Gravity’s Smoothest Dream
- The Complete Poems by A.R. Ammons
Norton, two vols, 2133 pp, £74.00, December 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 25489 1
‘Well, Mr Ammons, it looks as if you really have something here.’ On receiving this verdict from the poet Josephine Miles in 1951, the young Ammons was taken aback: he’d expected ‘bad news’. Yet whatever the something was that Mr Ammons had, it remained hidden from view for some time. He brought out his first volume, Ommateum, with a vanity press in 1955, and, as he drily observed, ‘it was forgotten about while I was on a four-day business trip to Nashville.’ Royalties for the first year amounted to four four-cent stamps; five years later a grand total of 16 copies had been sold. Ammons had been writing poetry for nearly twenty years when his next collection, Expressions of Sea Level, came out in 1963. Then, suddenly, six volumes followed in quick succession, including a Selected Poems in 1968, which Richard Howard proclaimed ‘a masterpiece of our period’. Collected Poems appeared in 1972, and Harold Bloom called it the most distinguished book of American poetry since Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems came out in the mid-1950s. It was ‘a major imaginative event’, John Hollander said, and John Ashbery – in his first piece for the New York Review of Books – hailed Ammons as an ‘American original’.
‘I was born big and jaundiced (and ugly),’ Archie Randolph Ammons wrote, ‘on February 18, 1926, in a farmhouse south-west of Whiteville, North Carolina.’ This was the farm on which his grandfather had raised 13 children, and on which Ammons would grow up during the Depression. The house had neither electricity nor an indoor toilet, and the family had no money. (‘No coins. We traded chickens and eggs in town for salt, sugar, baking powder, fatback.’) Before Ammons had started first grade, he’d lived through a lot:
In 1929 a travelling photographer took a picture of me in my navy suit standing in front of the blue hydrangea. I remember that. The next year, my 18-month-old brother Elbert died. I remember that. The next year, a brother was born dead. I remember the day of his birth. It was raining hard. My mother screamed and my grandmother walked back and forth crying out with prayer. In 1931 my dog was shot far away from home. He was yellow-brown and came home many times thereafter in my dreams.
The style of these recollections captures something of Ammons’s peculiar way of seeing and being in the world: he appears isolated or removed, even as he experiences himself as framed or posed before a gaze; his commitment to a certain flatness of tone nonetheless allows for unforeseen irruptions of colour or significance (the blue hydrangea); and his need for his unconscious to have its way involves an ambivalence about what it may bring home (the dreams about his dog – restitution, or nightmare?).
Ammons was raised in a house that had hardly any books. All he could remember reading were the first 11 pages of Robinson Crusoe – the rest of the book had disappeared. That memory is suggestive: in Chapter 1, entitled ‘Start in Life’, Crusoe speaks of two brothers he lost before he resolved, at 18, to go to sea. Ammons had become an only son and was the same age as Crusoe when, after a stint in a shipyard installing fuel pumps, he decided to join the navy in 1944. When the war was over he attended Wake Forest College on the GI Bill, majoring in science. He graduated and married his Spanish teacher, Phyllis Plumbo, in 1949. After three semesters at Berkeley, he spent most of the 1950s working as a sales executive at his father-in-law’s glass manufacturing firm while writing poetry in his spare time. The poems Ammons sent out to journals during this period were frequently rejected, which is perhaps why, many years later, it feels like not just a confession but a boast when he tells an interviewer: ‘I’m an incredible non-art lover.’ By that time he was a member of the English faculty at Cornell, where he taught for thirty years and lived for the rest of his life.
Part of what ‘non-art’ means for Ammons is described in an early poem as ‘the non-song/in my singing’. Singing is usually ghosted by saying (the opening line of his first book – ‘So I said I am Ezra’ – can be heard as either grand or casual). In fact, I can’t think of another poet who so often risks the phrase ‘I said’. Another early poem begins: ‘The pieces of my voice have been thrown/away I said.’ Whitman and Browning, two of Ammons’s first loves, hover in the margins here. For a moment, the opening line seems like an affluent, profligate, Whitmanesque throwing of voice across land and sea – before the utterance is restaged, caught up in the coils of syntax and enjambment. It’s as though he has decided to make himself the subject of a dramatic monologue.
As Helen Vendler notes in her fine introduction to this edition, ‘he was – as he must have known – the first American poet to whom the discourse of the basic sciences was entirely natural,’ and that discourse brings with it a vision of the natural as a sign of the ephemeral. Ammons listens to syllables as though he were diagnosing the workings of matter. ‘Sir Thomas Browne uses the word as “fictile vessels”, meaning clay,’ he wrote to a friend in 1954, ‘very interesting word; the first syllable hard, the second oozing over into a thin oilyness.’ This slippage from solid to liquid is translated into analogous terms elsewhere; a body is ‘a little knot of time’. Essence becomes a category error, and Ammons’s own bodies, knots and names seem to carry with them a sense of their own evanescence – not least a noun like ‘saying’, which continually threatens to live a shadow life as a gerund.
Ammons’s early work is sometimes enervated by a self-watchfulness that borders on mannerism; his desire for a life ‘chilled in the attitude of song’ can lead to a sort of pinched imperviousness. When starting out, he proudly explained to an editor that ‘this slight indifference, unwillingness to be completely taken in by an emotion, I regard as one of the better aspects of my poetry,’ but his strongest writing is never really indifferent, and its emotion is intimated by the lengths to which he goes to resist it. ‘Mourning the loss of life, in life and in death,’ he confessed in a late essay, ‘has been the undercurrent of much of my verse and accounts for a tone of constraint that my attempts at wit, prolixity and transcendence merely underscore.’ Ammons’s wit, the sense he gives of wit as something attempted, is one of the most attractive – and saddening – things about him. It’s the medium through which he expresses both a need to accept things as they are and a feeling that this need bespeaks an inability to accept. Writing, in The Snow Poems, of the injustice of necessity, he adds: ‘I forgive/the injustice, nearly.’
One ubiquitous name, or shape, for necessity in Ammons is ‘wind’. An early journal entry contains a note to self – ‘Poetry: to make stone of the phenomena of wind’ – but in the poems such adamantine statements of purpose are haunted by a sense of the frailties of things made. The last poem in A Coast of Trees begins by observing how ‘Wind, though in the temple,/criticises the pillars … restless with what/remains a while’ and ends:
still, from our own ruins,
we thrash out the
snakes and mice,
shoo the lean ass away,
and plant a row of something:
we say to the wind,
but we will
come back again and back:
in debris we make a holding as
insubstantial and permanent as mirage.
When his younger brother died, Ammons recalled, ‘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.’ To know (not simply to see) such an image is, for Ammons, to feel one’s way through and round it, and to tap its power by translating image into utterance, into an acoustic space that feels at once resolute and windswept, incantatory and provisional. ‘I wonder what to mean by sanctuary,’ he begins ‘Triphammer Bridge’. The poem ends:
sanctuary, sanctuary, I say it over and over and the
word’s sound is the one place to dwell: that’s it, just
the sound, and the imagination of the sound – a place.
Ammons is hard to place, not least because of his uncertainty about what he wants to be. One version of his life story would have it that he was simmering, simmering, simmering, before Harold Bloom brought him to the boil. The two first met during Bloom’s sabbatical year at Cornell in 1968-69 and their friendship was one of the most important of Ammons’s life. Bloom’s essays on Ammons are astonishing (‘you’ve clarified me to myself,’ Ammons told him in 1970). Yet when Ammons assented to David Lehman’s interpretation in an interview for the Paris Review (‘I thought you had decided to become influenced by Emerson only after Bloom told you that you had been’), one senses mischief. ‘Harold wants me to be intense, mad, consistently high,’ Ammons wrote in his journal in 1973. ‘I want to be ordinary, casual, a man of this world. But I suppose I shouldn’t want to be a poet (I’m not sure I do) and a man of this world.’ Another way of putting this would be to say that Ammons is often tempted to ask the question: what might a need to be something other than a poet do to poetry itself?
The Complete Poems provides a capacious answer. The volumes have been superbly edited by Robert West and run to more than two thousand pages. There were moments when I felt – to borrow a line from one of the late poems – that ‘there’s too damn much of everything.’ But I also found myself wondering why Ammons isn’t read more outside the US and was reminded of Donald Davie’s 1975 review of Sphere, which he began by admitting that the idea of yet another ‘major visionary poet’ was an unattractive proposition. Still, he confessed, ‘I can’t refuse the evidence of my senses and my feelings – there wasn’t one page of his poem that didn’t delight me … how long has Ammons been writing as well as this? I’ve got a lot of homework to catch up on.’ Davie’s delight owed something to the fact that this particular visionary was also a comedian (‘I have not/found the flavour of orange/juice diminished or increased/by this or that approach to/Heidegger or Harmonium’). Ammons likes to level with you, and then to make you wonder if – or how – he’s on the level. A six-word poem entitled ‘Their Sex Life’ strips it down: ‘One failure on/Top of another’. He wants to know how much fun can be had through repeated exposure to fiasco. ‘I think that the co-ordination, finally, that poetry imitates is sexual,’ he once told an interviewer. ‘Well then, no wonder we keep coming back to it and being fascinated by it and trying to do it.’
In the past, his work has tended to be collected under titles like Selected Longer Poems or The Really Short Poems. Even The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition couldn’t take in Ammons’s lengthier work, and there was no sign of the book-length Tape for the Turn of the Year in Collected Poems. That poem was born when Ammons bought a roll of adding machine tape at a local store and decided to thread it into his typewriter. Written in the form of a journal over the winter months of 1963-64, the tape’s width (just a couple of inches) limited the size of his lines, and its length defined the poem’s. It was Ammons’s first experiment in what he would later call ‘good-bad writing’. An on-the-hoof, off-the-cuff, something-to-do poem, it helped stave off one of the bouts of anxiety and depression that plagued him, and it spoke to and from the part of him that felt the need to confess, mid-poem: ‘I write this to be writing.’
In many of his longer poems, the good-bad writing is often just bad, and Ammons’s claim that ‘the right/time to write is when you have nothing to say’ doesn’t always convince. Still, his love of the shamelessly shambolic throws up great moments, as in Garbage, one of the best accounts I’ve read of the blankness and searching at the heart of poetic composition. Less litany, more litter – this is what Ammons is looking for when in flight from the hieratic miniaturist in himself. And yet the miniaturist dies hard. Ammons once explained that when his poems got too skinny and bony he would go back to wider lines to loosen up, and the long poems perform a similar function: they enable him to return to the shorter ones with renewed energy (‘after this,’ he says nearly five thousand lines into Tape, ‘I hope I/can do short rich hard/lyrics’).
Take, for example, two snails. In Tape, a snail is merely a part of the everything-that-must-be-included in the junkyard of the real. The entry for 12 December 1963 contains the aside:
not much green
on the walls of
the aquarium: the snails
are sluggish (!) –
But when Ammons peers more closely into the aquarium and lets the snail fill the whole world of a smaller poem, ‘Aquarium Watch’, he sees something else:
Surfaced, the snail pokes
a tube into the air
and takes in a shell full:
when he gets too much
and, let go to sink,
floats, trapped weightless,
he measures and measures,
as if studying, then
tilts and a single
sized bubble escapes the shell rim:
and down he goes, as if
dreaming gravity’s smoothest dream.
The pausing and pacing of this emulates the precision it describes. What escapes from that miraculous body is not a ‘single-sized bubble’, but ‘a single/sized’ one; and then there’s the lovely timing of those two ‘as if’s, their tenuity accentuated by shifting the repeated phrase from the beginning to the end of a line. To imagine a calculation inside instinct, a fantasy inside the art of sinking, a creature in blissful accord with its medium, is to indulge in a dream of poetry in motion. The poet-observer is partaking in the same dream as he works his way down from line to line, making his own tiny adjustments to arrive at repletion. These two snails play their part in a mock-epic story that stretches across The Complete Poems, a story with two protagonists: Diffusion and Distillation. The longing for more, for the inclusion and accretion of a Big Poem of America, never quite shakes off another fantasy: the radiant, lyrical instant in which every little thing, looked at hard enough, reveals itself as emblem, microcosm, quintessence.
Ammons’s unwillingness to decide which of these protagonists more becomes him is, I think, related to another trepidation. Writing to a friend of his gratitude to Bloom, he added that ‘unfortunately, critics in tracing out a past, simultaneously predict a trajectory for the future hanging over you.’ His earliest experiences taught him a lesson he couldn’t forget: the past is always pre-emptive, always the saboteur of the future (as ‘the surviving son’, Ammons admitted, ‘I must have felt guilty for living and also endangered’). His own death is sometimes imagined in the poems as punishment for – and release from – the exorbitant life he feels within and around him. But elsewhere, when Ammons asks ‘what is the meaning of loss/that never lived into gain’, or ‘what/destruction am I/blessed by?’, he is searching – or pleading – for a way to turn feelings of grief and endangerment into acts of daring. If, as he said on many occasions, anxiety drives poetry, then it drives him, through his dread of living a life unworthy of its own luck, to refuse predictable or plotted versions of himself.
Perhaps this is why Ammons is so often to be found laying waste to himself, and why he seems to need waste in his life: poetry is ‘a plentiful waste and/waste of plenty’, he writes in Garbage; ‘What do you have if you can’t waste it?’ he asks in Sumerian Vistas. He speaks of ‘the salvation of waste’ and of being ‘delivered to wastage’, hoping waste will save him from determinism; if form won’t always pay its observances to function, if things refuse to fulfil their promise, then in the space that’s left one can imagine a certain freedom. Waste is envisioned not so much as a lack or a leftover, but as a sign of life, a call to waywardness. Despite – or because of – his knowledge of the way the natural order fits together, Ammons wishes for a world in which one thing does not lead to another, but takes it by surprise. Faced by a call to justify himself, or by the suggestion that a poet is a waste of space, he replies: ‘Only uselessness is empty enough for the presence of so many uses.’
By the mid-1970s, Ammons had been awarded several fellowships and prizes, and was courted by Yale before Cornell offered him an endowed chair. But he remained an outsider even on the inside – resistant to groups, organisations, centres. Just as his Selected Poems was consolidating a canon, he was writing poems like ‘Periphery’ (one of his favourite words), which begins with a complaint about being stuck. Thickets are in his way; he wants in, wants to be at the heart of things, so he decides to go deeper into the undergrowth. And yet each decision brings its own hesitation:
can be all right, too: I came on a spruce
thicket full of elk, gushy snow-weed,
nine species of lichen, four pure white rocks and
several swatches of verbena near bloom.
Ammons’s place in nature is his place in his own life, and here, as enumeration slides into approximation (‘nine … four … several’), he reminds himself of what he’s always been: a great romancer of the adventitious. Although he’s a latecomer to the scene (nature – the full, the gushy, the grown – speaks almost too amply of what has already occurred), the poem closes ‘near bloom’. A sense of imminence, of something always about to be, is the unsought reward for an attraction to the outskirts.
Looking back over the movement of his life (his first 24 years in the South, the next thirty in the North), Ammons observed: ‘I don’t feel at home – I’ll never feel at home – anywhere.’ One catches the glint of a resolution inside what might initially be heard as a lament, as though he were determined to remain exiled, and The Complete Poems offers a record of the nature-poet’s becoming lost and found – and lost again – in the source of his admiration. Sometimes, Ammons admits, ‘I go to/nature because man is scary,’ or he speaks of nature as though there could never be anything wrong with it (‘rain’s never out of tune’). But when he begins one poem by asking ‘What is the misery in one that turns one with gladness/to the hedge strung lucid with ice’, you sense he’s looking for something more – or, rather, less – than consolation or belonging. ‘Gravelly Run’ ends:
no use to make any philosophies here:
I see no
god in the holly, hear no song from
the snowbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter
yellow in the pines: the sunlight has never
heard of trees: surrendered self among
unwelcoming forms: stranger,
hoist your burdens, get on down the road.
The surrendered self is not quite self-surrender, but rather the herald of another possibility. His cold love of nature’s bright particularities is enhanced by the way these unwelcoming forms appear to require nothing of him, not even that he notice them:
alone, I’m not alone:
a standoffishness and reasonableness
in things finds
me or I find that
It’s as though the fact that he can only ever move as an alien through the landscape becomes the guarantor of an inalienable sense of selfhood, as though the standoffishness of things hands him back his own isolation as a gift.
Reading these volumes, I was struck by an image that kept coming back during the long haul of Ammons’s writing life, and which seems to speak to a central longing – or desolation – in him. It’s a picture of a pressure being borne, an image of a stationary object accepting the weight of another force (a tree, or plant, or blade of grass taking the light pressure of a bird, or snow, or wind). In ‘Saliences’, he watches
shaped and kept in the
bent of trees,
the prevailing dipping seaward
‘Bent’, not merely ‘bend’ (living forms fulfil their natural bent when they take on other things). A dipping that is also a prevailing is registered when a crow lands on a spruce bough (‘the bobbing lasts/way past any/interest in the subject’), and elsewhere he admits: ‘I can’t/get enough of the nodding/adjustment when a squirrel leaps on or off a branch.’ Curvatures of coming and going sometimes take hold of a whole poem. Here is ‘Transfer’:
When the bee lands the
morning glory bloom
dips some and weaves:
the coming true of
from weightless wing-held
seems at the touch
Transfers of weight are frequently registered as an awareness of tactility, of a pliancy or equanimity in nature, of a little give inside the givenness of things.
And the given, finally, is what Ammons works and plays with. In one of his greatest poems, ‘Easter Morning’, he begins by reminding himself (as if he needed reminding) that ‘I have a life that did not become,/that turned aside and stopped.’ The life is that of the little brother he lost, which won’t ever seem to desist from not being properly or fully lived. It’s to his brother’s grave that he returns most frequently, ‘to ask what is wrong, what was/wrong’, scratching around in his childhood, envisaging it as a place where he must always stand and fail, a place he can never really leave. He decides to take a walk. One needs to take the poem’s ending in a great sweep to register the reach of its plain-spokenness:
I saw something I had
never seen before: two great birds,
maybe eagles, blackwinged, whitenecked
and -headed, came from the south oaring
the great wings steadily; they went
directly over me, high up, and kept on
due north: but then one bird,
the one behind, veered a little to the
left and the other bird kept on seeming
not to notice for a minute: the first
began to circle as if looking for
something, coasting, resting its wings
on the down side of some of the circles:
the other bird came back and they both
circled, looking perhaps for a draught;
they turned a few more times, possibly
rising – at least, clearly resting –
then flew on falling into distance till
they broke across the local bush and
trees: it was a sight of bountiful
majesty and integrity: the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the
return: a dance sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brook’s
ripplestone: fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.
I sense a patient effort from Ammons to ensure that his language doesn’t become showy, doesn’t get in the way of what is to be seen. The writing doesn’t quite succumb to the temptation to turn event into symbol: a glimmer (but only a glimmer) of a pun, for example, in the poem’s final word; or the inkling that the birds are being read as a vision of what the brothers were meant to be to each other. Yet Ammons’s words do seek to enlarge their resonance at every turn: ‘integrity’ is a dream not just of virtue, but of the integral (integritas: ‘wholeness, entireness, completeness’), a fantasy of the unimpaired as something deeply, essentially paired. So much seems to be at stake in the motion of description – including the word ‘descriptions’ itself (not, in this context, mere statements or accounts, but movements: ‘The tracing out of a given path or region by the motion of an object following a certain course’ according to the OED). Ammons doesn’t know precisely what the birds are tracing out or looking for, or exactly what he’s looking for from them, but the poem has followed a certain course in order to arrive at what is perhaps its most quietly shocking word: ‘us’. Everything up to this point has been resolutely, painfully separate (all ‘I’s and ‘he’s, and certainly no hint of an addressee). It would be tactless to decide for whom or to whom this ‘us’ speaks. And even if clarification were offered, we’d still be left with a recognition that Ammons describes elsewhere: ‘mystery is what comes true at the/centre of the perfectly clear.’