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.