SPEAKER 1: In 1952, Ammons left graduate school without completing a degree and moved to southern New Jersey to begin working in his father-in-law's medical glassware business. For the next 12 years, he and his wife, Phyllis, resided in Northfield, a few miles from the tidal estuaries and inlets of the South Jersey Shore.
Ammons soon began exploring this coastal landscape in earnest, and its appearance in his poetry signaled a major departure from the stark desert parables of the Ommateum period. In the early 1960s, Ammons produced a magnificent series of poems set on the Jersey Shore that did much to establish his reputation as an important new poet. These poems reveal a mind at once hungry for empirical data and quick to extrapolate large principles, in keeping with Ammons's early training as a scientist.
The first of the series, "Expressions of Sea Level," lent its title to Ammons's second book in 1964. The poem examines the contrast between the encircling monotony of mid-ocean and the broken articulations of the shoreline.
"Mid-ocean, sky sealed unbroken to see. There is no way to know the oceans' speech intervolved and markless, breaking against no boulder-held fingerland. Broken surf things are expressions. The sea speaks far from its core, only with the stayed land is the level conversation really held, only in the meeting of rock and sea is hard relevance shattered into light."
Ammons's insistence on the link between brokenness and expression may remind us of his early poem, "Rack", in which he searches for the pieces of his own voice. The only adequate expression of wholeness is silence, Ammons tells us. But in the breaking of surf and wave, the sea is able to express its partial energies and motions. These are pieces of the ocean's voice. And by attending to them, Ammons is in effect reinventing his poetic quest, turning it away from the self and toward the vast otherness of nature, though the two for him are never completely separate.
Where the desert had allowed for pure elemental encounters, the shore presents an intricate array of forces and variables, including those of organic life. A very different epistemology or theory of knowledge begins to emerge from this landscape, one that respects the inexhaustible complexity of nature while still striving for a poetic vision that can capture the underlying unity of the scene.
The next poem in the series, "One Many" opens with a clear statement of Ammons's project, quote, "to maintain balance between one and many by keeping in operation both one and many", then returns to the shore as a kind of testing ground.
"When I tried to summarize a moment's events along the creek shore this afternoon, the tide gathering momentum outwardly turns, hovering, dropping to spear shallow water, the minnows in a band wavering between deep and shallow water, the sand hissing into new images. When I tried to think by what millions of grains of events the tidal creek had altered course, when I considered alone a record of the waves on the running blue creek, I was released into a power beyond my easy failures, released to think how so much freedom can keep the broad look of serenity and nearly statable balance."
Though the effort to think all of the events and variables that shape a single moment along the creek shore may be doomed to failure. That failure brings with it a compensatory sense of release, permitting a more holistic vision to arise that fully grasps its own incompleteness.
Ammons's shore poems alternate between these perspectives, stressing by turns the multifarious complexity and the broad serenity of the tidal landscape. The most celebrated of Ammons's shore poems is "Corson's Inlet", title poem of his third book. Adhering closely to the rhythm and shape of a walk, the poem offers Ammons's richest account of a coastal environment. Its very appearance on the page evokes the uneven jagged contour of a shoreline.
"I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning to the sea, then turned right along the surf, rounded a naked headland and returned along the inlet shore." Once again, a moment of release ensues that grants the poet a more fluid apprehension of his surroundings.
"The walk liberating, I was released from forms, from the perpendicular straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds of thought into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends of sight."
At the heart of the poem lie two sharply contrasting visions of natural energy. As the poet walks along the shore, he turns his head toward the water and sees "black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk of air and earlier of sun, waved in and out with the waterline, waterline inexact caught always in the event of change. A young mottled gull stood free on the shoals and ate to vomiting. Another gull squawking possession, cracked a crab, picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs, a ruddy turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits. Risk is full, every living thing in siege, the demand is life, to keep life.
The small white black-legged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears the shallows, darts to shore to stab-- what? I couldn't see against the black mud flats-- a frightened fiddler crab?"
This horrifying spectacle of nature, red in tooth and claw, quickly gives way to a very different picture. "The news to my left over the dunes and reeds and bayberry clumps was fall, thousands of tree swallows gathering for flight and order held in constant change, a congregation rich with entropy, nevertheless separable, noticeable as one event, not chaos."
Violence and congregation are equally manifestations of natural order. And both are present at "Corson's Inlet". The volatile nature of these two scenes means that neither can be fully perceived or described. Vital details, like the egret's prey or an individual swallow, will inevitably elude the observer's eye. What can be perceived is the event of change itself, the endlessly complex working in and out together and against of millions of events.
This minutely textured vision of reality owes a great deal to the special character of the shore, with its incessant fluctuations and rich ecology. "Corson's Inlet" famously ends with the speaker's acknowledgment that, quote, "I have perceived nothing completely," and that, quote, "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk."
True to his word, Ammons took another walk the next day and wrote another poem about it. That poem, "Saliences", is very different from "Corson's Inlet", narrower in form and sharper in focus. But it too explores the dynamics of change and constancy along the shore. The poem's first half returns to the basic elements of Ammons's desert poems, evoking a dizzying dune fest, in which sand and wind play leading roles.
"A variable of wind among the dunes, making variables of position and direction and sound of every reed, leaf, and bloom. Running streams of sand winding, rising, at a depression falling out into deltas, weathering shells with blast, striking hiss into clumps of grass."
Like any complex equation, the landscape contains constants as well as variables. As the speaker walks toward the sea, he recognizes many old friends. "Much seemed constant, to be looked forward to, expected. From the top of a dune rise, look of oceans salience, in the hollow where a runlet makes in at full tide and fills a bowl, extravagance of pink periwinkle along the grassy edge and a blue, bunchy weed, deep blue, deep into the mind, the dark blue constant."
But one key presence in "Corson's Inlet", the congregation of swallows has now departed, prompting a final meditation on transience and permanence. "Desertions of swallows that yesterday ravaged air, bush, reed, attention in gatherings wide as this neck of dunes, now not a sound or a shadow, no trace of memory, no remnant explanation. Earth brings to grief much in an hour that sang, leaped, swirled. It keeps a round quiet turning beyond loss or gain, beyond concern for the separate reach."
Ammons characteristically frames his thoughts in terms of motion, contrasting the leaping and swirling of individual organisms with the round quiet turning of the larger system that contains them.
In the final poem of the series, "February Beach", Ammons returns to the shore in the dead of winter, when the dunes have frozen and all motion has crawled to a standstill. Even here he detects a latent energy in the scene, a quote, "clamoring and coming on that will fulfill itself in the spring thaw." For Ammons, the shore is less a landscape than an event, a place where no two moments are ever the same and where a new walk is always a new walk.
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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 4 of 6 in the From Whiteville to Ithaca series.