Cheesespreadology

Ian Sansom

  • Garbage by A.R. Ammons
    Norton, 121 pp, £7.50, February 1995, ISBN 0 393 31203 8
  • Tape for the Turn of the Year by A.R. Ammons
    Norton, 205 pp, £8.95, February 1995, ISBN 0 393 31204 6
  • Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow by August Kleinzahler
    Faber, 93 pp, £6.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 571 17431 0
  • The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs by Charles Simic
    Michigan, 127 pp, £30.00, January 1996, ISBN 0 472 06569 6
  • Frightening Toys by Charles Simic
    Faber, 101 pp, £6.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 571 17399 3
  • The Ghost of Eden by Chase Twichell
    Faber, 78 pp, £6.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 571 17434 5

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 perpend?
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 (1974),

under all life, fly and

dandelion, protozoan, bushamster, and ladybird, tendon
and tendrel (excluding protocelluar organelles) is the same
cell ...

Indeed, Ammons’s theory of poetic form, as set out in Hibernaculum, amounts to a kind of trashcan theory:

much have I studied, trashcanology, cheesespreadology,
laboratorydoorology, and become much enlightened and
dismayed: have, sad to some, come to care as much for

a fluted trashcan as a fluted Roman column: flutes are
flutes and the matter is a mere substance design takes
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 (1955) and which found its most profound expression in Corson’s Inlet (1965). 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.

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