well, I don’t know about that: will the worms
send us back to the chef: will we be too rare
or too tough or overdone or sauceless: I
think not: I think we will be acceptable:
LET’S NOT SPOIL THE TRUTH
That’s from Glare (1997), A. R. Ammons as cranky old guy, staring death in the face, getting everything off his chest while he still has a chance, even resorting to all caps like a true crank. He is a quotable poet, from the earliest poem in Collected Poems: 1951-1971 up through Glare, as far as I’ve gone, forty years of poetry.
The unique voice was in place in the mid 1960s, circa Tape for the Turn of the Year, and runs through the rest of his work. At times it feels like one giant mega-poem. I’ll pick one and thumb through. How about Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974):
my last fallacy of imitative form, my book on
roundness, disappointed me some (oh yes, it did), I meant
to write one unreadable, but a lot of people have
bought it, reading it or not: I wanted something
standing recalcitrant in its own nasty massiveness,
bowing to no one, nonpatronizing and ungrateful:
I don’t know why: (from “Summer Place”, Brink Road, 1996, p. 185)
And in fact I found Sphere to be by far Ammons’s most difficult book, an impossible attempt at the meaning of all things inspired by a photo of the Earth from space, something we now take for granted. The subtitle, The Form of a Motion, comes, hilariously, from a college faculty meeting.* The form is 155 stanzas of four triplets each, long lines as opposed to Tape’s fragments, unrelenting, massive in feel even though the poem is only 69 pages long. “it's hard to tell what an abstract poet wants” (stanza 132) – true, all too true. Sphere is Ammons’s attempt at a cosmogony, although Hesiod never wrote a line like “if you bite me in the ear, I will knee you in the nuts” (st. 58).
Not much of an abstract reader, I searched the poem for passages like this:
I saw a piece of red paper in the grass but it was a
cardinal: and I thought I saw a clump of quince blossoms
move but that was a cardinal: one morning three orioles
were in the green-red quince bush: that was what it was:
the pear tree look like lime sherbet with whipped cream
topping: the bottom part all leaves and no blossoms and
the top part all blossoms and no leaves: a green sailboat
or a spring mountain, from tree-green to conic, glacial white: (st. 96)
Or the manifestos, lines that maybe tell me how to read this dang poem (“now, first of / all, the way to write poems is just to start,” st. 125) or that are a statement of purpose:
I want to be declared a natural disaster area:
I want my ruins sanctioned into the artifice of ruins: I
want to be the aspect above which every hope rises, a
freshening of courage to millions: I want to be, not shaved
marble in a prominence that cringes aspiration, but the
junkyard where my awkwardness may show: (st. 129)
This sounds so much like Whitman, if Whitman had written about garbage. Ammons wrote a book-length poem about garbage – Garbage (1993) – that I now see is a kind of sequel to Sphere, which continues:
I want to be the shambles,
the dump, the hills of gook the bulldozer shoves, so gulls
in carrion-gatherings can fan my smouldering, so in the
laciest flake of rust I can witness my consequence and time:
I want to be named the area where charlatan rationality comes
Now there’s a line to make Nicanor Parra or Knut Hamsun nod.
“[T]he best kind of poetry,” Ammons writes in Garbage, is “the kind that seeking resolution // and an easing out of tension still out-tenses the / intensifiers,” and I guess that is the kind he wrote often enough.
* See the Paris Review interview from 1996 which is full of insights and good humor.