Archie Randolph Ammons | Critical Review by Jerald Bullis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Archie Randolph Ammons.
This section contains 2,685 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Jerald Bullis

SOURCE: A review of The Snow Poems, in Epoch, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Spring, 1977, pp. 304-11.

In the following review, Bullis discusses the form and themes of Ammons's The Snow Poems.

The Snow Poems are actually one poem. It is a diary of the 1975–76 year: a record of Ammons's own experiences, observations, attitudes that begins in the fall with the bird migrations heading south and ends in the spring, with welcoming (the last word of the poem is "we(l)come") "a young / birch frilly in early-girlish / leaf." The Snow Poems is at the same time an almanac—a compendium of useful and interesting facts, proverbs, weather news. It is also an adventure story in which Ammons, in Ithaca, wanders far and the extravagance of the wandering becomes a reaffirmation of the poet's role as adventurer, as Odysseus (Odysseus's name, in Greek at least, meant trouble—it was his fate to odysseus himself and others heroically). Ammons's own wandersong precisely distinguishes the heroic potentiality of now from the models of unreclaimable times: without coming on in a high-hatted, grandeurish way. The Snow Poems radiates nobility, that quality Wallace Stevens remarked as being most conspicuously absent from modern literature. One of the values of this poem is its bulk, the overweeningness of its cry: it approximates the plenitude of the novel without falling into the worn-out procedures of the novel. It is Ammons's richest exemplification to date of the resolution made in the concluding lines of "Corsons Inlet" to "try / to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening / scope." The extempore explorations of this long poem affirm Emerson's assertion that "the vision of genius comes by renouncing the too officious activity of the understanding, and giving leave and amplest privilege to the spontaneous sentiment."

This book could have been done as four or five books, but done in that way it would have been a piecemeal offering of several kinds of more-or-less acceptable poetic styles. In his earlier work Ammons has already experimented with lyric and meditative modes, testing the limits of free verse, incorporating levels of diction—such as the scientific—that have enlarged the scope of poetry; he has made the fable appear like a new genre, as if Emerson's mountain and squirrel had never had a quarrel (in which Bun replies—Bun being the squirrel—that "all sorts of things and weather / Must be taken in together, / To make up a year / And a sphere"—a wisdom about spheres that applies as well to The Snow Poems as it does to Sphere: The Form of A Motion). Ammons's successes with the medium-length conversational poem (after Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight"), the hymn, the metaphysical lyric, the "song," the pastoral-walk poem (after Frost's "The Wood Pile") are exemplary: in such poems as "The City Limits," "Saliences," and "Configurations," Ammons has extended the range of the short poem.

If Ammons were a moderate poet (a designation oxymoronic if not entirely moronic) then I suppose he would have kept plunking-out the kind of performance for which he has already received acclaim. But The Snow Poems is a more extravagant poem than any of the earlier poems, including the resuscitations of the essai in its original aleatory form: "An Essay in Poetics," "Hiburnaculum," "Extremes and Moderations," and "Summer Place"; it is more openly autobiographical than any earlier poem: and it challenges our assumptions about what makes a statement "poetic" to an extent that even Tape for the Turn of the Year did not. Most of the "poems" of this poem have an entropic "organization"—the conclusions irrelevancies, seemingly—a kind of dribbling-off format, even to the shapes on the page. The sections are believably extra-vasational or, more like snow, precisely improvisational. Some of the sections seem to derive their forms from the spatial limitations and freedoms of the 9″ × 11″ page, written upon by a typewriter. In some of the sections one "poem" will proceed down the left side of the page, going right about half-way, and another—contrapuntal, complementary, dialectically?—will begin somewhere right-of-center. This technique seems a further development of Ammons's statement concerning nonlinear prosody published in Poetry: "What I think is illustrated by [the versification of a poem like Ammons's 'Close-Up'] is that both ends are being played against a middle. The center of gravity is an imaginary point existing between the two points of beginning and end, so that a downward pull is created that gives a certain downward rush to the movement, something like a waterfall glancing in turn off opposite sides of the canyon, something like the right and left turns of a river."

Such typographical pyrotechnics aren't new. They get their freshness in The Snow Poems from Ammons's ability to amalgamate ranges of discourse—heretofore largely excluded from poetry—with such techniques. Though these poems may superficially resemble work by Charles Olson, look like some of Pound's Cantos, or portions of Williams's Paterson, Ammons's work actually exhibits a far different rhetorical stance. The discursive tendency of much of Carl Sandburg's and Robinson Jeffers's poetry—two unfashionable precursors with whom Ammons has not been allied—anticipates the openness of The Snow Poems more directly than the work of the above-mentioned poets. Not even Wallace Stevens, whose improvisatory and essayistic ensembles are more apparent prior attempts at making non-narrative long poems, could manage more than uneasy fusings of imagistic-symbolic and discursive writing, a problem Ben Belitt pointed out in a review of Stevens: "moved to formal discourse in the quest for order and certitude, [Stevens's] art has not up to the present permitted him to pursue such discourse or his temperament to accept it." To which Stevens replied in a letter to Belitt: "While you pointed out my difficulty in the second sentence of your review, it is a difficulty that I have long been conscious of and with which I am constantly struggling." Stevens struggled with this problem to the end, though late poems exhibit an Ammons-like acceptance of the antipoetic, as in "Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination": "Last Friday, in the big light of last Friday night, / We drove home from Cornwall to Hartford, late." Ammons is the only modern poet I've encountered who seems to have gotten beyond the bugbears of imagism and symbolic systematizing: who doesn't seem to feel that the propositional, the baldly discursive, is innately antipoetic: who doesn't write as if abstractions were the Death of Poetry, as if proverbial announcement were something oldtimey sayers could get to the sooth of, but that we cannot. At random:

     so much works flawed
     it makes you think
     perfection not one of
     nature's hangups
 
     how could you, walking in the mts,
     be big as the mts: only by
     wandering: aimlessness
     is as big as mts
     it is not for the poet to
     speak the speakable
     that which long known & said
     requires no energy
     of finding or forming but to
     murmur, stammer, swear, and
     sing on the edges of or around
     or deep into the unspeakable—
     the reason it makes
     no difference what people
     think
     is that they don't think
     enough to make any
     difference
 
     you can't imitate
     anybody really
     and the extent
     to which
     you can't is
     enough originality
 
     poets add
     obscurity
     to the
     inexplicable
     for critics
     who can't
     get their
     tools sharp on
     the obvious

The intelligence and smiling acerbity of this aspect of The Snow Poems reminds me of the poetry of the T'ang poet Han-Shan:

     A certain scholar named Mr. Wang
     Was laughing at my poems for being so clumsy.
    "Don't you know you can't have two accents here?
     And this line has too many beats.
     You don't seem to understand meter at all
     But toss in any word that comes to mind."
    I laugh too, Mr. Wang, when you make a poem,
     Like a blind man trying to sing of the sun.

But the strength of The Snow Poems can't be demonstrated by snippets of quotation. And, though the problem of judgment with respect to this long poem may seem difficult, I think it is actually not. For those who have read Ammons's work from Ommateum through Diversifications, including this poem's important prelude, Tape for the Turn of the Year, The Snow Poems will seem the necessary unfolding of Ammons's venture. As Warner Berthoff has remarked of Emerson, "Once we begin to get the sense of how [Ammons] operates as a writer, our experience of reading him is likely to be full of double takes, and our admiration, sluggish and reluctant at first, so little taste remains with us for the mode of pastoral exhortation he seems to employ, springs forward by a geometric progression." Ammons's mode of pastoral exhortation is to try to hold in interpenetrant relation the dualistic categories with which, in order to communicate easily though imprecisely, we have oversimplified our language: I mean such categories as imagination/reality, inner/outer, self/other, man/nature. This interpenetration of word and world, whereby abstract "themes" are divulged or adumbrated through hollyhocks, blue spruce, jays, brooks, mudpuddles, mountains and so on, is summarized ideogrammatically in "The Word Crys Out": "wor(l)d." Ammons's insistence on seeing books in the running brooks, poetic theory in the ministrations of snow, enables a ghostly demarcating of rigid, highfalutin categories within a discursive context. For instance, in "It's Half an Hour Later Before," the self is presented as a winter tree, probably about fifty years old, whose fine branches, as of imagination, snatch lyric flakes before they reach the ground they'll end up groundwater of, and whose big branches take on ridges-worth of saying, holding the evanescent in beads that light up nature, and man, for a spell:

     winter trees aren't good
     winnowers
 
            nevertheless,
     fine branches snatch flakes
     and big branches take
     single ridges: the chaff
       hits the ground
       but the caught
       turns to lit melt beads
       that light up
       trees in a different light:

If this poem is directed in any particular way, it is directed against destructive clarification. Ammons balks at harping on small ideas, neat schema, paradigmatic bliss. So the big idea that drifts through and settles on everything here like snow is that all is in all—the idea enunciated as fable in "Ballad" (Diversifications), in which the water oak and willow defend their respective territorial rights, with the poet as mediator. In this poem Ammons repeatedly asserts, exhorting by example, that

     I do not, can not, will not
     care for plain simple things
     with straightforward fences round them:
     I prefer lean, true
     integrations of ongoing
     with recurrences,
     resemblances, half-adventitious or fortuitous
     or as some would say accidental,
     half-accidental,
     not under a third

—the hedging on how much accidence is necessary typifies the complexity of statement in this poem, the major subject of which is poetry. Poems, like crows in the initial segment ("Words of Comfort"), "emphatically find dead / trees to sit in, / skinned branches, line up / into the wind / a black countercurrent / drippy but cool." This venturing begins "in a fallish time, / the birds' gatherings and flights / skim treetops, not / much entering in now, no nests, pausing to consider / or dwell, the wide / storm winter coming." And while The Snow Poems is a venturing away from "the wide / storm winter coming"—the winter of frozen possibility, personal extinction (always coming, but inevitably closer when one is "pushing fifty")—the book is at the same time a venturing into what can be found possible, established as abundance, in the venture of "pushing fifty" and heading into winter, unlike the birds.

One of the central ways in which this poem projects itself is to identify the poetic self with snow, an identification that is sometimes accentuated by the resemblance of snow to age, the winter of life, and discontent, a sense of lessening power, ("the sexual basis of all things rare is really apparent": Sphere); and so this poem prays for a snowing "of the / right consistency, / temperature, and / velocity" that will enable the cold-bright diffuse but still consistent lee-self to fall in a "building out over / space a / promontory of / considerable / reach in / downward curvature." The poem wondrously demonstrates that "snow / will do this / not once / but wherever possible, / a similarity of effect / extended / to diversity's / exact numeration."

I find this aspect of the generalized snow-metaphor beautiful as poetic defense—an offense not at all offensive. But I don't think Ammons is falling in downward curvature: the promontory of this poem speaks against that drift.

Actually, most of this poem, so far as I can tell, was written in that time when winter begins to fade into spring's necessary muckiness: from "The Prescriptive Stalls As" on, we're going from February toward and into April-May. The major gesture of the poem is away from, contrary to stasis, delimitation, ice—the easy victory of the professionally-wrought lyric—and toward enlarging possibility, spanglings of snowlight-meltings-and-meldings from the reservoirs of evergreens: "I stand for / whatever will not come round / or be whole / or made out or reduced."

The Snow Poems is a great poem. It tries to make the mind—rather, let the mind—accord with "necessity's inner accuracy": necessity's inner accuracy is nature's accuracy. The poem is a habitat, ecosystem, world, galaxy, universe—in which there are events and creatures of little note and others on up (or down) the scale to events and creatures of great note, magnificent with their breakings-out of the brush of silence, in order to leave a greater silence after their going again. It shows how the great poem of earth, if this isn't it, may be written: it reveals how what has been taken for the great poetry of earth is only "the smooth walks, trimmed hedges, posys and nightingales" of insular tradition. The Snow Poems calls for a view of nature (to continue to quote Whitman) "in the prophetic literature of these States," that would place man in the light and dark of "the whole orb, with its geologic history, the cosmos, carrying fire and snow, that rolls through the illimitable areas, light as a feather, though weighing billions of tons"; it supports W. C. Williams's indictment of us by saying in its own way how the first settlers "saw birds with rusty breasts and called them robins," thought what they saw were not "robins" but thrushes "larger, stronger, and in the evening of a wilder, lovelier song."

This poem raises more questions about our aesthetic assumptions than a review can honestly deal with. If the segments of The Snow Poems were normal (Academico-American?) Western Adult Lyrics, then clearly some of the stuff would have to be left out. But to make that assertion seems more a criticism of our lyric-based poetics than a criticism of this particular poem, or any similar to it. The problem with aesthetic dicta is that they are of no use when one is confronted with work of major importance. Ammons's intention is obviously not to make a great pile of well-wrought urns. As Whitman asserted in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, prophesying Ammons but speaking primarily of his own audacity, "Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes." He was speaking of These States too: and said they await the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of them. And of the American poet: "he is greatest forever and forever who contributes the greatest original practical example. The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one." And: "Great genius and the people of these states must never be demeaned to romances. As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances." And: "The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor." Here is one of my favorite properly told moments of history in The Snow Poems:

     what my father enjoyed
     most—in terms of pure,
     high pleasure—was
     scaring things: I remember
     one day he and
     I were coming up in Aunt
     Lottie's yard
     when there were these
     ducks ambling
     along in the morning sun,
     a few drakes, hens, and a string of
     ducklings,
     and my father took off his
     strawhat and
     shot it spinning out sailing in
     a fast curving glide over the
     ducks so they
     thought they were being
     swooped by a hawk.
     and they just, it looked
     like, hunkered down on their
     rearends and slid all the
     way like they were
     greased right under the house
      (in those days houses were built up off the ground)
     my father laughed the purest,
     highest laughter
     till he bent over
     thinking about those
     ducks sliding under
     there over nothing

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This section contains 2,685 words
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