Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I've hated at times the self-conscious POEM: - A. R. Ammons types up some antipoetry - the reason I write so much is that I can’t do anything else:

For months, I have been rummaging around in recent American poetry – Amy Clampitt, Rita Dove, Peter Cole – without writing much about it.  After, or during, all of that eminently Victorian poetry I had been reading Swinburne and The Ring and the Book and The Earthly Paradise – I needed a break.  I needed to recalibrate the sensors.

For various reasons I kept returning to the poems of A. R. Ammons, an old favorite of mine, and I since May I have read ten of his books.  Only a couple of days ago did I realize that Ammons was a kind of antipoet.  He shares with Nicanor Parra:  a mix of high and low language, stabs at big philosophical issues and retreats to ordinary life, deep suspicion of Romantic poetical rhetoric which they both regard as artificial, self-deprecating humor, and constant messing around with poetic form.  Both were descendants of Walt Whitman.  Ammons mixed in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams – all of the Americans with Ws in their name I guess.  Ammons was a genuine nature poet – that’s a difference from Parra.

That he called collections The Really Short Poems (1991) and Selected Longer Poems (1980) gives an idea of his blunt formal experimentation.  Poetry had become radically free, so it was time to re-impose some limits.  My favorite is the time he stuck a roll of adding machine tape in his typewriter and wrote a diary-in-verse on it until the tape ran out.  That’s Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965):

6 Dec:

today I
decided to write
a long
          employing certain
classical considerations:  (p. 1)
it was natural for
me (in the House &
              Garden store one
night a couple weeks
ago) to contemplate
     this roll of
adding-machine tape, so
narrow, long,
unbroken, and to penetrate
     into some
     fool use for it:  (pp. 2-3)

Man, this is going to be a long post.  The book is 205 pages, all just this tape-constrained column running down the middle of the pages.  As long as Ammons stays on the tape, he can do whatever he wants, whether or not he can think of anything to do.  An Ammon signature, by the way, which appeared at this time and lasted to the end was replacing periods with colons.  The lines no longer seem separate but rather chained together. 

     I’ve hated at times the
self-conscious POEM:
     I’ve wanted to bend
     more, burrowing
with flexible path
into the common life
     & commonplace:  (144)
poetry has
one subject, impermanence,
which it presents
with as much permanence as
possible:  (145)

Whether that is true or not, Ammons at this point begins typing up the weather (“thank it’s agonna snow / some: / don’t keer if it do:”), as he does when he seems unsure of himself, before switching to the childhood memory of a cherry tree in May:

how can these
pictures stay
in my head:
      how, after lying 30
yrs in darkness, can
they be brought up,
looked at, and
    what we don’t
    know’s a scare:
    & comfort:  (148)

Maybe I should focus more on nature, the many birds in the poem:

two bald iggles
     been sighted out
     tell me:
     can you beat that?
     I looked for any but
couldn’t find some:  (188-9)

But I keep returning to the method, to the tape, because it is so much fun watching Ammons fight with it:

the reason I write so much
that I can’t do anything
poem must be now
close to 40 feet long: I
can’t get it out
to write letters or
postcards or anything:
     hurry: or
is that cheating?  (58-9)

One could also take that as a philosophical question.


  1. I confess that antipoetry does not warm the cockles of my heart. As a Luddite traditionalist, I am hopeless fond of more formal forms. Give me sonnets -- Italian and English -- and villanelles, and sestinas, and other forms in which form, meter, rhyme (those old fashioned poetic elements) stand out boldly on the page (and to the eye and ear). And, of course, blank verse is a great favorite of mine (e.g., Marlowe and Shakespeare come to mind). There is something about the "mechanical" precision of traditional forms that I cannot resist. But, in spite of all of that, I remain intrigued by your antipoetry postings and examples. Postscript: I suppose e. e. cummings, a fellow I never could quite fathom or enjoy, fits into the same category.

  2. Correction: As I am a hopeless typist, my error must be forgiven -- "hopeless" in the second sentence should be "hopelessly." Damn my fingers! Damn my mind! Damn my carelessness! I am truly hopeless.

  3. That's not much of a confession, and there is nothing hopeless about it. Most people think it's death to have to read any poetry at all, like it's rat poison.

    "stand out boldly on the page" - that is the formal element that Ammons is most interested in here. No rhyme, irregular meter, the mechanical element broken up as much as possible. But he really wants you to see the poem.

    Whenever I see people insist that poetry is meant to be read aloud, I think some poetry. Not that there are not audible pleasures here: “thank it’s agonna snow / some: / don’t keer if it do:” Ammons grew up in rural North Carolina, although by the time of this poem he had moved to Ithaca, New York.

    I don't really know cummings at all, so I will have to defer to someone who know his work better. His poems can be highly visual, too.

  4. I've never read Ammons before but you have made me totally want to now.

  5. Good, good. I do not always care much that what I write is taken as a recommendation, but with Ammons - well, it is clear enough what you are getting into, easy to decide yes or no.

  6. Ammons and some other American poets have been playing around with antipoetry, under other names, for a while (e.g. William Carlos Williams and his This is just to say I have eaten the plums). One of my favorite examples of this "In your face" kind of thing is Richard Brautigan's Albion Breakfast:

    Last night (here) a long pretty girl
    asked me to write a poem about Albion,
    so she could put it in a black folder
    that has Albion printed nicely
    in white on the cover.

    I said yes. She's at the store now
    getting something for breakfast.
    I'll surprise her with this poem
    when she gets back.

  7. Ha ha ha - I wonder if she dumped him for that.

    Brautigan is a guy who came to his antipoetry honestly. No theorizing, I mean - it was who he was.

  8. What a surprise to encounter Richard Brautigan. I thought no one remembered him. I was an over-the-top fan of Brautigan way back in the dark ages of my earlier years. He burned out and checked out too soon.

    1. A graduated poetry student came, a few months ago, to the charity bookstore where I volunteer, and brought us two Brautigan compendiums. He'd got them himself, they weren't on the syllabus. So Brautiganians still exist.

      He mentioned Gabriel Gudding, too. There's another candidate for antipoetry.

    2. He's only published two books but one of them is a four hundred and thirty-six page poem that he handwrote in his Toyota "during twenty-six roundtrips between Illinois and Rhode Island."

      "1070 m FogVery thick
      visibility 200 feet.
      Sometimes when I press the
      light button on my Timex
      wristwatch I pinch some Arm
      hairs in there and pull them
      this wakes me up when I tire
      when I am alert this annoys
      me. Big fat new deer dead &
      bright, eyes reflecting, in
      in left lane, that cd have
      really damaged me"

      And so on. The other book doesn't sound so unrevised but it's antipoetically disrespectful.

  9. Hey, what happened to the RT who left the first comment? I'll have to email him to tell him that his account has been hacked and an impostor is posting under his name.

    1. As I smile at your comment, I realize that I need to clarify my Brautigan comment: I was a fan of his prose. I had no interest in his poetry. Does that solve the mystery of the contradiction?

    2. It does, although his prose is not all that different from his poetry. More words, fewer line breaks.

  10. I recently visited a (much) diminished Barnes and Nobility here in Jersey, and I was surprised to find that among the few literary writers with more than a dozen copies of their books on the Literature and Fiction shelves were Brautigan and Vonnegut, along the likes of Austen, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Faulkner...

  11. I wonder if this is the lingering older audience or if Brautigan is finding new readers.

    1. I'm putting my money on old farts like me. Brautigan readers were people marching to different drumbeats. He never had a big commercial or critical following. Of course, I might be remembering incorrectly those hazy, smokey days.

  12. "In its various editions, Trout Fishing in America has sold more than two million copies."

    1. Well, color me "surprised."
      That was my "first" Brautigan. I then went on to buy and read everything he had written -- although the poetry left me cold. My favorites -- forgive me -- were The Hawkline Monster and The Confederate General in Big Sur.
      I was envious of Brautigan's hat. I want one just like it.

    2. No way! The Hawkline Monster was my first Brautigan. I bought it at a book fair, one rainy night, together with my first Nietzsche (Viking's Portable version) and my first Auden (his Selected Poems). Ah, to be young and ignorant again...

    3. "Ah, to be young and ignorant again..."

      Yes. I still find good authors I haven't read before and interesting writers I haven't read before- they aren't always the same thing, but it's years since a new book excited me so much that the question of whether it was good or interesting or worth reading at all never even occurred to me.

  13. "The Really Short Poems ... and Selected Longer Poems"
    Surely there should be a third Selected- The Not Really Short But Not Actually Longish Poems...

  14. I honestly wonder why Ammons never went with a title like that. It is in character. His last book of poems, which I have not read, is titled Bosh and Flapdoodle.