately and protractedly examined that there was no room in the resulting poem for explicit expression of the havoc wrought on human affections and attachments. Eight years ago, a short poem gave full scope at last to sorrow. "Dark Song" (Collected Poems) says it all in twelve lines:

     Sorrow how high it is
     that no wall holds it
     back: deep
     it is that no dam undermines
     it: wide that it
     comes on as up a strand
     multiple and relentless:
     the young that are
     beautiful must die; the
     old, departing,
     can confer

The refusal of the work as a whole to tie itself to the occasional or topical, the stubbornness of its roots in the specific as part of the universal, are what makes the poetry relevant to contemporary problems. The poems are never as discrete as they seem. Just as every choice, every fragment of motion, affects multiple beings in unexpected ways, so the slightest ethical shift affects all human relations. In the poem "Expressions of Sea Level," the secret moment of balance—leagues out, at an undefinable ocean-point—affects the tiny pools of minnows inland. The faintest suggestion of a shift sets in motion life and death forces. It would be nonsense to argue that this sort of poetry has little to do with the terrors and pressures of our daily life.

Although the poems use scientific terms freely, Ammons is sharply conscious of what must be the incorruptibility of the vocabulary in relation to its subject:

       language does not
       rest on the
       cold water
       all night
       the luminous
       is too vivid
       for the eyes
       of pigeons,
       heads tucked
       under wings in
     patches of sunlight:
     is too noisy to
    the sleep of buds,
      the holding in
     of the huckleberry
    too voracious
     to spin,
     & change:
     is too clever
     for the frank
     of the lily-pistil:

Ammons' poetry as a whole can be considered religious in character. It possesses the senses of humility and awe, and a kind of unconquerable expectation. This was foreshadowed in the earliest of books. But it was a preoccupation often submerged for long periods in simply paying attention, that special genius of Ammons. This attention often brought on dismaying results, results never distorted in the service of optimism. Though Ammons now and then reminds his reader of Emerson, there is an unbridgeable gap between the basically firm optimism of the transcendentalist, and the painful, theory-free search of the poet of "Extremes and Moderations" (Collected Poems). In "Unsaid," Ammons asked, earlier,

      Have you listened for the things I have left out?
      I am nowhere near the end yet and already hear
        the hum of omissions.
       the chant of vacancies, din of

Toward whichever side the balance tilts, there is a silence affirming the counterweight:

      I know
      the standing on loose
                            I know the
      violence, grief, guilt,
      despair, absurdity:
              the sky's raw:
              the star
      refuses our wish,
      obliterates us with
              scope of its
            coming and going:
      I know what it is
              to feel around in
               the dark
              for a hold
              & to touch
              we must bear
              the dark edges of
              our awareness:

Here, hope is silent.

      and when
      the Florentines painted
      radiant populations in
        the heavens, they were
                          not wrong:
                         each of
      says modern science, is
             below the
            visible spectrum:
      paradise will
      refine our radiance
      or give us better sight:
       we're fallen
        we may be raised into
        knowledge & light:
        lower would be
      longer & longer wavelengths
      to dark's undisturbed constant:
      may we
      not go there
      but ever and ever up
       singing into shining

Here, it is sorrow which is silent.

More and more, in the recent poems, the personal emerges from the universal. But the foundation has been so strongly laid, the range of the search has been so wide, that this increasingly personal element, far from narrowing or weakening the poetry, is itself infused with an extraordinary strength, as though a quintessence of all the natural world had been concentrated in a human emotion.

It is obviously pointless to speculate about the future direction of the poetry, especially in view of Ammons' repeated refusal to impose a pattern, to provide that definition which is the final box:

      when we solve, we're
      saved by deeper problems:
       definition is death:
            the final box:
      hermetic seal:

But the pressure of a greater freedom to express the personal (always within the wider context), and the sense that for some time now he has been ready to draw conclusions, if always the most tentative, make Ammons' current poetry interesting in a way that little contemporary poetry attempts to be. It is interesting, also, that the culture which has produced this particular body of work has been, in general, the most antithetical to its elements. It is nature poetry from a nation hastily burying itself in concrete and plastic: a poetry conscious of immense reaches of time, in a period of changes so frenetic that a cardiogram of its heart would cause despair: a poetry of humility and patience in a setting of shrillness: a poetry of immense scope in a rabble of specialists. Perhaps such a period is best suited to produce just such poetry.

The one thing which can be predicted is that that scope will not shrink:

      is there a point of rest where
      the tide turns: is there one
      infinitely tiny higher touch
     on the legs of egrets, the
     skin of back, bay-eddy reeds:
      is there an instant when fullness is,
      without loss, complete: is there a
      statement perfect in its speech:
      how do you know the moon
      is moving: see the dry
      casting of the beach worm
       dissolve at the
      delicate rising touch:
      that is the
     expression of sea level,
      the talk of giants,
      of ocean, moon, sun, of everything,
      spoken in a dampened grain of sand.

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