Some remarks on A.R. Ammons’ “Corsons Inlet”

This is a brief reading of one of the most famous poems of post-WWII American poetry. I have not read or used any secondary literature, so probably most of these points have been made ad nauseam already, so feel free to skip this skimpy post. I wrote it to make up my mind about this poem, so instead of preparing notes, I wrote this bit here. I’m a wee bit drunk so, y’know, blame it on the Vodka. Also, let me say that you can find the poem here and to really give it its due you might look at a famous essay of Ammons’ called “A Poem is a walk” and at Emerson’s even more famous essay “Nature” (even if you skip this post and can’t stand Ammons, you still need to read Emerson’s essay, btw.!).

The two word line “continuous overcast” ends what after finishing the poem is clearly an introductory section. It starts with action. The speaker walks “over the dunes” and returns along the shore. In this small section the poem introduces its main themes. The shore as the place where land and sea meet fits in with the two stanzas with descriptions of the weather. It’s “muggy sunny”, i.e. humid, oppressive. The word “sunny” in descriptions of weather tends to have positive connotations. The modifier “muggy” reverses the usually positive image. There is a steady inland wind which is apparently creating the humid weather, interrupted by “crisp” “breakthroughs of sun”, which cannot relieve the atmosphere. The last line/stanza of this section consists of only two words, “continuous overcast”, practically creating a hanging cloud all on their own.

This is a good place to point out some issues about Ammons’ use of lines. His lines do not fit a metrical scheme, although they do ‘break into song’ at times, such as in “along the inlet shore”, but often breaking patterns in the middle of a line. The lines are indented in a way that conforms with content. The line mentioning breakthroughs is indented as are the two lines wherein the poet recounts rounding the headland. The two lines thus form a headland of their own within the text of the poem. This is a basic property of his style in the poem: he creates small units of order. It seems “free verse” but every line break, every indented line, it all seems purposeful. There is no scheme that covers the whole poem but this is the point, isn’t it? “small clumps” of poetical order.

The first section is an exposition, preparing the ground for the next section that follows, which basically contains the argument that the poem is trying to make. That section, too, is preparatory, although in a different manner: The poem started with the speaker recounting his actions, segued over into a description of the weather and is now returning to the speaker, as he describes the effect the walk had on him. It liberated him, it released him from what, in short, could be called ‘reason’. It is reason that categorizes things, that, in a sense, creates forms by making patterns visible in what could be seen as unordered chaos. The word “perpendiculars” is curiously upbeat. It breaks up what could be read as a somber argument. The alliterative “blocks, boxes, binds” especially create a strong audible stream. The “perpendiculars”, on the level of sounds, already form “eddies” of sorts. On the other hand, the very fact that it breaks up the flow of enumerative phrases makes it very fitting, since thought, i.e. reason is contrasted with sight, which is characterized by “flowing bends and blends”. Interestingly the two contrasting elements are not a perfect fit. “hues”, “shadings” explicitly refer to color, whereas only in hindsight the boxes, for instance, can be said to imply color.

This is the poet’s first clear statement of the dichotomy he is about to expand on. Although, in the context of this poem, “dichotomy” may not be the best word, it is suitable at this point, since we as readers are furnished with a dichotomy here. The second stanza starts differently. The line “I allow myself eddies of meaning” is ambiguous. It may mean “to let do or happen; permit” or . The poem doesn’t resolve this. Instead it enters into a communication with the reader, fitting, since the poem is rather didactic. The address to the reader is, in tone, reminiscent of Whitman, the speaker is opening up an internal landscape to his reader. Not internal as in within the speaker, but within the poetry. The directness of the communication is further underscored by the fact that the word used is “sayings” not “writings” or anything like it. He likens his writing to nature, by saying that in his writing there is not just ye olde perpendicular reason, there are also “eddies of meaning”, places where his writing is like nature. This lets us reconsider the word “sight”. Apparently he was not talking about the faculty at all. It was not about seeing, it was about things that can be seen, i.e. external things.

The fact that the self is disembodied is remarkable and points to a certain ease with human society. The speaker is not situated, he has leisure enough to perambulate along the beach but this is no indication of status. It’s safe to assume the speaker’s a ‘he’, by the way, since he appears to be norm personified, at least as far as his involvement/ties to the biopolitics of the society he belongs to are concerned. As an aside: small wonder Ammons is a favorite poet of Harold Bloom’s if the taste on display in “Genius” is anything to go by.

There is a limit to the similarities with Whitman. Although Whitman boasted he could “contain multitudes”, the speaker in Ammons’ poem claims nothing of the sort. Instead he proclaims that, while being similar to nature in parts, he is unable to understand the “Overall”. Here’s one of many instances that Ammons uses repetition to make a point. The contrast between “overall wanderings” and “Overall”, the capital ‘O’ indicating transcendence, is enough, actually, to make his point. Instead of making a point he is, so to say, pointing things out. Sometimes it’s to create an effect as his indenting of lines does, as in his repeated use of “reeds” which point out to the reader what a sensation –sight!- it may be walking through a swamp where mainly reeds, “not reeds alone but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all / predominantly reeds” grow. Another point where he uses repetition is the repeated use of “flight”, which is once used in the sense of describing the harmless act of travel through air, and later points out that flight can also refer to the act of fleeing from something or someone. In this case the first “flight”, on reread, becomes ambiguous, although the reader had no reason to assume other meaning apart from the obvious before. A last, very similar instance are the swallows which recur in “swallowed”. Both this example and the last stress the closeness of peaceful and violent acts in nature.

The basic argument of the poem is quite easily summed up. Ammons doesn’t just do it once, he repeats and repeats and repeats his point until it starts to feel like watching someone flog a dead horse. There is a surprising twist at the end but until then it’s the same over and over again. Why don’t I just quote one of the many mentions: “in nature there are few sharp lines”. The third section of the poem deals with this property of nature and the speaker’s acceptance of this. He is “willing to go along”. Nature as it presents itself also seems to prove its point. The gull, a symbol for freedom and autonomy, the waving in and out of the waterline, “manifold events of sand / chang[ing] the dune’s shape” and a flock of birds.

O but I promised a twist. It’s violence. As in many other poems celebrating the steady unsteady property of nature, the order of natural things, this poem, too comes to terms with the violence inherent in acts of nature. Gulls killing crabs, swallows fleeing winter, minnows with full bellies. Orders are without, such as the “order held / in constant change” of the swallows. Orders, however, are also within, such as the “orders swallowed, / broken down, transferred through membranes / to strengthen larger orders”. The twist turns out not to be a twist so much as another instance of the same phenomenon.

The poem, finally, ends with a return to the speaker. He iterates the limits of his capabilities, and closes with a statement of intent: he will try to contain as much in his poetry (“fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder” is clearly poetological) as possible, feeling freed by the knowledge that ultimately, Order, with a capital ‘O’, eludes him, that “tomorrow a new walk is a new walk”. The poem is rich with allusions to philosophy and literature, but they are mostly very similar, in a way. Expected. Whitman? Check. Emerson? Check. Heraclitus? Check. Ammons’ poetry is about reading a poet who controls language fully knowing that his control is, by its very nature, limited. Language will find a way out, as nature does. Ammons is, in poems such as this one, an affirmative poet, affirming life, the course of nature and, it bears repeating, the biopolitical frame he is working in. He is constantly, blandly, affirming the norm, which makes reading him for a sustained period of time boring and thus difficult yet he is worth your while since his limitations and gifts have led to one of the most idiosyncratic bodies of poetry of our time.

3 thoughts on “Some remarks on A.R. Ammons’ “Corsons Inlet”

  1. Pingback: Flowering: Theodore Roethke’s “Straw for the Fire” « shigekuni.

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