By 1973, when A. R. Ammons published his Collected Poems 1951–1971 (the poet was 47), it was clear to a reader curious about that year’s winner of the National Book Award, as it was incontrovertible to a reader of the poems as they had accumulated, volume by volume from Ommateum and Expressions of Sea Level to Uplands and Briefings, that for all our probable ignorance of that waterfowl the ruddy turnstone and its habits, as of the red rocks of Carolina and their history, here was a powerful as well as a delicate poet, a geomancer speaking in a voice so reticent for all its authority, so resplendent for all its immediacy, that we could scarcely miss the accents of its persuasion—overheard, underlying, central. Yet twenty-five years ago, the poet could not accurately be epitomized, the consequences of his career could not with any divination of ulterior makings be tabulated, for Ammons was still very much ahead of us, making his way by the light of what he called the noons of recurrence to those astonishing Lucretian speculations, epical musings such as Sphere, Garbage, and Brink Road, to omit consideration of which would be to realize, as Ammons ruefully admits, that “less than total is a bucketful of radiant toys.” Now, of course, upon the death of the poet, we have the unpredictable and entire range of Ammons’s poetry.
There is no speaking of this poetry without employing spatial metaphors—after Wordsworth, Ammons is the great poet of walking, and his is the topography of what one pair of legs can stride over, studies in enjambment indeed. Such poetry is inveterately an ambulatory address to that particular balance, that special poise between metaphor (saying that a thing is something else) and identity (saying that a thing is what it is). This is an old argument in our poetry—the argument between Thoreau and Emerson, between the natural and the visionary—and Ammons is concerned to forge new links in the conduct of that argument, to find the next connection. It is why so much of his poetry is given over—given away, as he likes to say—to erasure, to destruction, to loss, “the chant of vacancies, din of silences.”
Only when something is unmade is there room in a crowded physis for new makings: “Listen,” he says, “for the things I have left out.” Ammons implores his Muse to “arrange me into disorder,” for he has discovered that “firm ground is not available ground” and he risks his prosody in all the quicksands of variation. The characteristic somatic gesture in Ammons is that of testing his weight, seeing how much traffic any particular utterance can bear, from the colon, his favored mark of punctuation, to the endless open hexameters of “Hibernaculum”:
a poem variable as a dying man, willing to try anything,
or a living man, with the consistency of either direction:
just what the mind offers to itself, bread or stone…
I should like to lighten the tone of my tribute by an anecdote sufficiently illustrative of this poet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth. We had just seen Archie and Phyllis off to Italy on his Prix de Rome, awarded by this institution. And to my astonishment, five days later the Ammanses were back—from Rome!” “Archie, why are you here, what went wrong?” “It was the birds, Richard, there were no birds—those people had eaten all the birds!” Disgusted by the Romans’ appetite for thrushes, Ammons returned therefore to his own bird-haunted domain, to the beach that was his Troy, though in the later poems a backyard would do: sufficient event for this bordering imagination, where dialogue is not with other people but with rocks, the wind, mountains, trees; when Ammons turns away from what he calls energy’s invisible swirls, what he turns back to is not any human bond:
I turned back/strict with limitation/to my world’s
bitter acorns and sweet branch water.
If we are saddened by Ammons’s death this year, we may exult, and forever, over the great poetry of the master maker who asks “what destruction am I blessed by” and who leaves us the monumental utterance we need: when fear lit by the breadth if such calmly turns to praise.