Introduction from the Editor
The following interview was conducted by Philip Fried, editor of The Manhattan Review, for MR's Fall 1980 issue.
A. R. Ammons, who passed away in February 2001, was 54 at the time of the interview. The interview includes an introduction and afterword(s) by Fried. This interview, introduction, and afterword(s)—appearing in full for the first time online—are reprinted by permission of Philip Fried.
About A. R. Ammons
Archie Randolph Ammons was born on a farm near Whiteville, North Carolina, on February 18, 1926, and graduated from Wake Forest University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in biology. He began writing poetry while serving onboard a U.S. Naval destroyer during World War II. He attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, with his wife Phyllis (who was his Spanish teacher at Wake Forest), worked as an elementary school principal for a year, as a real estate salesmen, an editor, and a sales executive at his father-in-law’s New Jersey biological glass company.
His first book of poetry, Ommateum, with Doxology, was published in 1955. It sold a total of 16 copies over five years. He published nearly 30 more books over the next half-century, two posthumously. Ammons was twice winner of the National Book Award—in 1973 for Collected Poems, 1951-1971, and in 1993 for Garbage. He has won virtually every other major prize for poetry in the U.S., including the Frost Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Poetry over a Lifetime; the Bollingen Prize for Sphere: The Form of a Motion; the National Book Critics Circle Award for A Coast of Trees; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; as well as a Lannan Foundation Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a MacArthur “genius award” fellowship. In 1998 he received the Tanning Prize, a $100,000 award for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.” In 1990 he was inducted into the National Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ammons found literary refuge at Cornell University in 1964, where he taught in formal classroom settings and presided over weekly discussions with other poets in a basement campus coffee shop, the Temple of Zeus. He was known as a marvelous conversationalist. He retired as Cornell’s Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry in 1998 and died on February 25, 2001. He was 75.
Yale literary critic Harold Bloom said, “No contemporary poet in America is likelier to become a classic than A. R. Ammons.” The 1973 National Book Award citation said, “In the enormous range of his work, from the briefest confrontations with the visual to long powerful visionary poems, he has extended into our present and our future the great American tradition of which Emerson and Whitman were founders.” Roald Hoffmann, his friend and a Nobel laureate in chemistry, said, “His search, gentle yet insistent, is for a philosophy of nature—a metaphysics always, an epistemology of openness to the connectedness of things and ideas, its inherent logic, an aesthetics rooted in the wonder of it all and reinforced by the purposive harmony of his poems, an ethics, even an eschatology of the very real world.”
Sources: Franklin Crawford, Cornell Chronicle, and Doreen Carvajal, The New York Times.
Original Interview Introduction
by Philip Fried
A. R. Ammons lives with his wife and son in a comfortable house on Hanshaw Road, a short drive from the center of Ithaca, New York. On this particular Saturday in late June—one of those remarkably clear days that seem to come only several times a year—he was casually dressed, as if ready to mow the lawn or just lounge around. He is tall, about 6’2”, with a fair complexion and red hair that has receded to his temples. His voice is soft and Southern. Although he is obviously a private person, he is an attentive host and displays a great deal of warmth and concern.
The interview took place in his small study upstairs, the room where he writes. Ammons took the less comfortable chair near the door, generously ceding to me a large, padded rocker. I placed the tape recorder on the wooden table between us, near a window overlooking the backyard.
Philip Fried: Did you say that you met William Carlos Williams?
A. R. Ammons: I did. I used to be in the sales department of this company in south Jersey. On occasion, I would be up in his area and take him for a ride, because something had happened to Flossie’s neck. Is Flossie still alive by the way? [William Carlos Williams’ wife, Flossie, died in June of 1976 at the age of 86.] He couldn’t drive after one or two of his operations.
PF: The strokes?
Ammons: Yes. I would take him out for drives.
PF: I feel Williams’ influence strongly in Tape for the Turn of the Year. Don’t you mention a Williams event there?
Ammons: Oh yes, the reception for Flossie after he had died, the reception for her in New York.
PF: Right. I feel Williams’ spirit running through the Tape: a sense of persistence, love of the commonplace, and endurance.
Ammons: I didn’t begin by liking him that much. I remember when I came back from Berkeley in the early fifties and settled in south Jersey, some of his poems would come out; one called “The Symphony,” I think, came out in Poetry magazine, and I really didn’t care for that sort of poetry at that time.
PF: What were the qualities that turned you off?
But Josephine Miles would continue to say to me in a card now and then: Why don’t you go see Williams? So, finally, ten years later, I did, and by that time, I had come to like his poems. I think it was a kind of political sociological change because I could see people more then than I could in those early days, when I was too transcendental to have any transactions with people!
Ammons: It was personal. I don’t think that she and I have ever shared very much in regard to the theory of poetry. But I loved her as a person. She seemed to me so majestic. You know she’s crippled and had been from the age of five. She so totally rose above that without denying it that I always had a tremendous respect and love for her.
I never did take any classes with her, but when I was out there [Berkeley], I used to show her my poems, and she would read them and comment on them, and that was a very valuable thing to me. By the way, she continued to do it, and she was the one person I chose out of the world to hassle. So I kept sending her poems, having no idea what a drain this was on her. But I would say on the average of two or three times a year, I would send her one or more poems to read and say something about. And it was a lifesaver to me, because in south Jersey I knew absolutely no one else in poetry.
PF: So did you have a sense of isolation when you were working in the business world?
Ammons: It was total isolation. So much so that in 1956, this would be five years after leaving Berkeley—
PF: And a year after your first book.
Ammons: That’s right, which was a vanity publication.
Ammons: That’s right. By the way, they’ve begun to publish again after all these years.
PF: And it’s impossible now to get your book anywhere. But there’s a more positive aspect to publishing in such a way now; it is more accepted.
Ammons: Oh, it should be, it is now.
PF: Of course, Whitman was a self-publication.
Ammons: Yes, the trouble with it in those days was that the idea of dignity and credibility was based on this hardbound book. We’ve moved away from that now, so that a young poet can publish a booklet of his poems and be in just as good company as if MacMillan had done it in gilt-edged leather. That’s a wonderful change that’s taken place, and so most poetry today is published, if not directly by the person, certainly by the enterprise of the poet himself, working with his friends.
PF: What plan did you have for distribution when you did that?
Ammons: I had no plan whatever. I guess Dorrance must have known that they wouldn’t sell, so though they had said they would produce 300 copies, they actually may have printed 300 sheets, but they only bound 100 copies. And I think they eventually threw away the other 200 because they couldn’t sell the first 100. In five years, it sold 16 copies.
Then my father-in-law bought about 40 or 50 and sent them to South America, to some of his customers, who couldn’t read it.
In south Jersey, though, just to tie off the thread, a year after the publication of this book, I wrote away to the University of Chicago on a home-study thing. As it turned out, John Logan was the reader, and I had seen one or two of his poems which just started to come out in Poetry magazine. And so we did one or two lessons, but then dropped that, and I sent him some copies of my book, and he gave them to some people, and so it got one review, in Poetry magazine, as a result of that.
PF: When did you start writing? Were you in your teens?
Ammons: Yes, it was 19 actually. I was in the South Pacific during World War II. I had a little journal. You weren’t supposed to keep journals, but I had one anyhow.
PF: Why weren’t you supposed to?
Ammons: Because it might be information for the enemy. You know, the war was still on. But I still have that log, telling every place we went and everything we did. Nothing very exciting, but I began to write then and continued through Wake Forest University, which had no writing courses in those days, but I wrote the whole four years.
Meanwhile, I was taking pre-med and science courses, and that’s where the combination of poetry and science started. I was never aware that I was writing poetry with scientific terminology. I was just writing from where I was, which was a mixture of science and poetry.
Ammons: I did very well in science, except for embryology, which for some reason I had a terrible time in. I remember the identification of parts through slides was a very difficult thing. But in every other way, I was a very good student in science.
PF: What was it about science that especially appealed to you? Was it the sweep of theory or the precision?
Ammons: I think a combination, and I think that I reacted instinctively then, and that I only now would try to say why. Of course, it would be a reconstruction on my part. I think that I had a strong need at that time to escape certain responsibilities of interpersonal relations and that science gave me a sense of an objective inquiry into an objective subject. And there’s a kind of stability in that. It’s sort of a pagan way of associating yourself with universals rather than with the coming and going of mortal things.
PF: That’s interesting, science as pagan.
Ammons: It seems to me that the pagan tradition is now represented by science. Of course, there have to be modifications, but if you think of the pagan societies as rather carefully paying attention to what the natural forces were around them and then trying to identify with and, as it were, listen to what that force was and appease it, and know something about it, learn its nature, then science does precisely the same thing today.
It puts aside, for the moment, its personal interest in things and tries to know what is the nature of that thing out there. I regard that as a very high value. The humanities often feel opposed to that because that attitude obviously puts human things secondary, whereas the humanities have often claimed that man is the center of everything and has the right to destroy or build or do whatever he wishes. Well, that’s an exaggerated statement—just to put it briefly.
There was a very moving article in the Midwest Quarterly about what was called archeo-astronomy. It’s a combination of archeology and astronomy, and it studies specifically the megaliths and henges like Stonehenge. There are thousands of those places where, through the erection of stone circles and so on, the people were able to bring themselves into correspondence with cosmic order and with the coming—by the way, today is the summer solstice—and that’s what those stone circles meant to measure, the winter and summer solstices. But they allied impermanent man with the eternal structure of things.
I came home and told my wife that that article seemed the best review of my work I ever read, but it had nothing to do with it! It’s not noticeable from here [referring to the watercolors he has painted and which hang in his house; see the Afterword(s)] but circles and radial points coming from circles are very prominent in all my work, including the painting. Of course, then they talk about something called the sacred center, and once you have a ring of stones, as you approach the center of this, you approach the highest kind of integration you can imagine between the material and the spiritual, between the stone that lasts forever and the starlight which is ephemeral, between man and his time and the larger, apparently eternal.
PF: Poets today seem isolated in their writing; they don’t connect with some of these other fields you mention. They seem to just cultivate sensitivity.
Ammons: Do you think anyone who had any sensitivity would ever want to cultivate it? And anyhow we might have to distinguish between sensitivity and sensibility. I’ve always been worried about people who wanted to be poets, and this distresses me every time a new group shows up for a class. It seems to me if they had ever been hit by the instability and improbability—
PF: They would try to avoid it?
Ammons: Yes. I think true poets are often in flight from their poetry, and it is only when they become fairly heroic that they can stand and look their own poetry and their own self in the face, because most of the big poets we know are monsters.
PF: Monsters in what sense?
Ammons: Well, they’re monstrous in their achievement or in their—the size of the pressure is so large and inhuman. It often seems not to be a structure that allows a great range of subtle values. There are those huge, excessive insistences that bring pressure not only on the poor poet himself but on everybody around him. I mean monstrousness of that size, of huge insistence, devouring insistence.
I think it’s probably necessary that all people ought to be in flight from such things. It may be absolutely necessary for the vigor of the poetry for that kind of energy to have been invested in it, but it’s not the kind of thing you wish to live with, it seems. A parallel situation is the person who’s very boring, let’s say, and needs to feel moved, and he goes to the movies, and he finds that the more horrible the movie, the more he’s moved by it. Someone who is likely to be a poet would be already overwhelmed by the death of an ant he had stepped on or something else. He wouldn’t need to go to the movies to be stirred. He’d already be over-stimulated.
Another thing, there are two kinds of poet here. One kind of poet feels very little apparently, or it isn’t accessible to him. He has to hack at it. He has to build the poem, and he comes back revision after revision, working his energy up to where he has it. The other kind of poetry is doing just the opposite. He has so much anxiety inside, so he’s trying to dissolve it away, and instead of making large, hacking gestures to try to build energy into a system, he’s being easy and quiet because he knows more is going on than he can handle, and he’s trying to dissolve—
PF: Would you say that Lowell was a hacker?
PF: You put Stevens in the opposite camp. What about yourself?
Ammons: I am certainly the opposite. Mr. Ashbery is in the opposite. But these two kinds of poet will never understand each other.
PF: So you don’t do much revision?
Ammons: You know, one does everything. And in my short poems, I go over them and over them testing them out. Often, I don’t change more than a word or two, but sometimes the whole poem is radically changed.
But it is true that for the last ten years in particular, I have practiced over and over, poem by poem, to try to see if I could reach the absolute crazy points where what is happening in my mind and what is happening on the page seem to be identical. That’s the thing I’m working toward. The problem is that once you get there, it no longer seems necessary to write.
PF: Once you feel you can make that connection at will.
Ammons: Once there seems to be a correspondence between the event and the word.
PF: What about the element of communication to a reader? Do you consider that extraneous?
Ammons: It is for me. I’m never aware that I’m speaking to anyone, and I suppose I’m not. I never think of an audience or anyone out there to whom this poem is being addressed.
One thing I do sometimes think of, and that is that if I can get this poem right, then it will represent getting the poem right for other people. That is to say, what happens to me is representative of what can happen in other minds.
PF: So it’s a kind of paradigm.
Ammons: Yes, I’m trying to reach a paradigm, and once it’s there, the shape is there, then if someone else wanted to test themselves against it… but I never had any feeling, direct feeling that there’s something I know that I must tell you.
PF: But one of the strongest aspects of your work is the relationship you create with the reader, especially in the longer poems like “Hibernaculum” and Sphere. It feels to me like you are reaching out.
Ammons: The thing is, how do you do this? How do you reach that person, and here’s the room where I do my work, and obviously I can’t shout loud enough to be heard by anyone. So what I have to do is make something, some vehicle that then that person will come in touch with.
That’s what I’m listening for, the accuracy of that communication between me and the poem. Certainly I’m interested in communication, but that’s not the first thing you have to do. First, you have to build a figure that will make communication possible.
PF: The appearance of your poems on the page seems important. Does this translate into reading out loud, or is it primarily a visual experience?
Ammons: I’ve done a good many kinds of experiments, right? Some of them look like purposely regular stanzas and some don’t. In some, the indentations correspond from stanza to stanza, the same line by line. But in some of them there is the random. I usually feel that I don’t have anything to say of my own until I have tripped the regular world, until I have thrown the Western mind itself somehow off, and I think that’s what those—if I began to write a sonnet, for example, I think I would be stultified and silenced by that form, because it’s my nature to want to trip that form out of existence as a way of making room for myself to speak and act.
I think I feel the same kind of sociological confrontation with things like capital letters and periods, because that belongs to the world I want to dismiss. So I think by the indentation and other devices, I try to throw the expected response out of line and then, it seems to me, I can come through with my own way of saying what I have to say.
By the way, what I’ve just said is just an attempt at this point to give an explanation for something I did without thinking. It seems to me that the thing a writer must be faithful to is what he feels like doing, through he doesn’t yet know why. He feels like doing it, right, and later on perhaps he or someone else—it won’t need necessarily be the poet—can find out whether or not he was answering to something accurate within himself or the world around him when he did that.
PF: In “Coon Song” you tell the reader that you won’t entertain him but in poems like Sphere you do seem to make an effort if not to entertain then to hold. Would you comment on that?
Ammons: A colleague here recently taught that poem in one of his classes and he asked me to come the second day and talk with them. I did, and it’s a poem that a reader can have more than one disposition towards [referring to “Coon Song”]. But we discovered that once you identify with the coon, the poem clears up. So though it sounds as if there’s a speaker in the poem talking against the reader, those things are reconciled if you adopt the point of view of the subject in question, the poor raccoon, who is being hounded by these animals and about to be destroyed by them.
I didn’t take time to go through a full exposition of that because it takes a long time. Later on, it’s true, I think it’s in Sphere that I said something about wanting to hold someone’s attention. Now, do you know that poem of Frost’s about how the more we hid ourselves away, the more necessary it becomes to reveal something about ourselves? [“Revelation” by Robert Frost.] Well, there’s some such duality going on.
I think I feel that a great deal, that obviously I’m pretty hidden away here, especially with the typewriter at night, writing in a severe state of isolation. And I think I wish to hope that there’s someone somewhere to whom I’m speaking and that this poem might bring me closer to. But there has to be a limit on that, because I don’t want to be brought too close. But I think I may not be answering your question.
PF: One of the intriguing things about your longer poems is the oratorical voice that goes through so many changes, so many personae. Is it someone orating?
Ammons: All right, I think there’s something to that, but the confusion may come from the fact that I’m not always speaking for myself but for others. That’s where representativeness comes in. Some of the time I’m speaking my own interest in the matter, and some of the time I’m trying to capture other interests that I have observed. So I try to speak for myself and for others, to the extent they might be able to interest themselves in that particular kind of speaking. At other times, I think the voice is simply a single voice saying, this is me. But not in the long poems. I think in the long poems there’s more various kinds of—
PF: There’s a drama between the personae. Sometimes it seems there’s a medicine man, a circus barker, very showful types of voices, and this relates to your idea of showing forth. What is hidden and what is shown are constant concerns of your poetry.
Ammons: This touches on some of my background, my Southern background, and I mention it because I just read a piece by William Harmon on my poems, and he talks about—he said that they were 90 percent horse sense and ten percent goofing around. That is true: in the South there is a great deal of interaction, and people don’t tell you simply what they think and feel but they go into all these stories and anecdotes and jokes and they put on a show, and then they mean for the show to take the message through. I think I do that.
Also, the religious thing is very strong in my background, where we had all kinds of preaching and dancing and holy rolling and so on took place, including glossalalia or whatever it is.
PF: Speaking in tongues?
Ammons: Yeah. I’ve seen people do that for hours.
PF: You do it a little bit in your poems.
Ammons: Just a little. It’s incredible to watch a person whose behavior is absolutely regular as if he were buying ham from a delicatessen speaking to you in totally understandable words. Not done in a frenzy. I remember sitting on a bench in church when a person so possessed would come directly and stand in front of you as if telling you how to bake a cake and would go through this rigmarole and be absolutely unintelligible.
PF: You said in an interview once that you felt you repudiated your Southern background and yet I’ve felt this rhetorical thing not as a technique but as the Southern background coming through strongly.
Ammons: I think you’re right.
PF: As far as spirit of place goes, you have Northern landscapes and, of course, the beach and dunes, and yet in this approach we’ve been discussing you are Southern. Why did you decide to leave the South?
Ammons: A lot of things happened. First of all, my father sold the farm that I was raised on, so I knew that route was cut. I couldn’t stay there.
PF: But you considered it, though.
Ammons: Yes, I would have been a farmer, I think, but then I went into the Navy.
PF: Were you about 18 or 19?
Ammons: Eighteen. But that gave me nearly enough credits to go to college, so when I came out I went. I knew I was relatively smart. I had been valedictorian in grammar school and in high school I had done well, so I figured that—oh, in high school I had been one of six people who had passed the college entrance exam. So I figured I had a chance.
Going to college, I began to inquire into this religious background which was so strong and so severe, and I got it more and more on a rational and historic level, which moved me intellectually from those positions that my family and aunts and uncles would have taken to be natural. See, I was already in exile in that country.
PF: In the sense that you—
Ammons: Was no longer able to accept the doctrine familiar throughout my youth. So moving out of it was a kind of relief, and there at Wake Forest I met Phyllis, who was studying and teaching there a little bit. We got married my first year out of college, when I was principal of the elementary school in Cape Hatteras. And she said, why don’t we go to Berkeley, because she had already gone out there a year or two before that.
I did a little graduate work there. Then we came back to south Jersey, which was her home, and I got a job there. And I had felt without interruption the tug to go back to North Carolina. That’s my center, that’s where my home is.
Ammons: But now, this is home, and I feel better here than anywhere in the country. I haven’t lived in the South now, believe it or not, for 27 years. I’ve lived out of it longer than in it. But you know, those first years are crucial. So I guess I’m not at home in either place now, which is sort of terrible, but I’m more nearly at home here now.
PF: You know what Southern writer you also remind me of? Faulkner. He wanted to say everything in one sentence. I feel that, too, about your long poems, with the use of the colon. You don’t have any periods, and the poem moves; you build speed into it. You want to get everything in.
Ammons: What is the Faulkner story where the giant comes crashing down at the end? It’s a perfectly substantial and transsubstantial event at once, a pure illumination in imagination, a pure reality. I’ll never be able to write that well. I think that’s very beautiful. But you’re surely right that it’s something one longs to write… wedge everything in the world together.
PF: About the colons, was that an instinctive use of punctuation?
Ammons: Yes, it was. I have since heard a great many explanations of the use of them, and they all seem quite reasonable to me. I think they’re probably right.
What it feels like to me is a democratization thing, that I won’t allow a word to have a capital letter and some other, not. That the world is so interpenetrated that it must be one tissue of size, of letters.
PF: Is that why you tell off redwood trees?
Ammons: Probably. I come from a pretty deprived background economically, and it was very rough; so it’s been hard for me to learn how to deal freely with other people, and I think that language is a way of saying, here’s a very complex, interwoven system where we insist that certain kinds of existence be equal for every member.
Also, in retrospect, I think of it as sort of a geometric or topological surface like terrain, or “landscapes” is a very strong word in my poetry. Yeah, that they are—what is the skin called? Something like that, something that contains, so the colon jump should do that, just connect and connect and connect, until you build not just the assertion you’re making but this landscape.
I’ve never been interested in single discursive statements as such, as explanation, but I’m interested in clusters of those, because then they become, they sort of come to be the thing they represent. They’re many-sided.
PF: In your larger poems, you don’t have isolated attitudes. Each attitude calls ahead to some future one that will, if not contradict it at least modify it. This creates a sense of emotional speed. The poem gets drawn from the future, pulled out of the present.
Ammons: I may have said somewhere, but I think it’s still true, that you don’t want the poem to amount to no more than what you already knew when you began to write. Whatever kind of instrument it may be, it must be one capable of churning up what you didn’t already know. That’s what creativity is, and it is to be surprised by the end of the poem as much as you expect the reader to be surprised. That’s why I think Frost is so right to say, you don’t have the prepared last line and then try to write a poem that will end there.
PF: Do you write all your long poems in sequence?
Ammons: That’s right, I just begin. I do the same for the short poems; they’re written the same way. I never—I can show you some drafts—“Corsons Inlet,” that poem “Corsons Inlet” was written just like that, from beginning to end, in one sitting. I don’t recommend that as being better than anything else. I’m just saying that’s the way I did it. I came back to it, of course, and reconsidered it with my best judgment.
If you weren’t learning something, what would be the use of doing it? So you can’t write out of just what you know. There’s no motivation for that, and so I feel always in agreement with that thing that Emerson said in the essay Nature, where he says let me record from day to day my honest thought. Today, I say exactly the way things seem to me. Tomorrow, I also say, and it may differ somewhat from what I said the day before, but the difference, while it may be interesting, is not as important as the hope, which he expresses, that if you go on doing this somehow or other you will come to know a deeper thing that unifies all these days. Whereas if you had tried to plunge towards that deeper symmetry directly, there would be no way you could get there.
PF: Which is the whole feeling behind Tape for the Turn of the Year.
Ammons: If I go on just speaking, day-to-day, telling it the way I think it is, it may be that the sense of a presence which belongs to that poem will come to be, and will then interpenetrate—
PF: In fact, one day you could even say, as you do, that the prologue I wrote the day before seems phony and forced to me now.
PF: But you don’t go back and cross it out.
Ammons: No, it seemed honest then. This is what has seemed to me always so awful about Yeats when he decided to rewrite his youth. He says, it is myself that I remake, but it’s himself that he unmakes. The early self was the early self. And he goes back and unmakes that self, and pours his old man into that young man.
PF: What guided you when you assembled your Collected Poems, 1951-71? I noticed that you changed the order of poems from the individual books. Were you restoring the original chronological order?
PF: Then what led you to put them in a different order to start with?
Ammons: That’s a good question. I never had much respect for a single book of poems as an entity, although somebody liked the way I did Expressions of Sea Level very much and regretted the time when the dismantling of those books returned the poems to chronological order. But I’ve been interested in the whole work as a single poem and these minor divisions of it into books never seemed to me very interesting. So I’m still… my favorite is Collected Poems, and a book like Diversifications means hardly anything to me until I get it back in its order. Eventually, if I do another collected poems—
PF: So it’s very much in the spirit of Leaves of Grass, a single book which grows.
Ammons: Except that I don’t revise the early poems.
PF: In the poem “Plunder,” you write about the poet as stealing something from reality, or hunting it. Doesn’t this somehow lessen the poet’s existential status?
Ammons: Well, “Plunder” ends by saying that I’m “indicted.” You know, there are two words—indicted to write, it’s the old word for to write. But to be indicted by having trampled into those areas—I never understood that poem.
PF: The same thing emerges in a different way in “Motion.” Words as music, as motion have as much reality as anything in the world, and yet as a referential system invested by man, words have only a secondary reality, not as important as things. Again, this would seem to put the poet at a disadvantage.
Ammons: I was trying to deal with the difference between words and things. I was trying to insist that somehow, and although there was no direct contact between words and things, the motion of mind and thought corresponded to natural motions, meanders, you know, the winds or streams. And that these might be parallel motions and where a level at which the representation was so basic and so close that it was nearly like actuality itself.
PF: There seems to be a little twinge that I hear when you say that. It’s as though “nearly like actuality itself” is said with a certain poignancy.
Ammons: But you see it’s more comforting, finally, to think that you don’t touch actuality, because supposing you did? Supposing you could, literally, change something with your imagination, your words.
PF: But you do.
Ammons: I know, but not in the real, not in the absolutely actual.
PF: But where is the absolutely actual? You’re just as much the absolutely actual as a stone, and another person, whom you certainly influence and change by your words. Why not give them the full actuality of the stone?
Ammons: Well, it goes like this. I just read, I had never read it before by the way, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. He tries to describe the difference between providence and fate. Providence is that source of all things, ultimately God in his terminology, and fates is the action of that against us. We’re trapped in that and must suffer the changes of things, but providence itself is this huge, constant, radiant possibility.
Well, you can’t change that. And I’m not sure you can change actuality. On the fate side, we may recognize that we have to accept those limitations and the incarnation imposed upon us. So already, the imagination has had to step down a couple of spaces and what we can change, it seems to me, is the structure we make that we think represents things and is our fiction. We can change our fiction and we can change the way we feel about the fiction we make. But we can’t really change actuality.
PF: In a Blakean sense—
Ammons: If you’re a kind of romantic-consciousness man and said that there is no reality except what I imagine or am conscious of. Emerson went that far. I have never been able. I looked through too many microscopes and drew the pictures of the bugs, so I can’t believe that the world is a result of my consciousness.
I think it’s not clear about the place of the imagination in my scheme of things. As a farmer, I guess, I have always believed in the recalcitrance of the external world. You must plant the strawberry plant if you want to get strawberries. You remember that story, someone told me recently a story about Emerson. That one day he was trying to separate the calf from the cow, and he struggled with the calf and as soon as he pulled it away from the cow’s udders, it was drinking milk, it would get right back, and this little girl came down the street and saw Emerson in his predicament, and she went over and stuck her finger in the calf’s mouth and led it right away. Emerson said, that’s what I lack, people who know how to do things!
I’ve had that yearning in me to know how to do things. But I don’t have the freedom, imaginatively, to go out disposing certain kinds of things.
PF: Like Blake with his just obliterating of mountains.
Ammons: Blake is a man I love dearly, because it seems to me he goes all the way, as you’re asking us to do. I don’t understand that. Isn’t it funny how tongue-tied I am about that. I really don’t understand the place of imagination in my work. I know that someplace or other I’m stopped, or that I stop myself, or that, through fear or incapacity, I don’t know which—
PF: You do seem to be someone who is intoxicated by procedure. I say that in a positive sense. In so many of your poems, you have descriptions of various procedures.
Ammons: How to do things.
PF: Yeah, and as you describe it, the emotion comes through. It seems like a kind of bending of the knee to the world.
Ammons: But also it’s like writing a poem, you know, you try to do it well.
PF: Right, and a lot of your poems seem to be concerned with their own procedures as they go along, they reflect back on themselves.
Ammons: Procedure could come to be the essential narrative, you see.
PF: That’s a very contemporary value.
Ammons: Then the narrative would take on whatever mystifications and myths that would seem organically proper to it.
PF: Is that because we have no more good stories to tell?
Ammons: Umm hmm.
PF: Do you believe that?
Ammons: Well, I believe we don’t know how to tell them. We haven’t assimilated Freudian psychology, let’s say.
PF: As a mythology?
Ammons: Yes, as a symbology, at least, and I think we’re puzzled by how to dispose certain materials that we had an accurate level for before, but now if you said a particular word, such as the word “penetrate.” I just read Boethius and the woman that he devised to be the representative of philosophy was, he says, sometimes a normal size of woman, but sometimes she was immense and she penetrated the heavens.
But then the word “penetrate” would stop us all, modern readers. I mean we would have to stop there and consider—what is implied by this woman, penetrater, you know, the text has become almost too dense at that point, but that’s where we are, and in telling stories now we haven’t assimilated the Freudian psychology and post-Freudian psychology well enough that we have returned to a level of innocent speech.
PF: Is that why there is more going on in criticism, with people like Barthes, for instance?
PF: So you think this period is a stopgap, this dwelling on procedure is a temporary measure?
Ammons: And the emphasis on analysis and criticism is a temporary emphasis. Eventually, we’ll get back to the work of art. The imaginative construct is eventually where it is. That’s where the energy comes from, and we’ll get back there. It’s very complicated, but somehow or other we haven’t digested all that material and found new ways, a new stance of our own by which we can perceive, without loss of anything that we value, without being inhibited by what we know.
Ammons: Very difficult. But if we could get there, we could tell a great story again.
PF: Faulkner told great stories.
Ammons: Yes, but that’s sort of pre-Freudian. I’m sure he knew Freud, but he doesn’t engage it in his narratives. So in the meantime we have certain contours that compose a kind of narrative. It can be a narrative from one emotional state to another emotional state, if that will describe a figure and that figure, that narrational figure, is the level at which the poem sort of resembles a piece of sculpture. That is, it has found a figure of itself which is not speaking. It was made of speech, but it itself was perceived as silent, like a sculpture.
Many things at that point can be said about that figure, as you can say a great many things, as Barthes and others can say a great many illuminating and wonderful things about a piece of sculpture. But finally the marvelous thing is the figure. And that’s what I think is the most we can seek in poetry today, to be accurate about the procedure sufficiently so that a figure comes to appear at the bottom that integrates the whole work.
PF: Do you ever see yourself as telling a story? Can you see yourself in the future—
Ammons: I know that if I tried to write a novel, I would be utterly hopeless and it would be a complete shambles, that I have no fictional ability in the regular way, but I know that my deepest interest is narrative. You see, but I have to do it in poetry, and I have to do it without any resort to the traditional novel.
Ammons: I don’t know it that well, I have a vague memory. I think I see more than one kind or narrational interest in Warren. There is the surface one, which in his poems seems to have a resemblance to stories and novels and then there may be some deeper narrative, too. That’s not true of myself. I have no surface narrational interest, but I am very much controlled by, and interested in, the deeper.
PF: Have you ever tried to write fiction?
Ammons: Yes, I did when I was quite young. It came out sounding a lot like Tobacco Road. Glad I got rid of that!
PF: What about short stories?
Ammons: I can’t write fiction because I have a lot of problems with interpersonal situations, and I’m very lonely in life, in myself, and deeply afraid that what I feel about things is a minority view and that it would not stand for what other people—so I don’t trust my ability to create a figure and then give him true motivation. Because I never believe when I know another person, such as you or anyone else, that I understand where he is coming from, or that I know what’s motivating him. You know what I mean? That makes me feel pretty lonely, but it makes me totally certain that I would not be a fiction writer.
PF: But the poems that you write are a tremendous reaching out, in a very strong way.
Ammons: Desperate, almost.
PF: Frost said that what he wrote was out of fear. Is that true for you? Is anxiety one of the motivations?
Ammons: I think that is definitely one of them, and this goes back to what we were saying towards the beginning, that writing is one way of dissolving the anxiety. You get something else to contemplate there other than the anxiety itself, you get this piece of writing. You may even be lucky enough to find a good line in it, and then that will tend to help things.
PF: I have the sense, too, that you are an epic poet, or a poet with epic ambitions, but also someone who distrusts and undercuts this. I sense this risk and problem in your work. The desire to do it, and the tension of the undercutting.
Ammons: Which forces me to make what I have done provisional. I want to do it, but it must remain provisional, because there is some cinching step that I refuse to take. I don’t know what that is, but there is a kind of ultimate commitment that up to now, 54 years old, I won’t make.
PF: Does that relate to what you said about imagination earlier?
Ammons: It could be, and that would be very interesting to know. There’s something in me that wants to experience and say from my own points of view and other points of view, any number of potentially rich and wonderful things, but there is a step which I refuse to take, and I don’t even know what it is. It is like believing that what you have just said is really the truth.
PF: I feel that in your long poems you’ll have extremely eloquent passages—
Ammons: And then just toss it away.
PF: Yes, then you’re horsing around.
Ammons: Yeah, just throw it completely away.
PF: Of course, you never, you don’t throw it away.
Ammons: What I mean, tonal.
Ammons: Look how easy that was, but it was nothing. That kind of thing.
Ammons: Isn’t that a nice passage. I like that.
PF: It’s lovely, it’s one of my favorites.
Ammons: Me, too. I’m glad you said that.
PF: Especially the line, “a brook in the mind that will eventually glitter away the seas…”
Ammons: Isn’t that something, I like that. That’s what it’s all about, it seems to me, to keep trying till you get to some place like that. And then, in a Heideggerian sense, it’s a place you can live. You can live in that little passage.
PF: Yes, and others can, too.
Ammons: Well, that’s what I mean by trying to be representative. I know that people are there, but I don’t know how to speak to them directly, but if I can make something that we can share, then we would be speaking, as you and I are.
Now I feel very close to you since you just said that about that passage. Not because I wrote it and you didn’t, but because we share it regardless of who wrote it.
PF: Perhaps to conclude, would you be willing to read that?
Ammons: I’d be glad to:
by Philip Fried
After meeting A. R. Ammons, I felt as if I were carrying around, in the words of one of his poems, “a bucketful of radiant toys.” I mean, of course, my impressions of the encounter, and I hope the reader will indulge me if I display a few of those “toys” here.
When I transcribed the interview, I was surprised to discover that it had a plot of its own, like the “deeper” narrative that Ammons speaks about. I had sensed, as we talked, that certain themes were weaving themselves in and out, but I never suspected that the interview would have such unity. Eventually, I decided to title our discussion “A Place You Can Live,” to summarize and hint at its main theme.
My discovery of these patterns seemed to vindicate Ammons’ belief in the Emersonian credo that if only you record your honest thoughts, a deeper symmetry will emerge. I was extremely moved by this statement, which led him to reflect on the difference between the academic and artistic points of view. A scholar is capable of entertaining a great many ideas, but only a writer is fool enough to believe one. Perhaps this “foolishness” is the source of Ammons’ power.
I first became interested in Ammons’ work several year ago, because of his use of biological concepts and terms. For a long time, I had been flirting with science, attracted by the shapeliness of theory but nervous about committing myself to a life in the laboratory. I had gone so far as trying to write an epic poem about Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. So I was in an excellent position to appreciate Ammons’ more successful explorations of science. In fact, I devoted a chapter of my dissertation on him to the role of evolution and ecology in his work.
After interviewing him, I am convinced that no writer who consciously tried to cultivate science would be likely to succeed. As Ammons says, he simply wrote from where he was, “a mixture of science and poetry.” Poems are not willed. They are whirled into existence by internal winds, comparable to those that whip around leaves and old newspapers, or whatever is handy. These inner “whirlwinds” are the results of efforts to solve insoluble problems, namely the metaphysical and psychological dilemmas that beset us from an early age. If a poet is emotionally drawn to science, then bits and pieces of scientific lore will get spun into his poetry.
As I continued to read Ammons, I came to value him for reasons unrelated to science. He is, for instance, ready to take a risk. Not only does he experiment with form, diction, and tone, but he does so with a great deal of verve and humor. Above all, he allows himself to experience conflicts which I believe are crucial to our time. A transcendentalist in the central line of Emerson and Whitman, he is also influenced by contemporary doubts concerning the power of the imagination. He is possessed by the epic ambition to “sum it all up” and by a sense of absurdity that undercuts this ambition. It is fascinating to watch these conflicts as they animate his work.
When I first spoke to him by phone, I was surprised by his gentle Southern voice. Though I knew he came from North Carolina, I never had the sense to hear the poems in a Southern accent! Now I won’t be able to help it.
I only wish that the reader, too, could hear Ammons’ voice in this interview, as it quietly and patiently weaves its concern, connecting the past and the present, inner and outer, “stone” and “starlight,” until the fragile net is complete. But the reader should not forget that there was laughter as well. I remember, for instance, Ammons’ enjoyment even of the scariness of the poet’s position: “I think it’s probably necessary that all people ought to be in flight from such things.”
The many watercolors he has painted in the last three years [1977-1980] decorate the walls of his house and are piled nearly chest-high in one of his closets. Apparently, he is as prolific with his brush as he is with his typewriter. I meant to ask him in the interview about the connection between painting and writing. But he commented on it without my asking when he spoke of the “circles and radial points coming from circles” which are common to both his watercolors and his poems.
I enjoyed the composition and lively spirit of his paintings. Though I am hardly a professional art critic, I had the impression that Ammons paints extremely well, especially in view of the fact that he has received no formal training as a visual artist. This past spring he was even given a one-man show at the Cornell University museum.
I greatly enjoyed my tour of his backyard. This must be, inch for inch, the most commemorated third of an acre in our literature. He showed me all of the landmarks—quince bush, stone bench, elm tree, blue spruce—familiar to readers of his poetry, while supplying a running commentary on the past, present, and likely future condition of each. Strangely, Ammons seemed to move among as many “symbolic” objects as Yeats, a poet he clearly regards as an opposite, almost an anti-self.
At one point, he spoke about the exhaustion caused by paying too much attention to things. He laughed and said that, late in life, he was thankfully learning the happiness of “paying no attention at all!”
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