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Critical Essay by Elizabeth McGeachy Mills
SOURCE: "Ammons's 'Singing & Doubling Together,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 49, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 187-90.
In the following essay, McGeachy Mills asserts that "In its every complexity" Ammons's 'Singing & Doubling Together,' "signals the mysterious, paradoxical, somehow linearly unknowable experience of doubling with the divine."
A. R. Ammons's poem "Singing & Doubling Together" demonstrates the power of carefully chosen signs to create and to recreate, while exposing through the medium of the poem a complex, nonrational experience of union.
Speaking in the first person, in the present tense, from within the event itself, the speaker describes a real experience—not hearsay, but sound personally heard. That sound joins the I to a you who is an equal subject in the poem and in the experience, but a superior power. Nowhere in the poem does the identity of either the speaker or the one addressed become more specific than the personal pronouns, which themselves stress the intimate contact between the two. Activities such as cutting the grass and picking up branches depict the I as human (line 20). The you is not doctrinally distinct—bearing no identity as specific as God the Father or the Taoist Way—but it is clearly divine, a mysterious spiritual power (perhaps the energizing life force) that is "as if nothing," or no thing. Although shapeless, it can take "on … shape"; though timeless, it can take on time. Initially, because the sound crosses a barrier from "there" to "here," the you controls it, sending it "in" the speaker from some "great high otherness," so that the speaker says, "you have means … I / can never follow." Through the "event" of the poem itself, however, the speaker utters his own sound, duplicating the power of the divine in his own song. From the simple interweaving ampersand in the poem's title through the intricately bound seven claims of the poem's one long sentence, the poet artfully employs specific devices as means to break out of his inarticulate human bondage into his own "leafspeech."
The argument of the poem emerges from one sentence with seven claims. Distinct punctuation (five colons and one dash) signals each part. As is true at every level of the poem, what appears simple becomes increasingly complex. The first line of the poem makes a straightforward declaration, which the rest of the poem expands through transformations of the basic assertion. The balanced parallelism of "My nature singing in me is your nature singing," the I linked to, and defined by, the you through the copula, gains complexity in the second claim, which explains the separating distance and dominance of the you. The you's active force is reiterated and praised further in the third claim, but here the speaker joins in the communion. Claim four boldly presents the speaker as active: "I catch the impact and turn / it back," although the activity comes in response to the you's motion. Moving from further description of the speaker's action, claim five, however, explores the shocking possibility that the you can "fail," not through motion but through nonmotion: "The still / of your great high otherness." Then the failures of claim five become the risky, incarnational pains of claim six, resulting in the explosive exclamation and question of grace in claim seven. That Ammons's song praising this complex, transforming unity develops from seven claims is surely no accident, for seven remains the traditional numerical symbol for the unity of heaven and earth.
The visual structure of the poem presents six stanzas of six lines each, giving the physical appearance of perfect balance. Just as the seven claims lie embedded in the one large assertion, suggesting the complexity of the whole, so the balance of the six stanzas contains variation in line length clearly representing each and "every motion" that the poem describes. A small graphic clue, the double space after the colon preceding "you are there beyond," emphasizes the gulf between the you and the I. A more obvious sign is the shortest line in the poem, the three-syllable "what but grace," a visually distinct line that depicts the breathtaking, yet ambivalent, question/exclamation of the poet's experience of union. Although coming at the end of stanza five, it syntactically belongs to stanza six, thus linking the "pain," "tears," "loss" to the consolation of complete union.
Diction also signals the poem's complex experience. In the opening line, "nature" conjures multiple concepts: of essence, of reality, of character, of elemental and primitive forces and processes, of the physical world, and of the human personality, to name a few. The single word carries multiple meanings, which can combine in different ways. For instance, the paraphrase "My human personality singing in me is your physical universe singing" forms an insufficient gloss of the line, for it reduces the line's semantic power. A more complete rendering of the poet's meaning seems to be: "My essential/real/defining/uncivilized/physical/ spiritual nature singing in me is your essential/real/defining/uncivilized/physical/ spiritual nature singing"; the indeterminancy characteristic of homonymy allows the noun to shimmer with semantic options. Only as the poem develops does the essential difference in natures, one finite and human, the other infinite and divine, become clear. And that difference is itself called into question by the existence of the poem. Other words, such as "tracings" (meaning both "paths" and "outlines of shapes") and "still" (the adjective, meaning "the absence of sound or motion," and the adverb suggesting duration of time), provide further semantic doubleness.
Indexical signs such as the deictic words of relationship, "I" and "you," also signal doubleness; even as the pronouns suggest intimacy, they also stress difference since I is other than you. The deictic words of space—"in," "into," "back," "there," "away," "where," "here," "near," "up," "under," "somewhere," "hence," "nowhere"—reinforce the contrast of place between the speaker and the one addressed. Yet the multiplicity of that swooping motion or threatening stasis suggests that the you is both "everywhere" and, as the poet says, "in me."
Word repetition—sometimes exact, sometimes with slight variation—likewise signals the complex, often paradoxical, tension that the event arouses. "Nature," whose multiple meanings are evident, occurs in the poem six times in the singular and once in the plural. Such duplication, as well as the "I catch" repeated in stanzas three and four, the "creak" that becomes "creaking," the "snap," "snapping," and the "settles," "settled," intertwine the poem's separate parts. Repetition of identical words also stresses the speaker's difficulty in articulating the event. The abstraction "things" is repeated three times within two lines, emphasizing the helplessness of "things" (the material) in the face of the power of the "nothing" (no thing, not thing, the immaterial or spiritual). "Fail" appears four times in stanzas four and five, where repetition becomes most intense as the speaker confronts the mystifying paradox of incarnation, victorious life emerging from death's defeat. The most amazing repetition, however, is of my/me/I and your/you/you words. Eighteen of each group occur in this poem—a definite paralleling of words relating to the theme of the poem.
Although the most frequently used verb form in the poem is the present participle, appearing eighteen times and stressing continuing action, the poem ends with a projection from present time and present union toward a promise of future union. Death will not be the end of the speaker, who will be transformed, losing individual identity and gaining cosmic power at the same time, "changed into your singing nature when I need sing my nature nevermore." The progression is mysterious, from sound to divine silence, followed by human cries, then divine cries ending in transformation, the final syntax forming a chiasmus with the original assertion—my nature/your nature now becomes your nature/my nature.
But what is the final nature of the union? Is the "nature" described here physical nature, from dust to dust? Will the poet only become part of the earth and so devolve into personal silence? Or is that "singing nature" spiritual? Will the poet finally become literally one with the word? The answer, enforced by the devices of the poem, remains ambiguous. In its every complexity the poem signals the mysterious, paradoxical, somehow linearly unknowable experience of doubling with the divine. It stands as evidence of the precarious moment the poet praises.
This section contains 1,362 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)