A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) was one of the great curmudgeons in poetry — he actually made an aesthetic out of a kind of reticent fuddy-duddiness spiked with a whole bunch of other moods and modes, from mischief to randiness. But it’s as if his willful resistance to some things makes sure there’s room in his wildly questioning mind for openness to so much else.
In his poems — all of which are collected in these two long-awaited, definitive volumes — we get to watch someone brilliant and deeply capacious thinking through everything he encounters. He is different from his peers like the hipper John Ashbery, who is ever-fascinated by popular culture and who writes, much of the time, like he’s making smart conversation at a party. With Ammons, one feels more like one is in the presence of a capital-P poet, someone at a desk, or sitting on a bench under a tree, who is busy pontificating, although perfectly sociable and friendly, with a bit of a wink and a grin and a healthy helping of informality.
But to describe Ammons as a lovable grouch only gets at the most obvious feature of his poetic personality. More deeply, he was a relentlessly prolific armchair philosopher, a metaphysician of the everyday, a thinker who never abandoned his grade school love of the sciences and who made a permanent place for biology, physics and mathematics in the highest orders of American poetry. He was a successor, as the critic Harold Bloom famously noted, to Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost. Though all of this taxonomy does little to give a sense of how fun it can be to read his poetry.
For an undeniably major poet, Ammons was unusually funny, slippery and tricky. He was particularly expert on two kinds of poems — really short ones and really long ones. Here’s “Beautiful Woman,” a great example of the former from his 1996 collection “Brink Road”:
At first glance, this might look like light verse, but it’s deep and rich, a kind of zen koan that is also a meditation on aging and, to me at least, longevity in marriage. The poem swings on an odd use of a pun on a popular figure of speech and the seasons: “The spring/ in// her step” — her youthful energy — “has// turned to/ fall,” which can be both “the autumn of her years” and even an actual fall, an injury, of the kind we are ever-terrified will be cataclysmic for our older loved ones. This is the particular genius of Ammons in short forms: he finds instances where, compressed in the words themselves, in the history and habit of how we use them, is wisdom and knowledge, as if whoever first coined the expression “the spring in her step” knew how neatly it could be twisted a bit to apply to old age. And I feel a strong affection moving in this little poem too, for the wife to whom Ammons says, in another poem, “I’ve been married/ forty years” who has perhaps taken on some of the beauty of autumnal leaves.
But another of Ammons’ modes, one related to his love of the sciences, finds him closely observing nature — and its interactions with man-made things — in search of surprises, as in another shorty called “Capture”:
After the long snow,
the sun strikes a winded-free
side of the car:
the air twenty, metal, though,
takes up heat and
melt trickling down
freezes like mangrove
grounding the car still.
This one might demand a couple of slow re-readings, but it’s amazing and vast, tracking the transfer of heat with a scientist’s attention and a poet’s eye for the purely beautiful. The snow and the sun work together to repossess this car, to make it a part of nature.
Ammons does all this and more in his book-length poems, adding an almost obsessive self-documentation (which also includes so much of what the self sees, feels and believes about the domestic and public spheres). He wrote four major ones, beginning with “Tape for the Turn of the Year” published in 1965. Composed mostly during one anxious December on a roll of adding machine tape, it set the template for the others, including the National Book Award-winning “Garbage.” “Tape for the Turn of the Year,” which takes the width of the adding machine roll as its primary formal constraint and consideration, meditates intimately on the grand passage of time as well as nearby phenomena:
the way I could tell
that yesterday is dead
the little gray bird
in the empty
yesterday is gone:
bird are gone:
I know there’s no use
for either of them …
All of Ammons’ characteristic tics are here — the jumpy line breaks, the gentle punning, the metaphysical questioning — but what’s so amazing about the long poems is how immersive they are. After a few pages, one can’t help but feel a bit of what it must have been like to be Ammons, to live, all the time, in his head. His long poems — which, to be fair, can get baggy, sloppy, a bit much, but intentionally so — amount to a profound experience of empathy, which is one of the greatest gifts a poet can bestow.
When I first read “Tape for the Turn of the Year,” it undoubtedly changed my way of experiencing my life, but the Ammons poems I regularly reread are his philosophical lyrics, in which I never cease to find something new. His great poems — and some of them are truly among the greatest of the second half of the 20th century — manage to take the most cosmic and abstract long view and simultaneously observe the world at hand with startling specificity, such as in “The Arc Inside and Out,” one of my favorite poems ever by anyone:
… if I, amasser, heap shoveler,
depth pumper, took in all springs and
oceans, paramoecia and moons, massive
buttes and summit slants, rooted trunks
and leafages, anthologies of wise words,
… would I finally come on a
suasion, large, fully-informed, restful
scape, turning back in on itself, its
periphery enclosing our system …
Ammons is asking the broadest metaphysical question he can imagine. Basically the poem asks whether — if everything (knowledge, matter, life) were either stripped to its barest element or added up to its maximum limit— one could arrive at a final, definitive essence, a first or last thing, the bedrock or absolute outer edge of what is, where “the little/ arc-line appears, inside which is nothing,/ outside which is nothing.”
The answer of course is we don’t and can’t know. But Ammons isn’t really after the answer. Like Frost, Ammons believes poetry can offer, through, in and by means of close and deep attention to words themselves, “a momentary stay against confusion” (from Frost’s essay “The Shape a Poem Makes”). These two mammoth volumes offer more of these moments than one can count.
Teicher’s most recent book of poetry is “The Trembling Answers.”
W.W. Norton: 1,152 pp & 1,088 pp.; $49.95 each