ROGER GILBERT: In 1963, Ammons was invited to give a reading at Cornell. And a year later, he was offered an appointment as a visiting instructor. On being promoted to assistant professor in 1966, he and his wife purchased the white colonial house in Cayuga Heights, where they would spend the next 25 years.
While the poems Ammons wrote after moving to Ithaca are full of creeks, waterfalls, and other local landmarks, their most consistent point of reference is the backyard of 606 Hanshaw Road. It's elm and maple trees, quince and holly bushes, zinnias and zucchini blossoms, squirrels and caterpillars all became familiar characters to Ammons's readers. As one critic put it, "Never before has the abundance of a backyard entered into such a mutually productive relationship with poetry."
Neither as incalculably complex as the shore, nor as elementally stark as the desert, the backyard is an artificially closed environment that allows natural processes to be contemplated over the course of months and years. In many respects, the yard resembles a small-scale version of the farm. Both are cultivated landscapes that require significant labor to maintain and both become deeply entwined with home and family. But there are clear differences between them as well.
Ammons's memories of the farm were bound up with his sense of himself as a boy and youth, uncertain of his prospects, and entirely dependent for his livelihood on the land. By the time he arrived on Hanshaw Road, he was not only an established poet, but a professor, rewarded for his powers of contemplation and expression.
Ammons's backyard, therefore, served him chiefly as an object of study, a kind of laboratory for thought experiments. Though he often recorded his hands-on engagement with the landscape in the form of weeding, raking, and other yard work, he spent considerably more time gazing at it from the window of the second floor study, where he composed most of his poems. There, he harvested a very different crop from the tobacco and strawberries of the old farm.
For Ammons, the backyard is not mere matter, but a densely written text that can never be fully deciphered. "In my yard is more wordage than I can read," he writes in one poem. Every insect, every leaf, every bird dropping is a word pregnant with manifold implications. This density of meaning ensures that the poet can take in the whole of creation while keeping his gaze trained on a single acre of land.
The principle of the microcosm, of great things contained in small, governs Ammons's running meditation on his backyard. "Some universe comes here to my yard every day or so," he observes in his long poem "Hibernaculum," "and bursts into a fly standing with six little dents, on water."
Another passage from that poem offers an exact measurement of the Ammonsian universe. "I write, not very wide, just to the fence or hedge around the lot. Sometimes from my window I take in the neighboring lady's scrap of woods. I hope she doesn't get word and charge me. But, of course, I write straight up and down, as far either way as I can reach. Its world enough to take my time, stretch my reason, hinder, and free me."
Ammons's playful revision of Andrew Marvell's lament, "had we but world enough and time," suggests that an inquisitive mind can find all the world it needs between the house and the back fence. As a sample of the cosmos, the backyard may seem absurdly narrow. Yet its vertical range, from solid ground to airy height, invests all its objects with immensity.
Some of those objects get singled out for special attention in Ammons's poetry. A large elm tree plays a leading role in his backyard meditations. At one point, Ammons even entertains the idea of devoting a whole book to it. "I was thinking last June, so multiple and dense is the reality of a tree that I ought to do a book-length piece on the elm in the backyard here."
These lines come from Essay on Poetics, a long poem exploring the parallels between poetic and natural principles of organization. For Ammons, the elm tree exemplifies the synthesis, and unity, and multiplicity, one and many, that he strives to achieve in his poems, a stable, recognizable landmark that enters the ground at a fairly reliable point. The tree is nonetheless made up of, quote, "12 quintillion cells, in each of which more takes place by way of event, disposition, and such than any computer we now have could keep registration of," unquote.
Ammons's poetic tour of the elm goes on to consider the mathematics of branches and foliage, the behavior of seed pods, and the role of elm worms in the tree's ecology. While Ammons never produced the book-length study he had contemplated, he returned repeatedly to the elm tree in later poems. In "Extremes and Moderations," another verse essay, he ponders the significance of dead branches that break off and become lodged in the tree's lower boughs, and finds in these a parable of the relationship between the living and the dead in human culture.
Given the apparent intimacy between poet and tree, it comes as a surprise to learn, in Ammons's 1977 book, The Snow Poems, that he could only glimpse a small part of it from his study window. "I can see but little, and that with much leaning of the elm from this window. And, indeed, no part of that attached to the ground, but outbuoyed branches only, mostly tips. If I worked in the other room, next to the elm, a winter sunny room, I'd get to know more about the elm. But so much more would dominate the poem."
The second part of the passage can be taken as a sly joke since the elm tree already plays such a dominant part in Ammons's poetry. It's hard to imagine how much more of it there might have been had he worked in a room with a full view.
Another prominent backyard resident in Ammons's poems is the quince bush, which has a more volatile, even violent relation to its environment than the elm tree. A short poem, called "The Quince Bush" begins, "The flowering quince bush on the back hedge has been run through by a morning glory vine." And goes on to see, in this image, an emblem of hostility and struggle in the human world.
But if the quince is vulnerable to the parasitic onslaught of the morning glory, it also harbors its own will to power, as this passage from Ammons's long poem "Sphere" suggests. "Even though the bush has put on the strain of blossoming and fruiting, it has, at the same time, shot out shoots all over, threatening the upcoming hollyhock and lemon lilies, a green rage to possess, make, and take room; to dominate, shade out, whiten. I identify with the bush's rage, its quiet, ruthless outward thrust. Whatever nears me must shrink, wither up; or widen, overlarge and thin with shade, ambition the size of the room I need to unfold into.
But cunning and deviousness are at work at the quince bush. Morning glory stock is underground, ready to shoot up a spear of leaving through the quince's underbrush. And by fast moving, to overcrown the bush tops and take the light away.
Look at the smooth-cut lawn, how even and gentle. But finger through the turf, the nap, and there are the brown twists of clover, Veronica, plantain, grass, in a striving. It is hard to stand up, crowding full into a full unfolding-- beings' terror."
All the spaciousness that Ammons beheld on the shore at Corsons Inlet can also be found within the seemingly pastoral enclave of the backyard, as rival plants compete for precious light and soil. Ammons feels a special bond with a quince bush, whose rage to expand and possess resonates with his own ambition to unfold into as much space as he needs.
But this expansive urge is threatened from within by a lurking enemy, the morning glory waiting to strike. Even the grass, Whitman's symbol of democratic community, proves, on close inspection, to be a scene of struggle. Ammons sums up the spectacle in a bitingly concise phrase, whose grammar hovers between possessive and declarative-- beings' terror. This is hardly the lesson most people would derive from the sight of a peaceful suburban backyard. But Ammons always refused to sentimentalize nature in any form.
We last see the quince bush in The Snow Poems, where it meets a violent end at the hands of the poet himself. "I cut the quince down the other day, into so many stalks it all made a big bundle upon the lawn, high as my head I'd say." Given Ammons's strong identification with the quince bush, it's tempting to suppose that in dismantling it, he's symbolically cutting himself down to size as well, curtailing his own expansive energies, in keeping with the more broken aesthetic of The Snow Poems. On the other hand, he may just have gotten tired of trimming the damn thing.
Mayhem in the backyard is not confined to the vegetable kingdom, of course. The wildlife around here sometimes gets to be pretty wild, Ammons observes in his long poem, "Garbage," before describing the predatory activities of a neighborhood cat, who sometimes visits the backyard.
"Well, there's one chipmunk you won't see streaking around here anymore, plunging into cement holes by the back steps, or into ground holes by the hydrangea, or scrambling into the crack under the middle post of the garage because-- this is late the same day-- I just saw a tabby walking away with him in his mouth, not a white long hair, not an abyssinian, not a calico, not a chat, but tabby, putting the chipmunk down by the daylilies, hardly yet having their days on the back hedge. And then, in thrusting gulps and crunches, downing chippy."
Contemplating this bloody scene, Ammons characteristically wavers between stoicism and sorrow, identifying by turns with the cats hunger and the chipmunk's innocence. "I'm a little shook up about the chipmunk. The other day, just before sunset, I watched him for several minutes as he sat near the steps on the bag porch in the full sun, and looked around a bit now and then, within, taking in an unprecedented leisure and pleasure, the sunlight nearly coming clear pink through his ears and forefeet."
But this moment of serenity proves fleeting. Terror is as pervasive for animals as for plants, as Ammons acknowledges in considering another backyard visitor. "The rabbit knows that if he doesn't like it here, he can't just go off somewhere else to live. So he carefully dissolves from panic and nibbles a sprig of weed, eases into a forward move, and lives in fear.
Not helplessly, but in the knowledge of his capabilities, his devices, his bounces, and split swerves. And he has young to beget and young to raise, and this without benefit of tenure, estate, living trust, term insurance, or social security. He is naked every minute to clover tip or onslaught." Onslaught, here, meaning being chewed up.
There is a touch of envy in these lines, as well as dread. The rabbit's total vulnerability grants it a degree of presence in the moment that humans, with their elaborate social and economic arrangements, seldom experience. But the price of that presence is constant fear.
Between the marauding cat and the raging quince bush, Ammons's backyard can sometimes seem more like a war zone than a garden. 606 Hanshaw Road is currently owned by my English department colleague, Barbara Correll. And I'd just like to say to Barbara, watch yourself. It's a jungle back here.
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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 5 of 6 in the From Whiteville to Ithaca series.