A. R. Ammons’ Vision

Although I’ve been strongly attracted to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself since I first read it in college, I’ll have to admit that at times Whitman’s absolute, unshakeable belief in his vision has caused me to have doubts about it. I wonder how any truly rational person can not have doubts about their beliefs.

God’s messages, and his self-proclaimed messengers make it extremely difficult not to have doubts about any vision. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I have been so fond of Theodore Roethke’s works, where the doubt is expessed as stongly as the vision itself.

In this sense, A.R Ammons reminds me much more of Roethke than he does Whitman. Altlhough his poetry is obviously focused on the spirtual aspects of life, and particularly on the relationship between nature and the spirit, Ammons expresses doubts about virtually all of his own ideas at one time or another in this book of poems.

Although his poetry is clearly metaphysical, sometimes excessively so for my taste, in a poem like “Gravelly Run” Ammons questions whether there is any need for a philosophy at all:

Gravelly Run

I don’t know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
losing the self to the victory
of stones and trees,
of bending sandpit lakes, crescent
round groves of dwarf pine:

for it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it:

the swamp’s slow water comes
down Gravelly Run fanning the long
stone-held algal
hair and narrowing roils between
the shoulders of the highway bridge:

holly grows on the banks in the woods there,
and the cedars’ gothic-clustered
spires could make
green religion in winter bones:

so I look and reflect, but the air’s glass
jail seals each thing in its entity:

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 poem begins with the traditional “losing of the self” in nature, the first stage of reunion with the transcendental. The emphasis than shifts to the “eternal self,” the “self,” that survives the longest and is recognized by those things that last forever. The narrator is looking for that part of us that transcends, that ties us to eternity.

Unfortunately, he finds no such evidence. Everything seems to stand on its own; each thing is its own entity. Even traditional symbols of man’s glory, like the holly, show no sign of god. “I hear no god in the holy.” The sunlight has “never heard of trees,” much less the short-lived man.

In essence, the narrator feels like he has “surrendered himself” to unwelcoming forms. The gravelly run tells him to carry his own sorrows for he is a stranger here, not part of nature.

“Prodigal” is a little more optimistic than “Gravely Run,” but only slightly so:


After the shifts and dis
continuities, after the congregations of orders,
black masses floating through
mind’s boreal clarity, icebergs in fog,
flotillas of wintering ducks weathering the night,
chains of orders, multifilamentous chains
knobbed with possibility, disoriented
chains, winding back on themselves, unwinding,
intervolving, spinning, breaking off

(nomads clustering at dusk into tents of sleep,
disorganizing, widening out again with morning)
after the mental

blaze and gleam,
the mind in both motions building and tearing down,
running to link effective chains,
establish molecules of meaning,
frameworks, to
perfect modes of structuring
(so days can bend to trellising
and pruned take shape,
bloom into necessary event)

after these motions, these vectors,
orders moving in and out of orders, collisions
of orders, dispersions, the grasp weakens,

the mind whirls, short of the unifying
reach, short of the heat
to carry that forging:

after the visions of these losses, the spent
seer, delivered to wastage, risen
into ribs, consigns knowledge to
approximation, order to the vehicle
of change, and fumbles blind in blunt innocence
toward divine, terrible love.

We can assume that the prodigal in the title refers to mankind, the prodigal son at last returning home to nature after having trying, and failing, to discover the true meaning of life in philosophy.

Mankind, through the intercession of our greatest thinkers, has been continually seeking the grand unifying theory that will make sense of our lives and finally give meaning to the world. Instead, the philosophers have at best merely created “multifilamentous chains” of ideas “knobbed with possibility.” And, more often than not, when we try to follow their reasoning we merely discover “disoriented chains, winding back on themselves.”

In the end, at best we admire the “blaze and gleam” of such minds, capable of abstract thought which, like that of the Great Oz, seems most impressive but, at best, grants a semantic victory over life’s problems, one that falls far short of the comfort of older religious beliefs overthrown by the grand Age of Reason.

Admire them or not, we remain unconvinced by these convoluted abstractions. For these scientists of the mind in the end are content to consign “knowledge to approximation.” Any “divine order” in the universe is attributed to the “vehicle of change,” whether that be Darwin’s theory or pure random chance.

In the end many of us, like the narrator, end up fumbling “blind in blunt innocence toward divine, terrible love,” trusting faith to guide us to a universe that recognizes us as its own.

At times it seems best to give up words entirely and simply go outside and seek the comfort of the natural world:

Giving up Words with Words

Isn’t it time to let things be:
I don’t pick up the drafts-book,
I ease out of the typewriter room:

bumblebees’ wings swirl
free of the fine-spun of words:
the brook blinks

a leaf down-bed, shadow mingling,
tumbling with the leaf,
with no help from me: do things let alone

go to pieces: is rescue written
already into the motions of coherence:
have words all along

imitated work better done undone:
one thinks not ruthlessly to bestir again:
one cases off harsh attentions

to watch the dew dry, the squirrel stand
(white belly prairie-dog erect)
the mayfly cling daylong to the doorscreen

How ironic that a long poetry book that perhaps relies too heavily on metaphysical concepts — rather than concise images, metaphors and symbols — to explain the universe should suggest that the real answer is to give up words and experience the world directly.

Of course, the poem also suggests our dilemma, for our perceptions seem trapped by our ability to express those perceptions in words. Unless we can translate those perceptions into words, we do not trust them. Even the idea that man should experience life’s mysteries first-hand rather than learn about them through someone else’s writings must be expressed through words.

Like a Zen monk, Ammons is forced to rely on sleight-of-word tricks to force us to see nature in a new light. Personally, I think I could easily become one of Ammons’ disciples.

Web links:

The American Academy of Poets

Modern Amercan Poetry (particularly commentary on "Corsons Inlet")


Zuzu Petals Quarterly