A.R. Ammons, complete: A poet in Cape May County

A.R. Ammons, author of "Complete Poems."

Complete Poetry 
Volume 1 1955-1977
Volume 2 1978-2005
By A.R. Ammons
Edited by Robert M. West
Knopf. Vol. 1: 1,152 pp. Vol. 2: 1,088 pp. Each volume $49.95.

Reviewed by John Timpane

I got these books for Christmas, and I am still smiling.

If you don't know Archie Randolph Ammons (1926-2001) - who won the National Book Award (twice) and wrote some of his best-known poetry while living at the Jersey Shore - buy Volume 1 and see why you should.

His Shore years were bookended by two very different lives. Ammons grew up on a Depression-era tobacco farm in North Carolina; memories from that time haunt his poems. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and later, on the G.I. Bill, he earned a bachelor's degree with honors in biology from Wake Forest University. (He is among the most successful of all poets in making science - the mind-set, plus the sometimes heady, electrifyingly precise language - part of poetry.)

From 1952 to 1964, he worked at his father-in-law's biological glass factory in Millville, N.J. An ardent environmentalist and conservationist, he lived for stretches of time in Millville, Ocean City, and Northfield, his wife's birthplace.

The other bookend is that, from 1964 to his death in 2001, he was on the faculty of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where recognition and renown came his way.

Where would we roam in this shimmering estuarial inlet of poetry? I'd escort you to "Corson's Inlet," the 1965 poem that is perhaps his best known. It's a walk in a Cape May County place he was fond of visiting. His amble is

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,   
from the perpendiculars,
      straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends   
               of sight:
                         I allow myself eddies of meaning:   
yield to a direction of significance
like a stream through the geography of my work:

This is Ammons, the wide-ranging dealer of abstractions. Those commas and colons: They always pay you forward into the next thing. No stops.

There's also Ammons, the observer:

risk is full: every living thing in
siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small
white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears
               the shallows, darts to shore
                            to stab—what? I couldn’t
       see against the black mudflats—a frightened
       fiddler crab?

He wants to take everything in, often in swinging, free lines, recalling the bard of Camden, Walt Whitman. Like him, Ammons often feels the call of the "Overall," or "unity," the sense of being at one with what is. He stays open: "I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries, / shutting out and shutting in, separating inside / from outside: I have / drawn no lines." The poem finishes with joy "that I have perceived nothing completely, / that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk." Goodness. May I never recover from those lines.

Then I'd accompany you to Tape for the Turn of the Year. Written between Dec. 6, 1963, and Jan. 10, 1964, it's a kind of journal - written on a spool of adding machine tape. He stuck it in the typewriter and just kept writing until it ran out. It's an improvisation, often comic, a long, skinny poem limited by the width of the tape. A hurricane hits the coast; a jetliner goes down, killing all aboard; he and the family go to Philadelphia for Christmas shopping; he pleads with the Muse, hilariously, for inspiration; he recalls boyhood sorrow when a favorite mule was taken away. Much science, sex, wordplay, much irony (especially about himself), much beholding of nature all around.

If you like that, find Volume 2, and read Garbage, a heroic meditation on a landfill, a cousin to Tape for the Turn of the Year. It won him his second National Book Award.

Then you can take your own amble. May every walk be a new walk.


215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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