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Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 73-83

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Theology for Atheists:

Reading Ammons

Rutgers University, Camden
. . . take anything
think about it, and it blows up in wonder.

To have come to A.R. Ammons's poetry in the mid-1970s, when the atmosphere was filled with personalities (Plath, Jong, Berryman) and relentlessly personal verse, was to notice what it lacked. In place of the confessional autobiographies that Plath and Lowell gave their audience — and despite Plath's outraged feminism it was really the same audience of mandarin taste and educated preference — Ammons supplied little more than serial observations of the natural world. There were no high-blown hymns to psychosis, no searing recollections of childhood, no show-stopping performances like "Daddy" or "Walking in the Blue," no deep images, and little urban realism or political sentiment. Some typical Modernist gestures were there such as the lines of Poundian length, though in Ammons's case lacking any specific musical referent, an occasional reliance on vaguely mythical personae ("So I said I am Ezra") and a prosody that walked the eye down the page. But the work contained elements un- (we would now say anti-) Modernist in the extreme, such as a tendency to personify abstractions and to position the narrative, speaking "self" in a self-deprecating light on those occasions when, as in A Tape for the Turn of the Year, he imposes on himself limits he could not find in tradition.1 It came almost as a relief when in the late Sixties, and in the wake of books by R.W.B. Lewis and other apologists for Romanticism, Harold Bloom rescued Ammons from the Eliot-Pound axis and claimed him for Whitman-Crane-Stevens and canceled the possibility that the Ezra of the "Ezra Poems" was the one who had languished up until 1958 in a Washington mental hospital. [End Page 73]

In an even more obvious sense Ammons now seems Romantic. He wrote nature poetry, and as a nature poet he seemed closer to Hazlitt's Lake School visionary than Pound's Imagist. Ammons would never relent from taking the natural world as his only subject. This remained true nearly until the end of his life when personal details began to penetrate the poetry and, in late lyrics like "Parting," to alter the narrative direction:

She was already lean when
a stroke or two slapped
her face like drawn
claw prints; akilter, she
ate less and

sat too much on the edge
of beds looking a width too
wide out of windows ... 2

After a career devoted to marginalizing the confessional element and to avoiding all those signature gestures that marked American poetry from the Lowell-Plath moment in the 1950s, Ammons abruptly gets intimate with his reader. A disruptive yet novel addition to his achievement, it gave a ninety-degree twist to your appreciation of how much work he had put into distancing the self of the poems from the cultural or professional self of Po-Biz. Reading "Parting," for instance, which appears only in the expanded edition of Ammons's Selected Poems, the poet who comes to mind is William Carlos Williams (and the poem "The Widow's Lament in Springtime"). Yet even with the addition of the autobiographical elements, the superficial syntactic likeness, and the Americanness of the diction, the differences between Ammons and his Modernist original are antagonistic. Williams' poem is an elegy to his mother whereas Ammons's is a little horror movie about how the body often dies after the mind. Williams occasionally looked as closely at the world as Ammons does but did not have it in him to write a poem like this, one in which the body is one more thing in the world. Indeed Williams seems a comparative sentimentalist, his dedication to "things" carried to the point where things substitute for "ideas." To read Ammons's Selected Poems: Expanded Edition two years after his death convinces you that certain writers need a lifetime of looking at natural things in order to measure the...


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