Archie: A Profile of A. R. Ammons
A. R. Ammons's career as a poet is an inspiring one. His first book of poems—Ommateum in 1955—was published by a vanity press. Few readers took notice. He had no literary constituency to fall back on. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he majored in science at Wake Forest University and made his living at a variety of occupations, none of them remotely literary. He worked briefly as the principal of an elementary school in Cape Hatteras and later managed his father-in-law's glassware factory in southern New Jersey. Not until 1964, when he was thirty-eight, did his poetry become a source of income; that year Archie (everyone calls him Archie) was appointed to the faculty of Cornell University. Not until the end of that decade did he begin receiving the critical accolades and book prizes that have made him one of America's most honored poets.
In the last quarter of a century Ammons has garnered nearly all the prizes: the Bollingen, the National Book Award (twice), the Frost Medal, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a MacArthur Fellowship. He holds a titled professorship at Cornell. He is unquestionably among the best-loved poets of our time. Yet despite all the recognitions, he remains what he has always been: independent, unaligned, a bit ornery, and as removed as one can be from any of poetry's supposed centers of power. He is an American original not only in his poetry but in the way he has conducted his literary life.
Archie has written five book-length poems: Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974), The Snow Poems (1977), Garbage (1993), and last year's Glare He tends to organize his long poems around a central image: the earth as photographed from outer space (Sphere), a gargantuan mound of rubbish (Garbage). The trash heap he saw off the I-95 in Florida that led him to write Garbage put him in mind of "a sort of secularized sacred rite," he says. "The smoke was the incense, the garbageman was the priest, the garbage heap was the church." He also wanted a "subject that was as inexhaustible as a landfill." And the garbage mound endeared itself to him for a third reason: he liked its geometry. The mound struck him as a hierarchical image, like a pyramid or the triangulation of a piece of pie. The pointed top corresponded to unity, the base to diversity. This paradigm of unity and diversity—and the related philosophical question of "the one and the many"—has been a constant feature of Ammons's work from the start. The poet aims to find a unifying principle connecting a plethora of discrete objects and singular events into "a united, capable poem, a united, capable mind."
This poet who so easily gravitates to long forms is also capable of severe compression. The most popular poem in The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons (1990), "Their Sex Life," consists of an idiomatic phrase spread over two lines:
One failure on
Top of another
The wit is in the lining, the way the first line is "on top" of the second.
"Their Sex Life" is an exception. Ammons's sly and sometimes bawdy humor turns up more frequently in his extended poems, which are spacious and inclusive, accommodating everything from hymns and credos to memos received and jokes overheard. Ammons's short poems tend, by contrast, to be compressed and intense meditations on nature and natural phenomena.
Ammons bears out T. S. Eliot's observation that poetry is a "system of punctuation." In such recent poems as "Auditions" and "Called into Play," Archie uses his signature colon as an all-purpose punctuation mark. The colon permits him to stress the linkage between clauses and to postpone closure indefinitely. In neither of these two poems is there a full-stop, even at the poem's end: "Called into Play" concludes with a tri-dot ellipsis, "Auditions" with the word "alas" hanging in space. When I asked Archie about his use of colons, he said that when he started writing poetry, he couldn't write if he thought "it was going to be important," so he wrote "on the back of used mimeographed paper my wife brought home, and I used small [lowercase] letters and colons, which were democratic, and meant that there would be something before and after [every phrase] and the writing would be a kind of continuous stream."
In conversation Archie is typically self-deprecating. He will claim that he hasn't written a good poem "since 1989." When he writes in "Called into Play" that he has "4 interests," the reader can almost hear the unspoken word "only." It turns out, of course, that the four interests he names—"money, poetry, sex, death"—cover pretty much everything. Although he sometimes wonders aloud whether he can find "something to write about [that he hasn't] already / written away," most days he seems to be as "full of poetry" as the early-Saturday morning of "Auditions," when he could call to mind "a red redder than the reddest rose" and liken it to the "world's brightest fucking blood."
My favorite among Ammons's early poems is "Still," in which he announces his pursuit of the "lowly" but finds that "though I have looked everywhere / I can find nothing lowly / in the universe." Everything in his purview—"moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self"—is "magnificent with being." The theme is restated in "The City Limits," which is, with "Corsons Inlet," the most anthologized of Archie's poems. "The City Limits" extols the "radiance" that informs things, like the motion and the spirit that impels "all thinking things [and] all objects of all thought" in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." In Ammons's great poem the radiance "pours its abundance without selection into every / nook and cranny not overhung or hidden."
Harold Bloom has championed Ammons as a transcendentalist, "the most direct Emersonian in American poetry since Frost." Like Frost, Ammons loves nature too deeply to sentimentalize it or flinch in the face of its cruelties. But he is warmer than Frost; where Frost is a poet of terror, Ammons would convert fear into praise. The radiance of "The City Limits" is not limited to a sublime landscape. It "illuminates the glow-blue // bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped / guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no / way winces from its storms of generosity."
With his emphasis on minute particulars—the "belt buckles, do-funnies, files, disks, pads, / pesticide residues, nonprosodic high-tension // lines, whimpering-wimp dolls, epichlorohydrin / elastomotors, sulfur dioxide emissions," and so forth that he finds on the dump—Ammons reminds some readers of William Carlos Williams. His philosophical preoccupations link Ammons to Wallace Stevens, who negotiated between reality and the imagination as obsessively as Ammons negotiates between communality and singularity. In the way that scientific investigations enter his work, he has no precursor or parallel (except perhaps James Merrill in Mirabell: Books of Number). The poet Archie most admires is John Ashbery. ("Ashbery has changed things for poetry in interesting ways above any other of my contemporaries. I admire almost everyone else equally.") Ammons sounds, however, like none of these poets. Moving with conversational ease from the serious to the silly, from revelation to self-conscious musing, and from intimate aside to lusty humor, his voice is so distinctive that you can identify the author of these lines from Glare blindfolded:
I've already told you about my memory
but I figure when I xerox the strip
onto regular paper, I'll fill out the
words in pencil, so a typist can get
it right: what, though, is right:
wouldn't it be better to let the words
come out of and go into breakage in
the usual way we, too, come and go;
wouldn't it be truer: wouldn't
accidence be bodied forth into
revelation: have you ever heard a
whore moan (hormone?). . . .
Another way Ammons differs from his contemporaries is in his method of composition: he types his long poems on a tape or strip of continuous paper.
The three-line stanzas Ammons favored in his middle period—he uses them in "The City Limits," "Triphammer Bridge," "Cut the Grass," and "Plunder" as well as in Sphere—resemble a species of terza libre: a rhymeless version of the stanza unit of Shelley's "Ode to the Western Wind." More recently he has found his measure in two-line units, unrhymed and, as always, heavily enjambed.
Archie likes saying that his great motivation in poetry is anxiety, ferocious anxiety that "tries to get rid of everything thick and material—to arrive at a spiritual emptiness, the emptiness that is spiritual." He defines the pressure of anxiety in "Anxiety's Prosody" (which Donald Hall selected for The Best American Poetry 1989 and which has been reprinted in The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997). But the final impression his lines have on the reader is of a sublime celebration of the way things are and a sublime indifference to all that would militate against poetry, "this way of writing" that is a "way of existing." As he writes in Glare:
how wonderful to be able to write:
it's something you can't do, like
playing the piano, without thinking:
it's not important thinking, but the
strip has to wind, the right keys
have to be hit, you have to look to
see if you're spelling the words
right: maybe it's not the thinking
but the concentration, which means
the attention is directed outside
and focused away from the self, away
from obsessive self-monitorings . . .
Pressing back against the pressure of anxiety and "a long history / of misery," the act of writing is an act of relief, bringing refreshment. "Since I started this, 15 / fairly pleasant minutes have passed: // my gratitude for that is, like, / boundless. . . ."
Readers who are unfamiliar with Ammons's work should begin, I think, with The Selected Poems 1951-1977, Sphere, and Garbage, all of which are available in paperback from Norton. The interviews and occasional prose pieces collected in Set in Motion (University of Michigan Press) make an excellent complement. From the poems that have recently appeared in such periodicals as American Poetry Review, The Hudson Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, I would confidently predict that Archie's next gathering of short poems will be his best since A Coast of Trees back in 1981. And that points to another inspiring aspect of Ammons's achievement: the record will show that he was well into his sixties when he wrote some of his finest and most enduring poems.
A North Carolina native, who likes reminding readers that "magnificent," where he comes from, sounds like "maggie-went-a-fishin'," Ammons has now spent nearly half his life in Ithaca, New York. Though he suffered a massive coronary in 1989 and has long complained of a variety of other ailments, he has shown few signs of letting up. In April of this year he suffered a hematoma followed by brain seizures and had to have emergency surgery. As I dictate these sentences (May 14), he has just returned home from the hospital, attended to by Phyllis, his wife and inseparable companion. Everyone at Cornell hopes he will continue to teach his one course per year. He is famous for keeping his office door open and making himself available to all comers weekday mornings at the campus café. He turned seventy-two on February 18.
Archie and I have been friends for twenty years. His name came up in a phone conversation I had with Jorie Graham a few years ago. Jorie said she had been teaching Fulke Greville and Thomas Traherne and had been looking for something like the metaphysicals in a contemporary idiom. "I connected them to Ammons and then it was all Ammons for the rest of the semester," she said. The immersion in his work "made me want to write again," she added. "It was like oxygen. When I first read Ashbery it was like that. Tell him for me."
I said I would tell him. "It'll make his day."
"Well," Jorie answered, "he made my decade."