Wednesday, July 31, 2019

On A. R. Ammons, “Corson’s Inlet” & “Poetics”

Thinking again about the nature of “nature” poetry, I recently reread a poem by A. R. Ammons, “Corson’s Inlet.” I cannot say that I have studied Ammons’s complete oeuvre in depth, and only own the 2006 Library of America Selected Poems (ed. Lehman).  (Incidentally, this was a quite well-done series of books, with covers designed by the great graphic artists Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd.)

“Corson’s Inlet” (pp. 18-22) has always seemed to me a kind of ars poetica, not just a nature poem per se.  It opens with the speaker walking the dunes and shore at Corson’s Inlet, NJ, meditating on connections between the natural world, poetry, and thought.  The speaker, presumably a version of Ammons himself, almost immediately begins to draw comparisons between the course of his walk and his poetics.  In line 13, for example, he describes the walk as “liberating,” releasing him from “forms,” and in lines 15-16 from “straight lines” and “binds / of thought.”  The parallel with poetic form and with lines of poetry will not be lost.  Thus Ammons is making a statement — his poetry will not rely on regular line lengths, syllable counts, on predetermined forms or the like, as these are restrictive “boxes” and “binds.”

Instead, his form will be unpredictable like nature.  The poem will unfold organically.  What meaning there is in the poem will run “like a stream” (he says in line 22).  While there is certainly metaphor in this, Ammons lets nature itself be the metaphor for his poetics.  The world, and wild nature, is “irregular” (he says in line 38) and does not lend itself to tidy conclusions.  Nor can the poet realistically expect to arrive at any sense of certainty, as he alludes to in lines 41+:

I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,
shutting out and shutting in, separating inside
      from outside: I have drawn no lines…
Lying behind this what might be described as a Heraclitean view of the world, and just as we “cannot step into the same river twice,” so in lines 46-48,
manifold events of sand
change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape
Ammons’ response is to accept this indeterminacy in his own writing.  As he says in lines 49-52,
so I am willing to go along, to accept
the becoming
thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish
       no walls…
His poetry will reflect the organic flow of thought, as well as the constantly changing nature of the world.  Like the natural environment, “Corson’s Inlet” is “irregular,” using free verse with no discernible pattern.  Another example of how this stance is reflected in his poetry can be seen in the section from lines 55 onward:
     change in that transition is clear
     as any sharpness: but “sharpness” spread out,
allowed to occur over a wider range
than mental lines can keep…
He is talking about “transitions” of thought as it responds to the material world, I think, but also about “transitions” in poetry — in other words, how the poem will be constructed, how it will flow together as a piece of writing.  There are no “lines” in nature, no hard and fast borders denoting where one thing leaves off and another begins — no “beginnings or ends” or “walls,” Ammons writes in line 51.  For him, there is only a constant state of flux.

Nonetheless, one way the poem hopes to reflect these transitions is through Ammons’s technique of using a colon to mark a separation between one image and the next (as seen in lines 59-69, where a series of images follow each other, with the colon marking each succession in the text) — but the colon also marks the connection of these images to each other in the flow of natural events and the speaker’s thought.  In lines 79-82, he uses the colon to juxtapose the image of the swallows with what they might suggest on another, more abstract level (“an order held / in constant change”).  The swallows can be viewed either as a collection of individual swallows, or “as one event” (lines 82-84).

A poem might aspire, as Ammons puts it in line 92, to “the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness,” but he also realizes that this is only a tentative position, that “outcomes of actions” cannot be predictable (he says in lines 107-08).  Indeed, the universe embodies infinite possibilities (lines 109-13), and thus, as he goes on to say in lines 114-16, there can be

     no forcing of image, plan
or thought:
no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept…
Ammons’s poetry is a poetry of open-endedness, rather than of closed forms.  In line 121, he eschews the “easy victory” of traditional formal poetry (identified in the “narrow orders, limited tightness” of line 120), knowing that the deeper nature of the world is anything other than such “narrowness” of form might imply.

In some sense, poetry, of course, is inescapably form.  So Ammons admits in his conclusion to “Corson’s Inlet” that he has no choice but to try

     to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
     that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
This statement suggests that, at least in Ammons’ view, a new poem must also create poetry itself anew, that a poet cannot simply rely on the predictable patterns of form but must allow the poem to find its own form in response to nature and the changing world it grapples with.  Ammons asserts that that world is necessarily disordered and in a state of ongoing change and that, therefore, instead of trying to show one’s poetic mastery by imposing a predetermined form over it, the poet must listen to nature, must listen to language itself, and allow him- or herself to “go with the flow” of that flux: “I have perceived nothing completely” — a nor can one ever, for all is mediated by the particular dynamics of the mind.

It is interesting to compare this poem with another Ammons piece, which is overtly an ars poetica, being titled “Poetics” (pp. 26-27).  It does very similar things.  Where, in “Corson’s Inlet,” the poem runs “like a stream,” here it is “spiralling from a center” (line 3).  Ammons opens himself to “the shape / things will take to come forth in” (4-5), yet when they do, as the birch tree in lines 6-10, it is merely or even “totally its apparent self.”  The poem, for Ammons, is not only the shape of the poem as written down, “but the / uninterfering means on paper” (17-18) — and more important is that the poet be

to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours. (20-24)
In other words, it is not about the individual poet, the supposedly autonomous individual artist (as “great,” or what have you) but in fact more about forgetting the self, the ego, and opening up outwardly to — let’s call it the “cosmos,” at the risk of sounding over-serious and for lack of a less grandiose word.

NB: This essay incorporates thoughts of mine going as far back as 2008, and I thank Peter Makuck for first turning me on to “Corson’s Inlet” as a particular Ammons poem to look at.

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