Adding Up a Prolific Poet’s Charming Weather Reports

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He provided commentary as he went along, sometimes blowing raspberries at his own performance. In “Tape for the Turn of the Year,” there were moments when he debated stomping on his coil of paper.

When he left the house he unspooled the whole thing, he wrote, and brought it along, in case of fire. (Did Kerouac lug his scroll around like a football?) “I’m so tired / you can’t imagine,” he tells his readers, nearing the end. He thanks us for coming along.

Photo

A. R. Ammons

Credit
Dede Hatch

On the most bedrock level, Ammons was a nature poet. Daily he was out amid the moss and grackles and the zucchini vines and the roadkill. He didn’t issue “cry of the loon” writing, however, to borrow an old New Yorker magazine put-down of overwrought nature prose.

If he saw a jay out before sunrise, it was probably “wheeling & dealing.” His poems are dense with weather reports, emotional and literal. His book “Garbage” meditates on what we’ve done to our blue-green planet as well as to our minds.

If I tend not to regard Ammons as a nature poet, it’s because I prefer him when he is talking about other things. Moping about his career, for example, he wrote in 1967:

what I need I mean is a champion or even a host of champions,
a phalanx of enthusiasts, driving a spearhead
or one or two of those big amphibian trucks
through the peopled ocean of my neglect:
I mean I don’t want to sound fancy but
what I could use at the moment is
a little destruction perpetrated in my favor.

He had a way, when the dew grew too thick on the leaves of his verse, of breaking into rude song:

Baby, you been stomping round on my toes so long
They’re breaking out in black and blue hyacinths,
Well-knit forget-me-nots
Geraniums are flopping out over the tops of my shoes
tendril leaves coming out along the edges of my shoelaces.

Ammons wrote often about sex, too, its own form of dancing:

swing!
your partner,
promenade (and when
you can
get laid
get laid)

Ammons sat down at his desk every day and wrote whether he had anything to say or not. Because of this, he wrote more guff than most important American poets. There is a not always pleasant sense of him working things out in real time.

He knew he could strain a reader’s patience. Please turn in your hymnals, he wrote, to page “Archie carrying on again.” He once referred to his career as “50 years of yapping.”

Ammons carries you along because as he vamps, like a musician, there’s a sense of drama, of his mind expanding and contracting. He will hit his groove and deliver a string of intensities. Then he will pull back because the beauty is too much; he’ll wait for the next moment to strike.

Is it O.K. to love a poet because he writes well about napping?

half an hour is great: an hour

exactly twice as good, and all day
practically incalculable: but

judge not me as you must not others:
some of the drowsy-looking people

you see have had so much food, sex,
and sleep that the only sign of life

on them is a tiny smile of dumb bliss.

His charm was so great you only slowly realize how much loneliness and anger and depression swam behind his verse. He wrote: “Some mornings, I don’t know whether / to discharge a gun or an obligation.”

Ammons hoped that the point in his poetry would be “delivered below / the level of argument, straight into the fat / of feeling.” He got there more than most poets of his time.

Ammons could be high-minded but he had few pretentious bones in his body. He told us what he wanted and, like Babe Ruth pointing at the bleachers, he delivered:

I want to do well: I want people to say,
did you hear that, that sounded good.

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