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Interview by A. R. Ammons with William Walsh
SOURCE: "An Interview with A. R. Ammons," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 105-17.
In the following interview, conducted March 6, 1988 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Ammons discusses his life, work, and view of poetry.
When A. R. Ammons's Collected Poems 1951–1971 appeared in 1972, Geoffrey H. Hartman wrote in The New York Times Book Review that it was "a remarkable book … his distinction as a major American poet will now be evident." A critical consensus has formed since then that Ammons is indeed one of the most important poets in our contemporary literature. He has published some seventeen volumes, including the Collected Poems (winner of the National Book Award for Poetry), Sphere: The Form of a Motion (winner of the 1973–1974 Bollingen Prize in Poetry), A Coast of Trees (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, 1981), The Snow Poems, Corsons Inlet, Diversifications, and most recently The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition and Sumerian Vistas. Ammons was born in Whiteville, North Carolina. He is Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry at Cornell University.
This interview was conducted on March 6, 1988, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at the house where Ammons and his wife were staying while on sabbatical.
[WALSH:] I read an interview the other day where the guest was asked if there was a question he had always wanted to answer, but had never been asked.
[AMMONS:] Most of the questions I have been asked have had to do with literary reputations rather than what I considered the nature of poetry, that is, what is poetry and how does it work? In what way is it an action or a symbolic action? In what way does poetry recommend certain kinds of behavior? Questions like that are of absorbing interest to me. What Robert Bly or somebody else is doing is of no interest to me whatsoever. I've written my poetry more or less in isolation without any day-to-day contact with other writers. Though I have read tidbits in anthologies of other people, I've made no study of anybody else's work, except in school where I read Shelley, Keats, Chaucer, and so on. I like questions that address, if they can, the central dynamics of this medium we work with, not that any answer is possible, but that we meditate the many ways in which it represents not only our verbal behavior but other representative forms of behavior—how poetry resembles other actions such as ice skating or football. That is to say, I think poetry is extremely important because it's central to other actions, and it should not be pushed far to the side as a strictly academic study or a technical investigation.
Do you think poetry is threatened by becoming an academic subject?
To the extent that it is a mere object of study, yes. I worry about that, because it means that the action of the poem and the mind, the action of the body of the poem itself, is going to be paraphrased into discursiveness—something is going to be said about it which will be different from the original action. And while I don't know how classes can be conducted any other way, that's not why poems are written. They are not written in order to be studied or discussed, but to be encountered, and to become standing points that we can come to and try to feel out, impressionistically, what this poem is recommending. Is it recommending in a loud voice, extreme action, or is its action small, does it think we should look closely at things, should we forget the little things and look at some big inner problem, should we understate our stances toward the world, or does hyperbole work better, is this a shallow poem, or is there some profound way that it achieves something it didn't even mean to achieve? In other words, we're trying to live our lives and we go to these representative, symbolic actions to test out what values seem to have precedence over others. If human beings in this country or wherever could approach poetry more in that way rather than as an historical or strictly theoretical form of study, then they might feel the ball of strength in poetry and come to it because it would inform and excite them the way Madonna does or punk rock does. Of course, I'm not insisting that poetry become a popular medium. It requires the attention that few people are willing to give it. I kind of wish that weren't so.
Many of the people I've come in contact with who don't read poetry say it's because they don't understand it.
"Understanding something" has been defined for them as a certain system of statements made about something. If they don't get a very good statement about the poems, it means they haven't opened themselves to the rhythm, pacing, sound of words, colors, and images that they are supposed to move into. Who understands his own body? I mean the gorillas have been walking around for two hundred and fifty thousand years with extremely complicated enzymic and other operations going on in their blood streams that they know nothing about, which prevented them not at all from being gorillas. We're the same case. What are we supposed to understand about poetry? I've studied and worked with poetry since I was eighteen. Poetry astonishes me day after day. I see something else that is somehow implicated in that. I never expect to understand it. You see, there's where the problem is. The kind of understanding that was defined for these people, most people, has been trivial and largely misses the poem.
You spent the first seventeen years of your life in the South, in Whiteville, North Carolina. Could you discuss your background leading up to your first interest in writing?
It covers the period people like to cover in ten years of psychotherapy and don't give up and walk away until they have an answer. [Laughing] I was born in 1926, just toward the end of the good times—the Twenties into the Depression. Our family had a pretty rough time on the farm. We had a small subsistence farm of fifty acres on which my grandfather had raised thirteen children, and which in my father's hands became a cash crop farm that was not large enough to raise enough cash. Yet, we didn't do the dozens of things that would have continued it as a subsistence farm. Apparently, my grandfather had done very well. So we were caught in that kind of bind, aggravated by the Depression, about which you've heard endless rumors—all true. [Laughing] It was a rather desperate time until the beginning of the war provided jobs for people, and changes—radical changes. Do you realize that when I was born in 1926 something like 85 percent of the people in the country were rural, lived on a farm, and now it's about 3 percent? So the most incredible silent revolution has taken place just in my lifetime.
After I graduated from high school in 1943 I worked for a ship-building company in Wilmington, then entered the Navy when I was eighteen. I was in the South Pacific for nineteen months, came back and entered Wake Forest College in the summer of 1946 on the G.I. Bill. Nobody in my family had gone to college before. It was a truly daunting experience for me. My major was premed and I minored in English, and then everything collapsed into a kind of general science degree.
You started in a premed program with hopes of becoming a doctor?
Yes, I did. I think it came out of a general interest in things and people and feelings. To be a doctor would have been to get completely out of the mess I was in as a farmer. It was a different social and economic level. I didn't pursue it beyond my undergraduate degree. I had wanted to stay a farmer, but my father sold the farm. So, that option was eliminated. I love the land and the terrible dependency on the weather and the rain and the wind. It betrays many a farmer, but makes the interests of the farmer's life tie in very immediately with everything that's going wrong meteorologically. I miss that. That's where I got my closeness and attention to the soil, weeds, plants, insects, and trees.
Prior to studying English in college had you written very much?
The first poem I wrote was in the tenth grade, where you have to write a poem in class. It was on Pocahontas. Then I didn't write anymore until I was in the South Pacific and discovered a poetry anthology when I was on the ship. Then I began to write experimentally and imitatively. There was a man on ship who had a Master's degree in languages and I began to study Spanish with him. We didn't have a text; he just made it up as he went along. It somehow gave me a smattering of grammar—you know how helpful it is with your own grammar to study another language. Pretty soon I was writing regularly. Then I came to Wake Forest where there were no creative writing classes, but I continued to write for four years. About a month before I left Wake Forest I finally got up the nerve to show some of my poems to the professors and they were very encouraging. From then on, my mind, my energies, were focused on poetry even though I had to do what everyone else does—try to figure out some way to make a living.
You didn't begin by sending your poems to small magazines, did you?
I didn't even know they existed. I was just totally ignorant of the literary scene. What a load that is on the mind not to know what the configuration, the landscape of the literary world is. I got married the year I was the principal of the elementary school in Cape Hatteras. From there we went to Berkeley, where I did further study in English, working toward a Master's degree. I took my poems to Josephine Miles, a fine poet and critic who died a couple of years ago. She consented to read my poems and said I should send them out. That's where I first heard about literary magazines.
Your first book of poetry, Ommateum, failed terribly.
I believe the publisher knew it wouldn't sell and so they only bound one hundred copies of the three hundred sheets pressed. It sold sixteen copies the first five years. Five libraries bought it—Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, and Chapel Hill, only because they bought everything. My father-in-law sent forty copies to people he knew in South America. I bought back thirty copies for thirty cents each. So I guess you could say it failed miserably. One review in Poetry magazine, my first review, was favorable. But now Ommateum goes for about thirteen hundred dollars a copy.
The reason I brought this up is because you did not publish another collection of poetry for nine years. What transpired in those nine years, between the time you wrote Ommateum and Expressions of Sea Level, that produced a resounding critical change in your work?
We cannot imagine, sitting here, how long nine years is. I just kept writing, resubmitting manuscripts, tearing them apart, putting them back together, getting rejected, trying again, and so on until I was finally rejected by everybody. I took my work to a vanity publisher in New York City and I was turned down by them, too. I went to Bread Loaf in 1961 and met Milton Kessler, who at that time was teaching at Ohio State University. He said their press was starting a poetry series and I should send my poems early on before the hundreds of manuscripts began to arrive. I did and they took it. It was favorably reviewed, but it took ten years for them to sell eight hundred copies. I used to get monthly statements from them saying this month we've sold three copies, this month we sold four. For ten years this happened, and I'm not sure they ever sold all one thousand copies. It is amazing how favorably it was reviewed. I just saw The Oxford Companion to American Literature which has an article on me saying from the day Expressions of Sea Level was published, A. R. Ammons was a major poet…. Nobody told me then that I was a major poet.
Now, as to what happened to the poetry itself, that's a story so long I wouldn't know how to tell you. I'd have to go back over the stages, the failures, the rebeginnings, and so on. It isn't easy to be a poet. I think if the young poets could realize that they would be off doing something else. It takes a long time. It took me a long time. I do believe there are poets who begin right at the top of their form, and usually are exhausted in five years. In a way I wasn't bad either early on. Ommateum remains a very powerful influence with me.
Who do you see as starting at the top of their form?
I just happen to think of James Tate, who won a national prize when he was twenty-two. I don't mean to say he burned out. There are poets who seem to be at their best right away. I'm a slow person to develop and change. The good side of that is that it leaves me so much more to do.
When you look back at the poems in Ommateum as a whole what is your reaction? Do you still feel the same way?
It's a very strong book. It may be my best book. Expressions of Sea Level, though more widely welcomed, more obviously ingratiates itself to an easier kind of excellence. The Ommateum poems are sometimes very rigid and ritualistic, formal and off-putting, but very strong. The review I got said, these poems don't care whether they are listened to or not. Which is exactly true. I had no idea there was such a thing as an audience; didn't care if there was. I was involved in the poem that was taking place in my head and on the page and that was all I cared about. If I had known there were millions of people out there wanting to buy my book, which of course is not the case, it would have been nice. But an audience meant nothing to me. Someone else said that I was a poet who had not yet renounced his early poems. I never intend to renounce those poems. [Laughing] I have published some inferior poems in each volume—that's inevitable. But as Jarrell said, if you are lucky enough to write a half a dozen good poems in your life, you would be lucky indeed.
Critics have traced your creative genealogy to several influences: Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Pound, Stevens, Frost. One critic stated, "Ammons's poetry is founded on the implied Emersonian division of experience into Nature and the Soul." Would you agree with their findings?
First of all, one has been influenced by everything in one's life, poetic and otherwise. There have been predominant influences, such as Robert Browning, whom I imitated at great length as an undergraduate, writing soliloquies and dramatic monologues, trying to get anywhere near the marvelous poems he wrote. I failed miserably. Whitman was a tremendous liberation for me. Emerson was there in the background; though I am said to be strongly Emersonian I sort of learned that myself. I haven't read him that much. When I read Emerson I see a man far wiser and more intelligent, and a better writer than myself, saying exactly what I would say if I could. That's scary in a way. We're still different in so many ways. But then I do believe I hear, at times, in my poems, distant echoes from every poet, not in terms of his own words, but as a presence. Frost is there, also Stevens. I have read very little Stevens, and basically he's not one of my favorite poets, though I think he's a good poet. They do say of me, even though the influences are there, that my voice remains my own, which is a mystery to me, but apparently it's true. I believe I assimilate from any number of others and other areas. I'm that kind of person—one who is looking for the integrated narrative. That's where my voice finds its capability of movement. It is my voice, but it is an integrated one. Does that sound right?
I just made it up. [Laughing]
How, then, would you describe your poetry?
It's a variable poetry that tries to test out to the limit the situation of unity and diversity—how variable and diverse a landscape of poetry can be and at the same time hold a growing center. I have written some very skinny poems you might call minimalist and I've written some very long-lined poems, such as "Sphere." In my early poems I was contemplating the philosophical issue of the One and the Many.
Your poetry deals principally with man in nature, the phenomena of the landscape—earth's nature. I've wondered, because of your scientific background, if you have ever thought about taking man off the earth into space? I don't mean to say science fiction poetry, but into the nature of space.
I don't believe I have, though I've thought a great deal about it—billions and billions of galaxies and billions and billions of stars in each one. Who was it said that if you stick out your arm at the end of space what does it stick into? If space is limited, what happens?
In about 90 percent of your poetry the reader is brought into the poem to witness the solitude of the speaker. Is this solitude your poetic vision of loneliness?
Is it your loneliness you're writing about?
Yes it is. I really don't write to an audience. I never imagined an audience. I imagine other lonely people, such as myself. I don't know who they are or where they are, and I don't care, but they're the people whom I want to reach. It seems to me that the people who are capable of forming themselves into groups and audiences have something else to go on besides poetry. So let them go ahead. It could be political, sociological, mystical, or whatever. They're welcome to it and I hope they do a good job, but I am not part of that. I'm really an isolationist. And I know there are others like me. There is some element of ultimate loneliness in each person. In some people it's a crisis. Those are the pieces of loneliness I would like to share at this distance.
You published three major collections in a row: Collected Poems 1951–71, Sphere: The Form of a Motion, and The Snow Poems. How does this affect a writer's sense that since what you're doing is working, you might as well keep doing the same thing?
I can't get stuck in a pattern, because I don't believe in patterns. I believe in process and progression. I believe in centralizing, integration, that kind of ongoing narrative, more than I believe in the boxes of identification and completion.
That's just the way I am structured as a human being. The Collected Poems contains two or three other previously unpublished books. I just dumped them in there. I had them, but didn't want to bother sending them out to magazines.
But Sphere, finally, was the place where I was able to deal with the problem of the One and the Many to my own satisfaction. It was a time when we were first beginning to see an image of the earth from outer space on the television screen, at a time when it was inevitable to think about that as the central image of our lives—that sphere. With Sphere, I had particularized and unified what I knew about things as well as I could. It didn't take long for me to fall apart or for that to fall apart, too. Thinking of the anger and disappointment that comes from such things … I wrote The Snow Poems, where I had meant to write a book of a thousand pages. I don't know why I didn't go ahead and do it, because I wanted to say here is a thousand pages of trash that nevertheless indicates that every image and every event on the planet and everywhere else is significant and could be great poetry, sometimes is in passages and lines. But I stopped at three hundred pages. I had worn myself and everybody else out. But I went on long enough to give the idea that we really are in a poetically inexhaustible world, inside and out.
Your work has been anthologized in many publications over the years. They usually publish "Corsons Inlet," "This Is," "Bridge," and "Visit." Of all your poems which do you think is your best work and will most likely survive?
I have always liked two poems of mine that are twins, "Conserving the Magnitude of Uselessness" and "If Anything Will Level with You Water Will" from the Collected Poems. I think those are fine poems, but other people don't reprint them. I think anthologists tend to imitate each other. If they find a poem anthologized, they put it in their anthology. I have a great many poems, to tell you the truth, that could just as well have been chosen for an anthology as the others.
Donald Justice said at one time that the United States has not produced a major poet in the last thirty years. Do you agree with this?
I agree with that. The possibility is that Ashbery is a major writer, but other than that I don't know any major writers, except possibly myself. The great poets of the first half of the century are not as great as we thought they were, but they are greater than anything since. I think Eliot was a great poet. I like Ransom a lot. I don't believe Lowell and Berryman are going to prove to be as strong as was thought. I hope I'm wrong about that. It seems to me that there are a million poets that write interesting verse, but I can't think of a single one that I would think of getting up in the morning and going to find my life profoundly changed and enlightened and deepened by. Not a single one. Isn't that amazing? Or do I just not know about them? I don't mean an answer to life, I mean an encounter of intelligence, sensibility, feeling, vision. Where do I go for a verbal encounter that will be sufficient to cause me to feel that I should come back the next day and the next day to drink from that fountain again?
Do you think we will see a major poet evolve out of the last eleven or twelve years of the century or has the well dried up?
I think not. This century has had it. Like others, I believe that we've been replaying the seventeenth century in which a great deal of poetic energy in the first part of the century dried up into Dryden and Pope. Dryden at the end of the seventeenth and Pope at the beginning of the eighteenth. And we have started to take on a formalist cast now. Maybe we're going to need a century or two before we get back on line.
You've taught at Cornell since 1964.
Yes, that's right. Denise Levertov was poetry editor of The Nation and she wanted to take off for six months and she asked me to fill in for her. During that period I accepted a poem by David Ray. I didn't know who he was, but I published his poem. Some months later I was asked to read at Cornell, and it turned out that David Ray was a teacher there. I guess he was glad I published his poem and wanted to meet me. I went to read and they asked me why I wasn't teaching and I said because no one had ever asked me. They proceeded to ask me. I became a full professor in seven years. Some years later Yale made me an offer, so Cornell countered their offer and gave me an endowed chair. They have just honored me beyond all dreams. I teach part-time … one course that meets once a week. It's like having your life free. I go over every day and talk to students and go to meetings, but I don't have to.
Is it stimulating for your work to meet with the students everyday?
Not much any more. I need human contact, but it needn't be profound. To see someone and have a cup of coffee really restores me. See, I don't like to live alone. I don't think that I'm much of a teacher, but that's not what the students tell me. I never feel very competent. I don't think anyone who teaches poetry can feel very competent, because the subject is so overwhelming and it's easy to miss the center of it. Can you imagine in a creative writing class the interplay between the teacher and the student—how complex that is on both sides? Superficial, no matter how profound. It's so superficial and so mixed, "Help me, don't help me. Criticize this poem but only say good things. Don't tell me what my next move is. Tell me, but don't let me know that you told me what my next move is, so it will seem that I discovered it for myself. When I owe you something please be the first one to say I owe nothing." That is to say, the relationship is extremely complex and draining on that account. You would have to be superhuman to know what to do in that situation. I am, as it turns out, not superhuman. But they say I'm a good teacher, nevertheless. I do the best I can. I must say that I have a pretty quick eye on a poem. I can tell what it is likely to amount to or not amount to rather quickly. It's just a wonderful job, but I'm tired of it, only because of something they call "burnout." After having done something for twenty-five years I don't know what happens. I guess you begin hearing yourself say the same thing, repeating yourself.
When I first began to teach, I would go into the classroom and see eighteen or twenty individuals and I believed they were individuals. After about five years of teaching six courses per year, I would come into a writing class knowing full well that there were three or four basic problems. Diction—there is always too much poetic diction. There's the problem of shape, or the lack of it—some contact with an ideal form. There's the problem of consistency. It's not sufficient to have a good line and a good image, you need to write a whole poem. Then, as a teacher, you have to begin to nudge yourself and say, "This person sitting in front of you is not an example of one of these problems, he's a person. After awhile, if you have to nudge yourself too much, then it's time to quit.
If the burnout begins to weigh too heavily upon you, is there something that you would prefer doing instead of teaching?
I would like to, now, be designated, as anything in this world, POET. Not teacher, not professor, not farmer, but one who writes poems. What I would like to do now, since I have not allowed myself to do it in twenty years is to go out and meet the people who read my poems. I have been giving poetry readings lately which I did not do for a long, long time. I would like to stay home when I go back to Ithaca and write my poems, send them to magazines, go see people, because I don't know how to tell somebody else how to write.
You don't categorize yourself as particularly Southern, a Southern writer.
I feel my verbal and spiritual home is still the South. When I sit down and play hymns on the piano my belly tells me I'm home no matter where I am. So, yes, I am Southern, but I have been away from the immediate concerns of the South a long time. I guess we should define Southerner. Who are Southerners? Are they white, black? Does a black Southerner want to be separated from a Northerner? Does he feel the same boundary in the North as the Southerner often does? Also, the South has changed so much demographically that it's difficult to know. I was just in the bank the day before yesterday and I told a young lady I was going back home to Ithaca. She had just moved down from Kingston, New York. She said she liked it, but missed the snow. At the next teller's window was a woman who said she was from New York. So there we were, the three of us, adjacent to each other from New York. The very same thing happened in the post office one morning.
How does a poet deal with this change?
I wonder. I don't think it has very much effect on me. The sources of poetry, by the time you are as old as I am, sixty-two, have taken all kinds of perspectives, and while the work may be changed in tone and mood by recent events, it's changed only slightly. Curvature of the narrative, by that time, becomes fairly well established, and while it can change, it won't change much.
You never dreamed of becoming a poet in the sense of receiving recognition for your work. You thought of yourself as being an amateur poet and not a "Poet." Once you began publishing, when did you begin to think of yourself as a "Poet?"
When I said amateur poet, I meant that I didn't want to professionalize it. It seems to have more spontaneity, immediacy and meaning to me when I think of it as just something I do. I worry when poetry is professionalized. I think maybe I am a poet. I keep getting letters from all over the world from people who say they are moved by this and that. Whatever it was that they were moved by is in the past for me. I just wrote a poem this morning. That's where I'm at. I try to live each day as I can. If I write a poem, fine. If I don't, that's fine. I think life ought to come first. Don't you? One is alive in the world with other people. I write poetry. Other people collect insects or rocks. I don't think I have answered this question very well, but you know how at some point in your life you have meditated deeply on a subject—you remember that you have meditated on it, you file it, and the next time you try to remember it you can't access it. You have to take thirty minutes to work your way there, then you might have something to say, or you might not. That's what just happened. [Laughing]
Do you think there are writers, poets, who take poetry too seriously, that they feel poetry is almost more important than life?
The solemn, the pompous, the terribly earnest are all boring.
We touched upon your childhood earlier and I'd like to ask if you have a favorite childhood memory?
I remember one Christmas when I got a little tin wagon with milk cans drawn by a mule or a horse. I must have been five or six. I remember getting back into bed and playing with that on top of the quilt, thinking it was absolutely marvelous.
Turning this around, do you have a least favorite childhood memory?
The most powerful image of my emotional life is something I had repressed and one of my sisters lately reminded me of. It was when my little brother, who was two and a half years younger than I, died at eighteen months. My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away. That's the most powerful image I've ever known.
Throughout your career you've professed formlessness and boundlessness. Have you found either?
I guess the other side of that question is, is there anything, in fact, in our world and perception that isn't formal in one way or the other? I guess not. The air between me and that oak tree is invisible and formless. I can't see the air. So I see nothing but form out the window. I know the air is there because I see it work on the trees, and so I begin to think there is an invisible behind the visible, and a formlessness, an ongoing energy that moves in and out of a discrete formation. It remains constant and comes and goes and operates from a world of residual formlessness. That space, at some point, develops what we perceive. In a way I have experienced the idea of formlessness and boundlessness, but these are imperceptible thanks to our senses.
For the last three or four months I have been profoundly occupied with the conceptual aspect of poetry—poetry that has some thought behind it. But also, the poem is a verbal construct that we encounter, learn from, make value judgements with, and go to to sort out possibilities in relation to our own lives in order to try to learn how to live. I'm sick and tired of reading poets who have beautiful images that don't have a damn thing to say. I want somebody who can think and tell me something. You reintegrate that into a larger thing where you realize that thought and loss are certainly not the beginning and end to things, but are just one element in the larger effort we are making, which is to try to learn how to live our lives.
This section contains 5,674 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)