Embarking on Ammons

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Birthday Presents

Among my birthday presents, arriving through the mail as I am between homes and houses, was the enormous two volume edition of A.R. Ammons complete poems. The astonishment, first, that it exists. His name had slipped to the back rows, the less than notables, the – if not forgotten ones, then the ones, whose names start to slip our mind. Transcendentalism in American poetry, wasn’t there this guy, what was his name again…? And beyond this astonishment, a small surprise at the size of this, his hefty, large oeuvre, coming, of course, with a preface by Helen Vendler, who else, maybe this is mainly for her, maybe she lost track too, as books somehow started to accrue.

How do I read Ammons? We’ll see – I own some Ammons and have read all of that, but it is dwarfed by the reality of his output, the voluminous lack of restraint of a poetic masculinity that I am not sad to see leaving the stage. I will likely find the books I know and adore, and see what comes before and after, how much context and words and air surrounds the Ammons I know. I have gone straight to some of my favorite Ammons and already, I have changed while Ammons hasn’t, he hasn’t even left the protective awning of Helen Vendler’s critical support. In “Garbage,” Ammons derides an unnamed female poet, citing her words: “if I’m in / touch […] then I’ve got an edge: what / the hell kind of talk is that,” offering instead a calculated ethics of writing and rewriting, echoing the praxis of poets like Lowell, of whom his friend Kathleen Spivac remarked: “I’ve never […] seen a poet rewrite his poems so much.”

Looking at these volumes, over 900 pages each, at first I wondered whether this might not be the right poet for our searching, environmentally sensitive times, particularly poems like “Garbage” – but Ammons is difficult, he uses his voice not always to shine a light – often he uses it to hear himself proclaim. His Homeric gestures in “Tape for the New Year,” written to the background noise of drums and an imagined chorus, have echoes in the self-importance of some male Beat poets; they, too, are difficult to read today.

Reading my way through Ammons’s poetry is a daunting task, but the work’s voice, and the poet’s awareness of form and material, of the warp and woof of textures and melodies, is worth persevering, I think.

 

Object Lessons

My little shelf of books in my apartment is not full of all kinds of weird editions – I prefer to collect books in larger volumes and will replace many individual copies with Library of America editions, say, or in the case of comics, with one of those trade omnibus editions or with poetry with a poet’s collected works. Sometimes as I stare at the shelf, I wonder how much I am losing. Is my reading of comic books in any way accurate, reading them in trades first, and then in a thick omnibus edition? How much does the understanding of comics depend on reading it issue by issue?

Armand Schwerner is an interesting exacmple. As readers of Schwerner’s enormous The Tablets we are naturally aware of the multi-level fiction, and Schwerner has found interesting ways to engage us. As McHale has pointed out, unlike other postmodern ‘archeological’ poems like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Schwerner’s unreliable scholar/translator shoulders all the blame for anachronisms, jokes and other breaks with the solemnity of imitating the poetry of a (much) earlier age. And unlike books with similar narrators, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the doubtful material nature of the poetry under examination undercuts too glib a reading of that narrator.

The Tablets is a book about translating fragments that is itself made up of fragments, in more than one way. As we near the end of the book, the commentary and annotations become longer and more revealing, and eventually allow us to have a much fuller view of the character of the scholar/translator – but for all of Schwerner’s life, The Tablets weren’t available in book form at all. The first eight tablets were published in 1968 – and the collected posthumous edition wasn’t available until 1999, 31 years later. For us, who have access to the full book, it’s hard to imagine the interpretative process of earlier readers. Acquiring all the segments of the poem must have been a task similar to the one undertaken by the scholar/translator. Thus, the book itself is an object lesson in the sometimes arduous task of reading and understanding a text as a whole, in order to be able to contextualize and read smaller portions of it.

I know there’s quite a bit of literature about what constitutes a “text,” but the material aspect of it, of readers being also collectors by necessity, I find extremely fascinating. I have an unpublished longer academic essay on Schwerner in my desk somewhere, and recently I keep taking notes in it on materiality, seriality and the way materiality impacts reader reception theories.

If he can’t keep up, who can?

Stephen Burt worries about keeping up with poetry

If I can’t keep up, who can? And if nobody can keep up with all of it, how does anyone decide what slice, what segment, what section, to follow instead? I think I can keep up with books, more or less, which are countable, finite sets of things (especially since they do come in the mail): but if the proliferating, ramifying, exciting discourse about poetry now takes place in a million web journals, at all hours of the day and night, I’m not sure I can keep up with them. I’m not sure that I could have kept up with them when I was 20, or 25, or 29

On Andrei Voznesensky

Andrei Voznesensky is a difficult writer (…) yet he is particularly easy for us to like and admire. He comes to us with the careless gaiety of the twenties and Apollinaire, with a flippant magic, effervescent intensity, and imagination so boisterous and high-spirited that only a Russian could survive it. He says, “We do not burn to survive, but to step on the gas.” Voznesensky us not likely to burn out (…). When he looks at himself, I think he’s glad he is only life-size, or a bit smaller. Everywhere in his poetry is something fine-boned, fragile and sensible. With humor, with shrewd amazement, with rushes of defiance, he is able to be himself, a gift no one is born with, and which is only acquired by the most heroic patience and ingenuity. (…)

This is a hard time to be a poet, and in each country it is hard in different ways. It is almost impossible, even where this is permitted, to be directly political and remain inspired. Still the world presses in as never before, prodding, benumbing. We stand in a sort of international lull. Like a cat up a tree, we want to climb down without falling. It’s too much, we’ve lost our foothold. The other night, I found myself shaving. An impatient, just-lit cigarette was sighting me down from the soap-dish, and the bathroom door was ajar to catch messages from the world news roundup. It’s too much, it’s too tense. We want another human being. We want Andrei Voznesensky (…) to juggle us back to the real world for a moment.

I was reminded last night that Andrei Voznesensky had died last week (a horrible month so far; we lost Voznesensky and David Markson, as well), and I found this brilliant essay by Robert Lowell, a speech to introduce a reading by Andrei Voznesensky, written in the early 1960s. It is from Lowell’s Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux)