The Poetry of A. R. Ammons

I have been reading and trying to come to terms with A.R. Ammons The Selected Poems for nearly two weeks now. I have never been introduced to his poetry in any of the many poetry classes I have taken, so I am a little surprised at how much I like his poetry. How could he have been overlooked by so many people I admired?

I’m also a little taken aback at how difficult it is to understand some of the poems. I’ve read and reread several poems and still don’t feel like I have a good grasp of some of them. I’m going to have to get to a good college library to find some in-depth analysis of his poems before I would really feel comfortable discussing some of the poems I like very much. That said, the poems seem well worth the effort it takes to understand them. Ammons is a nature poet of the order of Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke or Gary Snyder, all personal favorites. And, though his vision is similar to these poets, it also seems quite unique.

Perhaps it is so difficult to follow Ammons’ vision because it is never, at least as far as I can tell, completed, as suggested in the closing lines from “Corsons Inlet,” one of his more famous poems.

I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory:
still around the looser, wider forces work:
I will try
to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

Ammon obviously sees a lack of “finality of vision” as a positive thing because it forces him to constantly see the world as new and fresh. I tend to agree with that; once we think we can “define” something, we no longer need to consider it seriously. There is, however, much more here. He suggests that it is an “easy victory,” and thus a false victory, to suggest that there is a vision that can encompass all “enlarging groups of disorder” that do not fit within the theory. Still, he does not give up in his attempt to “fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder.”

On one level, Ammons’ poems are so easily read that they almost seem transparent:

Reflective

I found a
weed
that had a

mirror in it
and that
mirror

looked in at
a mirror
in

me that
had a
weed in it

Poems like this remind me a lot of Roethke and his ability to find deeper meaning in the most common elements of nature, as he did in “Weed Pulling.” These poems seem Zen-like in their simplicity, yet a reflection of a deeper truth.

Then there are simple poems like “Mansion” that emphasize Ammons' commitment to the spirit, and the spirit’s symbol, the wind:

Mansion

So it came time
for me to cede myself
and I chose
the wind
to be delivered to

The wind was glad
and said it needed all
the body
it could get
to show its motions with

and wanted to know
willingly as I hoped it would
if it could do
something in return
to show its gratitude

When the tree of my bones
rises from the skin I said
come and whirlwinding
stroll my dust
around the plain

so I can see
how the ocotillo does
and how saguaro-wren is
and when you fall
with evening

fall with me here
where we can watch
the closing up of day
and think how morning breaks

Though this certainly does not seem like the traditional image of resurrection, there is definitely the feeling of going on beyond death, even if it is merely as part of the wind, rather than as a separate identity. Somehow the light-hearted tone of the poem, “The wind was glad/ and said it needed all/ the body/ it could get/ to show its motions with,” makes the idea of death seem less foreboding. And this, in turn, is reinforced by the idea that the narrator will get to revisit the very places he was fondest of while living.

I enjoy reading Ammons even at this level, though I think his best poems are much deeper than this.While demanding much from the reader, his best poetry is as interesting as anything I've read. I'll get to some of those poems tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “The Poetry of A. R. Ammons

  1. Dear Loren Webster:

    What a pleasure to discover your blog page as I looked for information on A. R. Ammons. I have been reading his poetry for at least 14 years and was so saddened by his death, in 2001. A chemist by training, I read his poetry for inspiration while riding a commuter train back and forth to grad school. Yet, I don’t know if I quite “get” any of the particulars, since I’ve rarely known anyone who reads his poems and I have no literary expertise.

    I must return to lesson planning right now, but will surf your site again, soon, since the links seem sympatico, too. Once again, many thanks!

  2. If you haven’t come across Ammons’s collection Garbage I hope you like this extract…

    —-

    What are we to think of the waste, though? The sugarmaple seeds on the blacktop are so dense; the seed heads crushed by tires, the wings stuck wet. They hold the rains, so there’s no walkway. Dry: So many seeds, and not one will make a tree, excuse the expression. What of so much possibility, all impossibility? How about the one who finds alcohol at 11, drugs at 17, death at 32? How about the little boy on the street who with puffy-smooth face and slit eyes reaches up to you for a handshake? Supposing politics swings back like a breeze and sails tanks through a young crowd? What about the hopes withered up in screams like crops in sandy winds? How about the letting out of streams of blood where rain might have sprinkled into road pools? Are we to identify with the fortunate who see the energy of possibility as its necessary brush with impossibility, who define meaning only in the blasted landfalls of no meaning, who can in safety call evil essential to the differentiations of good? Or should we wail that the lost are not lost, that nothing can be right until they no longer lose themselves until we’ve found charms to call them back. Are we to take no comfort when so much discomfort turns here and there helplessly for help? Is there, in other words, after the balances are toted up, is there a streak of light defining the cutting edge as celebration? Clematis, which looks as dead and drained in winter as baling wire, transports in spring such leaves and plush blooms.

  3. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Actually, I just picked Garbage up from Amazon and it’s sitting on the table next to my computer waiting to be read.

    It’ll be a little while before I get to it, though, as I also purchased several new books on Haiku.

What do you think?