A maritime artist I know tells me that he once met an eminent critic who claimed to have given up the brush and taken up the pen because he had won all the prizes in art school. Those laurels must be testimony that he was washed up—how could an artist of genuine importance, he despaired, possibly satisfy the reigning tastes of his era?
If the poet A.R. Ammons were to follow the art critic’s reasoning, he’d instantly cease composing verse and begin discoursing on, say, “constellations of intention in Ginsberg’s early poetry.” Ammons has won all the prizes—the Bollingen, the MacArthur, the National Book Award—and holds an endowed chair at Cornell University. Influential literary critics like Harold Bloom of Yale and Helen Vendler of Harvard extoll him.
And yet, improbable as it may seem to those accustomed to challenging the decisions of our literary Supreme Court, we should be thankful indeed that A.R. Ammons has not allowed praise to silence his art. The critics, to my mind, are quite on the mark in calling him one of the very best of our living poets. I would only add what seems to me, these days, just as important: he composes remarkably accessible poems.
Ammons writes from a deep familiarity with the natural world. He is not content simply to offer a moody response to a landscape. He must watch things move and mark the interplay of wild animals, evergreens, hillsides, and man-made objects. This passage from “Viable” shows his eye at work:
the caterpillar sulls on the hot macadam
but then, risking, ripples to the bush:
the cricket, startled, leaps the
quickest arc: the earthworm, casting,
nudges a grassblade, and the
sharp robin strikes. . . .
As befits a student of nature, Ammons also writes from an awareness of man’s physical and intellectual limitations. His poems preach gentle lessons in humility, lessons comparable to those of Chinese Sung landscapes in which temples, bridges, and fishermen are dwarfed, physically and philosophically, by mountains that hover in a distant upper space. In “Staking Claim,” Ammons contrasts the autumn flight of willow leaves—”dream-wraiths song-turned, / bent in troops of unanimity”—with the human mind’s conceptual powers. By the end of the poem the two are more alike than different:
look I said to the willows
what the mind
look I said to the leaves
breaking into flocks around me taking
my voice away
to the far side of the hill
and way beyond gusting down
the long changes
Fortunately, Ammons does not worship nature on bended knee. If he finds spiritual and intellectual satisfaction in his dialogues with mountains, songbirds, and colorful stones, he just as often writes whimsically. Ammons’s range of subject and response is a good measure of his talent, but it also reveals a larger incompleteness in his quest. He has not finally discovered the source of his troubles, his reason to write. He may be acknowledging as much in the opening of “Periphery.” He complains of “thickets” and of “keeping charts/ of symptoms, every reality a symptom/ where the ailment’s not nailed down.”
One might, of course, take exception to what sounds here like a prescription for the lazy relativism so common to contemporary American poetry. Add to this the presence of titles like “Conserving the Magnitude of Uselessness,” and one might worry that Ammons’s success has come at a price. For some readers, no doubt, his work will smell of the lamp, and his treatment of questions of existence will be too tentative or metaphysical. But as I read him, Ammons is in earnest. He relies on the problems and metaphors that nature and experience provide, and he does so in language marked by lucidity and imagination.
Where Ammons satisfies least, it seems to me, is in his handling of poetic form. As I read through The Selected Poems, I found fewer and fewer efforts at structured verse. And while his free verse is entirely better than most, his lack of rhyme and sustained meter—which is the very music of poetry—drives even his best writing out of memory. His line divisions follow the fashion of isolating single words without regard for natural pause. While this supposedly startles the reader into a heightened awareness of word meanings, its cumulative effect is to rupture thematic continuity and obstruct the reader’s breathing. But rejection of form—or is it simply inattention?—should hardly surprise us in a poet as speculative as A.R. Ammons, and this deficiency by no means spoils the pleasures of this new selection of his work.
[The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition, by A.R. Ammons; New York: W.W. Norton]