ROGER GILBERT: My name is Roger Gilbert, and I teach in the Cornell English department. I'm sitting on the back porch of 606 Hanshaw Road in Cayuga Heights, which for many years was the home of the poet AR Ammons, known to his friends, colleagues, and even his students as Archie. Ammons taught creative writing at Cornell for about 35 years. And today, he's generally regarded as one of the most important poets of the second half of the 20th century.
His poetry has won praise for its close attention to nature in all its forms from the vast to the minute, for its incorporation of scientific ideas and language, for its articulation of a non-doctrinal religious sensibility that regards the universe with wonder, for its candid often humorous attention to daily life and bodily processes, and for its mastery of both very long and very short forms-- the extremes of poetic expansion and compression.
In this presentation, I'd like to focus on the crucial role of place or scene in Ammons's work. Place names are everywhere in his poetry, names like Corsons Inlet, Gravelly Run, Cascidilla Falls, Triphammer Bridge, Brink Road. Not all the places in Ammons's poetry have names, of course, but the fields, deserts, beaches, mountains, and yards he writes about, all take on the depth and detail of landscapes that have been lovingly inhabited.
It's important to recognize that the scenes of Ammons's poetry are never just static backdrops to be admired for their beauty or grandeur. They are full and active participants in the drama of the poem. The natural settings Ammons evokes define basic possibilities of vision and self-knowledge. The cosmos looks different in the desert than it does beside the sea and so does the self. While some poets happily devote their lives to mapping a single terrain, Ammons drifted nomadically in his work from one setting to another because he knew that each had its wisdom to impart.
In an early poem entitled, "Rack", he hints at the profound connection between self and scene. "The pieces of my voice have been thrown away I said turning to the hedge hedgerows and hidden ditches. Where do the pieces of my voice lie scattered? The cedarcones said you have been ground down into and whirled. Tomorrow I must go look under the clumps of marsh grass in wet deserts and in dry deserts when the wind falls from the mountain inquire of the chuckwalla what he saw go by and what the sidewinder found risen in the changing sand. I must run down all the pieces and build the whole silence back."
In this poem, Ammons seems to posit an initial coherence or unity of voice that has been both shattered and scattered. What gives the poem it's startling urgency is the speaker's determination to track down every shard of his voice wherever it may lie. We see here an early expression of Ammons's lifelong fascination with the philosophical paradox of the one and the many. The voice, and by extension the self, is usually understood as monadic, or singular. Yet this poem represents it as plural, multiple, dispersed among a wide range of settings-- hedge rows, ditches, wet deserts, dry deserts, mountains. Each of which must be visited and explored if the self is to be made whole once more.
Ammons was an environmentalist in the deepest sense. He understood that the self can never be separated from its environment, and indeed, can only be fully apprehended in its ongoing dialogue with the spaces and objects that surround it. As he memorably declared in his poem. "Gravelly Run", "It is not so much to know the self as to know it as it is known by galaxy and cedarcone."
In the segments that follow, I'd like to explore some of the crucial scenes in which Ammons searches out pieces of himself and his voice. I'll be focusing on four settings, each of which played a major role both in Ammons's work and in his life. They are the farm, the desert, the shore, and the backyard. I'll be talking about these settings in the order that Ammons encountered them in his own life following the route he traveled from his childhood home near Whiteville, North Carolina to his final destination of Ithaca.
But I must begin by noting the oddly telling fact that the landscape of Ammons's early years, his family farm, doesn't appear in his poetry until his second book, which was published some 15 years after he had begun writing seriously. Why Ammons chose to delay writing about a place he knew so intimately is a puzzle I'll address more fully a bit later. But one clue may lie in the story of shattered disbursal told in "Rack". If the pieces of your voice have been scattered throughout the world, then surely the last place to begin the search is on your home ground. As we'll see in the next segment, for Archie, that ground was both hallowed and haunted.
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The poetry of A.R. Ammons has won praise for its close attention to nature and the incorporation of scientific terms, its candid attention to daily life, and its mastery of both long and short forms. Join Roger Gilbert as he focuses on the crucial role played by place or scene in Ammons's work.
This video is part 1 of 6 in the From Whiteville to Ithaca series.