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

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:


I found a
that had a

mirror in it
and that

looked in at
a mirror

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:


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.

Don’t Miss It

Although I have been following the news in Israel, I personally choose to continue reading poetry as my own antidote to hatred. With all the violence taking place in the Middle East and the accompanying hatred that spreads its venom far beyond the Middle East, when even the magical blogdom has become infected, it’s far too easy to get caught up in anger and despair. The truth, though, is that life doesn’t wait, and if we miss the beauty of spring, or, for that matter, the beauty of life, then the terrorists will simply have another victory, even if but a minor one.

In the midst of reading A.R. Ammons delightful The Selected Poems, expanded edition, “Eyesight” caught my attention. While there are more significant poems I will discuss shortly, this one reminded me of why I took my latest trip to California.

After my recent illness I was determined not to miss another important moment in my life, refusing to remain lost in the inevitable stress that has consumed much of my life. At least this time I will try to pay attention to what is truly important.

“Eyesight” is one of those poems that allows us to see what is truly important:


It was May before my
attention came
to spring and

my word I said
to the southern slopes

missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see:

don’t worry, said the mountain,
try the later northern slopes
or if

you can climb, climb
into spring: but
said the mountain

it’s not that way
with all things, some
that go are gone

The critical lines are, “it/ came and went before/ I got right to see.” Much of life is like that, got to get right before you see what’s truly there to see. Such a simple concept, yet getting right can be hard to do. Some never do get right until it’s too late.

Sometimes even if you know better it takes a good shaking up — something saying, “Do you think you’ll always be here to enjoy these things you love?” –- before you actually stop and notice the beauty that is your natural heritage.

Luckily, true beauty is eternal and even ephemeral beauty is seasonal. So, if we are lucky, in nature we can simply go somewhere else to see what we have missed.

Truth is, I’ll be seeing “spring” and its revival of life for quite awhile now. By driving 600 miles south to San Francisco I’ve already seen most of spring, but I returned home to the Northwest to find my daffodils and my earliest tulips in full bloom.

Soon, I’ll head up into the mountains, following the deer and elk climbing into Spring in the mountains for another month or so. Can there ever be too much beauty in your life, especially when there’s so much hatred ?

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