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On "Corsons Inlet"


Bonnie Costello

In his best poems Ammons demonstrates the creative value of the alienated intelligence. He turns his burden to a levity with a truly happy tolerance between precept and particular.

One of Ammons's most famous poems, "Corsons Inlet" (Collected Poems 149-51), is constructed on just such a rhetorical model of appositional rather than organic or hierarchical relations between nature and mind. This "mirroring mind" is not mimetic so much as congruent, finding coordinates to match, not copy, the particulars of the landscape. Though haunted by the mind's ambition to totalize, by the quest for scope, it does not submit "reality to precept," nor precept to reality. The particular does not so much illustrate precept as help to shape it. Like Snyder, Ammons celebrates process in mind and nature, but Ammons does not identify mental and organic process. The walk is a refreshment of form and, paradoxically, a heightening of the temporality of thought through the spatial openness of landscape. Figurativeness is less reduced than given free play in the poem. If the poem thematically "accepts the becoming," it does so at no cost to poetic invention. On the contrary, the witness to natural process coincides with the expansion of figurative range.

from "The Soil & Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets." Contemporary Literature 30:3 (Fall 1989): 412-433.


Richard Grey

A. R. Ammons exposes a further, crucial way in which much of recent American verse has removed itself from formalism: by dispensing, not only with conventional metres and 'signatory' language, but with the 'symbolic forms' of narrative closure. Revitalising the earlier American interest in 'organic form', Ammons is one among many current writers who want the radiant energy they perceive at the heart of the natural world to become the energy of the poem, 'spiralling from the centre' to inform every line. A poem like 'Corsons's Inlet' dramatises the details of this commitment. It opens in a characteristic way: 'I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning to the sea'. Few human beings appear in Ammons's work, apart from the omnipresent 'I': who is there, however, not to impress but to observe. Ammons is preoccupied with what he calls 'amness', the intrinsic identity of things -- which includes himself, of course, but also 'stairs and paperclips' -- and, in order to know this 'amness', he has to pay attention, 'losing the self' when necessary 'to the victory / of stones and trees'. In this instance, he tells us, the walk on which he embarks liberates him -- from himself, as usual -- and 'from the perpendiculars, / straight lines / of thought / into the hues, . . . flowing bends and blends of sight'. In particular, it releases him into knowledge of the inlet mentioned in the title. Watching its fluid, changing shape and the microscopic lives that animate it, Ammons perceives in it, not a symbol, but an example of what an appropriate form should be. 'In nature there are few sharp lines', the poet comments, and what he sees here is:

        an order held
        in constant change: a congregation
rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable
        as one event,
                not chaos

The inlet opens up to him 'the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness': a form of knowing in which there is 'no forcing of ... thought / no propaganda', and a form of expression, an aesthetic shape that is vital and kinetic, a ‘’field' of action / with moving incalculable centre'.

The notion of the 'field' was one that Williams cherished ('The poem is made of things -- on a field') and that, as we shall see, Charles Olson developed. What such a notion resists, at all costs, is what Ammons calls 'lines' and 'boundaries': demarcations that exclude, hierarchies that prioritise, definitions that impose the illusion of fixity on the flux of experience. There are, Ammons suggests, 'no / ... changeless shapes': the poet-seer must invent structures that imitate the metamorphic character of things. The organisms he creates must respond to life as particularity and process; they must be dynamic, unique to each occasion; above all, they must be open. 'There is no finality of vision', Ammons concludes (with deliberate inconclusiveness), '. . . I have perceived nothing completely, / ... tomorrow a new walk is a new walk'. Echoing a whole series of great American texts, Ammons also speaks here for a new generation of poets: who respond to 'The wonderful workings of the world' with their own persistent workings and re-workings of the imagination. 'ecology is my word', Ammons affirms in another, longer poem. 'Tape for the Turn of the Year', '. . . come / in there: / you will find yourself / in a firmless country: / centres and peripheries / in motion’. ‘My other word is provisional,’ he continues, ‘. . . you may guess / the meanings from ecology / ... / the centre-arising / form / adapts, tests the / peripheries, draws in / ... / responds to inner and outer / change.’ Those lines could act as an epigraph to many volumes of American verse published over the past few decades: in which the poet tries to insert himself in the processes of life, and, in turn, the reader is asked to insert himself in the processes of the work.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright 1990 by the Longman Group UK Limited.


John Elder

Natural process continually liberates Ammons from what would otherwise be the hardening circles of the mental order. In Emerson's formulation, "the natural world may be conceived as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations which apprise us that this surface on which we stand is not fixed, but sliding."' The significant shift from Emerson to Ammons is in the perception that dislocations are perpetual, not "now and then," and that they make available a human fertility of imagination corresponding directly to nature's superficial instability. The Jersey shore, where Ammons lived at one time, figures in many of his poems: its constant motion of wind and sand meets the movement of his accommodating mind. "Dunes" is a brief poem staking a poetic claim in the marginal world at the continent's shifting edge, where nature's universal dislocation is easiest to detect:

Taking root in windy sand
    is not an easy
way
to go about
    finding a place to stay. . .

Firm ground is not available ground.

In its brevity and the directness of its closing statement, "Dunes" could be read as an epigraph for Ammons's best-known poem, "Corsons Inlet." That poem too is set at the seashore, but in its greater complexity embodies what "Dunes" says. It is like Everson's "Canticle to the Waterbirds" or Levertov's "The Coming Fall," in an inclusiveness of observation that keeps any one image or statement from becoming dominant. "Corsons Inlet" is not a self-contained poetic artifact but a terrain into which the reader may step. Verse records the scattered impressions and reflections of the poet walking by the shore. The body's motion carries the mind, alert and moving, through a world of shifting sand and waterline, minnows and wind. Instead of the conflict of stationary, opposed orders, the walk brings ordered flux. Accordingly, the poem has a journalistic quality in parts, presenting scraps of information about how the sky turns overcast, an egret stalks an unseen prey. Only in the circumambulatory integrity of the poem are these events connected.

Ammons is determined to impose "no form of / formlessness on the "millions of events"; he wants, like the bayberry along the dunes, only "disorderly orders." In the midst of this flow, in the course of his walk, the poet can say, "I allow myself eddies of meaning: / yield to a direction of significance / running / like a stream through the geography of my work." In "Corsons Inlet," as in his other lengthy poems, Ammons's drift is celebration. And the key word for his experiences of such significance is "eddies": affirmation coalesces in a moment, and then the flow of events continues past. It is a word that recalls Whitman:

I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look under your bootsoles.

Effusions and eddies cannot be compressed into discrete orders, because they are continually merging with the larger disorderly orders of the world. Ammons's rhythms and syntax convey the world's constant reformulation. David Kaistone's analysis of this effect in "Saliences" is equally descriptive of "Corsons Inlet": "Nouns are suspended in a chain of participial explosions ... you almost feel that the verbal motion is more important than the mixture of abstractions and particulars swept along." Such a dynamic vision of reality leads, in Ammons, to a certain modesty of statement, though accompanied by the broadest ambitions for connectedness and for participation in the natural order: "I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will / not run to that easy victory: / still around the looser, wider forces work: / I will try to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder. . . ." Like Berry and Pack, Ammons practices a poetry of "proud humility." But where they root their poetry in the chosen landscapes of personal experience, he finds his art among the shifting winds and dunes of process, the country where every walk must follow a wavering shore.

"Corsons Inlet" has a great deal in common with that other extended meditative poem, "Sunday Morning." But Ammons's final stanza underlines the poems' crucial difference. Stevens's natural order, after the collapse for him of the Christian system, is "an old chaos of the sun," and his tone is a mingling of nostalgia and exhilaration in the freedom that comes with submission to universal entropy: these are the complex feelings compressed into the poem's last line, "Downward to darkness, on extended wings." For Ammons, though, the emphasis is on the way in which nature and the poet alike break open old orders continually, to liberate the materials from which new orders may be "grasped." Decay is, as we have seen, a central process of human experience as of the earth, and is in both realms a renewing dynamic. Accordingly, the world of Ammons's poetry is always presented as a freshly emerging event. In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead generalizes the creative dimension of each moment in this way: "An event is the grasping into unity of a pattern of aspects." And in Ammons's poems the sequence of natural shifts and the path of human consciousness are tied into just such a pattern of coherence, in an ecologically balanced art.

Like walking, ecology is one of Ammons's chief formal metaphors. It relates to his knowledgeable fascination with nature's inter twined specifics (Sphere: "touch the universe any where you touch it / everywhere"), and it also speaks to the loose balance of poetic form and experience affirmed by the last stanza of "Corsons Inlet." In Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons develops this concept most explicitly:

ecology is my word: tag
    me with that: come
    in there:
    you will find yourself
in a firmless country:
    centers and peripheries
    in motion,
    organic,
        interrelations!

Later on in Tape's entry of "27 Dec:" he continues his development of this aesthetic:

don't establish the
    boundaries
    first,
    the squares, triangles,
    boxes
    of preconceived
    possibility,
    and then
    pour
    life into them, trimming
off left-over edges,
ending potential:
    let centers
    proliferate
    from
self-justifying motions!

Ammons's dislike of fixed boundaries relates both to what he sees and how he says it. Unlike the majestic blank-verse stanzas of "Sunday Morning," "Corsons Inlet" presents a thoroughly irregular verse form, with the wavering left margin responding to the eddies of perception. Ammons's poetry does not line up and march but holds together in a dense, unhierarchical order of suspension, like a flock of seabirds wheeling above the surf.

From Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature. Copyright 1985 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


Steven P. Schneider

Ammons, like Emerson, resists the city because the city diminishes vision. Sherman Paul, in his book on Emerson, Emerson's Angle of Vision, notes that for Emerson "the city was shortsighted business." Emerson closely identified the near-pointed tasks of city work with the Understanding. He writes in his journal that:

the City delights the Understanding. It is made up of finites; short, sharp, mathematical lines, all calculable. It is full of varieties, of successions, of contrivances. The Country, on the contrary, offers an unbroken horizon, the monotony of an endless road, or vast uniform plains ... the eye is invited ever to the horizon and the clouds. It is the school of Reason.

Ammons, over a century later, echoes Emerson when he states in an interview shortly after the publication of the Collected Poems 1951-1971: "I identify civilization (the City) with definition. . . . That's why I'm not in the city; that's why I am not an urban person. The city represents to me the artificial, the limited, the defined, the stalled." He too links the nearsighted vision of city life with constrictive modes of thought and diminished intuition.

Ammons's attempt to move beyond the "mathematical lines" of urban life is best evidenced in his poem "Corsons Inlet." Ammons is above all a peripatetic poet, and he begins "Corsons Inlet" by walking away from the city.

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:

Both the direction of the walk and the form of its record defy "straightness." The varying lengths of the lines jut and curve down the page, evoking both the movement of the poet’s walk along the inlet's shore and the uneven margins of the inlet itself. In reading them, the eyes must oscillate, swinging back and forth. In addition to engaging the reader in a beneficial visual exercise, the content of the poem points out toward nature, out toward the very flux of creation that Ammons believes must be experienced, to avoid the contemporary myopia epidemic.

The activity of walking in "Corsons Inlet" is an exercise in eye-body coordination; the eye traces the events in nature as the body balances itself on the winding path. Ammons finds this walk "liberating":

                                    I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
        straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
            of sight:

The poet has moved beyond the defined, described here in terms of the geometry of straight lines, into the "flowing bends and blends of sight." He evokes the difference between "hard eyes" and "soft eyes." Those who see with "hard eyes" tend to look for the hard edges of things. They tend to see people and objects as separate and not necessarily related. They constantly analyze and dissect experience by their way of seeing. Ammons, by contrast, is encouraging a "softer" approach, allowing one to see relationships, "blends of sight," flows of experience. Both the eyes and the mind are now free to open up to the flow of "events" the poet celebrates in the rest of the poem.

The word "lines" is repeated as many as ten different times in the poem, and one learns that Ammons prefers the "curvy" to the "straight," the spontaneous to the rigid, when describing both the visual geometry of nature's lines and his own processes of thought. Ultimately he seeks to resist definitions, boundaries of thought, any kind of reductive philosophy. He keeps his attention on the flux in nature, which functions as the model of openness he hopes to experience and sustain.

"Corsons Inlet," like so much of Ammons's work, presents a record of the poet's vision, but Ammons is particularly resistant to summarize the significance of the many natural events recorded, for to do so would be to construct a box of thought against which the flow of the poem argues. He writes:

                I allow myself eddies of meaning:
yield to a direction of significance
running
like a stream through the geography of my work:
    you can find
in my sayings
                swerves of action
                like the inlet's cutting edge:
            there are dunes of motion,
organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance
in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:

but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events
I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting
beyond the account:

The "eddies of meaning" Ammons allows himself are found in the myriad "events" of this and his other poems. Unlike Emerson, Ammons does not feel compelled to make these events fit into a paradigm. His use of "Overall" echoes Emerson's "Oversoul," but Ammons distances himself here from his major influence by refusing to engage in the kind of speculation that takes him beyond the physical world of sight.

Harold Bloom, in his article on Ammons and the Romantic Sublime, cites "Corsons Inlet" as a pivotal poem in Ammons's development, a moment when the poet resists his own intense desire for Transcendence. Bloom writes, "Ammons was losing his battle against himself until he wrote his most famous poem, 'Corsons Inlet.'" Ammons opts for the vision of nature because he finds "direct sight" more liberating than the contemplation of the Sublime. In Ammons's universe, the apperception of physical, manifest phenomena and processes yields pleasure and sometimes pain. Despite the lure of the Transcendent, he resists it. Ammons associates the "Overall" with closure, whereas freedom depends upon process and visible change.

Much of this long lyric poem alternates between descriptions of what Ammons sees on his walk and his reminding himself not to draw conclusions from what he sees. There are no sharp lines in nature; there should be no sharp lines of thought to hem in consciousness. He employs words like "so" and "as" to make grammatically parallel the proper relation between thought and nature. Thus we read:

        as

manifold events of sand
change the dune's shape that will not be the same shape
tomorrow,

so I am willing to go along, to accept
the becoming
thought to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish
            no walls:

To "accept / the becoming thought" is to be open to process, and the continuously transforming sand dunes inspire him. The shifting dunes are just one of the many manifold "events" in the poem that have the capacity both to criticize restrictive mental forms and to simultaneously function as examples of "becoming," encouraging a more "easy-going, tolerant mental scope."

The poet's walk leads to the discovery of fresh visual patterns ("every walk is unreproducible"), liberating him from stale boundaries of thought and perception. For Ammons, the walk is "the externalization of an interior seeking." The many turns he takes along the inlet's shore reflect his internal quest for freedom and possibility.

While in the first half of "Corsons Inlet" Ammons argues persuasively against the "tyranny of straight lines," in the second half he is careful to avoid endorsing chaos or anarchy. And although the inexactness of the waterline captures his attention and is mirrored in the inexactness of the lines he uses to structure his poem, Ammons is careful not to endorse total randomness. Instead, he eventually uncovers in his walk the paradox of nature's mechanisms, which incorporate both order and randomness. The flock of tree swallows he sees in the distance is such a system.

                the news to my left and over the dunes and
reeds and bayberry clumps was
                fall: thousands of tree swallows
                gathering for flight:
                an order held
                in constant change: a congregation
rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable
        as one event,
                    not chaos: preparations for
flight from winter,
cheet, cheet, cheet, cheet, wings rifling the green clumps,
beaks
at the bayberries
    a perception full of wind, flight, curve,
    sound:
the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:
the "field" of action
with moving, incalculable center:

The words used to describe this flock of swallows coexist as opposites: "constant" and "change," "order" and "entropy," "rule" and "rulelessness." Individual swallows can shift direction with the wind, swoop down for food or rest, and circle in seemingly aimless patterns. Ammons finds such diversity "rich." Yet he knows that this collection of swallows--this "congregation"--presents a unity to the mind that is "separable, noticeable / as one event, / not chaos." These swallows partake of the same flux that Ammons finds in the sand dunes and in the other natural events within the poem. Most of all they present him with the kind of perception that is anything but constricting: "full of wind, flight, curve, / sound." Yet for all the movement the swallows suggest, they also present "the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness." As a group they form a coherent wholeness.

As the poem moves toward its conclusion, Ammons has learned to accommodate his vision, shifting it from far to near. The reader follows him in these shifts and is encouraged to accommodate vision without straining or blurring. Contemplating the marine life in the inlet, the poet observes that inside the bellies of minnows must be "pulsations of order." But the minnows in turn are swallowed up by larger fish, the smaller order "feeding" the larger, illustrating the constant metamorphosis in nature.

In the final stanzas of the poem, Ammons resists trying to make too much sense out of all he has seen; to do so would be to create an unnecessary stop to processes that resist closure. Most of all Ammons does not want to diminish the reality of nature's events by imposing upon them a particular philosophical framework—"no humbling of reality to precept." Given "Corsons Inlet's" repeated emphasis on flux and curvature, it is not surprising for the poem to end with the poet's celebrating the fact that no perception is final. His credo is to resist at all costs a final "Credo," and in this sense the message of "Corsons Inlet" echoes what Ammons has said in the Foreword to Ommateum: that "forms of thought, like physical forms ... are susceptible to change," and when one resists change the results are "costly and violent." In the final stanza of the poem he reiterates his preference for "the looser, wider forces" of nature in contrast to "limited tightness."

In employing the words "see," "vision," and "scope" in the final lines of the poem, Ammons leaves the reader with a final reminder about perception, the vehicle through which the provisional nature of reality is experienced.

        I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory:
        still around the looser, wider forces work:
        I will 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.

Ammons enjoys the freedom of not having to reduce his perceptions to a single, unifying philosophical abstraction ("Scope eludes my grasp"). Instead he celebrates that "there is no finality of vision." And, in attempting to widen scope, he will move beyond the range of the natural eye to look through the telescope and microscope.

"Corsons Inlet" offers a corrective to a shortsighted age. Ammons makes a major statement about the nature of reality, thought, and perception, suggesting that we avoid perceptual and psychological rigidity in exchange for a broader, more open, more tolerant way of being in the world.

From A.R. Ammons and the Poetics of Widening Scope. Copyright 1994 by Associated University Presses.


Stephen Cushman

. . . from the late fifties or early sixties on, Ammons's work demonstrates an awareness of Williams, whether in its use of the rigorously enjambed, short-line stanza, which is one of Williams's trademarks, or in its deepening commitment to the minimally noted fact--what Bloom calls "Ammonsian literalness"--or in direct quotation and allusion, as in this passage from "Corsons Inlet":

the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:
the "field" of action
with moving, incalculable center:

in the smaller view, order tight with shape:
blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab:
snail shell:
    pulsations of order
    in the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,
broken down, transferred through membranes
to strengthen larger orders: but in the large view, no
lines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, together
    and against, of millions of events: this,
        so that I make
        no form [of]
        formlessness.

Commenting that "in a difficult transitional passage, the poet associates the phrasal fields of his metric with the 'field' of action on every side of him," Bloom either ignores or does not recognize Ammons's direct reference, signaled by his use of quotation marks, to the title of Williams's important essay "The Poem as a Field of Action" (1948). Among other relevant remarks, that essay argues that "our prosodic values should rightly be seen as only relatively true." Furthermore, if in doubt about the presence of Williams in "Corsons Inlet" and in the period of Ammons’s life from which it comes, one has only to look to the piece that precedes it in the chronologically arranged Collected Poems. Titled "WCW," this short poem exults: "What a / way to read / Williams!" Even the most skeptical antagonist of influence theory, let alone its chief formulator, would have a difficult time ignoring these signs.

The transitional passage from "Corsons Inlet" is difficult, but it bears directly on "The Ridge Farm" and on a larger discussion of form. In the lines "this, / so that I make / no form of / formlessness," the antecedent of "this" appears to be "the working in and out," recalling "the coming and going," "of millions of events," each reflecting some degree of order. This working in and out, then, reveals itself to the "I" of the poem, informing and instructing his poetic procedure ("so that I make"). The question is, What do these lines mean? Do they mean that having been instructed by the events of Corsons Inlet, the "I" will not attempt to impose a form on an overall, subsuming formlessness, a kind of undifferentiated plenitude that transcends the polarities of form and no form?

At least one statement from Sphere could be enlisted in support of this reading: "The shapes nearest shapelessness awe us most, suggest / the god." Formlessness, then, is an attribute of what is too large and remote to be trapped into shape, call it the god, the Most High, the One, or Unity. But although this reading may persuade locally, it presents two problems for "Corsons Inlet." First, Ammons admits quite explicitly, in terms that suggest his differences with Emerson, that "Overall is beyond me," and "Scope eludes my grasp." In other words, the working in and out of millions of events does not lead Ammons toward the apprehension of transcendent formlessness, even though forms nearest an ideal formlessness may awe him most. Instead, they reveal to him the contours of form in a natural landscape where "terror pervades" because a controlling form appears to be missing. But he refuses to fasten himself to the limited forms he can recognize ("I ... will / not run to that easy victory"), vowing instead to extrapolate from limited forms to larger, more inclusive ones. Meanwhile, he knows and celebrates the knowledge that no form he discovers can be all-inclusive.

Second, if it is true that for Ammons formlessness is an attribute of overall Unity, then there must be two kinds of formlessness with which he concerns himself. Like Stevens's two versions of nothing in "The Snow Man," Ammons's versions of formlessness imply both a condition to be aspired to and a condition to be escaped from. When he explains in "The Ridge Farm" that "one hugs form because / he fears dissolution, openness," he cannot mean that formlessness offers him order or stasis, which some would consider attributes of Unity. He means that form defends him against extreme randomness, chaos, and disintegration. The declaration of mental independence in "Corsons Inlet," "I was released from forms," is deceptive. It does not mean that the speaker now enjoys an Emersonian transparency, as he becomes one with formless Unity. It means that having shed preemptive, a priori forms of thought, he must discover or invent new forms to ward off the terror of dissolution. The search for new form is every bit as urgent as the flight from old, and it is this urgency, and the preoccupation with form it engenders, that links Ammons so closely with Williams.

From Fictions of Form in American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. Copyright 1993 by Princeton UP.


Roger Gilbert

The walk functions as more than metaphor in many of Ammons's poems, most notably his two masterpieces "Corsons Inlet" and "Saliences." Both these poems present themselves as meditations unfolding in the course of actual walk; and both seek to integrate the phenomenal data of the walk with its accompanying stream of thought. They use the walk to lend a formal unity to the formless flux of consciousness, to stake out beginning and ending points, and to establish a spatial ground for the poem's temporal wanderings. The physical walk thus plays an indispensable role in firming up and shaping the analogical, discursive "walking" that the poem enacts, enabling the poet to coordinate his inner processes with the real time of experience, and so to be simultaneously faithful to the limitations of particular circumstance and to the expansive possibilities of pure thought.

"Corsons Inlet" is a volatile balancing of these two conditions, alternating between tight contractions to perceived particulars and broadly general assertions. Ammons originally titled the poem "A Nature Walk" but while this certainly lays greater emphasis on the formal coincidence of poem and walk it also tips the balance too far in the direction of a universal "Nature," and away from the restrictions of the local. In naming the poem after the place in which it is set, Ammons implicitly announces his fidelity to the particulars of his walk, his refusal to synthesize them into some larger conception that would replace or dissolve them. Indeed this refusal constitutes the central discursive gesture of the poem, a fact that accounts for a peculiar discordance between its style and theme. Over and over Ammons tells us that he has "reached no conclusions," committed no "humbling of reality to precept," "perceived nothing completely"; yet he does so in a tone of calm authority and certitude that seems radically at odds with his meaning. One might say that the grammar of statement in the poem clashes with the more fluid kind of syntax associated with the walk itself, so that we are being given both a representation of consciousness in flux and a series of firm claims retrospectively imposed on that flux. The poem's strength lies in its ability to balance this didactic mode of assertion and evocations of a more genuinely open consciousness caught up in the becoming of experience.

The poem opens with a straightforward narration of the walk in its purely external aspect:

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:

    it was muggy sunny, the wind from the sea steady and high
crisp in the running sand,
    some breakthroughs of sun
but after a bit

continuous overcast:

Ammons's language here is at its most mimetic, reminiscent of Williams and Snyder in its alignment of topography and typography. The shape and rhythm of the poem both work to capture the experiential contours of the walk; as David Lehman writes: "Such poems as the frequently anthologized 'Corsons Inlet' feature a more rambling gait, uneven lines with jagged edges that suggest a grammar of space; the poet constantly shifts his margins in an effort to set up antiphonal patterns apposite for 'a walk over the dunes' beside 'the inlet’s cutting edge.’" Ammons makes subtle use of spacing here and throughout the poem to convey not only spatial forms, like that of the headland, but also temporal rhythms, as in the contrast between "some breakthroughs of sun," slightly indented to suggest its intermittent character, and "continuous overcast," which is set off on the page in a way that seems to mime the condition of linear stasis it describes. This kind of mimesis, however, is somewhat foreign to Ammons, who does not share Snyder's willingness to let his experience embody its own meaning. These opening lines must therefore be seen as a deliberately restrained prologue, in which the merely physical aspect of the walk is laid out so as to establish the ground of the poem's discursive utterances. It is essential to the poem's procedure that it begin with the physical experience, since this provides the necessary frame for its assertions, locating them temporally and spatially and so reminding us of their provisional, circumstantial character.

Unlike O'Hara, Ammons sets his walk in the past tense, thus acknowledging the inevitable gap that intervenes between occasion and composition. This gap becomes palpable in the course of the poem, since its discursive assertions are all cast in the present tense, and so are sharply differentiated from its mimesis of the walk as an event in the past. This grammatical difference creates a problem for the reader, however; are we to interpret the poem's thought-content as taking shape after the walk, during the act of composition? Or does the poem’s thought unfold in the course of the walk itself? At first Ammons maintains the temporal separation between walk and thought, as if meditating on an experience that had already taken place; but as the poem continues this division is slowly blurred, until walk and reflection become virtually indistinguishable.

The structure of the poem as a whole may thus be described as a gradual convergence of seeing and thinking, perception and reflection, two modes of consciousness that are at first kept rigorously distinct.

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
        straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
                of sight

Here Ammons insists that his walk is not contaminated by the rigid forms of thought, but is given over entirely to the subtle continuities of perception. A firm opposition is thus established between thought, with its sharp, angular schemata (imitated in the very sound of the words "blocks, boxes"), and sight, with its "flowing bends and blends," its apprehension of curve and gradation. Yet while Ammons is clearly valorizing the flowing contours of perception, his compartmentalizing of thought and sight in fact exemplifies the "blocks and boxes" of thought, a contradiction that the poem must wrestle to overcome.

While persuasive at first, the opposition between thought and sight turns out to be dangerously constricting as the poem proceeds, since it presents as mutually exclusive aspects of experience that the poet ultimately hopes to unite. While the passage ends with a colon, suggesting that it will be followed by some illustration of the "flowing bends and

blends of sight," it in fact gives way to a more blatant instance of "thought," that is, abstract statement, though now framed in terms taken directly from the landscape of the walk:

                    I allow myself eddies of meaning:
yield to a direction of significance
running
like a stream through the geography of my work:
    you can find
in my sayings
                    swerves of action
                    like the inlet's cutting edge:
                there are dunes of motion,
organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance
in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:

but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events
I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting
beyond the account:

This conversion of the landscape into a metaphor for the poem represents an overly facile solution to the problem of mediating between sense experience and thought; the notion of "mirroring mind," which recurs throughout Ammons's work (see his poem "Reflective") is here given too literal a realization. Note especially the use of the allegorical "of" construction ("white sandy paths of remembrance"), which has the effect of denying the empirical reality of its first term. This allegorizing of the landscape is, I think, an inevitable outcome of Ammons's overly rigid distinction between perception and thought at the outset of the poem. Like Stevens in "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," Ammons begins with a static polarity that forces him to commit crude reductions in his effort to bridge the poles. This passage is thus the equivalent of canto II of "An Ordinary Evening," in which Stevens internalizes New Haven too fully, rendering it "an unpalpable town." Like Stevens, Ammons must blur his initial polarity if he is to arrive at a subtle and nuanced account of experience. Accordingly, as the poem proceeds, a more fluid relationship between the literal details of the landscape and the poet's meditation on his own consciousness begins to emerge, in which the landscape does not act as a mere emblem of mind, but rather provides the means by which mind measures its own uncertainties and fluctuations.

The poem's central assertion, as I have said, is its denial of totalization, of the possibility of achieving an "Overall' understanding. All that the poet can do is to enumerate or record, one by one, the separate "events" of both mind and nature as they occur, without seeking to amass them into a larger configuration. Yet the very denial of such a synthesis itself constitutes an act of synthetic thought, an attempt to generalize at the most all-encompassing level. Throughout his work Ammons weds this insatiable penchant for generality with a nominalist distrust of all general concepts; as a result his poetry must keep in constant motion, oscillating between provisional efforts to theorize about the cosmos and adamant returns to the hard data of experience.

Such a return to the immediate circumstances of the walk takes place in the next lines:

in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of
primrose
    more or less dispersed;
disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows
of dunes,
irregular swamps of reeds,
though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all ...
predominantly reeds:

The passage begins with another general assertion, but thereafter shifts to an account of particulars--somewhat disorientingly, since we are abruptly brought from the level of "nature" as a whole to the localized landscape of the poem without any evident transition. In cataloging the different forms of vegetation he sees, Ammons now adopts in his own language the kind of self-modifying looseness that he didactically invokes in the discursive portions of the poem. At first calling attention to the "irregular swamps of reeds," he at once feels compelled to point out that these contain "not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all. . ." He trails off because he knows he can never adequately account for the multifarious particulars of the scene, that he will always be guilty of some degree of oversimplification. The "all" thus stands as a gesture toward the many organisms he has had to omit from his catalog; and it is followed by a new formulation that returns to his initial reduction, but this time acknowledges its inadequacy: "predominantly reeds" (italics mine). The three lines nicely illustrate the essential trajectory of Ammons's thought, as he moves from a too singular account of the world ("reeds") to a futile effort to represent its full complexity and multiplicity ("though not reeds alone"), finally coming back to his first account with a new awareness of its partial nature (" predominantly reeds"). They thus begin to offer an antidote to the stark mind/world dualism that led Ammons to allegorize the landscape in the previous passage. Now the poet is able to represent mind and world simultaneously, not by subordinating one as vehicle to the other as tenor, but by depicting mind in the process of grasping world in all its complexity. Seeing and thinking have begun to coalesce.

In the next lines Ammons returns to the assertive mode that runs throughout the poem, alternating with more tentative, exploratory passages:

[. . . .]

Ammons's claim that he has not separated "inside / from outside" stands in direct contradiction to the various dualisms we have already observed in the poem. Yet if Ammons's poem never quite behaves the way he keeps insisting it does, it nonetheless manifests a genuine tendency toward "the becoming / thought," in its less assertive passages at least. The ever-shifting shapes of dunes are his central emblem of mind in motion, an image that will be stunningly developed in "Saliences." A more relevant image of mental process for our purposes comes in his claim to be "willing to go along," in which the literal and analogical dimensions of the walk merge, as they have been implicitly merging throughout the poem. In Ammons's own words (from "A Poem is a Walk"), the walk is "an externalization of an interior seeking," representing with physical immediacy the restless wanderings of a mind that is rarely content to stand still. The problem with the poem up to this point is that Ammons has spent too much time striking a pose, and not enough time "going along," an imbalance that he will shortly begin to remedy.

The notion of transition as "soft," impossible to fix at a given place or moment, is elaborated in another descriptive passage:

by transitions the land falls from grassy dunes to creek
to undercreek: but there are no lines, though
        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:

This again conveys the poet's vision of change as minutely incremental, too gradual to be assimilated to "mental lines." The landscape is no longer merely a metaphor for the poet's consciousness; although this image of natural transition clearly has relevance to what Ammons calls "the becoming thought," it also retains its integrity as a view of the landscape. Indeed this passage itself serves as a transition to the poem's central exploration of the place and its inhabitants, as Ammons leaves behind his posturing and gives us an extended representation of mind caught up in the becoming of world:

the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low:
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 blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears
        the shallows, darts to shore
                to stab – what? I couldn't
see against the black mudflats—a frightened
fiddler crab?

In this brilliant passage, sight and thought are at last fully united. We are no longer conscious of any gap between the experience of the walk and the meditation that it prompts; the verb tenses waver between past ("a young mottled gull stood free") and present (white blacklegged egret ... quietly stalks"), suggesting that Ammons is no longer intent on separating occasion and composition. Most importantly, the poem is no longer alternating, as in its opening passages, between two extremes of discourse, one a detached, flat reportage of external phenomena, the other a rather strident assertion of the poet's own nominalism. Now exactly rendered perceptions are blended with a flexible meditation that always maintains contact with the world through which the poet walks. As in the central sections of "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," where Stevens carefully measures the mutual impingements of mind and reality, Ammons here succeeds in representing the fluid interminglings of thought and perception, now seen as interdependent rather than mutually exclusive. Like Stevens, then, Ammons moves toward the notion of "a visibility of thought," a state in which seeing and thinking can no longer be differentiated, as they had been in the poem's opening lines.

Much of the power of this passage lies in its adoption of what Linda Orr calls "an imitative language," one that stands in sharp contrast to the language of assertion that has previously dominated the poem. As Orr points out, "Sentences in poems-of-process must be doubling back all the time, qualifying and contradicting. . . . The poet must be alert to any tendencies for rest and sweep the words up again." In this respect the language of this passage most resembles that of Bishop's "The End of March," with its incessant qualifications and questionings of its own perceptions. But Ammons is more intent on interpreting what he sees than Bishop; hence he is constantly broadening out from particular phenomena to larger ideas of order. Unlike its earlier assertions of a general stance, however, the poem's conceptual language now remains firmly tied to the minute particulars of the walk, representing the poet's moment-to-moment effort at making sense of the landscape before him.

The most prominent feature of this landscape is expressed by the recurrent term "risk," which evokes both the terror and the exhilaration of natural freedom. Throughout the passage Ammons expresses a simultaneous awareness of the aesthetic dimension of the scene and the savage struggle for life that underlies it. This doubleness is epitomized in the first line: "the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low." Full moon and low tide can both be seen as aesthetic phenomena, each permitting a human spectator to see more than is normally visible. But in the next line this aesthetic bonus is revealed as a terrible danger to the creatures who inhabit the shore: "black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk / of air / and, earlier, of sun." Suddenly we are made aware of the helplessness of creatures for whom air and sun are not pleasures but threats.

Yet having acknowledged this darker aspect of the scene, Ammons cannot help continuing to dwell on its beauty, as in the lovely line "waved in and out with the waterline, waterline inexact," which seems to embody, in its undulating rhythm and evocative use of repetition, the motions it describes, like the line in which Bishop describes the wet string rising and falling in the water. But the next line again underscores the predicament of the mussels, while translating it into an existential condition: "caught always in the event of change." Change itself is the source of both beauty and terror here, combining freedom and risk in one violent spectacle. The brilliant description of the feeding birds does not seek to pass judgment on the predators, but sees their activity as deeply natural, if also deeply frightening. Responding to the sight, the poet again takes refuge in generalization: "risk is full: every living thing in / siege: the demand is life, to keep life." The key word here is "full," which takes us back to the full moon, and implies that what seems destructive is in fact a form of plenitude, the fullness of life desperately holding on to itself, even if it be at the expense of other life.

The next lines offer a particularly fine rendering of the concurrent beauty and savagery of nature. Ammons has to interrupt his description of the "small white blacklegged egret" to exclaim "how beautiful," then goes on to tell of how it "quietly stalks and spears / the shallows." What follows is a striking instance of the way Ammons cues the poem's syntax to the phenomenological time of the walk: the egret "darts to shore / to stab--what? I couldn't / see against the black mudflats--a frightened / fiddler crab?" The torsions of the sentence create the effect that it is unfolding simultaneously with the perceptions it describes, a device we have seen in Williams, Bishop, and Snyder as well. This temporalizing of syntax is an important element in Ammons's style, since it permits him to give a verbal form not only to the flux of phenomena but to "the becoming thought." Just as important here is the poet's acknowledgment of his own limited perspective; he does not have a godlike vantage on the scene--"Overall is beyond me"--but can only see according to his position at any given moment. He is willing to speculate about what he cannot see, however, and his surmise is in no way less harsh than the realities he has witnessed: he is careful to specify that his hypothetical fiddler crab is "frightened."

From the terror of "every living thing in siege," the poet has but to turn his head to observe a different spectacle, one with less baleful implications:

            the news to my left over the dunes and
reeds and bayberry clumps was
            fall: thousands of tree swallows
            gathering for flight:
            an order held
            in constant change: a congregation
rich with entropy. nevertheless, separable, noticeable
            as one event,
                not chaos: preparations for
flight from winter,
cheet, cheet, cheet, cheet, wings rifling the green clumps,
beaks
at the bayberries
    a perception full of wind, flight, curve,
    sound:
    the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:
the "field" of action
with moving, incalculable center

Here again perception modulates into thought all but imperceptibly, in part with the aid of Ammons's beloved colon, which helps to enforce the sense of continual forward motion that all his poems try to embody. Now rather than the vision of nature as an ongoing struggle for life in which every creature must work for itself, he beholds a more delicately balanced picture of "order held / in constant change." For all its multiplicity, the gathering of swallows coheres into a single phenomenon, "a congregation / rich with entropy." That last phrase resembles the earlier "risk is full" in its insistence on the plenitude made possible by change and disorder. The syntax of this passage consists not of a shifting hypotaxis imitating the temporality of particular events, as in the previous passage, but of a looser paratactic sequence of clauses held together only by colons. It thus approximates the state of order in multiplicity embodied by the swallows, in which individual entities form a larger whole not by virtue of any specific transactions among them, like the predatorial transactions of egret and fiddler crab, but simply through their contiguity, their copresence in a shared space.

Still describing the swallows, Ammons gives us a vivid series of close-ups that emphasize the restlessness of this pseudo-organism: "wings rifling the green clumps, / beaks / at the bayberries." The word "full" returns once more in the phrase "a perception full of wind, flight, curve, / sound," evoking a condition of maximal activity, in which too many things are occurring at once to be perceived completely. Clearly this condition is an exhilarating one for Ammons, suggesting "the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness: / the 'field' of action / with moving, incalculable center." It could be said that the poem's own "moving, incalculable center" lies somewhere between these two alternative visions of natural process and change, the predatorial, Darwinian vision of "every living thing in siege" and the more harmonious "congregation / rich with entropy" of the swallows. That moving center is in fact simply the poet's own body, as his use of the coordinate "to my left" suggests. Rather than locating the phenomena he describes in objective spatial terms, he acknowledges the central place of the body and the perceiving self in balancing different aspects of the environment . His walk thus becomes a vehicle for achieving a kind of equilibrium between the news to the right and "the news to [the] left," the harsh and the harmonious possibilities of life. Ultimately Ammons's Thoreauvian temperament inclines him to see order rather than struggle as the dominant principle in nature; thus it may be significant that he turns from the predators to the swallows. Spatially the two are symmetrically balanced, but temporally the second replaces the first, allowing the poet to move toward a final affirmative vision of an order that ends individual struggle.

From the swallows, with their evocation of a "soft" order, shapeless but unified, the poet’s gaze narrows to discrete objects with definite forms:

[. . . .]

Ammons here acknowledges that nature offers countless instances of hard-edged form--flowers, shells, organisms--but insists that phenomenologically these represent details in a larger picture that contains no "lines or changeless shapes." The very act of turning his gaze to small, formally perfect items may relieve the poet of the burden of comprehending the "millions of events" constantly working together; but that relief can only be momentary, since his primary commitment remains with "the large view," the difficult vision of process and multiplicity microcosmically represented by the swallows.

Reflecting further on the large view, Ammons now chooses to characterize it with a rather surprising word, "serenity":

orders as summaries, as outcomes of actions override
            or in some way result, not predictably (seeing me gain
the top of a dune,
the swallows
could take flight--some other fields of bayberry
        could enter fall
        berryless) and there is serenity:

        no arranged terror: no forcing of image, plan,
or thought
no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept

terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilities
of escape open: no route shut, except in
    the sudden loss of all routes.

The very absence of a controlling will, the poet argues, creates a sense of peace, despite the ongoing struggle he had earlier depicted. Terror is a pervasive force here, he concedes, but it "is not arranged," and hence not evil. He takes comfort in the knowledge that "all possibilities / of escape [are] open" (what possibilities of escape for the hapless mussels, we might ask), that "no route [is] shut, except / in the sudden loss of all routes." The last phrase, evidently a reference to death, seems a fairly drastic qualification of the sense of freedom and serenity being evoked here; yet after all it is a mark of Ammons's willingness to "accept the becoming thought," even if it leads him back to the darker vision of "every living thing in siege" that he has been working to overturn.

The poem's closing lines shift back into the rhetoric of assertion that had been abandoned in the middle section:

[. . . .]

Once again the poet gives us a statement of policy, though now oriented toward the future rather than the past, and so less self-congratulatory in tone. Ammons's use of capitalization to distinguish between vision in process (scope) and a totalizing perspective ("Scope") is perhaps overly subtle, but the contrast is clear nonetheless. If the preceding lines are a little too comfortably abstract, however, the final line beautifully returns us to the poem's generative occasion, and gives us a formulation at once concise and concrete: "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk." This is I think deeply satisfying both in its air of cadential firmness and in its implicit denial of closure. For once the poem's paradoxical conjunction of authority and provisionality does not seem contradictory, perhaps because the line refers beyond itself to experience. In reminding us that the poem's meditation has been framed by a particular walk, Ammons locates its categorical claims in time and space, and so softens their authority. These are my thoughts today, he tells us; tomorrow I will change my mind. We should recall at this point that the poem's first line announced, "I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning" (italics mine), implying that this walk is already one of a potentially open-ended series, and should not be taken as in any way definitive or unique. Ammons does not claim that this particular walk, like Frost's walk in "The Wood-Pile," for example, deserves to be singled out from the poet's experience because it has yielded a special insight; tomorrow's walk will be equally valuable in the thoughts that it occasions.

Taken by itself, this closing line may seem a striking but ultimately empty declaration, paying lip service to a principle it cannot truly observe. After all, "Corsons Inlet" is a poem fully conscious of its centrality to the poet's oeuvre; it is not by accident that it has become the most anthologized of Ammons's poems, for its rhetoric aims at the very "finality of vision" whose possibility it denies. Remarkably enough, however, Ammons chose to take his last line literally: the next day he went for another walk, and wrote another poem about it. He thus confronted, more squarely and explicitly than any other poet I have so far discussed, a problem central to the mode of representation that the walk poem exemplifies, the problem of repetition. If "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk," that is, if all experience is equally valuable, equally fresh, can one simply go on writing poem after poem based on walk after walk? Surely at a certain point sameness will overcome newness, and monotony will set in. We have seen how Frank O'Hara wrestled with this danger, ultimately destroying the very grounds on which his walk poems are based out of a restless urge to move on. But Ammons is not as restlessly innovative as O'Hara, although in a subtle way he may be the more daring of the two. For he takes up the challenge of repetition with unprecedented directness, writing a second poem the day after his great manifesto was composed, and taking as his occasion another walk in precisely the same setting.

From Walks in the World: Representation and Experience in Modern American Poetry. Copyright Princeton University Press.


Paul Lake

A half century after Pound published his notes on form in "A Retrospect," A. R. Ammons published "Corson's Inlet," a now-classic poetic manifesto, which makes a similar distinction between the organic shapes of nature—and by analogy of free verse—and the more regular symmetries of traditional poetry. In Ammons' poem, the speaker walks among the sand dunes and along the shoreline of Corson's Inlet, watching sand and ocean intermingle, and musing suggestively in words that echo Pound:

. . . I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars
    straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
        of sight . . .

A few lines later, he makes similar observations:

. . . in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of
primrose
    more or less dispersed;
disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows
of dunes,
irregular swamps of reeds . . .

A sharp observer of natural detail, Ammons does note that nature has a few symmetrical, vase-like shapes close to hand, but he quickly dismisses their significance, contrasting their small, tight organization with the more sprawling, dynamic forms all around him:

. . . in the smaller view, order tight with shape:
blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab:
snail shell:
            pulsations of order
        in the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,
  broken down, transferred through membranes
to strengthen larger orders: but in the large view, no
lines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, together
        and against, of millions of events: this,
                    so that I make
                    no form
                    formlessness . . .

Trained in biology, with a bachelor's degree in science from Wake Forest College, Ammons uses the vocabulary of science to elaborate his ideas. For instance, while looking over the sand dunes and clumps of bayberry, he describes the flocking behavior of a group of swallows, using scientific terms such as chaos and entropy:

            . . . thousands of tree swallows
            gathering for flight:
            an order held
in constant change: a congregation
rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable
            as one event,
                        not chaos . . .

Then while still musing on the birds and other "disorderly orders" he's observed around him, Ammons considers "the possibility of rule" in nature ''as the sum of rulelessness."

Thirty years have passed since Ammons published "Corson's Inlet," and in that time, discoveries in science and mathematics have shed new light on the problems discussed in his poem—discoveries with immense significance for our understanding of form and content, nature and art, organic and mechanical form. In retrospect, Ammons' use of the phrase "not chaos" in his description of the swallows' behavior is startlingly prescient because, in fact, a whole new science of chaos—or "anti-chaos;" as it's sometimes called—has come into being precisely to explain such phenomena. Surprisingly, though, what the new sciences of chaos and complexity have shown is that Ammons is wrong in his conclusions about art and nature: that the "rule" of nature is not the sum of "rulelessness," as he proposes, but is clearly derived from formal rules and principles, which can be described and even imitated by a new form of mathematics called fractal geometry. Thanks to these new discoveries, we now know that the "order tight with shape" he observes in a tiny snail shell is the same order seen in "the large view": in coastlines, weather systems, sand dunes, mountain ranges, and galaxies. That the laws governing the growth of trees—as well as of leaves, ferns, pine cones, and sunflowers—is the same law that governs the growth of human organs, snowflakes, tornadoes, bird wings—and, I will argue, the elegant, broken symmetries of formal verse.

It turns out that writing formal poetry is not at all like pouring water into a vase, but, rather, like the growth of a tree—far more so than writing free verse, which, except in special cases, is too ruleless, arbitrary, and mechanical to produce the organic integrity of a good sonnet.

from "The Shape of Poetry" in Poetry after Modernism. Ed. Robert McDowell. Story Line Press, 1998. Copyright 1998 by Robert McDowell.


Daniel Tobin

Certainly, of all Ammons's early work, "Corsons Inlet" articulates most acutely his preoccupation with nature's "disorderly orders," as well as with what is so deeply yet elusively interfused in the whole widening scope of the field: the Overall. Walking among dunes along an inlet shore the poet finds liberation in a "release from forms / from the perpendiculars, / straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds of thought." The zig-zag motion of the poem's lines down the page are intended to mirror both the motions of the poet's mind as it moves through its "eddies of meaning" and the elusive scope of the seashore itself in all the shifting amplitude of its flux. Here, the poet is not so much released from forms as from fixed forms of thought and being. Instead, through "the overall wandering of mirroring mind" in which he traces the clarified ephemera of the shore, all the while "erecting no boundaries," he discerns "an order held / in constant change." Unwilling, however, to indulge in the kind of speculation that would affirm an abstraction at the expense of living particulars, he declares "Overall is beyond me." Clearly Ammons's "Overall" is not the same as Emerson's "Oversoul," an abstraction that prizes transcendence over an immanence teeming with generation and decay. What does get affirmed through the whole motion of the poem, however, is the process itself, what Alfred North Whitehead would have called the living "nexus of actual occasions" that compose reality. The ultimate reality of "Corsons Inlet" is, as the poem itself suggests, "a congregation / rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable / as one event, / not chaos . . . a 'field' of action / with moving, incalculable center." Quoting these lines, Roger Gilbert goes on to make explicit Ammons's affinity to chaos theory: "complexity is not chaos." In short, the "ultimate reality" for Ammons is not an order defined from above and entirely knowable, but something at most "noticeable" amidst the shifting flow or reality--a field unified paradoxically by grace of its very diversity.

From the widest scope of the macrocosm to the most intimate glimpse of the microcosm, "Corsons Inlet" revels in a system at once seemingly infinite in diversity and continuous in its integrity. Nevertheless, for Ammons, there is no "finality of vision," for the creative process, like the ecological process of his dune-swept shore, depends likewise on "the wider forces," the "enlarging grasps of disorder," out of which order itself is momentarily fastened. In short, in a manner consistent with Coleridge's insight on the nature of imagination, though far more radical in his organicism, Ammons would recapture in his poetry the living dynamic of nature. He would reveal through the naturata of its forms the naturans of the whole system, an aspiration whose very impossibility bears witness to the inexhaustible flow of reality itself.

From Complexities of Motion: New Essay on A.R. Ammon’s Long Poems. Ed. Steven P. Schneider. London: Associated University Presses, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Associated University Presses.


A.R. Ammons

MR: Do you write all your long poems in sequence?

A: That's right, I just begin. I do the same for the short poems; they're written the same way. I never—I can show you some drafts—"Corsons Inlet," that poem "Corsons Inlet" was written just like that, from beginning to end, in one sitting. I don't recommend that as being better than anything else. I'm just saying that's the way I did it. I came back to it, of course, and reconsidered it with my best judgment.

If you weren't learning something, what would be the use of doing it. So you can't write out of just what you know. There's no motivation for that. And so I feel always in agreement with that thing that Emerson said in the essay Nature, where he says let me record from day to day my honest thought. Today, I say exactly the way things seem to me. Tomorrow, I also say, and it may differ somewhat from what I said the day before, but the difference, while it may be interesting, is not as important as the hope, which he expresses, that if you go on doing this somehow or other you will come to know a deeper thing that unifies all these days. Whereas if you had tried to plunge towards that deeper symmetry directly, there would be no way you could get there.

from "'A Place You Can Live': An Interview with A.R. Ammons." Critical Essays on A. R. Ammons. Ed. Robert Kirschter. G.K. Hall & Co., 1997. Interview originally published in Manhattan Review.


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